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Myanmar's Chin culture fades along with distinctive face tattoos

Brent Lewin / Redux Pictures

Photographer Brent Lewin has made three trips to Myanmar (formerly Burma) to photograph people living in the remote Chin State. Using portable lights, he took photographs in makeshift indoor studios and also outdoors to capture the fading culture of the Chin people. Lewin writes:

Historically, the Chin were adored for their beauty and kings would come to the villages to steal men's wives. As a measure against their women being stolen, village elders started tattooing teenage girls to make them 'ugly'. The tradition stuck and over generations eventually lost its original meaning of ugliness and came to represent courage, beauty and strength.

However, as these traditional groups began moving outside their villages, the struggle between tradition and modernity has placed tribal Chin culture under increasing threat of being absorbed by the dominant Burmese. Unique language, customs and dress have been abandoned. Under this pressure to assimilate, the practice of facial tattooing has also been discontinued. Currently there remain only a handful of women adorned with facial tattoos.

The sparsely populated Chin State is home to several subgroups all calling themselves Zo-mi meaning 'mountain people.' Separated from the rest of Myanmar by mountains and being a travel restricted state for foreigners, the Chin have little contact with the modern world. They live in villages straddling mountain ridges and are skilled hunters who practice slash and burn agriculture.

Although the Chin have the highest proportion of animists in the country, many have converted to Christianity and even more are under pressure to assimilate to Burmese culture. The Chin who number roughly 1.5 million are one of the most persecuted minority groups in Myanmar. According to the U.S. State Department, Burmese troops and officials have tried to forcibly convert the Chin to Buddhism.