Denying Burial: Degrading Treatment and Contempt of the Chin tradition
By Chhi Chhi
The incident sparked outrage among the Chin community worldwide as they witnessed social media platforms showing a video of the grandmother lying flat-faced on the freshly covered grave and crying her heart out as other relative members gathered around.Chhi Chhi
Since the night of October 4, anger has been building and emotions running high among the Chin communities around the world regarding an issue they believe to be an insult and direct assault on their culture. At the center of the issue is a dispute between the local Township authorities and a local family whose young daughter was coming home to be laid to rest thereafter she had died in Malaysia earlier that week.
Sui Hlei Tial (21), reportedly having fallen from a nine-story building on 29 September 2020 in Malaysia, died on the spot. With the consent of relative members and the help of the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, the body was flown home to the deceased’s native town of Thantlang of the Chin State, Myanmar for the final burial.
Upon the arrival at the entrance of Thantlang on October 4, the Township’s authority, the so-called COVID-19 Response Committee, denied the body entry to the town for traditional burial. Having denied them entry, the bereaved family had no other choice but to bury the body by the roadside. The family had to hire a bulldozer and hurriedly dig a makeshift grave and bury their daughter by the roadside overnight on the Thantlang-Hakha highway.
The family had to hire a bulldozer and hurriedly dig a makeshift grave and bury their daughter by the roadside overnight on the Thantlang-Hakha highway.
The incident sparked outrage among the Chin community worldwide as they witnessed social media platforms showing a video of the grandmother lying flat-faced on the freshly covered grave and crying her heart out as other relative members gathered around.
Pu Ram Khar, the chairman of the municipal committee of Thantlang, posted the incident on his Facebook on 6 October 2020 saying that the responsibility squarely rests with the local COVID-19 authorities regarding the denial of a proper burial.
“The family came to me and asked my help for (the permission to bring) the corpse’s entry to the town upon the arrival of Lai Pawng Lung [the COVID-19 Checkpoint for the town]. I immediately made a telephone call to the Head of Township General Administration Department and Township Medical Officer and negotiated them for the entry but they rejected it. I insisted that the corpse comes all the way from Malaysia, and passed through Myanmar’s capital like Mandalay and Yangon, however, they constantly denied the entry”, Pu Ram Khar, said on his October 6, 2020, Facebook post.
The Thantlang Township’s COVID-19 Response Committee was formed with the township departmental heads that comprise GAD, Health, Immigration, Education, Police, and Religious Affairs but no local ethnic Chin leaders are included. In the absence of any native Chin resident within the committee, the decision was taken without understanding the local context and culturally appropriate fashion. The inevitable result was a disaster where non- ethnic Chin officials dictate decisions that would have profound implications.
Though the Myanmar Health Ministry guideline is clear about the restriction on traveling and mass gathering, the issue in question is different as it is about a culturally sensitive and delicate matter. It would have been a different story if it were a welcoming event for football championship trophy winner, for instance.
Social media have been flooded with posts by Chin people around the world offering their condolences and condemning the decision. Several individual posts and local media editorials indicate that the incident is literally considered an utter display of contempt of the Chin’s traditional practice.
On October 6, two days after the body had laid buried by the roadside, the authority relented and agreed to the religious leaders and township elders’ appeal to transfer the corpse to Thantlang Christian Cemetery. The body was exhumed in the dead of the night as part of the terms of the agreement were not to do so during daylight time. Digging for the dead body started at around 9 pm and the transfer to the designated cemetery was completed at 4 am the next morning.
The overwhelming outpour of sympathy and condemnation from the Chin communities across the globe finally made the authorities relent on their original decision. But there are clear signs of continuing public outrage with youth and other groups and demanding that the authorities make a public apology and to have actions taken against the key decision-makers in the matter.
The overwhelming outpour of sympathy and condemnation from the Chin communities across the globe finally made the authorities relent on their original decision.
Pu Kap Tlin, a relative of the bereaved family, said in his interview with Chin Broadcasting Network (CBN) that on the night of October 4 when the authority denied the corpse’s entry to the town, they [authority] even suggested that the family “burn or cremate” the body which is against the Chin traditional practice.
As we insistently begged, they said, “We cannot let you pass the check gate. You must bury outside of the town wherever you want. Why don’t you burn if necessary?” Pu Kap Tlir said in his video interview with CBN.
Chin people have their own separate customary and traditional practices for centuries since before joining the Union of Myanmar. These traditional practices are quite different from those of their surrounding neighbors from Proper Burma. Especially in times of grief, relatives from far and near, without exception, are informed and asked whether they could share funeral service in person or else arrive on time to pay their final respects. Those practicing Christians have the Reverend of the church conduct the funeral service, prayed and the lay the corpse in the grave. Before the arrival of Christian missionaries in the past century, the dead body was kept alongside the family and relatives’ members until each of the family members satisfied with paying their homage. Some love members sang a stanza of folksong for their demised love one and so on.
These cherished traditions are what make the Chin people such a tight-knit community. Never in recent memories have there been such an utter display of contempt for the Chin cultural practices as what we witnessed in Thantlang where the non-ethnic Chin administrative officials would impose their arrogance and ignorance onto the local residents by prohibiting a grieving family to bury their dead.#
The author has extensive experience of getting involved in the current Myanmar Peace Process and is a former staff of Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) based in Delhi, India. – Editor ([email protected])