Hlawn Kip Thluai Speaks: “Chin women need to take their destiny into their own hands”
May 10, 2013
CG Note: At the occasion of Mother Day, the Chinland Guardian is pleased to present the conversation with Pi Hlawn Kip Thluai, daughter of Zahau Chief Thang Tin Lian and his chief wife (nutak) Pi Hniar Cuai. Pi Hlawn Kip Thluai is the first woman from Chin Hills to graduate High School and from Rangoon University. She talks about family, the role of women in Chin society, the education system in Burma and her view on politics. She now lives in California.
Chinland Guardian: First, tell me about yourself. Let’s start with your family: who were your parents, how many siblings do you have?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: My father was Thang Tin Lian, chief of the Zahau and Hualngo people comprising 83 villages in total. The British who came to Chin Hills later reported, “The position of Thang Tin Lian is unique. He is the only chief in the Falam Subdivision whose tribesmen acknowledge him to be the owner of his tract”. He died in 1947.
My mother, Hniar Cuai, was my father’s cousin. In 1949,she was elected the village headperson of Tlauhmun village in the election under the auspices of the Burmese national government. She was the only female headperson ever elected in Chin Hills from June 1949 to June 1954.
I have eleven brothers and thirteen sisters. My father had four wives.
Chinland Guardian: Your father had 4 wives (at the same time?), and 25 children. You all get along very well together, despite being such a large family. A lot of people wonder how such a big group could remain so close – what’s your secret?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: Our father taught us to love and care for each other since we were very young. Every time he had the chance we would gather round him and he would sing songs and tell us fables, with the youngest group of children all sitting on his lap. I remember my brothers Ral Dun, Lal Bik, and Sum Mang would race each other in the backyard, and my father would make Ral Dun start in front because he was the smallest and the shortest. Sum Mang was the tallest and would usually win.
We generally gathered ourselves into groups based on our age, and when the older siblings had grown up our father would play with the youngest group.Our group consisted of Sai Ling, Mang Bur, Thla Khar, Hlawn Kip Thluai, Tlem Cin, and Cer Cin. Our group would go fishing at the Tlairawn river near our village, and when Mang Bur and Thla Khar went hunting for birds with slingshots we would go along with them, rushing to collect any birds they killed.We would play hopscotch, hide-and-seek, and at night we would dance Chin cultural dance(mock dance ). Activities such as these helped tie us together.
After my father divorced his first wife, Run Sung, he married Sen Kip, Men Zing, and Hniar Cuai (his official wife “Nutak”) in succession. Traditionally when a Chin man marries more than one wife only his official wife stays with him, while the rest stay in another house. This was also the case with some of Thang Tin Lian’s ancestors. The unusual thing about Thang Tin Lian was that not only did he let all his wives stay in his house, they each occupied a bed in a corner of the same room as his own. Kitchen duties, household chores, and farm work were rotated between the wives on a monthly basis. This clever management of his wives’ time and duties meant they all got along very well, and they always had immense respect and love for him.
In the short Biography of Zahau Chief Thang Tin Lian, page 19,the last five lines, Lal Bik said “ Asinan khua rai thawi tik le a dang tulnak a um tikah, rai thian tu ah nu-ngai ti in Thang Tin Lian in a nui naunu ih fanu (first cousin) a si mi a nu pi Hniar Cuai lawng a hmang. Cuvekin a thih tik khalah Hniar Cuai ih fapa Tial Dum khi a aiawh Zahau Mi-Uk tuan ding ah a tuak cia a si.”
While Thang Tin Lian endeavored to treat each of his three wives equally, Chin and Zahau tradition dictated that only his official wife, Hniar Cuai, participated in some ceremonies and activities. These included the worship of god- khuavang (Raithawi)animism by the whole village, and also (Khuangcawi)the highest form of ritual feast, ( Pawpi-aih) the celebration for killing a tiger. In accordance with the beliefs and the customs of the Chin, only Hniar Cuai had the traditional right to perform her part in the cultural events or entertainments. Her son Tial Dum was also earmarked as Thang Tin Lian’s heir, despite being neither his eldest nor youngest son. Run Sung’s son, Van Hnuai Lal, would have been a heir but he didn’t survive.
Chinland Guardian: Tell me about the 4 wives and their children? Who were the children of the official wife (Nutak Nupi – Roco tu) and who were the children of his other wives?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: The four wives, and their children, were as follows:
Thang Tin Lian & Run Sung
Thang Tin Lian & Sen Kip
Lal Bik, Thang Cem, Khuang Thluai, Sai Bil Tial, Tin Par, Mang Bur, Tlem Cin,and Kei Luai
Thang Tin Lian & Men Zing
Ral Dun, Sum Mang, Za Hre, Tha Hlei Sung,Thang Tin Tlem, Kei Man, Ral Lian Sum, Sai Ling Thang, Thla Khar, and Ngun Kip
Thang Tin Lian & Hniar Cuai
Tial Dum, Fung Thluai,Mang Tin Zing, Hlawn Kip Thluai, Cer Cin, and Ni Dong
Chinland Guardian: Your brothers and sisters were among the first Chin people to receive an education and hold high positions in the government. Was this because of your father’s encouragement or their own ambitions?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: My father strongly wished all of his sons to be well educated, and when Burmese schools were closed due to World War 2 he sent them to India to get an education despite the difficulties. Lal Bik, Za Hre, Thang Cem, Ral Lian Sum and Sai Ling went to India to get an education. They went there in different years and studied in different cities. Ral Lian Sum, in 4th grade, Sai Ling in 3th grade, at Aizawl School, were the youngest among the sons sent there. His sons tried to achieve their best as well.
He told his son and heir Tial Dum, “the Shan Saw Bua don’t have a higher education than 10th grade English yet are effectively ruling their territories, and you are to take over my position, so you don’t need higher education.” Tial Dum therefore went no further than Intermediate part B, in Burma.
Our father didn’t want his daughters to be educated. It wasn’t until after he passed away in May 1947,that the other younger daughters Tlem Cin ,Cer Cin and I went to school, with the encouragement and support of our brothers.
Chinland Guardian: Which year did you start attending school? Give us an idea of how it felt to be in school at that time, your teachers etc.
Hlawn Kip Thluai: In June 1947 Tlem Cin, Cer Cin and I started attending Tlauhmun Primary School. After 4th grade I went to Falam High School. My headmaster was U Sum Mang, later replaced by Mr. Iyre. Mr Iyre and Daw Tin Yi and Ms Wallace were my matriculation class teachers. Ms Wallace was an English teacher from America. My junior assistant teachers were U Khin Thein, Zung Luai, Bawi Lian, Sui Ha and Mah Ohn.
Chinland Guardian: I assume that when you started school there were not many girls there. Was there anything in particular that was more difficult because you were female?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: There were very few girls in Falam State High School, with only 3 or 4 girls in one class. The most difficult thing that I experienced when I was a student was not having enough money to buy books. I only had one set of clothes for school and another for home. I didn’t have a lot of time to study as I was staying with my brother’s family, and as a girl I had to help out with household chores, so I would study while cooking. Despite all this I was thrilled to go to school, very happily. Of course I went through period of hardships and had to find my own way to work as hard as I knew how. I set myself the goal to continue my education, and prayed for strength. Every school exam I would be among the top 3 achievers. I was awarded “The Best Student” award by Hill Chin Students Union, Rangoon.
Chinland Guardian: When you were attending Falam High school, how many students do you think were there?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: I don’t remember the exact numbers of students in the whole school. In Matriculation class (9th & 10th Standards combined) there were 27 males and 3 females. Girls were very rare indeed in the whole school. Moreover, once we got to grade 7 or 8, a number of the girls left for government jobs or marriage. According to the 1953 census the Chin Special Division was comprised of 133,796 people in the Northern Chin Hills District and 51,273 in the Southern. Only 13.7% of the population attended school fulltime, and of those 80% were male.
In 1956, from Matriculation exam center, Falam , out of 35 students that sat the exam a mere 7 of us passed. I wasn’t expecting to achieve that result, but the Lord had me in mind and I got through the exam. I was ecstatic about it.
Chinland Guardian: When you went to University what were your thoughts on the differences between Chin students and the students from other cultural backgrounds?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: When I started to continue education at Rangoon University, I saw female students from other ethnic minorities such as Kachin, Karen, and Shan, and I felt envious when I saw them obtaining Bachelor’s or Master’s Degrees. Seeing their achievements sparked my desire to continue my education, even after graduating from University.
I think it is such a tragedy that Chin women are smart and intelligent enough to mirror other peoples’ successes yet very few of us went to school.
Chinland Guardian: What sort of activities were you involved in at university?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: Every month we had a get-together fellowship involving all the Christian students attending the University. I participated in Chin National Day celebrations,Hill Chin Students Union annual picnics, and my playing partner and I won first prize in badminton tournament at the Hill Chin Students Union’s sports and games day. I also took part in Chin traditional gatherings at a bereaved family’s home to give them condolence.
There was a Rangoon University Students Union encompassing all students attending the University. The 2 major parties running for union elections were the “Tat Oo” and “Ye Khawng” parties. I was active among the Chin students in supporting the Ye Khawng party. Being able to take part in every level of the Chin Students Union activities was a highlight of my time at the University.
Chinland Guardian: Your brothers were involved in politics, with some becoming MPs. Were you actively involved in politics?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: Two of my brothers were very much involved in politics. In 1949 there were Parliament elections in Chin Hills, Tial Dum was elected a Member of Parliament uncontested. In 1952 he was challenged by Za Hre (his half-brother) and lost the seat. He would later receive a parliament member pension after reaching age 60. Having been elected as a member of Parliament, Za Hre subsequently became Chin Affairs Minister.
I personally didn’t have an interest in politics. I was more focused on my studies.
Chinland Guardian: We would be very happy if you could tell us in detail about your postgraduate studies in a foreign country.
Hlawn Kip Thluai: In 1963, when I was a teacher at Falam High School, our Headmaster made an announcement inviting any interested teachers to apply for a postgraduate course. A few months after my application and interview the Director of Education, Rangoon, informed me I had been selected as a State Scholar. I was very glad when I learned I had been accepted, and felt it was a blessing from God.
In 1964 I studied for a Diploma in Education (Dip.Ed) at Sydney University, Australia. It was a one-year course sponsored by Colombo Plan Organization. I also studied the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course. Each course was one year course,and it was truly a blessing that I was able to study them both within the same year.
I studied alongside Australian students in the Dip.Ed course, while in the TEFL course I studied with students from Burma, India, Pakistan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Africa.
Chinland Guardian: What are the similarities and differences between Chin women and foreign women?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: In accordance with Chin traditional and social customs, sons and daughters are expected to look after their parents even after they themselves have reached adulthood. Chin women especially bear the brunt of this responsibility. A woman doesn’t have the right to inherit her parents’ property under Chin customary law, and is not able to marry anyone without her parents’ approval. Only a son has the right to inherit the property of his parents and is given favourable treatment.
Many foreign women, in comparison, gain full independence when they reach 18 years of age. They are free to make their own decisions without interference from their parents, and are not expected to keep living with parents. Having received an education they are able to look after themselves, and they share equal rights to inheritance with their brothers.
Chinland Guardian: What are your views on Burmese education in comparison to foreign education, given that you have experienced both systems? (as student, and a teacher)
Hlawn Kip Thluai: In Burma, the education system focuses on learning the content of textbooks and values the memorizing of information. Exams do not test the understanding of subject matter, but the amount of information committed to memory. In addition, the classroom environment is very authoritative, where ideas and creativity are not sought.
The subjects taught in all schools throughout the country are foundational courses. Liberal art courses are not greatly valued, and are only taught at certain schools outside of normal school periods.
Students cannot pass any grade without passing the final exams for all classes in that year, so it’s possible to be stuck at a certain grade for a long time. There are many in their 20s, 30s, or even 40s who have not passed 8th or 10th grade because of a failure in one subject from that particular grade.
In other countries, like the U.S., the learning process is much more flexible in that ideas, insight, and creativity are greatly valued. Students are taught to think outside the core content in textbooks and instead of just memorizing information they are encouraged to understand and explore at their own pace. The subjects also contain more variety, and one can pursue one’s interests relatively early. The teaching-learning environment is very open and cultivates students’ ability to think, understand, and grow.
Many of the subjects in the school curriculum are focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, targeting skilled jobs in the high-tech factories and laboratories of the future. The evolution of technology in the classroom is changing the way students learn and teachers teach, in some cases replacing traditional textbooks and notepads with electronic devices used for accessing educational apps, reference material, and for the taking of notes.
In a country like the U.S. child education, which begins at age five and ends at age fourteen to eighteen, is compulsory and free. Schooling is divided into three levels: elementary school, middle school, and high school. After completing high school students may attend a college or university.
People in the USA and other developed countries all receive an education, helping the progression of overall achievement, especially in the areas of technology and computer science where there has been a rapid advancement. In Burma parents who can not afford are allowed not to send their children to school, making it very difficult for the country as a whole to develop with such low levels of education. Burma has been left behind, even by its neighbouring countries.
Chinland Guardian: Have you ever experienced discrimination as a government servant because you were part of a minority as both a Chin, and Christian, woman?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: I have never experienced any difficulties as a government servant. I wasn’t aware of any discrimination against me because of my ethnicity or my Christian religion, or any campaign against ethnic minorities generally. Through God’s mercy things went smoothly and I never had to apply for senior assistant teacher job or attend an interview.
The situation was not the same as it is now; at that time jobs were easy to find, even with little education. We received sufficient income among the lower government ranks to support our families and still have some left over to save. A man or woman with a 6th or 7th grade education was able to make a solid living for their family, with a monthly income of 150 or 200 kyats enough to get by. This was part of the reason Chin women didn’t feel a need to continue onto higher education.
Chinland Guardian: We heard that you voted during the Nov 2010 election. Who did you vote for, and what are your thoughts on the new government?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: I voted for the party with “khamoh” symbol. With this new government I think their policies are very good. There are some new reforms emerging as well. Let’s pray to God that their policy comes to fruition.
Chinland Guardian: Finally, what I would like to ask you most importantly is your view on modern Chin woman’s role in society. Do you have anything to say to them? I believe that you may also have some advice to Chin men in regards to Chin women’s role in society to improve?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: Modern Chin woman has more rights and opportunities than in previous generations. Chin women used to be regarded as the weaker sex, and were looked down upon and mocked. But today the professional Chin woman has come to be almost universally accepted, with some Chin women even taking part in political life. They are better educated, they work, earn money, and are involved in taking care of the family just like their male counterparts.
The topic of gender-balance has become more relevant than ever. What is good for men is good for women, and vice-versa. The world will no longer allow Chin women to sit idly by – they have to set themselves the goal of getting an education. Education acts as an access point to our Chin community dreams, and has three purposes: personal development, employment, and participation in society. Chin women need to expect big things of themselves.
As technology and online education keep evolving, access to the 21st century tools and learning environments should be provided, especially for our under-privileged Chin women. The continued growth of online learning has become a force that is forever changing how education is delivered. A highly-educated Chin woman will be able to provide a secure life for her family, and give significant help to our Chin people in the struggle to increase our global wealth and standing.An important contribution our women can make to Chin societies is to foster a cultural shift through information, insights, and ideas, embracing changes to improve life and build a strong Chin community.
We are seeing Chin women gaining more rights and opportunities, not just in Burma but around the world. The days of male-domination when Chin women were unwelcome in the field of education are long gone. The new order will be led by the best and the brightest, irrespective of gender.
In order to help lift up the social status and position of women I believe Chin men have a responsibility to encourage and nurture them in their progression towards a more proactive role in society. It is imperative for Chin males to realise that education is the key to a successful life for women, and that they should help create opportunities for women instead of keeping them tied to their traditional household roles. They need to assist in overcoming the social and political barriers, making sure that their rights are enshrined in the future constitution calling for gender equality. This will bring to Chin women hope, daring, and the courage to go forward.
Chin women also need to take their destiny into their own hands, and serve the needs of the Chin community as a whole. By doing so, and with the help of Chin man’s moral and educational guidance and support, Chin women will improve their global understanding of social, economic, and political issues, and reach their goals.
Chinland Guardian: What are your observations on the current political environment within the Chin community?
Hlawn Kip Thluai: In 1947 the British Government asked the Chins ; “Do you want independence ,a state of your own? Or do you want to remain as part of Burma Or do you want to be under the British rule?”In March, 1947 the Chin Hills District Council held a meeting at the Falam Town Hall. The Chins had little knowledge about politics. Representatives from townships (including Kanpelet) thought that they would lose access to salt if separated from Burma. And also they might have had some other reasons too. So they decided to remain as part of Burma.
The majority of the Chin people see this as short-sighted and consider the Chin representatives to be lacking political nous. Even nowadays we have a lot to learn about politics, and struggle to find a way to improve our Chinland. Instead of uniting behind a common cause we continue to focus on our separate roots. Each people, whether Falam, Haka, Tedim, Matupi, etc., concentrate too much on our own tribe instead of thinking about each other. Whenever the Burmese government makes a contribution to benefit Chinland we are quick to claim it for our own tribe. This fragmentation contributes to the continued chaotic Chin political environment.
This is how I see the current Chin political situation.
Chinland Guardian:Thank you very much.