Encounter with a Head-hunter (Retired)
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Encounter with a Head-hunter (Retired)

By AUNG NAING OO Saturday, September 11, 2010


During our stay at San Lou Yong, we often had breakfast or lunch with older Wa officers in the main mess of the Wa headquarters. They told us a lot about their war with drugs lord Khun Sa, their relationship with the Burmese army, their ties to the old boss—the Communist Party of Burma (CPB)—and the Thais.

We asked them many questions and they patiently answered  them. One officer told us of his near-impossible escape from  Khun Sa’s ambush a few months before we arrived.   

One day at breakfast, a Wa officer we had befriended pointed to an old man in his sixties, walking past the mess, and asked us if we knew who the old man was.

We didn't know him, although we had seen him walking alone in the camp. He was thin and frail and no one seemed to talk to him. I knew he did not speak Burmese, so we couldn't communicate with him.

“He used to be a head-hunter,” the officer told us. Our immediate reaction was skepticism. Such an old frail man was a Wa head=hunter? We thought our friend the officer was joking.

But he was serious and our disbelief turned to amazement. We had all heard about Wa head-hunting rituals as kids growing up in Burma. As we got older, we began to dismiss such talk as nonsense or sometimes as propaganda.

All this Wa head-hunting talk was unrelated to our everyday lives and failed to strike fear in us—unlike the “Pa Shu Gaung Pyat” (the ghost of a headless seafaring gypsy) or “Deiwaw,” a fierce monster that frightened us youngsters.     

Like many of my contemporaries, I became exposed to the different cultural groups of Burma at university but never imagined that we would meet someone who had actually beheaded strangers for rituals to appease the spirits.

The revelation sent shivers down my spine.

“He cut some off about 30 heads before we caught up with him,” the Wa officer said. We were lost for words.

“He confessed his sins in a congregation in Insein in Rangoon after our ceasefire with the Burmese army in 1989,” the officer continued.

As we listened to the fascinating story, I saw the old head-hunter, now a Christian, disappear down the mountain path leading to a part of the Wa headquarters I had never visited.

The officer told us his version of how the practice of head-hunting came about in the first place—I learned later that there are actually different explanations.

Many years ago, said the officer, the Wa had difficulty growing rice and sought help from the Chinese. The Wa wanted rice seedlings and the Chinese gave them half-boiled paddy. When the Wa returned home and tried to cultivate the Chinese rice they had no success.

Disappointed, the Wa asked the Chinese for help the following year. This time the Chinese gave them good seedlings. But they told the Wa that for the seedlings to grow they must behead  strangers and put the heads on altars to appease the gods that watched over the crops.

After following the Chinese instructions, the seedling prospered. This time they were successful and so followed the Chinese instructions.

From that time onwards, strangers were stopped as they passed through a village and marked with dye on their backs to indicate they were ripe for beheading.

They were then literally marked for death—killed either by the villagers or by any Wa they encountered on their journeys.

The severed heads were placed on altars as an offering to the gods.

The officer looked at my comrade Win Maung and told him the Wa liked heads with beards or sideburns.

“The head-hunting Wa believed such a head would provide them with a bumper crop,” he said, smiling at Win Maung—who nervously rubbed his sideburns and days-old stubble. I wondered if my long, unkempt hair would also have qualified me for sacrifice status.

Lahu people were spared the risk of losing their heads, thanks to a fable accepted as true by the Wa, the officer told us.

According to the fable, a Lahu traveler was marked for death by Wa villagers and was accordingly beheaded. But as his executioner walked off with his offering in a bag, the severed head bit him in the back.

The wound became infected and the Wa head-hunter died. From then on, the Wa officer said, head-hunters avoided the Lahu.

The CPB is said to have put an end to Wa head-hunting in the early 1970s.

During my sojourn with the Wa, I saw the old head-hunter from time to time—and wondered what gruesome memories resided in his own grizzled head.

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Kyi May Kaung Wrote:
A novel set in Chiangmai and about ethnic practices of the fictitious Dyalo that you might want to read -

Mischa Berlinski's Fieldwork --

is also about a malign rice god or pi or nat(spirit).

Berlinski is said to have originally studied the Lisu, but decided to make it all fiction.

This book will interest Irrawaddy readers as NGOs and missionaries are also depicted as tribes, with their own beliefs and languages.

It's a learned and entertaining book.

Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.)

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