Roughly one month ago, Karibu attended Chin National Day at PS West Hertel Academy. The event was full of entertainment, food, energetic children and proud families uniting as one to celebrate Chin identity and recognize the efforts put forth for a democratic election system.
That same day, another National Day was being celebrated on the other side of town. The Zomi Community celebrated their National Day at an event separate from the one taking place at West Hertel Academy. In the event coverage Karibu did, we mentioned both events as mutually exclusive.
The Zomi people of Burma (Myanmar) were named Chin by the government. The difference between Zomi and Chin is very complicated, and one that the people within have a hard time coming to an agreement about.
I was unaware of the disagreement between the Chin and the Zomi, until I received a phone call from the secretary of the Chin Community in Buffalo – Joshua Thawng Lian.
He told me that the Chin people were concerned about the article I wrote. He said that the Zomi event was not a different event from Chin National Day; there is only one Chin National Day celebrated on February 20. He told me the Chin community was upset, and did not understand why I wrote what I wrote.
Karibu contributor Blake Cooper had attended the event held by Zomi community. While he was there, he had learned why there was a separate event, and some background about Zomi people.
According to Langh Khan Mung from Zomi Community Buffalo NY Inc:
“Zomi is… a traditional owner of the land called Zogam that the Colonists divided into two, one to India and another one to Burma in 1940s. Since 1948, India called Zomi people “Kuki” and Burma called “Chin.” Zomi has significant traditional customs and culture. Zomi people were Tual Biate before the Christian Conversion in 1900s.”
Peter Mang, a community member who helped organize and promote the Zomi National Day event at Our Lady of Hope, defined Zomi this way:
“Zomi is a nation, a traditional owner of the land that the colonists divided into two, one to India and another one to Burma in the 1940s.
“Since 1948, India called Zomi people Kuki,” Mang explained, “and Burma called them Chin.”
To Mang and others, the use of the term “Zomi” is an intentional one based in pride for a national identity that predates the colonial activities in the region that led to the definition of contemporary India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and others. Mang believes that those who have adopted the Chin or Kuki identities have only done so after years of the Indian and Burmese governments “seizing Zomis’ ownership and custodianship of the land,” and that the resulting conflict “causes an unending irrational argument and disagreement amongst Zomi people.”
Zomi nationalism and interests are a palpable, albeit minority, political force in Myanmar, where the Zomi Congress for Democracy currently holds two of 24 seats in the Chin State legislature and four seats in the bicameral national legislature in Myanmar.
Peter Mang says there are currently about 200 Zomi-identified people living in Buffalo. The cultural center for people who identify as Zomi in the U.S. is in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a population of 5,000 to 6,000 Zomi people.
As seen in Buffalo, the division is the result of shifting and disrupted identities throughout history. “Every country has many different kinds of languages, literatures, dialects, ethnic groups or tribes, religions and traditions,” explains Mang. Mang, who works in Buffalo as a freelance interpreter and translator, cites language as an example. “There are as many as 90 different dialects in the Chin state alone according to my experience. Therefore, no one can claim my dialect or language is the Chin language.”
However, according to Joshua Thawng Lian, “All the Chin people understood and emphasized that Feb 20 was our Chin National Day, and we celebrated on Feb. 20 every year until today. Therefore, Feb 20, 2016, was 68th Anniversary of Chin National Day.”
He also emailed me a brief history of Chin National Day. In Issue 13 of Karibu, we also wrote a history about Chin National Day as well as more detail about the event held in Buffalo, NY.
We understand the history between the two is complicated, and although neither groups may come to an agreement, both should receive equal respect for their how they choose to identify themselves. Although this is clearly a game of politics, Karibu respects the freedom both have to consider each other mutually exclusive.