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In 2019 journalist Oli Slow travelled with Sampan into Nagaland …
“The Naga Self-Administered Zone, created under the 2008 Constitution in one of the most remote and least developed parts of Myanmar, is a sliver of land on the border with India’s Nagaland state. Naga is a collective word for a group of tribes that live on both sides of the border and who gained notoriety in the past for headhunting.
In his 2010 book, Road of Bones, about a decisive battle at Kohima, now the capital of Indian Nagaland, between Japanese and Allied forces during World War Two, Irish journalist Fergal Keane wrote that, traditionally, a Naga male could not consider himself a true man until he had taken his first head.
“It was believed that in capturing the head, a warrior seized the spirit and vitality of his enemy,” Keane wrote.
The Naga people remained isolated from the outside world until the 19th century, when the conquering British sent expeditionary forces into the hills. After a series of often gruesome battles between the colonialists and Naga tribes, the British were eventually able to take control of the area. The Naga would go on to play a crucial role in expelling Japanese forces on behalf of the British during World War Two.
When the British granted independence to India and Burma, in 1947 and 1948, respectively, the land of the Naga people was split between two sovereign powers. The decision still rankles many Naga in Myanmar, who feel cut off from the rest of their people. The Naga in Myanmar are also aware that they have seen significantly less development than their counterparts in India.”
You can read Oli’s full account here.
Lahe is in the Naga Self Administrative Region, surrounded by many Naga villages. Visit one of these if there is time, walking amongst the chickens, small pigs, and under the gaze of elderly villagers with tattoos on their faces.
You may be surprised to see that many of the houses are powered by solar and some villages have their own mobile phone tower, contrasting with the traditional Naga long houses and totem-like pillars and decorative monkey skulls below, with symbols such as that of the hornbill and twin rifles.
The India-Myanmar border cuts through the heart of Nagaland. In April 2019, photographer Ben Frederick went up to the border and attempted to cross it.
“Left for Indian border. 45min, felt longer, very difficult riding. Roads under construction, big rocks, small rocks, sand, mud, small margins for error, only recommend for experienced off road biker. Myanmar border – top of one mountain. Crazy place covered in bamboo spikes, looked like orc stronghold in Lord of the Rings. We wrote down our names and passport number (+passport copy) to the bored army guy and passed unhindered.
“Biked through a river at bottom of valley (Myanmar India geographical border) and on top of next mountain was Indian border. Nagas can pass freely, obviously foreigners cannot. They allowed us to briefly pass into India – we very nearly were allowed to even stay the night as they inquired to the seniors… but 2 hours later nope, application denied, which was expected. Took selfies with border army. The Nagas at this Indian side Pung Khury Naga tribe. Naga’s do not recognize the India-Myanmar border and to a certain extent, both governments allow them to pass freely.”
Myanmar’s northwest, one of the country’s least developed and least explored regions.