While it is true that Rakhine (also known as Arakan) is increasingly associated with negative vibes - conflict, violence and poverty - there are still some aspects of life there which are lovely. We wanted to search for some positive energy in Rakhine in relation to our own field – fashion and styling.
Arakan is a western coastal province of Myanmar which looks crescent-shaped on a map. Its richness in culture, tradition and long-standing history is jaw dropping. The Arakan kingdom fell under the Burmese kings in 1784, its last capital being Mrauk U. One can really feel the tragedy of that history when visiting Mrauk U – seeing the long abandoned cultural artifacts of that once glorious, ancient kingdom.
Our search for positive souls began with a half day boat trip and a lovely stay at the Mrauk U Princess Resort, where we met an amazing lady from Inle with a deep emotional connection to Rakhine State and its people, Ms Yin Myo Su (or Ma Misu as everyone call her) and the architect and artist U Hla Thaung. We explored some of the disappearing arts in Rakhine State. History books tell us that Rakhine used to have its own fully developed “ten arts and crafts” (pan se myo) before those traditions went into decline.
[Note: pan se myo means “ten types of flowers” and is a cultural term that refers to the most famous forms of arts and crafts, e.g. painting, sculpture, metalsmithing, masonry, etc.]
While in Mrauk U, we took a bumpy ride to explore some of the weaving communities around the area. Here in this picture, a Mro woman is crafting a beautiful Mro traditional textile on a blackstrap loom, which is the most commonly used practice in the Mro community. Mro people are one of the minority ethnic groups living in Rakhine State. They live around Mrauk U, Minbya and in the surrounding areas. The Mro population is estimated to be around 50,000 in Rakhine State. Weaving is a traditional craft and every woman in the Mro community acquires this skill. Virya is proud to be sourcing Mro fabrics directly from these women.
In addition to Mro communities, the Sum Tu and Lay Tu indigenous tribes live around Minbya township. These groups are ethnically of Chin origin but share cultural similarities to the Rakhine communities with whom they live side by side.
We visited the weaving house established by Mai Ni Ni Aung of Sone Tu Chin Weaving House based in Yangon. Sone Tu Weaving House works with some 250 weavers, spread across the villages in Minbya township, creating decent job opportunities while enabling people to stay in their homes and communities. Sone Tu’s weavers are known for getting better pay and receiving proper social support for their children and community members. We were extremely thrilled to see the incredible women who weave for our products at Virya Myanmar.
When we talk about Rakhine State and weaving, we absolutely should acknowledge the weaving traditions of the Rakhine community. We visited some weaving communities around Sittwe, where there are large numbers of subsistence weavers. The Rakhine weaving styles use extremely intricate patterns, complex in technique and vibrant colours. However, the weavers do not have access to higher quality threads and this is becoming their main barrier in entering a competitive market in Yangon and globally.
However, there are currently a few attempts underway to find solutions to this issue. We visited two weaving houses in Sittwe: Shwe Kyar Weaving House attached to its own training center and the long-standing weaving business U Saw Maung Shop (Modern Vintage Rakhine Longgyis). Both places offer quality fabrics and provide job opportunities for women in the communities.
Our trip to Rakhine made us see the reality on the ground of how poor the communities are and how much the infrastructure surrounding them is lacking. However, the people, and especially the women, we met, are incredibly resilient and passionate about what they do and create. They are getting an insignificant amount of attention for their work and arts. We need to help these women while also focusing on the humanitarian crisis that harshly faces this beautiful region.