MITHUNS SACRIFICED TO GREED
Project Maje, February 2004
The Forest Ox of Burma's Chins
This report is a brief summary of information about the mithun, a type of domesticated bovine found in the Himalayan foothills of South/Southeast Asia, particularly addressing its situation in the Chin State of Burma. The spelling "mithun" (accurate in terms of pronunciation) is used here for the bovine species Bos frontalis, although "mithan" is also a common spelling, and "mythun" is another spelling in use. This name probably came from Assamese dialects. The Chin people, one of the Zo ethnic groups, who live in western Burma, call these animals "sia." Mithuns are also known as "gayals" in India.
This report is by no means a comprehensive or scientific document on mithuns. It is inspired by accounts of mithun confiscation and commercialization of mithun raising in the Chin State. It is intended as an alert about the present situation of this particular mammal in this particular area. Under Burma's military dictatorship, the Chin people have been subjected to numerous human rights violations, including religious persecution. Most Chins are Christians, with Animist traditions. Their relationship to the mithun has strong elements of remaining Animist culture. The Chins' mountain forest environment has been in jeopardy in recent years, as Burma's military regime carries out logging and unsustainable harvest of forest products, and promotes plantation agriculture.
What is a Mithun?
The mithun is generally understood to be a domesticated, smaller version of the gaur. Mithuns and gaurs are related to other great Asian bovines: the banteng of Indonesia and the elusive kouprey of Cambodia. Gaurs are found in remaining forest areas of South and Southeast Asia, from India to Vietnam. The much more limited area of mithun habitat has included Bangladesh's Chittagong/Bandarban Hill Tracts, Burma's Arakan and Chin States, Northeast India, and Bhutan. Mithuns are normally found at elevations from 2,000 to 9,000 feet, in forested areas. Of course, the forest habitat for gaurs and mithuns has been disappearing rapidly in recent decades.
Looming as high as 7 feet tall at the shoulder, gaurs usually have dark bodies, white legs, and curved horns. Gaurs feed on forest leaves, young plants and grasses. The entire gaur population of the world was estimated at 13,000 to 30,000 in 2000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Species (IUCN) which rates the gaur as "vulnerable" on its Red List of Threatened Species; the US Government classifies the gaur as "endangered." A gaur calf was cloned in 2001 but died soon after birth.
A mere 50,000 mithuns were found in India in a 1983 survey; the Burma mithun population was probably similar; both populations may be decreased significantly since then. Mithuns average about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, and have similar coloring to the gaur, but less curved horns. Both gaurs and mithun's have a distinctive ridge along their backs. Mithuns are normally browsers rather than grazers, eating forest leaves and young plants, instead of requiring pasture land like other bovines. In a kind of part-time domestication, mithuns have usually been "kept" by releasing them into forests for feeding during the day (with or without human supervision.) While some mithuns become feral and stay in the forest full-time, most communities would bring them back to the village for the night. Traditionally, Chin mithun owners would keep the animals beneath their stilt-houses at night.
Unlike the rather fierce gaur, which can fight off tigers and avoid humans, mithuns are extremely docile and appear to seek human contact, particularly if salt is involved. According to Chin statesman Pu Lian UK, whose family had kept mithuns:
"They like salt very much and that makes them very easy to rear. They know their master's voice. If their master makes a usual way of shouting loud to call them to come to him, all of the herds will run to the voice. They will graze in some thick forest and will all get together to one spot where they are usually fed salt regularly like in the evening."
Mithuns in Traditional Chin culture
The mithun has played an important cultural role for the tribal peoples of the India/Burma frontier mountains, including the Chins and Nagas. For the Chins, the mithun is a totem or icon of ethnic identity. The Chins use the expression "As gentle as a mithun," and according to Frederick J. Simoons in "A Ceremonial Ox of India" the definitive work on the traditional role of the mithun, Chins also have mithun metaphors for beauty and strength.
Mithuns have not been used for plowing, as upland hill cultivation traditionally did not use draft animals. In recent years buffaloes have been introduced to Chin State for plowing in valley wet-rice growing areas. Mithuns also have not been used by the Chins for dairy purposes, although their milk is rich in butterfat content. The only Chin utilization of mithuns has been for meat. In particular, the mithun was of great importance in traditional Chin life (and for neighboring Naga and other tribal societies) as a sacrificial animal.
Mithuns, especially those with the most purebred gaur-like dark coats, were traditionally the ultimate sacrificial animal, required for a series of Feasts of Merit. Mithuns were sacrificed for the most important spiritual/medical needs, or to celebrate slaying of important wild beasts or human enemies. Following its ritual killing, the meat of a sacrificed mithun would be shared in the village. Mithuns were also slaughtered for meat outside of sacrificial use, and have continued to be used this way following the conversion of most Chins to Christianity. Mithun meat is still an important feature of Chin weddings and Christmas celebrations. It is said to be the most delicious form of beef, with a marbled texture.
Mithuns have traditionally been a form of currency among the mountain people, exchanged for goods, friendship or alliances, and used to pay fines, ransoms, tributes, and bride-prices. Sworn oaths were sealed in mithun blood. A herd of mithuns was a traditional sign of personal or village wealth. Frederick J. Simoons wrote of the Central Chins in mid-20th Century:
"No matter what other animals a man may own, his wealth is judged by the number of his mithan... Mithan must be sacrificed by a man to attain the highest social status. The birth of a mithan is celebrated as is the birth of a child... The theft and slaughter of a mithan are among the most serious of crimes..."
In present-day Chin society, even with its Christian influence and growth of towns, the mithun continues to be of importance. According to Pu Lian Uk:
"They are mostly kept in rural villages, not much in the town. But town people are starting now rearing the mythuns in herds outside the town like in Thantlang, Mindat and Matupi towns. Mr. X. from X. is an example. He made a fencing area in which the mythun could take shelter at night outside the town. The herds of their mythuns know the voices of him and his wife. He gave them proper names like "Black" or "White" or any name. If one of the mythuns' name is called shouting loud, all the herds run to the voice as the mythuns know that the voice will be for serving salts. It seems not so difficult to keep them in herds in this way."
"Mythun ownership once was very common for any ordinary people. But since its usefulness is just only for meat, people where wet rice fields are cultivated keep buffaloes rather than mythuns as buffaloes could be used for plowing the wet rice field... At the same time mythuns could destroy crops in the agriculture land, for which the owner is to be fined for t he cost of the crops being destroyed by his mythuns. So, its keeping has no longer been as common as before. But still many villages keep mythuns. We should say that it still is kept quite common enough in many of the villages throughout the Chin State. Any ordinary person could rear it as they wish."
Traditional mithun-keeping has apparently been mostly sustainable with less damage to forests than could be caused by herds of goats, sheep or cattle. As long as the numbers of mithuns and the amount of forest have remained in balance, the effects appear preferable to those of livestock which require clearing of pasture land. The mithuns were a reason to preserve the forests. For the Chins, mithuns have been a beneficial link between the forest wilderness and the village settlement. A Chin veterinarian writes:
"My opinion about Mithun raising in traditional method is it will not cause significant damage on the forest. The traditional raising method with normal scale (not too many Mithun) is actually beneficial to environmental conservation."
Unfortunately, the possession of this one limited form of wealth by the Chins, an impoverished people, has not gone unnoticed by Burma's military regime. The Chin State is one of the most remote, isolated regions of Burma, and access to data on the status of Chin-owned mithuns is very limited. Still, there has been at least one report of widespread confiscation of mithuns by Burma's military forces in Chin State, which is consistent with the pattern of livestock confiscation in other regions in Burma.
The confiscation of cattle, buffalo, and other livestock by the troops of Burma's regime is a widespread practice, intended either for the immediate feeding of undersupplied troops, or for commercial gain by the military establishment. The US Department of State's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," notes that the Burma regime's military units "routinely have confiscated livestock." A commentary by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF Monthly Report, November 2003) states:
"Roaming Burmese soldiers taking a few chickens, killing a few pigs and shooting a few head of cattle here and there in the rural areas of Shan State may not seem very important compared to the other more severe kinds of human rights violations such as killing, rape, torture and forced labour, etc. However, if it happens frequently, it does cause a lot of trouble for the villagers and in many cases even badly affects their very livelihood."
Pu Lian Uk writes about this abuse:
"Confiscating cattles in herds has been a routine work of Burmese military armed forces and police and it seems as if there is no place to make complaint as the military regime is betray fing the citizens. There is no way to correct things if the watcher and caretaker violates what it watches and take care of. People just suffer their losses silently with tears being left with nothing. Of course those cattle confiscated are usually accused of being smuggled out of the country."
Pu Lian Uk comments about confiscation of mithuns under the guise of anti-smuggling enforcement:
"They confiscate when mythuns are likely to be sold out to foreign land. It is confiscated under the law of custom and duty to prevent exporting without giving duties. They are not confiscated if they are not sold to foreign countries which mostly is from Western Chin State, to Mizoram in India. It is also much valued there as it is valued by the Chins on Burma side. But the worse thing under the military regime is the mythuns are just confiscate with hout proper trial. They just confiscate all the animals without allowing the victim to pay the fine for the worth of his case according to judicial procedure."
It is within the context of widespread livestock confiscation by Burma's military that the following account by Pastor Satin Lal from Falam, Chin State (recorded in the Project Maje report Ashes and Tears) is of particular concern:
"About the livestock in Chin State. One of the unique animals that we can see in the Chin State is the mithun. From one mithun we can get 200 viss of meat. About 300 kilograms. All the mithuns were bought by the military and they sold them into the foreign country. If our own Chin people sold these animals into the border area, into India, we would be arrested and put into the jail for five to six years. Because they sold those animals, those who had connection with the [government] military, sold all those mithuns to another country, now there are hardly any left, and almost extinct. Each household used to raise the mithun. It was one of the symbols of the Chin people, and one of our wealths. We killed that animal only when we celebrate a big ceremony, as in ancient times."
Control and commercialization
Some cross-border or interethnic trade of mithuns has existed for several decades; according to Simoons, back in 1966 the Chin-related Baums of Bangladesh were raising mithuns in order to sell the meat to Muslim Bengalis of Bangladesh. However, this trade was always quite limited, with most mithuns raised only for village consumption. Commercialization of mithun raising for trade in meat is mainly a recent development. Beef-eating Northeast Indian Christian or Buddhist ethnic groups or Buddhist Burmese are potential markets; mithun meat could be canned or dried meat for further overseas export. Such ventures would require a major departure from the traditional scale and method of mithun-raising, but Burma's military regime appears to be promoting this type of commercialization in Chin State.
A report from the regime's Myanmar Information Committee, "Information Sheet 28 July 2003: Development of Agriculture, Livestock Breeding in Chin State" shows the regime's interest in commercialization of mithun raising (its mithun population figures are of questionable veracity):
"Raising of domesticated wild ox: So far, there are 32,491 domesticated wild oxen. Over 58,000 domesticated wild oxen will be raised under a three-year plan from 2003-2004 to 2005-2006. The State has made arrangements to render assistance in loans and prevention and treatment of disease."
A visit by Burma's Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, to Chin State in 2003, has heightened concerns about the commercialization of mithuns. From reports in the regime's "New Light of Myanmar," November 27, 2003, "Prime Minister inspects development projects in Chin State":
"Chairman of [Tonzang] Township Peace and Development Council U Khin Maung Oo reported on regional development projects including education, health and transport sectors of the region, arrangements for growing 840 acres of tea and breeding of domestic wild oxen and requirements."
"[In Tonzang, Khin Nyunt stated that] domesticated wild oxen thrive well in Chin State and thus the government is providing loans for the region."
"Chairman of [Tiddim] Township Peace and Development Council U Sai Maung Lu reported on location and area of the township, population, national races living in the region, agriculture, the raising of domesticated wild ox, education, health, communication and generating of hydroelectric power. Chairman of Chin State Peace and Development Council Col. Tin Hla gave a supplementary report."
"[In Tiddim, Khin Nyunt] said due to transport difficulty in Chin State, the government has spent a large sum of money on development of roads linking townships in Chin State and plain regions, growing of tea and raising of domesticated wild oxen. He said local people are to cooperate with local authorities, social organizations, and departmental officials for successful implementation of the tasks... The Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries has already made arrangements for raising of domesticated wild oxen and other livestock breeding tasks which are marketable in neighbouring countries. Therefore, local people are to change livestock breeding on manageable scale to commercial one gradually."
It seems significant that these reports from Burma's regime avoid using the name "mithun," perhaps because it is an ethnic term rather than a word from the Burmese (dominant) language. Instead they refer to "domesticated wild" livestock, something of an awkward oxymoron. This may be part of a plan to separate an ethnic people from a "resource" as is common in many areas of Burma under the military regime, which has also replaced indigenous place names, substituting new Burmese-sounding versions of towns and rivers.
The Chin veterinarian comments: "I think it is almost impossible to raise Mithun for commercial scale by traditional way. That is not only because of possible damages to environment, but also because of the profit return and the investment (money, time, market, transportation, etc.) are not balanced." The Burma regime appears to be promoting a large-scale shift from small, family-owned forest-ranging herds of mithuns for local use, to commercialized herds for export use.
The Burma regime's emphasis on a scheme for changing a traditional, sustainable way of raising mithuns to a government-controlled, commercialized, export-oriented system is of concern due to the regime's proven disregard for the rights of indigenous peoples, lack of environmental protection, and short-term profit obsessions. Current regime efforts to convert forest hillsides to tea plantations in Chin State give rise to similar concerns. While mithun raising may be undertaken on a commercial or export basis in the future, it is doubtful that given existing conditions in Burma, it will be much more than the Burma army's confiscation of one of the local people's few sources of wealth for trade to neighboring countries or the lowlands. Additionally, this commercialization of mithun raising by the non-Chin central Burma regime may be viewed as at best an interference, and at worst a severe cultural humiliation.
It is also possible that incompetent tampering with the breeding of mithuns may place them at risk. Some previous efforts to breed mithuns for commercial purposes have lacked success, according to the Chin veterinarian:
"I would like to share some information from a Vet.'s point of view. Since from 1996, the regime ordered local livestock and breeding department to raise wild Mithuns in the herds. Then, they brought some Mithuns (approx. 30) from Chin State to Yangon [Rangoon, Burma's capital] to perform research on Artificial Insemination (A.I.) and Embryo Transfer (E.T.) in order to achieve, the final target, foreign currency. Unfortunately, it didn't happen the way they expected. When they did A.I. to female Mithun with the semen of domestic or imported dairy bull, conception was failure all the time. And again, abortion was occurred when they tried E.T. to female Mithun."
The danger of changing forest-browsing free-range mithuns into a type of artificially bred, artificially medicated, feedlot-raised super-cattle can be seen in the global epidemics of "mad cow" bovine spongiform encephalopathy and other food-animal diseases. Mithuns have proven especially susceptible to contagious foot and mouth disease. Such commercialization efforts may cancel out the natural advantages of the forest-ranging mithuns. As scientists from India's National Research Center on Mithun have written:
"Since mithuns are free-ranging bovines and graze in isolation in the open forests, they are naturally quarantined from some of the contagious diseases. However, th bey may be affected by many of the diseases of domestic as well as wild ruminants, in the grazing-browsing areas. Such incidences have become more frequent with increased deforestation and more and more land coming under crop cultivation and human habitation."
Rampant logging and encroaching tea plantations are now threatening the normal forest home of the mithuns, showing how fragile is the ecological relationship between humans, animals, and remaining forest in Chin State. In the regime's new order, mithuns can be removed from the forest, and the forest cut down, just as villagers can be relocated from their ancestral homelands.
Combining health/breeding risks with the possibility of excessive export for slaughter, and natural habitat destruction, the regime's commercialization schemes may actually endanger the mithuns rather than (as claimed iby Khin Nyunt) increasing these numbers. One need only look to the dwindling teak groves of Burma to see how decimation has happened to a once mighty and thriving tree species.
In his best-selling history book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies Jared Diamond lists the fourteen large mammals domesticated by humans. The mithun is one of the fourteen, and is the rarest of them, being counted in the tens of thousands rather than in the millions like all the others. Although the mithun population on the India side of the India/Burma frontier may be stable or even increasing, those on Burma side appear to be at some degree of risk. In the worst-case scenario, the mithun could be eligible for being the first large domesticated animal to face extinction.
At present, science has to resort to attempting to clone a gaur in hopes of species survival. Will the gaur-related mithuns of Burma suffer that fate as well? And with their mithuns gone, how effectively will the Chins survive as a culture? There may be other kinds of meat, but when a people's relationship with nature is destroyed, much of its identity is irrevocably lost.
1. The international community must raise its awareness of issues relating to the threatened Chin people of Burma, particularly natural resource extraction/destruction and human rights violations. The proposed Western Burma to India gas pipeline (of corporations Daewoo and ONGC) poses a special peril to the Chins and their land, as a possible pipeline route may be secured by the Burma military. Chin refugees in precarious situations in India and Malaysia need international support. The little-known situation of the Naga people of Burma also requires increased research and publicity. The Chins and Nagas have important cultures which are under grave pressure from Burma's military regime, including imposition of changes to sustainable mithun raising.
2. A complete end to abuse of ethnic nationality people of Burma must be an unwavering condition of any political process in Burma. These abuses include a wide array of human rights violations, with confiscation of livestock a serious crime against civilians throughout Burma.
3. Commercial schemes for raising mithuns must not be undertaken without the full, informed, equitable and democratic assent and participation of the local people who have traditionally raised mithuns. To do otherwise may endanger mithun survival and is a cultural crime against the Chin and Naga peoples of Burma.
4. The preservation of forests remaining in northwest Burma, and particularly those in Chin State, which are habitats for mithuns, must be an urgent priority for the international community. Wood and wildlife products from Bu ârma should not be imported by any other countries. Environmental preservation in partnership with local people must be an intrinsic part of Burma's political process, and the present unsustainable military/commercial resource extraction must cease.
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Thank you to Pu Lian Uk, Salai Kipp Kho Lian, "Chin veterinarian," and the Chin Forum Information Service: www.chinforum.org.
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Diamond, Jared, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" W.W. Norton, New York 1999.
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, 2003. www.redlist.org
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Myanmar Information Committee, "Information Sheet 28 July 2003: Development of Agriculture, Livestock Breeding in Chin State"
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Shan Human Rights Foundation Monthly Report, November 2003. www.shanland.org
Simoons, Frederick J., with Simoons, Elizabeth S., "A Ceremonial Ox of India: The Mithan in Nature, Culture, and History" University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI 1968.
United States Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2003. www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27765.htm
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