Finally, here we are with the interview with Bianca Son. She is one of the daughters of Dr Vumson Suantak, author of Zo History. She recently moved to London to study at University of London.
Without further ado, please read on…
An interview with Bianca Son
Recently you wrote to me saying you would like (given the time) to write a book on your father – a biography. What inspires you to take on such assignment? What can we expect from this book?
If my father knew that I would like to write such a book, he would not be happy. He was humble and would tell me to not waste my time and focus on the future rather than the past, e.g. his life. However, his life was remarkable. My father was born during WWII while the Chin Hills were still part of British India. Christian missionaries had significantly impacted the culture and belief systems of the Chin. This fact impacted the experience of my father and moreover, the experience of his parents and grandparents. Then after WWII he went to the former East Germany. Like Colonialism, WWII, the Cold War had a significant impact on his life. He later experienced the freedom of living in the United States and was able to pursue the American “Dream.” So, just from a historical perspective, a biography would capture the impact global politics have on real life individuals.
Personally, he was one of the first Zo History scholars. It is debated who was the first, but his Zo History was the first truly academic account of the Zo origin. Scholars have asked me, “How did your father manage to write such a book; he was the first.” My father was a visionary always analyzing the bigger picture. Although he had traveled and lived in lands far away from the Chin Hills, it remained deep in his heart. And although most of us love our homelands, not all occupy themselves with it. That is, not only did he not forget his roots, he continued to work and study to understand the origins of our people. I think by researching his life, we will come closer to an understanding about what inspired him. In this way, we may be inspired and more importantly, perhaps our younger generations will be inspired to carry on the work for the Zo.
In terms of his character, he was my father so, of course, I am quite biased. But he taught me so much about being a human being. He was not religious. Still he emphasized respect toward others and the importance of giving and receiving from our fellow man. I had never met anyone so confident in themselves. He had no need to boast about himself; in fact his disliked it. He was also never afraid of rejection. After my mother left the family; my father was in Texas. He moved to Washington DC because he wanted to be part of a community. And because he knew that the Mizo and the Zo (Chin) were related, he took the chance to move to Washington and integrated himself into the Mizo community. He took risks in such matters, but he believed in the goodness of people. And as expected, he was integrated and even loved by the Mizo.
After his marriage, my father took full responsibility for his children—his daughters. He told us that children need their mother, but when we resisted, he agreed that we were better off living with him. And he loved us so much.. He also treated us no different from men. He taught us to drive, do our own taxes, and change the oil and break pads in our own cars. My sister and I can repair a car and built a house, tile a bathroom and even put up a roof. He also taught us other things traditionally “female.” He taught us how to sew, to cook and to host dinners and other affairs. He was well rounded and insisted that we be so as well. He never ever made us feel that we were incapable of something. In fact, my sister and I have had a full rounded education because of my father. My sister is an engineer. I am a psychologist and now a historian.
In short, his life was eventful impacted by war, politics and strangers outside his Chin Hills. It shaped his character and life experience. And all through his many trials and tribulations, he never forgot the Zo.
What is your most memorable moment with your father?
This is almost an unfair question. There are so many memories. I will share just two small ones. When I was living with him attending University, we received a letter with my grades addressed to him. He was about to open the envelope and then realized it was my grades. Instead of opening it, he handed to me and said, “how did you do?” It was a great sign of respect for me. I was just 18, but I felt so respected and appreciated by him.
Another memory that shaped my life was when he had a conversation with my mother about me. I asked him later, “why did you do that? It hurt me.” He looked at me and said, “I am sorry, I made a mistake.” I was so shocked by this. Saying “I am sorry” seems to be so difficult for most. But by this very small gesture he not only expressed respect and love for me, but moreover, was secure enough in his own person to admit a mistake.
Both of these small experiences have shaped who I am. Although I am still stubborn and get angry easily, I have learned to say I am sorry when necessary. Both lessons were fundamental.
Do you see a (better) future for Zo people in Burma even if there was a transition towards democracy? What can we do to secure a future in such a set up?
At this time I am not educated enough to speculate about the future of the Zo in terms of democracy. There are many Chin in exile who will eventually play an important role in the politics of a democratic Burma. Unfortunately, many of these Chin reject the notion of Zo and insist that only the Tedim Chin are Zo while the others, e.g. the Haka emerged in the Chin Hills. Many of these ideas are rooted in Christianity and do not consider migration and scientific methods like basic DNA. If the Chin remain divided on this point, we will have problems uniting. Also, just like my father’s life, the Zo in their respective political countries are divided for political reasons. The Mizo, Kuki, Bawm and Chin must all enjoy similar political circumstances to embrace their shared ancestry. Again, at this point I am not educated enough to speculate.
What is the biggest problem for the Zo people today? Is it political, human rights or immigration issues or something else and why?
As I said above, the Zo are divided into three countries each having their own difficulties. And because the Mizo, for example, enjoy a better lifestyle than the Chin, there are discrepancies between their social situations. Henceforth, there is discrimination. There is not one major problem for the Zo. The entire region is neglected and in trouble due to politics. All of the Zo living in the region are suffering in their own way. And the Zo outside of the region have little impact it seems. But as my father always said, you have to move forward slowly and steadily. Perhaps the biggest problem is that not more Zo are campaigning for the recognized shared ancestry. Maybe we could foster cross border support and interactions. For me, this is a most difficult answer to speculate.
The mautam famine right now in various parts of Zo inhabited areas – Chin State, Churachandpur (Manipur) and Mizoram is causing an unprecedented humanitarian situation. What can we do to help the situation? What actions are being taken to help ease the situation that you are aware of? Is this mautam only limited to Zo inhabited areas or does it happen in other places too?
My father wrote about this phenomenon, which occurs every 50 years. I saw the blossoming fruits myself in 2005 when I traveled to Manipur.
I know that some Chin in exile are campaigning for financial support. From experience, monies rarely reach inside; instead the army confiscates most aid. India has also made some attempts, but most agree the governments have not done enough. The mautum famine affects Mizoram, the Chittagong Hill tracts and Chin State in Burma. Areas of Kachin are also impacted. From what I know, not much is happening to ease the situation. In fact, the stories emerging form Chin State are heartbreaking. The weakest are dying—the children and elderly— are often left behind while the stronger escape to other areas in search of food.
Although some organizations started preparing for the famine in early 2000, most have managed little success.
Finally, do you see yourself carrying on your father’s legacy in helping the Zo people?
First let me say that I am not my father and would never say that I am following in his footsteps. I am very interested in History and would like to do another study of the Zo. In fact, I am starting a program as SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London.
I have been participating in Chin politics but believe that I have not made a real impact. Existing leaders saturate Chin politics in exile and there is little room for a novice such as myself. Hence, I would like to focus on history first and with the support of respected and well-established scholars produce another Zo History supporting my father’s claims. I can only dream that my study will clarify our shared history. I cannot say if it will “help” the Zo. I just work step by step. It is my true belief that the truth always emerges in time.
I have also spoken with genealogists who are willing to work with me to determine our shared ancestry based on DNA samples. However, DNA studies track migration. It does not reveal what has happened in the past 100-500 years. That is up to us to prove.
And as I said earlier, it may not be in everyone’s “best” interest to accept a shared ancestry due to political or other reasons. Many will surely resist and I expect a lot of criticism. Still, I can only try and convince other scholars and politicians based on my academic findings.
Let’s just keep moving forward. His business card read, “For the Zo” and I will close this interview with the those same words, For the Zo!
Bianca Son Suantak (Mai Mang Khan Cing), one of the Chin Forum Managing Board members, was born in the former East Germany to her Sizang(Zo) father and German mother. The family later returned to Burma and eventually ended up in the United States. She received a BA from the University of Maryland in Psychology and attended graduate school in Mass Communication at the University of Arizona where she focused on HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns. She spent five years in Korea working for an education-oriented NGO. She also spent two years working for P&G, Korea as a foreign consultant. While in Korea, she hosted a television quiz show and a weekly radio show. She also performed the Vagina Monologues for the foreign community in East Asia to raise money and awareness to stop violence against women and girls. She attended the first Chin National Assembly, held in Mt. Sinai, Manipur in 2006. Bianca has just completed her Master’s in Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She now lives in London where she studying for her PhD in the department of History at the School for Oriental and African Studies at the University of London; her focus is Zo History.