The Kayah Li, or Red Kayah, are the largest of the possible nine ethnic communities that make up Kayah State, the smallest of Myanmar’s ethnic states, along the eastern border with Thailand.
Formed in 1979 or 1980 by the father of the current (2019) chairman, Plu Reh, the KNLCC have operated more or less underground and within Karenni IDP camps along the Thai border until the Kayah State government, under former president Thein Sein, finally allowed them to establish a physical and legal presence in the country. Now housed in an attractive two storey brick and wood house down a quiet lane in Loikaw, the KNLCC focusses most of their efforts on education and the teaching of the previously outlawed Kayah Li script.
Of all the ethnic scripts in Myanmar to have been censored the story of the Kayah Li script is probably the most tragic. Two 19th century scripts devised by European Roman Catholic priests, one in Burmese characters, the other in Romanic alphabet proved unpopular with the Karenni. A third script was devised by the son of the last Karenni Saopha in the 1940’s, who claimed he found the script inscribed on a stone stele in Karenni state which he dated back to the 18th Century, promoting it as the original script of the Karenni people long forgotten. The script became popular among the Karenni youth until General Ne Win decided the Karenni should use the Burmese iteration. The script was then adopted by the Karenni ethnic armed groups and became known as the ‘rebel script’ and use in any form was forbidden (one of the terms of the 1994 bi-lateral ceasefire agreement was the legalisation of the script; posters, t-shirts and books were printed in celebration; when the ceasefire broke down 6 months later, the military arrested those who had written and printed the script in this time). This ban was finally lifted only in September 2014, thanks to the efforts of the KNLCC chairman, Plu Reh and that year the KNLCC printed the first legal book using the script, a collection of Kayah Li folktales for children.
To read more about the Kayah, their censored literature and my travels with them, take a look at my award-shortlisted political travel book, ‘The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar’