Origin of the Karen
The Karen reckon 2010 to be their year 2749. This means that they look to BC 739 as the year of their founding. In their legends Karen speak of coming from the land of ‘Thibi Kawbi” which some have thought may indicate Tibet and the Gobi desert. Some Karen oral traditions refer to crossing a river of “running sand” as an important event in their history. There are Chinese sources which refer to the Gobi Desert as the “river of sand,” and it is probable that the Karen originated in an area bordering Tibet. They crossed the Gobi Desert into China, and gradually made their way into the mountainous areas of Burma. In ancient times most of Thailand’s Karen came over the eastern borders of Burma, and this is still true today. The first Karen most likely immigrated to Thailand before the Thai, and just after the Mon Khmers. Today almost all of Thailand’s Karen live in the western part of the country along the shared border with Burma.
The Sgaw Karen in the southern Omkoi district (Thailand) started to enter the country some hundred years ago. Before them the Lawa people lived in this area, as archaeological findings have proven. Even today Karen, as well as Thai, are digging for wonderful decorated earthen ware in the area, which are dated from 14th-16th century.
The First Burmese War (1824-26) fought against the British brought the first contact with the Karen by a Western power. Concurrently, Western missionaries exposed the Karen to Christianity. The onslaught of war also resulted in mass movements of Karen over the border to what was then known as Siam (Hovemyr, 1989 104). During the Second Burmese War (1852-53) most of Lower Burma which had a large Karen population came under British authority (Schrock, 1970 801). Realizing the advantages of siding against the Burmese the Karen along with the Mon supported the British after the final Burmese War in 1885. Under British rule the Karen controlled three of the Shan states Kantarwadi, Kyebogyi, and Bawlake. Again in 1947 the new independent state of Burma recognized the area as Karen but the Karen themselves did not think the constitution granted them sufficient autonomy or adequate territorial holdings (Schrock, 1970 802). One year later, in response to the Burmese government the Karen mobilized and formed the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) in order to seize control of disputed areas and promote more autonomy for the Karen states.
Revolt soon broke out and a prolonged conflict was inevitable given the tenuous Burmese/ Karen relations over the past century. In 1952, the Karen declared an independent state consisting of the Swaleen area and several adjacent districts (Schrock, 1970: 804). Yet, by 1955 the Karen’s strength was severely weakened leaving them with only the Swaleen district. Realizing their compromised position, leaders of the KNDO signed a truce agreement with the Burmese government in 1964. However, other KNDO members did not accept the truce and remained committed to an independent Karen state. Today the KNDO (changed to KNU = Karen National Union) still remains a force in Burma promoting the recognition of autonomy for the Karen.
At this time thousands of Karen are resettled from refugee camps along the Burmese border into other countries, mainly the USA..
Quite a number of Karen from Burma have been able to get a Thai citizen card as they have married a Thai Karen in mountain villages.
The Karen National Army has been weakened and it is thought, that they may only count about 4000 soldiers today. Many Karen are tired of the ongoing war and the suffering it causes to them.
Core Cultural Values
“A desire for HARMONY is a basic theme in the Sgaw and Pwo Karen cultures. The excellent fallow system they have developed in their agriculture shows their desire for harmony with their environment. The annual celebrations in which they feast the guardian spirits of the village show their desire for harmony with these unseen powers. They attempt to maintain harmony in relationships within the village by submission to the acknowledged leaders, and harmony with their neighbours by avoiding conflict whenever possible” (Lewis).
Marriage and Family
According to Karen tradition, unmarried couples are not supposed to touch each other, unless they intend to wed. Usually Karen husbands and wife stay together for life. Adultery is considered a major taboo. Harmony and family go hand in hand. Karen strive for both.
The Karen think very highly of education. In one of their stories they tell, that God gave the elder and the younger brother a book. The elder brother (Karen) did not pay attention to it, but went out to work. His book fell to the ground and was eaten up by hens and pigs. The younger brother (white foreigner) paid attention to it and succeeded. The story went on that the younger brother one day would come and bring the book back to his older brother. In the past this story has been a key for evangelism and it has shown the Karen the worth of education.
Today for many Karen it is the number one goal to gain a better education. They feel left behind if they do not have educational opportunities equal to the rest of Thailand and the world.
The Karen are an indigenous people to the southeast Asian countries of Thailand and Burma. The population numbers between 3 to 7 million (the Karen National Union, KNU, even suggests 14 million), the majority of the Karen are living inside Burma.
Karen in Thailand
The country of Thailand has a population of approximately 61 million people, and about 1,000,000 of those are what the Thais refer to as Chao Khao–or tribal people of the mountains. The six major tribal groups in Thailand are the Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, and Lisu. There are about as many Karen as all other tribal groups combined. The majority of Karen are divided into two groups: Sgaw and the Pwo. The small minority of remaining Karen are collectively referred to as the Red Karen.
The Hilltribe Welfare and Development Center’s summary for April 2002 gives a total 914,755 hilltribe population. The Karen are said to count 438,450.
These figures are very likely to be far less than the true numbers because many hilltribe people who can’t prove where they were born, or those who crossed state borders, are considered illegal immigrants. Counting another several ten thousands of refugees, there are well more than 500,000 Karen living in Thailand.
In Thailand the largest concentration of Karen live in Chiang Mai province, about one third of Thailand’s Karen population. The Sgaw are the largest group of Karen. All the Sgaw Karen share a common language and biological characteristics. They also share a cultural heritage. This includes Karen history, tales, legends, myths in songs, poetry, and prose; religious rituals; and preferences for dress and food. Their villages have between 10 and 200 houses.
The Karen languages are difficult to categorize as to linguistic family. They differ from other Tibeto-Burman languages in certain aspects, and yet they do not seem to fit other classifications. Many linguists now refer to them as the Karenic group of the Tibeto-Burman family.
Languages & Dialects
All Karen languages are monosyllabic agglutinated speech, with no final consonants in Sgaw Karen and with nasals and finals in other dialects. These are all marks of Sinitic speech. Dr. D.C. Gilmore believes that the Pwo dialect branched off from the parent stem earlier than the Sgaw, but kept the original nasals and, being in closer contact with outside races, adopted more outside words. The Sgaw has dropped the final nasals, because they were more difficult to pronounce, but has kept the original form of the language to a greater extent than the Pwo. Pwo Karen has six tones. In Burma a Burmese script is used to write down the language, in Thailand a modified Thai script is used. There are only 26 of the 44 Thai characters used, in the Thailand Pwo Karen Script.
The name “Karen” is an imperfect transliteration of the Burmese word “Kayin” the derivation of which has puzzled students of that language. It has been thought that this word is derived from the name by which the Red Karen call themselves, i.e., “Ka-Ya”
The central Thai call them ‘Kariang’ the northern Thai call them ‘Yang’.
According to their language or dialect differences the Karen people can be divided into four subgroups.
- The Sgaw Karen that call themselves Paganyaw, and the Bwe Karen.
- The Pwo Karen that refer to themselves as Phlong, Pho and Shu.
- The Red Karen groups also known as Kayah.
- The Pa’o or Black Karen are Karen speaking people, however ethnically they are not Karen.
Although all Karen speak related languages, individual Karen sub-groups speak languages which are sometimes unintelligible to other groups.
The smallest social unit among the Karen is the nuclear family, which occupies one household. Most households are made up of a husband, wife, and any unmarried children. But it is also common for younger married couples to live with the parents of the wife for 1-3 years before building their own home on the compound of the wife’s parents home or on a separate piece of property.
The husband will always consult with his wife before making a decision that will affect the entire family. Privately, both husbands and wives share equally in decision making regarding family issues, though the husband is usually the one to announce the decision in public.
If all of the children of the family are married, it is also common for the youngest married daughter, her husband, and her children to care for her elderly parents in the home in which she was raised. When her parents die, she will inherit this house.
The Karen traditionally build simple houses on stilts, usually using split bamboo for walls and floors, with roofs made of thatch or grass. Chickens, pigs, buffalo, and cattle are kept under the house at night..
All traditional Karen houses have a spacious, partly covered veranda which is used for preparing food, weaving, doing other work, and as a place to chat with friends and accommodate overnight guests. The houses usually consist of 1-2 rooms, one of which is used as a sleeping compartment.
In the main living room, located in the center of the house, there is a fireplace surrounded by cooking utensils, and dishes. Over the fire is suspended a woven bamboo tray that is used for drying and storage. The fire is often kept going day and night and is used for cooking, to keep the family members warm, and is a deterrent to mosquitoes, helping to protect the residents from malaria.
There are two main types of farming: slash and burn and paddy. Slash and burn farming involves clearing an area of trees and then burning the underbrush. The burning process adds minerals to the soil, which helps crops to be grown. Unfortunately, the negative aspects outweigh the positives. This process strips the soil of essential nutrients and leads to more erosion, therefore, only allowing crops to be grown for a few years. As a result, the Karen have begun to utilize the process of paddy farming more often than slash and burn. Instead of installing an irrigation system, a paddy farm is flooded by a close river in order to water the crop. Clearly, this displays a financial advantage of paddy farming.
As seen with only these two types of farming, rice was the main crop. For the Karen, rice was always consumed by the family and never sold for profit. The isolation of the villages prevented them from using cash transactions or trade. Since rice continues to be the staple food for the Karen, agriculture remains to be an important aspect of their lifestyle and economy. Problems facing the Karen in Thailand include the environmental issues and the sharing of economic success. Similarities can be drawn between the popularity of a crop after a successful year. For example, once a certain crop is successful, the following year sees an influx of that specific crop to the market. Problems arise when the market becomes flooded with a certain crop. Therefore, the villagers face the challenge of finding new ways/products in order to earn an income and survive in the current cash economy.
The Karen, like most people of the world, play both traditional and contemporary music. To play these two styles there is also a difference of instruments used.
The traditional music is played on a pentatonic (five-toned) scale. This is made up of the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth notes of what we know as a modern octave. They keep a loose structure of what pitch and rhythm the song should be sung in, allowing compensation for peoples’ variety of voices and emotion to the song. Traditionally the music is in a minor key, causing a saddened sound to emerge.
Of the traditional instruments of the Karen are harp, Jew’s harp, bamboo guitar or fiddle, xylophone, flute, graduated-pipes, gourd bag-pipe, wedding horn, drums, cymbals, and gongs. The instruments were made by the villagers out of elements around them, except for the drums, cymbals, and gongs, which came from the Burmese.
The Karen cultural icons are the frog drum( Klo ) and the cow horn(Kwe). These instruments are used as ceremonial musical instruments
The Karen would use the music played by these instruments for dancing, ceremonies, calling to each other in the brush, courting, or just a way to pass the time in musical enjoyment.
Along with Christianity coming to the Karen, the missionaries brought Christian hymns from their land. The Karen enjoyed the hymns, and although not forced to, began to drop their traditional songs for these hymns. Only a few of their traditional songs have been modified into hymns and added to their hymnbook.
Contemporary music can resemble western music, using guitars as the base for the music. Depending on who has influenced the village, the village follows likewise. Some people who play music a lot prefer to bounce between traditional and contemporary music. They may do this by playing a traditional song on their Karen guitar, followed by a western song on their western guitar. Others use their Karen instruments and create new songs
Religion and Beliefs
The religion of the Karen majority is Animism and Buddhism although there is a sizable population of Christians among the Karen. Christians constitute roughly 30% of the Karen population.
Religion of the Karen in Thailand
In contemporary Thailand, of all Karen, approximately half are Buddhist, 20 % Christian and for about 30 % traditional animism is the main focus.
Traditional Beliefs and Practices
Their traditional belief is animism, their practices consist principally of attempts to gain the favour of the spirits that surround them. Since they believe in many different kinds of spirits or “gods”, they always have to give sacrifices to, and seek counsel from these supernatural forces before they start a journey, before hunting, buying animals, or taking part in any business ventures.
The most important person in the traditional non-Christian animist Karen village is the priest. The priest is always a man who has inherited his position from the deceased priest from his father’s lineage. Karen people will consult the village priest when asking for advice from the spirits or gods. He will determine the will of the spirits through the casting of lots, and for this purpose he will consult special divining paraphernalia such as seeds of rice, bones from chickens and pigs, ashes from a ritual fire, and even common bamboo or wood.
In addition, the village priest, in consultation with the elders of the village, admits people into the village, allocates rice fields to the households of the village, and asks people to leave the village if they have broken an important taboo. The Karen are strongly monogamous (divorce is very rare) and they have a tradition of being extremely moral people with strong group sanctions against theft, physical violence, and both premarital and extramarital sexual relationships. It is the task of the village priest to restore harmony to the village by requiring a sacrifice of a pig or buffalo from those who have violated the morality of the community.
A village priest performs three basic animistic rituals. One ceremony is for the village and the other two rites are performed within his own home and within the homes of all other traditional Karen.
As ritual leader of the village, the responsibility is to set the date for the “The Great Sacrifice” — an event held once every three years, where each family of the village brings a boar and a white chicken to the village priest. The people of the village are then required to confess their sins and the priest slaughters the pigs and chicken on behalf of the villagers, to the “Lords of Land and Water”. The gallbladders of the pigs are inspected to see if they are well-rounded, in which case the sacrifice is thought to be acceptable to the gods. If not, it is believed that the sins of the people have not been sufficiently atoned, and the priest will call for more sacrifices. As a consequence of this ceremony, the village is confirmed as both a social and religious unit.
Karen House Rituals
Wrist tying or the calling back of the k’la
It is the belief of traditional animist Karen that the body has 33 spirits called k’la. An oversoul, or the principal k’la, determines the timing of one’s life and death. The oversoul also directs the other 16 pairs of k’la which control the body’s parts. When k’la wander, the person becomes ill. Therefore it is necessary to call back the k’la and have them remain in the body.
Wrist tying is a ritual performed in the home at least twice a year. Once at the new year (end of December or early January depending on the moon) and the other half way through the year (in the month of June). During the wrist tying ritual the k’la are called back to the person and the family is unified.
The wrist tying ritual begins with a small round table arranged with an assortment of things associated with traditional Karen culture (man’s red shirt, long black or blue pants, woman’s red skirt, woman’s black blouse, a turban, blankets, money, cookies and sweets, rice seeds, wine, curry, and cooked rice). These are placed on the table to tempt the k’la to come back from the forest. The people in the house then knock on the table and call to the k’la to come back. The priest then takes a small amount of rice seeds, if the number of seeds is even, everything is acceptable and the k’la are coming back, but if number of rice kernels is odd, something has been left out, and the priest must insure that all the necessary items are on the round table. If everything is on the table and the number of rice seeds is still odd, then each member of the household must give a money offering. This is continued until the number of rice kernels is even. The spirits will then leave the forest and come back to the house and eat the rice, sweets, curry, and other food items placed on the round table.
Included in the ceremony is the drinking of wine. The participants call all the spirits of the mountains, water, forest, and land to come and drink the wine. Then each participant must drink a small amount of wine before the priest will tie one wrist of each person. It is this act of binding the wrist which symbolizes the return of all the wandering k’la. If there is any wine left in the bottle, the woman of the house must finish it.
This ritual is only performed when all members of the family are present, because the k’la of each person will be influenced by the k’la of the others. K’la of one member of the family will encourage other k’la to come back. Furthermore, strong k’la can help weak k’la, therefore, members of the family are thought to help each other. And it is in this process that family unity is promoted. For this reason it is essential for every member of the family to be present, including the elderly, sons and daughters in-laws and their parents, and other consanguinal kin. Since one has relationships with many households, one will attend many of these ceremonies. So this practice provides not only family unity, but also strong village solidarity.
House rite of ‘au xae.
The second ritual performed within the home was created to appease si kho miu xa, the god or spirit of the house. This ritual is called ‘au xae and is the most important of all traditional animist Karen rituals.
Traditionally the Karen practice ‘au xae whenever someone is sick in order to cause the sick person’s k’la to come back to them. It is thought that when si kho miu xa is hungry he eats the k’la and causes the person to be sick. If the family will sacrifice chickens and pigs to si kho miu xa he will become satisfied and allow the k’la to be reunited with the body of the sick person, causing them to be well again. For this reason all traditional animist Karen will, by necessity, have to raise an ample supply of both chickens and pigs for health ritual purposes.
Like the wrist tying ritual, the husband, wife, and all the children of the house must be present and collectively perform the family rite of ‘au xae. During this sacrifice, the husband must wear the Karen man’s red shirt and go into the forest and cut some bamboo, some banana leaves, and other types of leaves taken from a place near the rice field. From these materials he will make a small ritual house for si kho miu xa, and bring it into his home and put it on the floor in the corner of one of the rooms.
If the ‘au xae involves the sacrifice of a pig, the husband will then tie the feet and mouth of the pig and all members of the family will gather around the pig. Every member of the family must touch the sides of the pig with their hands beginning with the husband, who is followed by the wife; next to touch the pig is the eldest of the children and so on until the youngest child has touched the pig. The husband will then kill the pig and remove all of the internal organs. A rod will then be put through the entire body of the pig and the pig will be put into the fire which removes all body hair. The pig will then be washed, and all of the meat will be cut up into large chunks. During the entire process special attention is paid in regard to following correct procedure, so as not to offend si kho miu xa.
As each member sits around the fire, each takes in turn a small amount of the meat to eat and a small amount of water to drink. The water has been taken from a vessel which had been previously placed in si kho miu xa’s ritual house. Finally, the husband will take the bones from the ribs, the internal organs, and the pigs hoofs and tail, and rap them in banana leaves. He will then place the bundle in an old basket along with si kho miu xa’s ritual house and hang this basket in the forest in a very old tree. When this ritual has been completed, the family will feast upon rice and the remaining pork.
If the person becomes well then si kho miu xa’s appetite has been satisfied and the k’la has come back to them. However, if, after the family rite of ‘au xae, the person remains sick, the village priest will be consulted in determining the cause of the disease. A typical method for making a diagnosis for an illness or for determining its remedy is, for the priest to examine the bones of a chicken or pig used in the rite of ‘au xae.
As is often the case, if a person does not get better after many sacrifices of pigs and chickens in the rite of ‘au xae, in addition to having chronic health problems, the family will also become very poor. For this reason many Karen find it financially advantageous to convert to Christianity or Buddhism, because they are freed from the time consuming and expensive demands of Karen animism.
History of Christian Mission to the Karen
In the 1820s American Baptist missionaries Judson, Wade, and Mason came to Burma and evangelized the Karen. In the process they translated the Bible into the Sgaw Karen language using the Burmese script. This Bible translation was finished in 1839 and this translation is still used today. The Karen believe that before the preaching of the gospel, the Karen people were like the people of Israel. Mason even believed that the Karen were one of the lost tribes of Israel. They sacrificed chicken and pigs. So in animism, the Karen were in the stage of waiting. Before the good news of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the Karen were subject to the obligation of sacrifice in atonement. Now the Karen people can accept Jesus’ death as their ultimate sacrifice and they no longer need to practice ‘au xae’ Jesus becomes the acceptable sacrifice.
For the first generation Christian it is the fulfilment of traditional Karen culture, in the same way that Christians claim that Christ came to fulfil the promise of Judaism. For many Karen, who suffered under the burden of making costly sacrifices of chicken and pigs to si kho miu xa, this was good news. In Thailand, the American Baptist missionaries started work among the Karen in 1952 and formed the Karen Baptist Convention in 1955. But before missionaries started to work, some Karen from Burma had already started to spread the Gospel among their people in Thailand.
If the smallest social unit among the Karen society is the nuclear family, then the largest social unit is the village itself. The village is presided over by a headman who is recognized as the village’s political leader by the government of Thailand. From the Karen point of view, the village headman has little power or authority. His duty is to determine the village consensus and then to follow it carefully. This can put him in a difficult position, as he needs to remain a “good Karen,” while at the same time carry out whatever duties the Thai authorities require.
Most Karen do not aspire to this position because of the potential conflicts that might arise. A Karen village is a very democratic place. Decisions are made by the whole group with the men doing most of the talking (at least in the meetings!). Unanimity is an important ideal and goal before any decision is reached. It is generally safe to say that issues that are never agreed upon are never acted upon. The headman is not so much a decision maker as the voice of the group after a consensus has been reached.
The consensus is usually reached through talking to each other. The village meeting endorses the reached agreement and announces it to everybody.
The Future of the Karen
There are many kinds of learning, formal and informal and new opportunities are coming up all the time. The changes brought by Christianity and formal education have benefited the Karen in many ways. Learning new and better ways to perform traditional labours and gaining other ways to earn money has increased the standard of living significantly in the villages. More people have expanded into other occupations besides rice farming. While this has been favourable, increased education
has come at a price.
The increased Thai presence education brings to the village has threatened the traditional Karen culture and lifestyle. Karen children are often not following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents, and many elders have mixed feelings about this. Education brings many opportunities, but also many new questions to answer. If children are to grow up and become rice farmers like their parents, why do they need to go to school? If they do go to school, what can students do with their new knowledge and skills if they return to the village? Do the job opportunities in the village really make education worthwhile?
Schools for the Karen today are not providing an education comparable to what is found in urban Thai schools. The Karen believe in the importance of education, but they will be left behind if they do not have educational opportunities equal to the rest of Thailand.
The Karen people of Northern Thailand are facing some serious issues concerning the preservation of their culture. Due to several environmental issues they are dealing with the conflict between sustainable living and current usage of the earth’s resources. They are also faced with the intrusion of Thai influence, both from the government and from visitors who have easier access to the hill tribes due to the construction of the road that winds up the mountains. This includes the arrival of machines, televisions, and other modern amenities that are intrinsic to the process of globalization. Additionally, the ideas of efficiency and capitalism are rapidly being introduced to traditional hill tribe culture.
History of Karen Education
For many Karen, education at home was based on cultural tradition. Before the gospel came to the Karen villages, many families were brought up with Karen morals. Some of these teachings dealt with ceremonial traditions such as learning about the different rituals with death and burial, marriage ceremonies, etc.
The lack of education brought upon oppression and much of the suffering of the Karen people when the British came to colonize Burma (Marshall, 1922). Many Karen were forced to migrate to Thailand because they did not want to pay tributes to the Burmese government (Ajarn Sompob, 1/11/99). In Thailand, the Thai government started oppressing the Karen community by trying to convert them to become more Thai-like.
Growing up as a minority, many Karen’s right to lead their own lives with strictly Karen ways were taken away from them—with the control of the Thai government. Along with schools opening, modern industrialization allowed the Thais to move into the hills of northern Thailand.
The educational system shows the great dominance of Thai culture in the tribal villages. For instance, Thai laws state that no tribal language can be spoken or taught in the schools (Grunewald, 1/26/99). Amy Grunewald mentioned how the Central Thai classes that are being taught in the village schools have no relation to the lives the Karen children lead when they go home. A typical schedule for a Karen student would be to take an English, Mathematical, Thai dance or culture, and Thai history class. Often times, Karen children will wai their elders (teachers) upon greeting them. This is something that has been adapted from Thai culture that has never been used in Karen culture. Schools are used to introduce Thai culture and Buddhism.
Tribal people like the Karen are facing the influx of Thai and Western culture and education. With the more recent development of formal education among the Karen, the protection of their traditional culture and lifestyle is a crucial issue today. For the Karen, education brings many benefits as well as new challenges.
Thai Curriculum and Structure
Schools in Thailand are centralized, and all of their curriculum comes from the government in Bangkok. For this reason, most people refer to it as “the Bangkok Curriculum”. Students were formerly required to complete their compulsory primary schooling for six years. Then nine years were asked, but it has recently been increased to twelve years. All students in grades 1-12 are required to study Thai language, science, and mathematics. English formerly began at age eight or nine, but has recently been added at this level as well (Jantra, 1/25/99). Schools also have required electives, such as physical education, art, music, practical skills, and religion (Buddhism).
Socio Economic Change
The Government has programs to help hill tribes improve their standard of living. The aim of the projects is to stop opium cultivation, slash-and-burn method of cultivation and forest destruction and to enable the people to grow useful crops that will earn them a good income. Among other things, the tribal people are taught proper use of land, soil conservation, proper use of water and forest preservation. Villagers are being introduced to new crops to the benefit of Thailand’s economy. Thai government and Karen often differ from each other on what is wanted and done for a village. In the past Thai officials didn’t know much about Karen people and culture so the government would use its power to see what it wanted to see, not what was really occurring and needed. Villagers feel that government officials just come and do, without asking. They believe local government thinks only of themselves and has different ideas about what to do with water, dirt and forest problems. For example, at one time the King’s Royal Project, whose mission is to preserve land and forest now moves from a traditionally subsistence economy to a cash economy.
In addition to agricultural needs the National government has helped with the social welfare of the hill tribe people by bringing medical and educational programs. The King’s Royal Project has brought educational and medical facilities. The government schools are Thai and children are taught Thai language, history and politics instead of their own. With these facilities Thai government officials, employees and teachers take up permanent residence in the villages.
The last century has brought much National presence and influence to the hill tribes of Northern Thailand whether the Karen appreciate it or not.
The push towards higher education is mainly lead by the older generation. The lack of education in this age group has severely hindered their ability to work with the Thai, and in turn become a threat to the survival of the basic culture of the Karen. Education is seen as the best chance for the younger generation to survive in a world heavily influenced by the outside Thai stimuli.
A shift in power has occurred which lessens the power of the headman in order to make room for the government official. There has also been a split in the authority between the official government system and the traditional forms of authority, however, the two forms of authority compliment one another well and create a functioning system. Although new political issues often arise for the villages, the most pertinent issues are those that have existed for some time: land, drugs, water and relations with the Thai.
The Karen in Thailand, like all other ethnic groups, are confronted with social change. As much as they want to maintain their Karen ethnic identity within the country of Thailand, they are being pressured to assimilate into the larger society. Some of the social changes promote what Karen consider to be a better life for their families–they have greater access to education, health care, food, transportation, communication, better housing, ample water, warm clothing, and energy to light their homes and cook their food. Yet, such benefits may come at the cost of loosing their Karen culture.
Increasingly the primary language of Karen children is Thai and presently few children are able to read and write their tribal language. Traditional Karen dress, an important source of ethnic pride and identity, is more and more reserved for special occasions. The performance of ancestral Karen music and dance is so rare that even most middle age adults are unable to participate. Historic Karen stories, poems, and songs are no longer a part of the collective memory. How long will it take before the Karen people are completely assimilated into Thai society once they leave their mountain homelands and move into the large urban centres of Thailand?
Many Karen villages in Thailand can be reached by dirt roads. The roads improve steadily but the rainy season makes travelling on them a bit hazardous, if not impossible. Because of the mountainous home of the Karen they were able to stay fairly culturally and physically secluded as long as they did.
The ecology of the land is changing as well as the lives of the people. Because of the roads there is more erosion. Due to increased usage of pesticides and fertilizers there are more water pollution problems. The Thai government is interested in preserving the forest as well as the Karen people themselves. The Thai government and the Karen have different concepts of water, dirt, forest. Therefore the environment is a big issue in Karen/ Thai relations. The Karen in the past have always been environmentally aware and have avoided farming methods which destroyed the forest.
Newer Trends among the Karen (in the Omkoi district)
Many Karen have built nice wooden houses and most recently some have even built concrete houses. In most of the villages where there is a dirt road, some Karen possess cars going together with debts. Many are working to pay off their car. They plant tomatoes and other cash crops.
In many villages there are only a few young people left. As we have seen, the Karen want education and so most children are sent to hostels (mainly Christian) or Buddhist temples outside their villages, some even to very far away towns. The children usually return only during holidays. Because there are only a few schools in the mountains with poor standards, Christians in a nearby village to Omkoi have built hostels so that several hundred Karen children can receive education at the primary and high school level. There are also hostels from many other groups.
It is amazing how readily the Karen give their children away since to them family life has been of high value. Is there no better way? Do Christians do the right thing to take them out of their villages? What alternatives would there be?
We have to anticipate that in the very near future, the population of the Karen villages in the mountains will shrink, as many young people are leaving their home to find work or further education in towns and cities. Already nowadays one can find Karen Christians in almost any church in Chiangmai. But many who move to cities and towns or places where there is no church stay on their own and may be lost.
Christianity has made an impact in many Karen villages. There are numerous churches in the area. Those villages which have not been reached – especially some in the Maetun area and over to Tak province have seen an increasing influence through Buddhism. Chedis and temples are built. Through the state schools Buddhism is also spread. Those who have taken on a Buddhist layer over their animistic beliefs are much harder to reach with the gospel. Here are some new challenges for the Christians, of whom many do not know anything about Buddhism and how to reach those who believe in it.
A Karen Song:
Into our heart, into our heart, come into our heart Lord Jesus
Come in now, come in now, come in my heart Jesus.
Mother father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandchildren
lets look back on our lives, when we were still in the hands of Satan.
We had to sacrifice in order to please the spirits all the time,
we lost our chickens we searched in vain and the spirits made us sick.
But now we don’t have to sacrifice the spirits anymore.
Because we see the true God who is the God who loves us
who gave his only Son we should lift Him up
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