The Karens are the largest “tribal” minority in both Myanmar and Thailand. They have a reputation for fierceness, independence and being militant and politically active. Karens live in both the lowlands and the mountains. Most of the research on Karens has been done on Thai Karens even though many more Karens live in Myanmar. [Source: Peter Kundstadter, National Geographic, February 1972]

The Karen speak a separate language from most Burmese, use their own ancient writing system and calendar and have traditionally opposed the military junta. Many are Christians. The Karen make up about 4 million (Myanmar government figure) to 7 million (Karen rights group estimate) of Burma's 55 million people.

The Karen are referred to as the Kayin in Myanmar. They tend to have fairer skin and a stockier build than the Burmese. The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribes of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

The Karens are also known as the Kareang, Kariang, Kayin, Pwo, Sagaw and Yang. “Karen”is a Burmese term probably derived from “Kayin,” a word originally used to describe the region where the Karen are found today. This region was once covered by tropical rain forests. Forests still exist but much of the land has been deforested for agriculture.

Most Karen in Myanmar live in eastern and in south-central Myanmar around the Irrawaddy Delta and in the mountains along the Thai border in the Karen, Kayah and Shan States, semi-autonomous regions which are largely independent of the Myanmar government. There are about 200,000 Karens in Thailand. The live mostly in western and northwest Thailand along the Myanmar border. Some of the Karen in Thailand are refugees that escaped from Myanmar. There is also a sizable Karen community in Bakersfield, California.

The Karens have a reputation of unfriendliness and hostility. Karen villages in Thailand are usually not very welcoming to tourists. Tourists have been assaulted in Karen-occupied territory. Much of the land now occupied by the Karen in Thailand was once occupied by other tribes. The Lua use to warn each other of Karen raids by beating a drum.

Karen Subgroups

The Karen are best viewed as a group of minorities rather than a single minority. There are several different subgroups. They often speak languages that are unintelligible to other Karen groups. The two largest subgroups — the Sgaw and Pwo — have dialects within their languages.

The Karens speak several languages that linguists have had difficulty classifying. Karen groups often speak different languages, some of which are not mutually intelligible. Hence, the Karen peoples are an exception to the basic assumption that an ethnic group can be defined by the fact that all its members can converse in a single tongue. There are at least three major cultural and linguistic divisions among the Karen: the Karenni or the Red Karen, who cast the bronze drums, the Pwo Karen, and the Sgaw Karen, as well as a number of other splinter groups who have scattered into the mountains below the Shan Plateau.

There are about 1 million Sgaw. They live primarily in mountainous Karen State, the Shan uplands and to a lesser extent in the Irrawaddy Delta. There are about 750,000 Pwo. They live primarily around the Irrawaddy and Sittang Deltas. The largest group in northern Thailand is the White Karen. This term is used to describe Christian Karens in the Sgaw group.

Other important subgroups include Kayah (sometimes called the Red Karen), which has about 75,000 members that live almost entirely in the Kayah State, the smallest state in Myanmar, and the Pa-O, who live mainly in southwestern Shan State in Myanmar. A few Kayah live in Thailand in villages near Mae Hong Song. The Padaung tribe of Myanmar, famous for its long-necked women, is a subgroup of the Kayah tribe.

The subgroups are generally defined by language. The color names refer to clothing and headgear worn by some groups. Some anthropologists have criticized the subgroup classification system for its incompleteness and failing to addresses the fluid Karen identity system which also incorporates religious, political, social and economic unions that often are more important than language bonds. In many ways the two most defining groups of Karens are the traditional hill Karens and the educated Christian delta Karens.


Kayah State is inhabited by Kayah, Kayan (Padaung) Mono, Kayaw, Yintalei, Gekho, Hheba, Shan, Intha, Bamar, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Pao. Kayah State had a population of 158.400 in 1983. In the estimated population was over 240,000. Kayah State is situated in eastern Myanmar and bounded on the north by Shan State and on the east by Thailand and on the south and west by Kayin state. According to Myanmar government figures 49 per cent of the population are are Buddhists. 43 per cent are Christians and 6 per cent are Animists. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

According to to the Myanmar government the Kayah are comprised nine different ethnic groups: 1) Kayah; 2) Zayein, 3) Ka-Yun (Padaung), 4) Gheko, 5) Kebar, 6) Bre (Ka-Yaw), 7) Manu Manaw, 8) Yin Talai, 9) Yin Baw. The famous long-necked women of the Paduang tribe are regarded as members of the Kayah ethnic group. The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribe of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

The traditional Kayah house is on stilts and cattle and pigs are bred under it. There is no window in their original houses because of the cold much of the time in Kayah State. To resist the severe weather roofing goes past the floor and nearly touches the ground. Kayah nationals produce cotton textiles with handloom handed down by their ancestors. Processing of materials is shown step-by-step. Cross-bows, arrows and fish traps are also shown. There are two fireplaces— one for the host and one for the guest to warm up when its cold and also to cook. The Kayah usually have a meal in a big circular bamboo-lacquerware tray with legs. They like to drink an intoxicating brew they make themselves can see receptacles for intoxicating drinks and mugs usually made of bamboo. Musical instruments such as the Phasi or bronze frog drum and buffalo horn used as clarion are also shown. Kayah women wear clothes usually woven on a back strap loom by themselves.

Karen History

The Karens are distinct and unrelated to other ethnic minorities and hill tribes in Thailand and Burma. They arrived in what is now Thailand centuries before the Thais, when the country was part of the Mon-Khmer Empire. They appear to have originated in the north, possibly in the high plains of Central Asia, and migrated in stages across China to Southeast Asia.

Inscriptions from the A.D. 8th century in central Burma mention the Cakraw, a group that has been linked with the Sgaw. Inscriptions from the 13th century in Pagan use the word “Karyan.” But as a whole there was little mention of the Karens until the mid 18th century when they lived mainly in the forested mountainous regions of eastern Burma and were subjugated to varying degrees by the Thais, Burmese and Shan and were unsuccessful in efforts to win autonomy. Large numbers of Karens started migrating 150 years ago into northern Thailand.

Missionaries began arriving in Karen territories after Burma was annexed by the British in 1826. They converted many Karens to Christianity and opened schools, which turned out to be a breeding ground for Karen nationalism. Educated Karens rose to high positions in the British colonial government. The Karens fought for the British against the Japanese in World War II and their loyalty almost won them an independent state But these plan were dashed when Aung San was assassinated in 1947.

The Kayah State was founded when Burma became independent in 1948. The Karen State was established in 1952. Many lowland Karens have assimilated with Burmese Buddhist culture. Those in the mountains have resisted.

See Myanmar

Karen Language

Karens speak Sino-Tibetan languages. Some linguists say the Karen language are related to Thai. Others insist they are unique enough to be given their own Sino-Tibetan branch, Karenic. Most agree they fall into the Tibetan-Burman branch of Sino-Tibetan languages.

Karen languages have not been extensively studied. They have tones like Thai, a rich variety of vowels and few consonant endings. They differ from other Tibetan-Burman branch languages in that object is after the verb.

The Karen have traditionally not had a written language. The Burmese, Thais and missionaries developed Roman-based, Thai-based and Burmese-based scripts for the Karen language. In schools Karen use Karen, English and either Thai or Burmese.

Karens don't have surnames. Some have adopted for them for use in the outside world. Some Karens give their children names like "Bitter Shit" as a ploy to keep bad spirits away.

Karen Religion and Christianity

The Karen are mostly Christian but they retain many traditional beliefs about animism, ancestor worship, supernatural powers (“pgho”) and the belief that humans, creatures and some inanimate objects possess “kala” (“life principal”). Important deities and powers include Y’wa, the divine creator force and the Lord of the Land and Water, who protects villages. There are also a large number of local and household deities and spirits.

The main religious leaders are the village headman and the eldest women in the main matrilineage line. There are also shaman, teachers and prophets who possess “pgho” and witches and false prophets that claim they do. The headman presides over ceremonies and sacrifices that honor the Lord of the Land and Water. The eldest women in the main matrilineage line presides over annual sacrificial feast designed to keep pgho from consuming the kala of her lineage members. In addition, local spirits are placated with offerings.

Christian missionaries began working in Karen areas in the 19th century See Above

The Karen adopted Christianity quickly and willingly. Some say this occurred because traditional Karen religion and Christianity have striking similarities — including a myth about a “Golden Book” which is said to be the source of wisdom — and the Karen have a tradition of Messianic cults. Some biblical stories are remarkably similar to Karen myths.

Missionaries exploited traditional Karen beliefs by giving out gilded Bibles and making the stories of Jesus Christ compatible with traditional stories.

Many Sgaw are Christians, mostly Baptists, and most Kayah are Catholic. Most Pwo and Pa-O Karen are Buddhists. The Christians are mostly descendants of people who were converted through the work of missionaries. The Buddhists are generally Karen that have assimilated into Burmese and Thai society.

There are cults. See God’s Army Below

Karen Funerals and Marriage

The Karen believe that a soul of a dead person leaves the body at death and is reincarnated in the form a ghost that can inhabit the body of another person. Funerals feature singing or taped music intended to send off the soul to a netherworld where it can’t bother or influence the living.

After death the deceased is washed, dressed in fine clothes and buried in a coffin. His possessions are removed from the village. Those who have died in violent deaths or accidents are given special rites to prevent the release of malevolent spirits. On returning home participants in the funeral erect obstacles so kala of the deceased can’t follow them.

Young Karen men and women are relatively free to marry who they want as long as they get parental approval and don’t marry someone who is too closely related to them. Marriages are monogamous and premarital sex is discouraged. About a fifth of all bridegrooms pay fines for breaking marriage prohibitions.

Courting tales place at weddings, funerals and festivals and in situations where people gather together such as during planting and harvesting. Proposals can be made directly from a man to a woman or through a go-between. The marriage ceremony involves rituals oriented towards the Lord of the Land and Water. The feasting and partying can last for three days.

After the wedding the newlyweds move in with the bride’s family and the bride begins wearing new clothes: in many cases giving up the long white dress worn by single women and instead wearing the black embroidered blouse and red-and-black sarong worn be married women.

In Thailand, about 5 percent of the marriages in the hills and 10 percent of the marriages in the lowlands end in divorce. Both the wife and the husband can initiate divorce proceeding which are usually granted after a payment has been made to the to person who was divorced. Adultery is regarded as a serious crime, sometimes resulting in the banishment of the guilty parties.

Karen Families

Men tend to do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, hunting, build houses, cutting timber and watering the paddy fields. Women weave, weed, harvest, carry water ad firewood, process crops, gather wild fruits and vegetables, and do household chores. Both men and women fish, cook, thresh and winnow grain and make baskets and mats.

Traditionally, Karen women have feared childbirth because of the pain involved and the potential for death. They often eat carefully prescribed diets, follow strict taboos, wear amulets and have magic spells cast on them to ensure a trouble-free birth. After a child is born, the mother sits next to a fire for three days while rituals are performed to protect her and her child.

When the child is one month old there is a naming ceremony. Children are recruited at an early age to work in the fields and help take car of siblings. If possible they attend government- or missionary-run schools.

Karen Society

Society is egalitarian, unstratified and organized along matrilineal lines with each family belonging to lineages, which also have a rank based on closeness to the common ancestor. There are no commoners and aristocrats. Status levels exist based on education, wealth and age. The young are expected to show respect to the elderly and wealth is determined by the number of cattle and elephants one possesses.

The basic social units are the nuclear family, lineage segment, village and village complex, each with their own defined ritual, social and political functions. Nuclear families are usually linked with matrilineal descent or marriage, and may be organized around one or multiple lineages. Religion also plays a part in social organization.

Villages are led by a chief and a council of elders. The chief presides over secular and religious functions, arbitrates disputes and is chosen based on his personal influence in the community. Punishments are often in the form of sacrifices with meat given by the guilty party to the offended party. Property is divided relatively equally among all sons and daughters. To avoid disputes inheritance is ideally worked out before parents die.

Karen Villages and Houses

Karen villages tend be small, with around 20 or so households. Traditionally, the houses were clustered close together behind a stockade for defensive reasons. Many houses are raised above the ground so they don’t flood and have their own granary. Animals are often kept under the houses. In the old days, many villages had longhouses.

Karen dwellings vary depending on where they are built. Those built at lower elevation are made primarily of bamboo and wood timbers and have thatch roofs and are entirely rebuilt very couple years. Upper elevation houses are more substantial and last longer. They have wood posts and plank floors, sometimes rough-hewn teak, bamboo walls and roofs covered by grass thatch or real leaves. These have to be rethatched every year. Those than can afford them have corrugated metal roofs.

In some Karen traditional houses, you will see bronze frog drums and buffalo horns. Bronze frog drums are a symbol of Karen heritage and buffalo horn is a musical instrument played in their leisure time. There are four rooms in the Karen traditional house. Fruits, betel nuts and rice are put out to dry on the open extension of the floor. Parents and brothers sleep in the front room. You can go to the kitchen through virgin's room. Clothing woven on a Karen traditional back strap loom is also seen there.

Karen Life

The Karens are avid smokers. In many cases, once a child is old enough to hold up a pipe, he or she begins to smoke. Many also chew betel nut.

Vocal and instrumental music is performed at festivals, events and religious ceremonies. Karen love songs and ballads are particularly well known. Bronze drums made by Shan craftsmen are valued as treasured possessions. Among Christians church singing is popular.

The Karen believe that sickness results when evil spirits lure the soul from the body. The job of healers is to bring the soul back. Sometimes divination using chicken bones is used to figure the cause of the illness and determine the best treatment.

Cerebral malaria and hair lice are endemic in many areas where the Karen live.

Karen and Kayah Clothes

Karen women traditionally have worn horizontally-stripped, sarong-like tube skirts and loose black blouses embroidered with brightly colored wool. Karen men traditionally have worn bright-colored turbans, red-fringed shirts and sported tattoos with strange script chosen by shaman to ward off evil spirits. There is a great variety of Karen dress and tribe members can usually tell which village a person is from by the patterns on his or her clothes. Black Karen men wear black shirts with a red cummerbund or head scarf. The Pa-O wear colorful towels around the heads.

Karen have their own kind of textiles. Kayah women wear basic but elegant black smock-like dresses which are draped over one shoulder and held in place by a long white sash. Kayah men wear no traditional costume. Some believe that the traditional costumes of men fell into disuse after they were ripped up by too much elephant riding.

Kayah women have traditionally worn distinctive rings made from lacquered cotton cord around their legs. The first rings are tied below the knees of girls at the age of five. More and more chords are added as they grow older. By the time they are young women, the chords have reached a width of five or six inches and weigh four or five pounds. The leg rings are adjusted every day, but never removed, and according to legend they were introduced to keep women from running away from home. The custom of leg rings is a bit cruel and it is dying out. Very few Kayah women wear them any more.

The Karen make jewelry from silver, copper and brass. They wear bracelets made with beads, rattan and lacquered thread and used to wear ear plugs made of ivory and studded with precious stones.

Kayah men wear white headdresses and shirts with traditional jackets and trousers just past the knees. Silver daggers and stringed silver swords are carried on traditional occasions. Some Kayah women wear their hair in high knots wrapped with red headdresses. Their sleeveless blouses are normally black, covering only one shoulder. Red cloaks are worn over the blouses. Long white long shawls are tied around the waist with both ends hanging loose in front. They usually wear red or black longyis.

Shan and Kayah men’s traditional costumes are quite different from other groups because they wear loose trousers. Shan trousers are light brown, brown, terracotta or grey color while Kayah trousers are only black. Shan men tie their trousers like “longyi” Kayah men tie them pink band at the waist on their trousers. Bamar, Kachin, Mon, Shan, Kayah and Rakhine men wear a traditional jacket called a “teik -pon” over their “eingyi”. It is white, grey, black or terracotta in color.

Burman, Kayin, Chin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan women’s “longyis” are nearly the same, made by cotton. A black waistband is stitched along the waist end. This waistband is folded in front to form a wide pleat, and then tucked behind the waistband to one side.

Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kayah, and Shan women’s” eingyis” are nearly the same, comprised of a form-fitting waist length blouse. Kayah women tie this traditional shawl on their “eingyi” embroidered with male and female royal birds called “Keinayee & Keinayah”. Kayin, Shan, Kachin, Chin women tie a lovely band on their head.

Karen Food and New Year

The Karen New Year is a relatively recent celebration. First celebrated in 1938, it is held on the first day of the month of Pyathoe, in the Karen calendar. The month of Pyathoe is special for Karen cultural solidarity, for the following reasons: 1) Although Karens have different names for Pyathoe (Skaw Karens call it Th'lay and Pwo Karens call it Htike Kauk Po) the first of each of these months falls on exactly the same date; 2) the rice harvest is completed in the period leading to Pyathoe; and 3) according to Karen traditional religious practice, there must be a celebration for consumption of the new crop. It is also the time to divine the date for commencement of the next crop. Typically, this is also when new houses are constructed, and the completion of these must be celebrated. The first day of Pyathoe is not a distinct festival for any religious group, so it is a day that is acceptable to Karen people of all religions. Karen New Year is celebrated throughout Burma, in refugee camps and Karen villages in Thailand, and Karen refugee communities around the world. In Karen State in Burma Karen New Year celebrations are some times harassed by the military government, or disrupted by fighting. Karen New Year celebrations typically include Don dances and bamboo dances, singing, speeches, and the consumption of lots of food and alcohol.

Ngapi is also used as a condiment such as ngapi yay,an essential part of Karen cuisine, which includes runny ngapi, spices and boiled fresh vegetables.

Many insects have found a place in the diets of the Burmese, Karens, Chins, Kachins, Shans, Talaings and others. Distant (1892) and Bodenheimer (1951) reported that the larva of the cicadid, Platypleura insignis, is collected by the dexterous use of a long thorny branch inserted into a shaft sunk 60-90 centimeters into the ground. It is considered a great luxury by the Karens. scarabaeid, the larva of Oryctes rhinoceros, which breeds in dung heaps and is eaten fried, is "highly esteemed by the Karens."The larva of Xylotrupes gideon is also eaten.Other Coleoptera include larvae of various species that are found in cattle droppings and which are "eaten by many"; and various beetles attracted to light and collected with lanterns, then eaten or sold. [Source: www.food-insects.com ]

Karen Bronze Drums—an Ancient Animist Art Form

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The use and manufacture of bronze drums is the oldest continuous art tradition in Southeast Asia. It began some time before the 6th century B.C. in northern Vietnam and later spread to other areas such as Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Karen adopted the use of bronze drums at some time prior to their 8th century migration from Yunnan into Burma where they settled and continue to live in the low mountains along the Burma - Thailand border. During a long period of adoption and transfer, the drum type was progressively altered from that found in northern Vietnam (Dong Son or Heger Type I) to produce a separate Karen type (Heger Type III). In 1904, Franz Heger developed a categorization for the four types of bronze drums found in Southeast Asia that is still in use today. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The vibrating tympanum is made of bronze and is cast as a continuous piece with the cylinder. Distinguishing features of the Karen type include a less bulbous cylinder so that the cylinder profile is continuous rather than being divided into three distinct parts. Type III has a markedly protruding lip, unlike the earlier Dong Son drums. The decoration of the tympanum continues the tradition of the Dong Son drums in having a star shaped motif at its center with concentric circles of small, two-dimensional motifs extending to the outer perimeter. =

“In Burma the drums are known as frog drums (pha-si), after the images of frogs that invariably appear at four equidistant points around the circumference of the tympanum. A Karen innovation was the addition of three-dimensional figures to one side of the cylinder so that insects and animals, but never humans, are often represented descending the trunk of a stylized tree. The frogs on the tympanum vary from one to three and, when appearing in multiples, are stacked atop each other. The number of frogs in each stack on the tympanum usually corresponds to the number of figures on the cylinder such as elephants or snails. The numerous changes of motif in the two- and three-dimensional ornamentation of the drums have been used to establish a relative chronology for the development of the Karen drum type over approximately one thousand years.” =

Uses of Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Bronze drums were used among the Karen as a device to assure prosperity by inducing the spirits to bring rain, by taking the spirit of the dead into the after-fife and by assembling groups including the ancestor spirits for funerals, marriages and house-entering ceremonies. The drums were used to entice the spirits of the ancestors to attend important occasions and during some rituals the drums were the loci or seat of the spirit. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“It appears that the oldest use of the drums by the Karen was to accompany the protracted funeral rituals performed for important individuals. The drums were played during the various funeral events and then, among some groups, small bits of the drum were cut away and placed in the hand of the deceased to accompany the spirit into the afterlife. It appears that the drums were never used as containers for secondary burial because there is no instance where Type III drums have been unearthed or found with human remains inside. The drums are considered so potent and powerful that they would disrupt the daily activities of a household so when not in use, they were placed in the forest or in caves, away from human habitation. They were also kept in rice barns where when turned upside down they became containers for seed rice; a practice that was thought to improve the fertility of the rice. Also, since the drums are made of bronze, they helped to deter predations by scavengers such as rats or mice. =

“The drums were a form of currency that could be traded for slaves, goods or services and were often used in marriage exchanges. They were also a symbol of status, and no Karen could be considered wealthy without one. By the late nineteenth century, some important families owned as many as thirty. The failure to return a borrowed drum often led to internecine disputes among the Karen. =

“Although the drums were cast primarily for use by groups of non-Buddhist hill people, they were used by the Buddhist kings of Burma and Thailand as musical instruments to be played at court and as appropriate gifts to Buddhist temples and monasteries. The first known record of the Karen drum in Burma is found in an inscription of the Mon king Manuha at Thaton, dated A.D. 1056.. The word for drum in this inscription occurs in a list of musical instruments played at court and is the compound pham klo: pham is Mon while klo is Karen. The ritual use of Karen drums in lowland royal courts and monasteries continued during the centuries that followed and is an important instance of inversion of the direction in which cultural influences usually flow from the lowlands to the hills. =

Playing and Making Bronze Drums

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “When played, the drums were strung up by a cord to a tree limb or a house beam so that the tympanum hung at approximately a forty-five degree angle. The musician placed his big toe in the lower set of lugs to stabilize the drum while striking the tympanum with a padded mallet. Three different tones may be produced if the tympanum is struck at the center, edge, and midpoint. The cylinder was also struck but with long strips of stiff bamboo that produces a sound like a snare drum. The drums were not tuned to a single scale but had individualized sounds, hence they could be used effectively as a signal to summon a specific group to assemble. It is said that a good drum when struck could be heard for up to ten miles in the mountains. The drums were played continuously for long periods of time since the Karen believe that the tonal quality of a drum cannot be properly judged until it is played for several hours. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

For the Karen, the bronze drums perform a vital service in inducing the spirits to bring the rains. When there is a drought, the Karens take the drums into the fields where they are played to make the frogs croak because the Karens believe that if the frogs croak, it is sign that rain will surely fall. Therefore, the drums are also known as "Karen Rain Drums" =

“The town of Nwe Daung, 15 kilometers south of Loikaw, capital of Kayah (formerly Karenni) State, is the only recorded casting site in Burma. Shan craftsmen made drums there for the Karens from approximately 1820 until the town burned in 1889. Karen drums were cast by the lost wax technique; a characteritic that sets them apart from the other bronze drum types that were made with moulds. A five metal formula was used to create the alloy consisting of copper, tin, zinc, silver and gold. Most of the material in the drums is tin and copper with only traces of silver and gold. The Karen made several attempts in the first quarter of the twentieth century to revive the casting of drums but none were successful. During the late 19th century, non-Karen hill people, attracted to the area by the prospect of work with British teak loggers, bought large numbers of Karen drums and transported them to Thailand and Laos. Consequently, their owners frequently incorrectly identify their drums as being indigenous to these countries. =

Karen Legend

Thandaung (320 kilometers from Yangon) is the leading town in the northern section of Kayin State. A beautiful hill station at the center of an important tea, coffee and fruit producing region, it was developed as a hill resort in Victorian times by the British and is inhabited mainly by Bwe Kayin (Karen) people who are mostly Christians.

Thandaung means Iron Hill.Like many of the picturesque hill towns there is a romantic legend, a Kayin folktale connected to this place and the Dawparkho or Bwihikho mountain range which has its highest peak nearby, at 4,824 feet above sea level. The legend is about a courageous prince named Saw Thaw oh Khwa and a beautiful maiden called Naw Bu Baw (Saw is the honorific for men and Naw for women in the Kayin language. Naw Bu Baw was the daughter of the king of the sea and she came to these high hills to marry Saw Thaw oh Khwa. the son of King Kiku of these highlands. Naw Bu Baw possessed a magical silver comb which made her shine like the sun when she had it in her hair and made her invisible when she put it under her feet. She also had a magical cooking pot, which enabled her to cook a full pot of rice from only half a grain of rice.

The Prince and the newly married Princess were very much in love with each other and roamed these lovely hills and mountains, streams and meadows together. But the Kayin people did not accept Naw Bu Baw as she came from far away and because of the powers she got from her magical comb they thought that she was a witch. One day the prince went to the eastern mountains to repulse invading enemies. The faithful wife gave him the magical comb to enable him to disappear when his enemies attacked. In spite of the courage and daring, and also the possession of the comb, the prince died in battle. The people of the region blamed Naw Bu Baw. Accusing her of being a sorceress, they took her to the highest peak of Dawparkho Range and imprisoned her in a rock cavern. Even today local people will show visitors where she was kept tied and locked. She was eventually eaten by evil spirits. The lives of Saw Thaw oh Khwa and Naw Bu Baw came to tragic ends but their spirits still wander hand-in-hand through the beautiful forests and misty mountains.

Karen Economics

Some Karen men hunt wild pigs, deer, squirrels, lizards and deer with guns, crossbows, slingshots, snares and traps. Women and children collect frogs, mushrooms, paddy crabs, insects, ant larvae, honey, wild foods and medicinal plants. Fishing is done with poles, traps and baskets. Water buffalo are used in wet-land agriculture. Pigs and chickens used to be raised mainly for sacrifices but now they are mainly sold for cash to the Thais.

Many Karens are active in business. Lowland Karen are involved in the Burmese economy. Hill Karens have traditionally traded cloth, forest products and domesticated animals for salt, rice and fish paste. In Thailand, many do wage labor. Some have set up small canteens that sell soft drink and beer to trekkers and make money from allowing tourists to take their picture.

The Karens are renowned for their elephant-handling skills and many work as mahouts for logging companies or tourist trek companies. Most of the mahouts in Myanmar and Thailand are Karen.

Weaving has traditionally been women’s work. Hill Karen mostly use belt looms while lowland Karens use Burmese fixed-frame looms. In the past they grew, spun, dried and wove all their own cloth. These days they still grow and spin some cotton but most buy threads at local markets. Among the items they make are clothing, blankets and bags decorated with patterns and symbols unique to each subgroup. Highland women also make baskets and mats, Men has traditionally made tools, machetes and weapons.

The Karen have largely shunned the drug trade. The Karens in the hills and in Thailand used to grow it.

Karen Agriculture

The Karens have traditionally been subsistence slash-and-burn agriculturalists that grew mainly dry rice. They have traditionally prepared their fields in March, planted before the summer monsoons and harvested in October. In recent years more and more Karens have switched to wet rice.

The majority of Karens live in the lowlands rather than in the mountains. Karen farmers in the lowlands grow wet rice, tobacco, betel nut, and fruit such as bananas, durians and mangoes. Those who live in the hills raise dry rice, cabbage, vegetables, opium, tea, maize, legumes, yams, sweet potatoes, peppers, chiles and cotton.

The land rights to slash-and-burn agricultural land varies widely but is mostly decided by village chiefs and elders. Overuse of slash-and-burn agricultural land is a problem. Irrigated land are often privately owned and can be inherited.

These hillside people practice swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture and speak a language that is very different than that of the lowland Burmese. The practice of slash-and-burn agriculture consists of burning the forests and then using the ashes from the burnt timber as fertilizer for the fields. The fertilizer lasts for only several years, never more than six, and at that time the Karen must pack and move everything to a new site where a different section of the forest is burned. A number of hillside groups practice slash-and-burn agriculture and periodically move through each other's hereditary territory to new lands. These people move back and forth across the Thai border with little regard for the national boundary. Slash-and-burn agriculture is perilous in that after the forest is burned, seeds must be planted and then rains must occur quickly and consistently until the plants are well established. If this does not happen, the plants will wither and die or insects and animals will eat the seeds. It is not unusual for the Karen to be forced to plant four times in order to reap a single harvest.

Environmental Issues That Affect the Karen: Chinese-Backed Dams on the Salween

Seven dams have been proposed for the Salween River. The largest of these hydropower projects is the 7,100megawatt (MW) TaSang Dam on the Salween River, which is to be integrated into the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Sub-region Power Grid. A ground breaking ceremony for the Tasang Dam was held in March 2007, and China Gezhouba Group Co. (CGGC) started preliminary construction shortly after. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 2006, Sinohydro signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Burma for the US$ 1 billion, 1,200 MW Hat Gyi Dam along the Thai border. In April 2007, Farsighted Group, now known as Hanergy Holding Group, and China Gold Water Resources Co. signed MoUs with Burma for an additional 2,400 MW hydropower project on the upper Salween, an area which Yunnan Power Grid Co. reportedly surveyed in 2006. The project was expected to be complete by 2010. +

In April 2008, Sinohydro, China Southern Power Grid Co., and China Three Gorges Project Co. signed a strategic cooperation framework agreement for the development of the hydropower potential of the Salween River. Despite China’s involvement in these large-scale dams on the Salween, most of the electricity is destined for export to neighboring Thailand. However, In May 2009, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao halted the construction of the Liuku dam on the Salween River in China’s Yunnan province, calling for more thorough impact assessments. +

Addressing potential damage caused by the Wai Gyi and Hat Gyi dams on the Salween , a report entitled “Khoe Kay: Biodiversity in Peril” released by the Thailand-based Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) says more than 40 rare plant seeds and animal species in the Salween River watershed are likely to vanish if the Burmese government completes construction of the hydropower dams. Ko Shwe, a spokesperson for KASEN, said, “According to our research, we found about 394 different species. Among them, there are 8 endemic species including plants and animals. If the dam is completed, these species will be totally vanished.” The report urged the government to conduct a professional environmental assessment as well as an environmental impact study before construction work begins on the hydropower dams. [Source: The Irrawaddy, September 30, 2008]

Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times, “Hydroelectric dams on the Salween River will destroy the local way of life and flood the area with militia. The reservoir will destroy rice paddies, vegetable fields, 26 villages and two entire towns. Temples and palaces will be submerged; 22,000 people will lose their homes and 8,000 more will lose their livelihoods. It will destroy forever the towns of Pasaung and Bawlake, the historical capital of the Karenni people, and the site of royal palaces and Buddhist temples and stupas (holy sites). The traditional homelands of one entire tribe, the dwindling Yintalai, who number just 1,000, will disappear. The river’s backed-up waters will flood rice fields and the garden plots of beans, tobacco, and chilli with which families support themselves during the dry season. It will block what locals refer to as the “Salween highway” , and the trading boats which carry rattan, honey and buffalo from the Karen and Karenni territories across the river to Thailand. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, March 23, 2006]

See Environmental Issues

Logging, Human Rights and Funding the Karen Insurgency

According to report an interview with a village chief in Mergui/Tavoy District by Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG): “The 40-year-old G — village head, Saw K — , who described abusive practices perpetrated by the Tatmadaw in his village throughout the previous four year period, including forced labour, arbitrary taxation in the form of both goods and money, and obstructions to humanitarian relief, specifically medical care availability and education support. Saw K — also discussed development projects and land confiscation that has occurred in the area, including one oil palm company that came to deforest 700 acres of land next to G — village in order to plant oil palm trees, as well as the arrival of a Malaysian logging company, neither of which provided any compensation to villagers for the land that was confiscated. However, the Malaysian logging company did provide enough wood, iron nails and roofing material for one school in the village, and promised the villagers that it would provide additional support later. Saw K — raised other concerns regarding the food security, health care and difficulties with providing education for children in the village. In order to address these issues, Saw K — explained that villagers have met with the Ler Mu Lah Township leaders to solve land confiscation problems, but some G — villagers have had to give up their land, including a full nursery of betel nut plantations, based on the company’s claim that the plantations were illegally maintained." [Source: Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), July 18, 2012]

The article “Kawthoolei and Teak: Karen Forest Management on the Thai-Burmese Border” described how the “The Karen State of Kawthoolei has been heavily dependent on teak extraction to fund the Karen National Union struggle against the Burmese military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Raymond Bryant explores the social and economic structure of Kawthoolei, and the way in which resource extraction was more than simply a source of revenue it was also an integral part of the assertion of Karen sovereignty..." [Source: Raymond Bryant, "Watershed" Vol.3 No.1 July - October 1997m June 3, 2003]

Karen Environmental Activist: Ka Hsaw Wa

Ka Hsaw Wa, Co-Founder and Executive Director of EarthRights International, is the Winner of the 1999 Goldman Environmental Prize, the 1999 Reebok Human Rights Award, the 2004 Sting and Trudie Styler Award for Human Rights and the Environment, the Conde Nast Environmental Award and the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership. [Source: EarthRights International]

Ka Hsaw Wa is a member of the Karen ethnic nationality in Burma. In 1988 he led peaceful student demonstrations in Rangoon, calling for human rights, democracy and an end to military rule. In the ensuing crackdown by the Burmese regime, he was captured and tortured. Upon his release, he fled the country. Since that time, he has traveled clandestinely to remote areas of Burma to interview witnesses and victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by the junta.

In the course of this investigation, Ka Hsaw Wa realized that his people face another threat—that of transnational corporate investment aimed at exploiting Burma’s resources. He found that the killings, rape, torture, forced labor and relocation of villages were all connected to the exploitation of natural resources in the name of development. In particular, the Yadana pipeline which cuts through the Tennaserim region of Burma has been the cause of widespread brutality and forced labor, compounding the persecution of ethnic minorities populating this area.

In 1995, Ka Hsaw Wa joined two American lawyers to found EarthRights International (ERI), an organization initially conceived in response to the Yadana Project. Subsequently, ERI has applied the earth rights concept to other regions in the world where protection of human rights and the environment is intrinsically connected. As ERI’s co-director, Ka Hsaw Wa has been instrumental in the creation of new strategies for corporate and government accountability as well as innovative training programs aimed at building the capacity of indigenous peoples to protect their rights, restore control over natural resources and conserve the environment.

In speaking tours around the world, Ka Hsaw Wa has made the international community aware of the oppression his people suffer under the military junta and inspired many new activists to take action to defend Burma. "We will not let them defeat us. We know the companies and their military partners have lots of money, guns, power and influence. But they do not have what we have. We have truth, we have justice, we have courage, and most importantly, we have each other to protect human rights and the environment. We will win."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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