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ETHNONYMS: Kareang, Kariang, Kayin, Pwo, Sgaw, Yang


Identification. Historically, the written Burmese term "Karen" probably came from the word "Kayin," referring to the particular group of peoples in eastern Myanmar (Burma) and western Thailand who speak closely related but different Sino-Tibetan languages. The Central Thai or Siamese word for Karen is "Kariang," presumably borrowed from the Mon term "Kareang." The Northern Thai or Yuan word "Yang," the origins of which may be Shan or from the root word nyang (person) in many Karen languages, is applied to the Karen by Shans and Thais. The designation "Karen" in fact includes several different subgroups, each with its own language and name. The largest, Sgaw and Pwo, have differences of dialect within their languages. The Sgaw or Skaw refer to themselves as "Pwakenyaw." The Pwo term for themselves is "Phlong" or "Kêphlong." The Burmese identify the Sgaw as "Bama Kayin" (Burmese Karen) and the Pwo as "Talaing Kayin" (Mon Karen). Thais sometimes use "Yang" to refer to the Sgaw and "Kariang" to refer to the Pwo, who live mainly south of the Sgaw. The word "Karen" was probably brought to Thailand from Burma by Christian missionaries. The term "White Karen" has been used to identify Christian Karen of the hill Sgaw. Other important subgroups include the Kayah and Pa-O. Prior to Burmese independence the Burmese term for the Kayah was "Kayin-ni," from which the English "Karen-ni" or "Red Karen" derived; Luce identifies them as "Eastern Bwe" or "Bghai." The Burmese term for the Pa-O is "Taungthu," adapted by the Shans as "Tong-su." Karennet (Kayin-net, or Black Karen) were listed in the 1911 census. Luce's classification of minor Karen languages listed in the 1931 census includes Paku; Western Bwe, consisting of Blimaw or Bre(k), and Geba; Padaung; Gek'o or Gheko; and Yinbaw (Yimbaw, Lakü Phu, or Lesser Padaung). Additional groups listed in the 1931 census are Monnepwa, Zayein, Taleing-Kalasi, Wewaw, and Mopwa. Scott's Gazetteer of 1900 lists the following: "Kekawngdu," the Padaung name for themselves; "Lakü," the self-name of the Bre; "Yintale" in Burmese, "Yangtalai" in Shan, for a branch of Eastern Karenni; the Sawng-tüng Karen, also known as "Gaung-to," "Zayein," or "Zalein"; Kawn-sawng; Mepu; Pa-hlaing; Loilong; Sinsin; Salon; Karathi; Lamung; Baw-han; and the Banyang or Banyok. These early sources are often inconsistent and lack adequate references for further research or clarification.

Recently anthropologists have remarked on the limitations of identifying the Karen primarily on the basis of language or name, noting that the complex and fluid Karen group identity is a cluster of traits that includes, among other things, language, political and social organization, religion, and material culture. Populations of Karen speakers may differ in these traits. Hinton and stresses economic and political interests as more significant to Karen identity than cultural features or "ethnic" distinctions. Some contemporary writings on the question of Karen identity place more importance on the belief of the Karen in the distinctiveness of their language as a cultural marker than they do on the objective linguistic distinctiveness of Karen languages. Other writings emphasize the contemporary Thai-Burmese political-economic context in which Karen ethnic identity is forged.

Location. Until the mid-eighteenth century the Karen lived mainly in the forested mountainous regions of eastern Burma, where the hills are divided by long narrow valleys running north to south from the Bilauktaung and Dawna ranges along the Salween River system to the broad high plateau of the Shan uplands. Today Karen reside in both Myanmar and Thailand, within the area between 10° and 21° N and between 94° and 101° E. Karen settlements are found in the hills along the border between the two countries along the length of Tenasserim into the Shan plateau from 10° N as far as 21 ° N. Most Karen inhabit Myanmar, in both lowland rice-growing plains and hill regions, with large numbers in the central Irrawaddy Delta, in the Irrawaddy and Sittang valleys from the coast to about 19° N, and in the northern part of Tenasserim. In Thailand most of the Karen settlements are along the hilly western border and range northward and eastward to the Mekong from approximately 12° 00 N to 20°30 N. Karen villages are located in three distinct physical environments: the lowland plains of the Irrawaddy, Sittang, and Salween deltas and the coast of Tenasserim; the Pegu Yoma, a hilly range between the Irrawaddy and the Sittang; and the Shan upland, which varies geographically from a rolling high plateau (1,000 meters in elevation on average) in the Shan State to the north-south hills and narrow valleys of the Kayah and Karen states and interior Tenasserim to the south. These hill regions are covered with tropical rain forest that contains great varieties of vegetation, ranging from towering hardwoods to dense bamboo and vines that fires burn off during the hot dry season. The tropical-monsoon climate has two seasons, the monsoon from mid-May through September and the dry season from October through April. It is cold from November to February and becomes extremely hot in March and April, before the advent of the cooling monsoon rains. The precipitation range is from less than 200 centimeters annually in the southwestern Shan State to more than 254 centimeters in the central Irrawaddy Delta and more than 500 centimeters in Tenasserim.

Demography. Karen are the largest "tribal" minority in both Myanmar and Thailand. Although recent census figures for Myanmar are unavailable, their population there, projected from 1,350,000 in the 1931 census, is estimated at more than 3 million. Karen in Thailand number approximately 185,000, with about 150,000 Sgaw, 25,000 Pwo Karen, and much smaller populations of B'ghwe or Bwe (about 1,500) and Pa-O or Taungthu; together these groups comprise about 56 percent of the highland minority people of Thailand. Approximately one-third of the Karen population in Myanmar lives in the Karen State or administrative division. The Sgaw Karen, with a population of over 1 million, have settlements in the mountainous Karen State, in the Shan uplands, and to a lesser extent in the Irrawaddy and Sittang deltas. The Pwo Karen (approximately 750,000) inhabit primarily the Irrawaddy Delta. The Pa-O live mainly in southwestern Shan State. The approximately 75,000 Kayah, or Red Karen, live almost entirely in Kayah State, the smallest state in Myanmar. Political and economic circumstances have affected demographics. Since the early 1980s between 10,000 and 20,000 Karen from Burma have been living in refugee camps in Thailand. Outside Myanmar and Thailand, there is a growing community of Karen immigrants in Bakersfield, California.

Linguistic Affiliation. Despite the linguistic and numerical importance of the Karen, surpisingly few studies of Karen languages have been conducted in recent times. There continues to be controversy concerning the linguistic affiliation of the Karen group of languages, although it is widely accepted that within the Sino-Tibetan Stock all Karen linguistic subgroups are related to each other. Pwo and Pa-O form one subgroup, with Sgaw and several related languages forming another. Lehman and Hamilton cite André Haudricourt's view that Karen falls in the Tibeto-Burman classification. Benedict and Shafer both positione Karen as a distinct Sino-Tibetan Division, the Karenic. Luce and to some extent Jones, on the other hand, argue that Karen is linguistically related to Thai. The most generally accepted view is that the Karen languages are a divergent subfamily of the Tibeto-Burman Language Family. Matisoff notes the similarity in phonology and basic vocabulary of Karen dialects to Lolo-Burmese, the other major Tibeto-Burman Language Subgroup in Thailand with similar tone systems, the same paucity of final consonants, and a comparably rich set of vowels. He points out that syntactically Karen's atypical placement of the object after the verb may be the reason some linguists have set it apart genetically from the other Tibeto-Burman languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The early history of the Karen remains problematic, and there are various theories regarding their migrations. It appears that Karen peoples originated in the north, possibly in the high plains of Central Asia, and emigrated in stages through China into Southeast Asia, probably after the Mon but before the Burmese, Thai, and Shan reached what is now Myanmar and Thailand. Their slash-and-burn agricultural economy is an indication of their original adaptation to hill life. Eighth-century a.d. inscriptions mention the Cakraw in central Burma, who have been linked with the modern Sgaw. There is a thirteenth-century inscription near Pagan bearing the word "Karyan," which may refer to Karen. Seventeenth-Century Thai sources mention the Kariang, but their identity is unclear. By the eighteenth century, Karen-speaking people were living primarily in the hills of the southern Shan states and in eastern Burma. They developed a system of relations with the neighboring Buddhist civilizations of the Shan, Burmese, and Mon, all of whom subjugated the Karen. European missionaries and travelers wrote of contact with Karen in the eighteenth century. During the turmoil among the Burman, Yuan, and Siamese kingdoms in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Karen, whose villages lay along the armies' routes, emerged as a significant group. Many Karen settled in the lowlands, and their increased contact with the dominant Burman and Siamese led to a sense of oppression at the hands of these powerful rulers. Groups of Karen made numerous mostly unsuccessful attempts to gain autonomy, either through millennarian syncretic religious movements or politically. The Red Karen, or Kayah, established three chieftainships that survived from the early nineteenth century to the end of British rule. In Thailand Karen lords ruled three small semifeudal domains from the mid-nineteenth century until about 1910. British and American Christian missionaries arrived in Burma after the British annexation of lower Burma in 1826. The Karen, many of whom had converted to Christianity, had a distinctive though ambiguous relationship with the British, based on shared religious and political interests; prior to World War II they were given special representation in the Burmese Legislative Assembly. Christian missionary activity may have been the most important factor in the emergence of Karen nationalism, through the development of schools, a Karen literate tradition, and ultimately an educated Karen elite whose members rose in the ranks of the British colonial service. In 1928 the Karen leader, Dr. Sir San C. Po, argued for an autonomous Karen state within a federation. During the war, the Karen remained loyal to the British after the Japanese occupation; there was increased antipathy between the Karen and Burmans, who were backed by the Japanese. After the war, the British prepared for Burma's independence. The Karen National Union (KNU) promoted Karen autonomy, but after Aung San's assassination in 1947 hopes for an independent Karen state were shattered. Since Burmese independence in 1948, the Karen relationship with Burma has been primarily political. The old Karen-ni states formed Kayah State, and in 1952 the Burmese government established Karen State with Pa-an as its capital. During the 1964 peace negotiations, the name was changed to the traditional Kawthoolei, but under the 1974 constitution the official name reverted to Karen State. Many Karen, especially those in the lowland deltas, have assimilated into Burmese Buddhist society. In the hill regions many resist Burmese influence and some support, directly or tacitly, the insurgent KNU movement, which has been at war since 1949, in its efforts to achieve independence from Burmese rule. It is currently in a coalition with other ethnie groups and Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, which supports the formation of a union of federal states. The Kawthoolei (the name for the KNU territory) government has the difficult task of interacting with the Karen revolutionary military hierarchy and with the heterogeneous Karen population, which consists of both nonhierarchical traditional hill Karen and more educated delta Christian Karen who have joined them. Movement back and forth across the Thai-Myanmar border continues as Karen villagers cross to cut swiddens and Karen political refugees arrive in increasing numbers in Thailand's Mae Hon Son Province. In Thailand the Karen are facing assimilation into Thai society through mass education, the economic necessity of engaging in wage labor for Thai employers, and the assimilation of highland Karen into a generalized "hill tribe" category generated by Thai and foreign tourists.


Contemporary Karen settlement patterns vary considerably as a result of geographical diversity and cultural contact. Research in the past twenty years has focused on Thai Karen; no comparable research has been done in Burma. Traditional Karen villages, compact and stockaded, consist of houses and granaries. Population figures for Thai highland Karen indicate an average of twenty-three houses in a village (Kunstadter 1983), a figure similar to those reported in the 1920s by Marshall for Karen hill villages in Burma. In upland and lowland Pwo Karen villages matrilineal kin arrange their houses together; this practice may derive from the traditional Karen longhouse. Stern (1979) includes David Richardson's description of Karen villages on the upper Khwae Noi in 1839-1840 containing three to six longhouses, each holding several families with a separate ladder for each. Sgaw Karen village names often reflect their pattern of settlement in valleys at the headwaters of streams. The history of Karen settlement indicates the importance of the village as a community, as village sites are frequently moved but continue to retain their name and identity.

The predominant village unit is the house, usually inhabited by five to seven family members. Anderson and Marshall in the 1920s described villages in which longhouses were characteristic (and in some cases the only structure), accommodating twenty to thirty families. Both longhouses and separate houses in the hill villages are made from bamboo, sometimes in combination with wood timbers; they have thatched roofs and require reconstruction in a new location every few years. Houses in upland valleys are generally more substantial, made of wooden posts with plank floors and walls, although bamboo is often used. Today roofs of teak leaf or grass thatch, which must be rethatched annually, are being replaced by corrugated iron sheets by those who can afford them in both hill and valley villages. In the plains Karen villages of Myanmar, the housing follows lowland-Burmese style. Traditionally and still today, most Karen houses in Myanmar and Thailand are raised above the ground with the multiple purposes of protection from floods or wild animals and shelter for domestic animals.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally hill Karen were subsistence cultivators practicing swidden agriculture. Today, their economy is mainly subsistence-oriented, requiring two sectors to produce enough food for survival: an agricultural sector based on swiddening and wetrice cultivation, and a cash or market economy. Most hill Karen have taken up wet-rice agriculture only within the past generation, and the annual ritual cycle is still associated with the longer swidden rice-growth cycle. Swidden rice fields are generally burned and planted at the beginning of the wet season (March-April) ; rice is harvested in October, threshed in November, and stored in granaries. Swidden cultivators may harvest tea and cultivate maize, legumes, yams, sweet potatoes, peppers, chilies, and cotton. Tobacco, betel leaves and nuts, and fruits including bananas, durians, and mangoes are grown in the valley bottomlands. Plains and valley Karen are wet-rice agriculturalists who follow the same cycle as the Burmese and Mon. Village Karen of all ages participate in hunting and gathering. Hill Karen males still hunt for subsistence, pursuing birds, squirrels, lizards, deer, and wild pigs. They use crossbows, slingshots, snares, traps, and guns. Gathering, a more important food supplement than hunting, is done also for trade; women and children may collect roots, leaves, bamboo shoots, herbs and bark for medicinal purposes, wild fruits, frogs, small lizards, insects, paddy crabs, ant larvae, honey, beeswax, mushrooms, firewood, weeds for pig food, stick 1ac, and snakes. Both plains and hill Karen fish for consumption or trade. Plains Karen follow Burmese techniques. Hill and valley Karen techniques include pond fishing, bamboo poles with lines and hooks, throw nets with lead weights made by male villagers, bamboo fish traps, surrounds using jute rope, and paddy fishing with baskets.

Hill Karen generally keep water buffalo, oxen, pigs, chickens, and dogs. Water buffalo are used in wet-rice production, and oxen for pulling carts. Some buffalo and oxen are raised to be sold for profit. Traditionally pigs were used in ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and lineage rituals. Although pigs are still used for these purposes today, in the Thai hills they are more often raised for sale to the Thais. Christian Karen raise pigs for their own consumption or for trade. Chickens are also used ceremonially, and chickens and eggs are sold at market. Cattle are usually corralled, whereas pigs and chickens are allowed to forage by day and sleep at the household by night. Buddhist plains Karen keep cattle and buffalo. Karen occasionally trap elephants in the wild and are noted as elephant handlers; most mahouts in Myanmar and Thailand are Karen.

Industrial Arts. Weaving, almost exclusively the domain of women, is done in both plains and hill Karen households, but it is more important in the hills. Hill Karen use only the traditional belt loom, whereas plains Karen use either the belt loom or the Burmese fixed-frame loom. In the past, cotton was ginned, whipped, spun on a wheel, dyed, and woven at home. At present some hill Karen still grow and spin their own cotton thread, but much of the thread is bought in local markets. Dye, which was derived from plants or minerals, is now often purchased, bringing new variations in the traditional colors. Articles including clothing, blankets, and highly prized shoulder bags are woven in the traditional Karen symbolic and decorative patterns unique to each subgroup, for household use and for markets as far away as Chiengmai and Toungoo. Bamboo baskets and mats are made by highland women for household use or for sale. Men make most of the tools and implements for agriculture, fishing, hunting, and construction. The machete is the most common tool.

Trade. The cash or market sectors of Karen subsistence economies are important but vary greatly. Traditionally Karen have traded cotton cloth, forest products, game, and domestic animals to Burmese and Mon in exchange for rice, pottery, salt, and fish paste. Hill Karen carry on trade in Burmese, Shan, and Thai markets, whereas lowland Karen are tied into the Burmese economy. The hill Karen studied by Hinton (1975) were engaged in raising livestock and selling them to the Northern Thai, wage labor in the city, renting out elephants to timber contractors, and sale of forest products. Hamilton, Kunstadter, and Rajah described hill Karen participation in lowland wage-labor, trade, and cash-market economies as consisting of the picking and selling of tea and the sale of livestock, forest products, household-manufactured tools, and woven goods. Tourism has become a significant source of income for Thai hill Karen.

Division of Labor. Women gather foods, medicinal plants and herbs and firewood, and engage in paddy fishing; they raise pigs and chickens, carry water, prepare rice for cooking, prepare alcoholic drinks, raise cotton, spin, and weave. Men hunt, tend the buffalo and oxen, plow, build houses, cut timber, and make mats and baskets. Fishing, sowing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, and some cooking are done by both men and women.

Land Tenure. Land use and rights to swiddens vary depending on local politics, ecological stability, and population demands on resources. Usufructuary rights to swiddens and fallow swiddens are common. Traditionally each village had its accepted farming areas in which community members were free to use what they needed as long as they selected plots within swiddens designated by the village chief and elders. Today the need to remain on a site permanently in order to own the paddy fields for wet-rice cultivation has forced many hill Karen, particularly in Thailand, to give up swiddening or to overwork and thus lower the productivity of nearby swidden fields.


Kin Groups and Descent. There is much scholarly controversy regarding the Karen kinship system, which is probably best characterized as a cognatic or bilateral system with matrilineal descent. Marshall described a group of matrilineally related persons participating in certain rituals for their ancestral spirit. The leader was the oldest living female of the line. Iijima, Hamilton, and others have observed these ancestral rituals taking place among both Sgaw and Pwo Karen matrilineages.

Kinship Terminology. Hamilton notes that the Karen bilateral system of filiation does not result in a descent group, but a set of statuses for structuring relationships. Matrilineal descent, on the other hand, indicates a person's genealogical connection to his or her mother's relatives. A Karen man and woman who are directly related to each other through a pair of sisters, for example, should not marry because they are members of the same matrilineage, although if there is even one male in the descent chain they may marry. Karen kinship terminology is overall quite similar among subgroups. A person equates his or her father's brother with his or her mother's brother. For grandparents and great-grandparents, male collaterals (maternal or paternal) of the same generation are equated, as are females. There are separate terms for generations, equating all children in each generation. Ego calls siblings only by birth-order terms, and may add a suffix to denote gender. The Sgaw term dau'pywae (dang phu vwi in Pwo) refers to the sibling set. Ego equates all cousins, but may add one of two suffixes to distinguish lineage members from nonmembers. People distinguish their own children from their brothers' children and their sisters' children, whom they equate with the children of their cousins. Birth order is important, but is usually used only in the first ascending and descending generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. A Karen may marry anyone who is not closely related (i.e., anyone except siblings, first cousins, and lineage mates). Among Pwo and Sgaw Karen there are proscriptions against certain matrilineal and intergenerational marriages. Patrilateral parallel second cousins may marry, but matrilateral parallel cousins of any degree may not because the latter are of the same lineage or of the same female spirit. Marriage is monogamous. Courting takes place on social occasions such as weddings, funerals, and communal planting and harvesting. Proposals, which require parental approval, are made by the young man or woman, although a go-between is often used. Premarital sex is prohibited, and 15 to 20 percent of bridegrooms pay a fine for having broken the rule. The marriage ceremony involves rituals to the Lord of Land and Water (see under "Religion and Expressive Culture") marking the union of the new couple and the husband's incorporation into the bride's parents' household. The ritual and wedding feast in the bride's village can last three days. After marriage the bride gives up her long white dress for the black embroidered blouse and red-and-black tubular sarong of married women; men continue to wear the traditional red fringed shirt.

Residence is usually matrilocal. Up to 30 percent of Karen marriages are village-exogamous. The groom moves to the house of the bride's father and eventually may establish a new household in that village. Postmarital residence depends as much on availability of agricultural land resources as on ideal uxorilocal pattern, binding villages in an interdependent net of relationships.

Domestic Unit. The normal domestic unit is the nuclear family, made up of husband, wife, and unmarried children. In the hills each nuclear family traditionally occupied either an apartment in a longhouse or a separate house in the village.

Inheritance. Property is generally divided into three shares, with equal parts going to the eldest (a' vwi shiae in Pwo Karen) and youngest children (a' oe dae ) and slightly smaller shares to middle children (a' oa 'klae). Inheritance takes place ideally before the death of the parents, to avoid disputes and the bad luck brought by personal property containing the dead person's k'la (kala ), or spirit. The youngest child, preferably a girl, cares for the parents until their deaths and controls their property. Widows retain control of their property until remarriage.

Divorce is discouraged and rarely occurs: 5 to 6 percent of marriages in the Thai hills, and about double that in lowlands and towns, end in divorce. Divorce may be initiated by either partner and is granted upon payment of compensation to the divorced party. The wife keeps the house and the children; other property is divided equally, except for any paddy land that was previously owned by one of the partners.

Socialization. There has been little research on traditional Karen childbirth and socialization practices. Karen women fear complications in childbirth, knowing this to be a common cause of death. There are dietary restrictions and other taboos that pregnant women must observe. To ease the birth, midwives cast magical spells and conduct ceremonies to placate spirits. Traditionally a mother sits by the fire for three days after the birth of her child; during this period rituals are held and amulets are used to protect and purify both mother and child. There is a naming ceremony when the child is one month old. Children are taught to emulate the same-sex parent. Young girls and boys both carry water, collect firewood, and care for younger siblings; both transplant rice in paddy fields, although boys do so less frequently than do girls. By puberty children do only the work that is appropriate to their gender. Education for Karen in Burma was formalized in missionary schools, which devised a Karen script based on Burmese and also taught English and Burmese. The Burmese and Thai governments have promoted the establishment of government schools in tribal villages or towns, to which Karen children are sent to live. The Karen National Union runs its own school system in Kawthoolei, where they teach English and Karen.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Karen social organization is based on the residential units of the household, the lineage segment, the village, and the village complex. Several nuclear households are linked together through matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence to form a lineage segment. The village structure forms around one or more lineage segments linked by marriage and/or descent. The village may split, with one or more segments separating to form daughter villages, resulting in a village complex that shares kin and spirit connections. Several more or less related village complexes make up a local subgroup. Each of the four residential units, the household, the lineage segment, the village, and the village complex, performs specific ritual, social, political, or economic functions. Nonresidential matrilineages may crosscut an area. Lineage rites (oxe chuko in Sgaw; oxe pgo in Pwo) require the presence of all descendants of the matrilineal group (dopuweh ) regardless of which village they live in; attachment is to the line, not to the locality. Karen society is generally undifferentiated and unstratified, although status is accorded to wealth and age. Wealth is counted in livestock and rice, with elephant owners enjoying the highest status. The young are expected to defer always to elders in the family and to members of the village council of elders, as well as in intervillage and lineage-segment relationships. Karen ethnic identity, despite geographic and ecological diversity, social and cultural differentiation, a large gap between the illiterate and the well-educated elite, and a variety of religions ranging from traditional animism to Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism, seems to maintain itself in the context of dominant social groups.

Political Organization. The village is the most important political unit. It is headed by a chief or headman (dang khaw in Pwo) and a council of elders. Chieftainship is hereditary in the male lineal or collateral line. Traditionally the chief had both secular and religious functions, and his authority rested as much on his personal influence as it did on his institutional role. As the spiritual link to the village spirits, he is vested with the power to act on behalf of the village. Kunstadter (1979) has noted the contrast in authority structure between inherently unstable Thai Karen hill villages and long-established, relatively stable valley villages. In the hills, the ambiguity of the inheritance principle by which authority can be established when there is no clear heir has led to frequent fission of villages. The subsequent rapid dispersal of the Karen population has helped them succeed in their demographic and geographic competition with other highland peoples. In contrast to the autonomy and egalitarian political structure at the traditional village level, Karen have lived for generations under the authority of other peoples: Mon, Shan, Siamese/Thai, Burmese, and British. The institution of the elected or appointed headman, separate from the traditional chief, has been imposed by British, Burmese, Thai, and now Kawthoolei authorities to deal by consensus with the bureaucracies of national or colonial governments. The Free Karen State of Kawthoolei is democratic, with an electoral system consisting of village, township, district, and national representatives.

Social Control. Traditionally any disputes were solved through the village headman and council of elders. As both spiritual and political leader, the village headman might deal with behavioral problems through social sanctions and/or spirit propitiation. For example, there are strong sanctions against adultery, which is seen as an affront to the Lord of Land and Water; he must be assuaged by ritual sacrifice by the guilty parties, and possibly even their banishment, to avert a natural disaster striking the community. Today traditional village authority exists in the contexts of Thai, Burmese, and Kawthoolei authority, each with its own political and administrative structures to which villagers must respond regarding criminal complaints, taxation, the recording of marriages, births, and deaths, and so on.

Conflict. Historically intervillage raids and Karen slave raids into Shan territory were common prior to British intervention. Weapons included spears, swords, guns, and shields. Today the primary conflict, which affects both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border, is the ongoing war between the Burmese military and the Karen National Union.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Indigenous Karen religion is animistic, rooted both in nature and in the ancestral matrilineage. It is based on belief in cosmogonic deities and several important supernatural powers, which are propitiated by specific rituals and ceremonies. This indigenous religious system includes the concepts of k'la (kala ), or life principle, which is possessed by humans, animals, and some inanimate objects, and pgho, an impersonal power. Many Karen in the plains of Burma and in the highlands of Thailand embraced Buddhism through contact with Burman, Mon, Shan, and Thai Buddhists. In 1828 Ko Tha Byu became the first Karen to be converted by Christian missionaries, beginning conversions on a scale unprecedented in Southeast Asia. This is often explained by the striking parallels between Karen cosmogonic myths and the Old Testament. By 1919, 335,000, or 17 percent of Karen in Burma, had become Christian. In some areas Karen religion was syncretic, incorporating Buddhism and/or Christianity into indigenous religious practices. This sometimes took the form of a millennarian cult with a powerful leader and with elements of Karen nationalism envisioning a new order on Earth in which the Karen would be powerful. The data in Thailand indicate that of Pwo Karen, 37.2 percent are animist, 61.1 percent Buddhist, and 1.7 percent Christian; of Sgaw Karen, 42.9 percent are animist, 38.4 percent Buddhist, and 18.3 percent Christian (1977). Although current figures are unavailable for Myanmar, it is estimated that most Pwo and Pa-O Karen practice Buddhism and animism, that many Sgaw Karen are now Christians, mainly Baptist, and that most Kayah are Catholic.

The Karen cosmogonic myth tells of Y'wa, a divine power who created nature, including the first man and woman, and of Mü Kaw li, the basically feminine deity, who in serpent form teaches them their culture, including rice production, the identity of the ancestral spirit (bgha; ther myng khwae in Pwo), rites of propitiation of various spirits, and methods for securing k'la. Y'wa gives the Karen a book, the gift of literacy, which they lose; they await its future return in the hands of younger white brothers. The American Baptist missionaries interpreted the myth as referring to the biblical Garden of Eden. They saw Y'wa as the Hebrew Yahweh and Mii Kaw li as Satan, and offered the Christian Bible as the lost book. Bgha, associated mainly with a particular matrilineal ancestor cult, is perhaps the most important supernatural power. The other significant supernatural power, called the "Lord of Land and Water" or "Spirit of the Area" (Thi Kho Chae Kang Kho Chae), protects the well-being of the people in the village with which he is associated. There are also local deities associated with elements of nature such as trees and rivers, or with agriculture (e.g., the rice goddess).

Religious Practitioners. The two major traditional religious practitioners are the village headman, who is the ritual specialist who leads the ceremony to the Lord of Land and Water, and the eldest woman of the senior line of the matrilineage, who officiates at the sacrificial feast for the ancestral spirit, bgha. There are people endowed with pgho, the impersonal supernatural power, including prophets (wi ) and medicine teachers (k'thi thra ); some Karen possessing pgho became leaders in syncretic millennial religious movements. There are also witches or "false prophets" (wi a'bla ) who put their power to evil purposes.

Ceremonies. The most significant traditional ceremony is probably the propitiation of the bgha by all the matrilineally related kin, led by the eldest and most senior woman. A sacrificial feast is held at least annually to prevent the bgha from consuming the k'la of kin-group members. Iijima suggests this collective ritual expresses the essence of traditional Karen identity. Rites of sacrifice to the local Lord of Land and Water, held each year for territorial protection, are officiated over by the village headman. In addition, agricultural and lifecycle rituals are conducted, local spirits are supplicated with offerings or minor ceremonies, and k'la is secured by ordinary people or specialists.

Arts. Weaving (discussed above), with embroidery and seed work embellishing many woven garments, is the most notable Karen art. Karen make jewelry from silver, copper, and brass; ornaments of wool or other materials; beads; rattan or lacquered-thread bracelets; and traditionally earplugs of ivory or silver studded with gems. In the Thai hills, males are still tattooed for adornment. Music, both vocal and instrumental, is performed with nearly all traditional religious rituals, and Karen ballads and love songs are sung on many occasions. Karen ceremonial bronze drums, crafted by Shan artisans, are treasured as ritual objects by Karen householdersas well as by art collectors in Bangkok and abroad. Karen Christians have developed music that combines traditional Karen, church, and Western popular music.

Medicine. The causes of illness and death are traditionally spiritual. Marlowe notes that for Sgaw Karen, illness is the system through which the spirits of places (da muxha ) and spirits of the ancestors (sii kho muu xha ) signal their displeasure or their desire to be fed. K'la can become detached from human bodies during vulnerable times such as sleep or contact with the k'la of a person who has died, and must be ritually secured to the body to avoid illness or even death. Divination using chicken bones, feathers, eggs, or grains of rice is often employed to find the spiritual origin of a disease. In the case of k'la or soul loss, a shaman may be summoned to perform a soul-calling ceremony. There are rites of propitiation for various nature and ancestor spirits that cause illnesses. Karen also use herbal and animal-derived medicines.

Death and Afterlife. Karen have two categories of death: "natural" death resulting from old age and certain diseases, and "violent" death resulting from accidents, magic, attacks by spirits, childbirth, and murder. Some non-Christian Karen believe in an afterlife in a place of the dead, which has higher and lower realms ruled over by Lord Khu See-du. The k'la leaves the body at death; eventually it will be reincarnated in a proper body but, as a ghost, it can possess the body of another person. In traditional villages family and friends gather to sing eulogies and make music (today this may take the form of amplified pop music) to send off the newly liberated spirit and ensure that it does not remain in the place of the living, thus bringing bad luck. The dead person's possessions, which emanate the owner's k'la, may be removed from the village. The dead body is washed, dressed in the finest clothing, and buried in a coffin or mat. On their return from the burial ground villagers erect obstacles to prevent the k'la of the deceased from following. Animist and Buddhist funerals may be extensive rites involving the slaughter of many animals, whereas Christian funerals are much simpler.


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