Karen girls singing
The Karen are by far the largest tribal group in Northern Thailand. While most Karen are Buddhist or animist, there is also a sizeable population that have readily embraced Christianity. This may be due in part to the many similarities between the Karen and Christian creation stories. In fact, it has been suggested that the Karen may be one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Although there is speculation as to where the Karen originated, they now regard Burma as their homeland. In recent history the Karen population in Thailand has grown significantly as many Karen seek refuge from the ongoing battle for independence and security in Burma.
The Karen culture encompasses a strong sense of harmony both with the environment and within their community, and their lives are governed by a strict moral code. Many of their festivals and ceremonies are acknowledgements of a communion with nature.
For the Karen, the distinction between forest and land for farming is blurred. When clearing land for farming, they do not practice total forest removal. Rather than using chemical pesticides and fertilisers, complementary crops are planted, and the traditional system of rotational farming allowed time for forest regeneration. Forests were managed so as to provide food, medicinal products and timber.
Most Karen villages also grow cotton plants, and the women are well known for their skills in weaving. The dress of Karen women is considerably less flamboyant than that of the other tribal groups and is made from cotton and natural dyes.
The Karen are the only tribe to have developed their own written language, using Burmese script.
Karen people originally came from Tibet before moving into China, Burma and Thailand. Burma, which has a distinct Karen state, is home to the majority of Karen. Of the estimated 5 - 7 million Karen still living in Burma, the majority are Buddhist and animist.
Some Karen, mainly the Sgaw and Pho, have lived in Thailand for nearly 300 years, drifting in from the West over time. Others have arrived more recently as refugees. One major source of refugees is the fighting between the Burmese military junta and a separate, armed Karen group. This civil war is relatively unknown in the world at large but has had devastating consequences for the Karen. Karen people who are found by the Burmese military have no choice but to flee, or work in forced labor camps. Those who flee are considered enemies of the state and are subject to persecution if caught.
The Karen formed border patrols in response to this regime, and these have now evolved into a guerilla army that aims to protect the Karen people from the Burmese army. However, many Karen have still opted to flee to Thailand.Christian and Buddhist Karen in Burma have also had skirmishes, sending many Christian Karen out of the country and into Thailand. Consequently, many of the Karen currently living in Thailand are Christian.
The Thai government has provided assistance to the refugees, and now approximately 400,000 Karen live in Thailand. This number may be even higher, because Karen people can easily pass as Thai.
There are five different Karen groups:
Karen Sgaw, the most numerous group in Thailand. The Karen Sgaw live mainly in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, and some parts of Kanchanaburi.
Karen Pho are the other main group of Karen living in Thailand. They are concentrated in Chiang Mai, Mae Hong San, Prae Kanchanaburi, Lampang and Tak.
Karen Kayah and Karen Bwe are more numerous in Burma, but there is a small population living in Thailand in Mae Hong Son. Kayah and Bwe are actually the same group but have two different names. In Burma, Kayah are known as "Red Burmese."
Karen Tongsue live mostly in Mae Hong Son.Mae Hong Son, on the border with Burma, is the point at which many refugees from Burma cross over into Thailand. Consequently there is a large population of Karen now living there.
The so-called "Long Neck Karen" a Thai tourist attraction, are just one of the many subgroups. They are called "Kayan" or in Burmese, "Padong".
Both Sgaw and Pho mean "people" in those languages. Karen people also call themselves "Bua Goon-nyaw" which also means "the people".
There are three main groups of Karen: Buddhist, Animist and Christian. Many people are both Buddhist and Animist. In non-Christian and non-Buddhist villages, the main figure in the village is the priest. He is in charge of the annual fertility rituals and the harvest festival.
Unlike other tribes, female kinship is quite important for the Karen. The oldest woman in each kinship group leads annual sacrifices to the matrilineal ancestors. Some field spirits, who also receive sacrifices at various stages during the agricultural cycle, are also female.
Karen people traditionally live in the forest and prefer simple, quiet lives. Unlike other tribal groups, however, many Karen do own small amounts of productive land and for them, economic life revolves around irrigated rice fields. Karen also practice a controlled and ecologically sound form of slash and burn agriculture, which relies on a rotational, unirrigated system. Unlike many other hill tribes, Karen have not grown opium, though some Karen are users.
The Karen language has a variety of influences. It uses the Burmese alphabet, but it is read completely differently from Burmese. It is historically close to Burmese and Tibeto-Burman languages such as Lahu, Akha and Lisu. However, it also reveals centuries of contact with Mon-Khmer languages in its use of grammar.
The Karen people are composed of five separate groups, each of which speaks a different dialect that is not always intelligible to the other groups. In Burma, the largest subgroup, the Kayah, speak a central Kayah dialect. The main dialects spoken in Thailand are Sgaw and Pho, which are very different from one other. In Thailand, speech patterns also vary by location; in Chiang Rai people tend to speak much more quickly than those in Chiang Mai.
The following phrases are all examples of Sgaw Karen:
Karen people greet each other by shaking hands and saying: "Oh-muu, oh-bur!" Then asking, "Oh-chuu-ah?" (with friends) or "Nah-moh-oh-chuu-ah?" (more polite).
This is a question similar to "How are you," which can be answered "Oh-chuu," meaning "fine."
Karen people also use the following greetings at different times of day:
Good morning: "Go-law agwe" ('agwe' here and below is pronounced with a glottal sound)
Good afternoon: "Ni-lah agwe"
Good evening: "Hah-lah agwe"
As in Thai, a common greeting is "Have you eaten yet?" In Karen, it is: "Aw mee riah"
"Aw-tee" is 'drink;' "Aw-mee" is 'eat.'
"Dabluu" is 'thank you.'
Karen Food and Recipes
Karen people are traditionally forest people and would rarely visit nearby towns. Rather than buying food in the market, Karen people searched the forest for delicacies such as snakes, wild bamboo, leafy plants and small vegetables to eat with chili sauce. Karen people also grow some food of their own, such as rice.
Some common Karen dishes are a chili sauce made with beans, nam prik tua nao, and a chicken and potato curry. If a visitor were to come to a Karen village for a special ceremony or to learn more about Karen culture however, da-poh-poh is the dish that would be made. Da-poh-poh is similar to the Thai kow tom, or boiled rice porridge, but with more vegetables. The rice used is called kow sarn, tiny pieces of rice which are placed in boiling water and stirred to make a thick sauce-like mixture. Various vegetables such as bamboo and pumpkin are added, as well as meat such as pork or chicken to taste. A variety of herbs, onion and chili gives the dish a rich flavor.
The Buddhist and Animist Karen have many, many festivals and ceremonies, many of which are related to the planting and harvesting of rice. Christians, on the other hand, celebrate Christmas, Easter and New Year's with simple singing and prayer. When planting rice, rather than engaging in elaborate rituals, Christian Karen simply pray in the field.
Karen Stories and Myths
Traditional Karen beliefs sound an awful lot like the book of Genesis. They believed in one God, named Y'wa (similar to the Hebrew name for God), who was the creator of the universe. God made man who then ate a forbidden fruit and fell away from God. There is an ancient Karen poem that reads:
Y'wa formed the world originally.
He appointed food and drink.
He appointed the "fruit of trial".
He gave detailed orders.
Mu-kaw-lee deceived two persons.
He caused them to eat the fruit of the tree of trial.
They obeyed not; they believed not Y'wa ...
When they ate the fruit of trial,
They became subject to sickness,
aging and death.
There are many more similarities and much speculation as to the Karen's true origin. Some think they may even be one of the lost tribes of Israel.
In another version of the story, there were 6 or 7 people groups in the beginning of creation. One of these groups was Karen, and another was white. God gave a book to the people but the Karen people were more interested in planting food and doing their work than paying attention to God. The white man paid attention, however, and spread out far away from the Karen people.
The legend had it that day the white man would return to the Karen bringing the golden book from God. When white missionaries first came in 1812, bringing the Bible and introducing Christianity to the Karen, many Karen saw it as the fulfillment of their prophecy and readily converted. 'Conversion' might not even be the right term, since the book was seen as an extension of their previous beliefs.
Another Karen story, taken from clearpathinternational.org tells the story of a fox and a bird:
The fox lives at the bottom of a tree. The bird lives at the top, where she pecks the bark to look for insects to eat. But the fox sees trouble.
"Please do not chip the bark because it will fall down and hurt me," he says. The bird ignores him and, sure enough, the bark splinters into many pieces and falls down on the fox, hurting his back in many small places.
"Now I will take you to court," says the fox. "You hurt me very seriously!"
Once in front of the judge, the fox makes his complaint with the bird as the accused. The judge asks: "Where are your injuries?" He shows the judge the spots on his back. They are barely visible to the judge.
"But those spots are tiny," says the judge. "Why did you come to my court to complain about such a small injury?"
"Well, they may seem small to you, but they are very big to me," he answers.
Pah ends his story and remains silent for a moment. Then, he explains the moral. "Never judge someone else's injuries," he says to the applause of everyone listening.