213th Meeting – Tuesday, September 11th 2001


The Karen: Past, Present and Future?

A talk by Ron Renard


Present: Jean-Claude Afflard, Khin Moe Aung, Hans Bänziger, Jonny Barton, Dominique Belloeil, Ted Brown, John Buchanan, John & Martha Butt, John Cadet, Henry Chan, Gary Dilley, Brooks Dodge, Ron Emmons, Louis Gabaude, Jim Goodman, Simon Gourley, Peter K. Hanson, Oliver Hargreave, Annelie Hendriks, Reinhard Hohler, Celeste Holland, Khin Phyu Hyway, S. Hway, Brian  Hubbard, Soral Islania, Thomas Jakobien, Frank Kelly, Saw Rocky Khu, Andrew Kostiw, Annette Kunigagon, Fred Lambersley, Steven Lanjouw, Hanna Larsson, Sophie Le Coeur, Kim Leggett, Genevieve Le Quang, Uyen Le Quang, James Lenton, Mike Long, Madeleine Lynch, Lynette McGowan, Maggi McKerrin, Ne Min, Nai Banya Mon, Yoshimi Nakata, Karin Orneskans, Jeff Petry, Horst Schneider, Ewa Skeppstedt, David Steane, Andy Steele, Kesaraporn Suknaphasant, Naw Beam Teasdale, Jonas Thorangen, Mariko Ueda, Jacques & Rachanee Valls, Chris Velder, Renee Vines, Leo Alting von Geusau, Monika Weber, Erika Wessbo, Brock Wilson, Kevin Woods. An audience of 66. 

Summary of the talk:

The Karen people live mostly in the hills bordering the eastern region and Irrawaddy delta of Burma, primarily in Karen State, with some in Kayah State (Karenni State), southern Shan State (MoBye Region), Ayeyarwady Division (Irrawaddy Division), Southern Kawthoolei (Tenasserim Coastal Region) and in western Thailand. Divisions within the Karen are:

·        Red Karen - Sgaw - the largest and most widely scattered group;

·        Pwo - Pho Pgho: found in a western Thailand;

·        Black Karen: in the Shan States - Padaung (Kayan), Bwè, Bghai, Kayaw.

Many things are unknown about these people because for centuries they have deliberately lived in remote areas out of the way of stronger groups. There are even those (who do not call themselves Karen) who question whether there is really a group known as Karens. No matter what, because of all the imponderables and despite the best wishes of some Karen nationalists, for lack of corroborating evidence, prehistory for the Karens must be said to be anything prior to the nineteenth century. Much of the identity of these people is as orphans, living on the fringes of major powers and who have lost the golden book of civilization.

The total number of Karen is difficult to estimate. The last reliable census of Burma was conducted in the 1930s. It is estimated today that there are three million Karen living in Burma and another half a million in Thailand, where they are by far the largest of the hill tribes. While there has been a considerable amount of scholarship and other writing on the Karen, so much is unknown that either important features of what is supposed to be their culture have been forgotten or have been represented fancifully.

Conditions in Burma regarding ethnic minorities have been heavily politicized. Serious study of any groups is not now possible. Even in the old Karen centres such as Pa-an or in institutions where Karens have studied for decades such as the Insein Seminary, the study of Karens is difficult at best. Very few books or articles of any kind have been written in recent years on these people in Burma (except about rebels near the Thai border.) No academic study of a Karen group of any kind in Burma has been conducted in that country since F.K. Lehman did research in Kayah State in the early 1960s.

Thailand, however, has been the site of considerable research on Karens, which started in the 1960s when Peter Kunstadter, Charles Keyes and other began researching Karen in northern Thailand. It is ironic that the future of Karen studies rests in Thailand since among Karen from Burma many consider those in Thailand to be rustics unaware of many important features and highlights of Karen culture. Recent pioneering studies conducted in Thailand have included research on farming systems, language and history and much more is planned for the future.