Future section


270th Meeting - Tuesday, January 24th 2006

Continuation and Disruption of the Karen Religious Movement: Case of the Myitta Byamasoe in Burma 

A talk and presentation by Dr. Kwanchewan Buadaeng[2]

Present: Paul Barber-Riley, Jeanette Pembroke, Ken Kampe, Bernard Davis, Thomas Ohlson, Somkuan Piboonrat, Louis Gabaude, Suphak Nosten Hanna & Heinz, Braendi, Wendy Stanyon, Aileen Roantree, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Dayaneetha de Silva, Reinhard Hohler, Guy Cardinal, Jeff & Yang Petry, John Cadet, Saw Mu, Mark Skelton, Rebecca Sithiwong, Olivier Evrard, Alan Feinstein, Rie Nakamura, Bodil Blokker, Maria A. Salas. An audience of 28.

This is the full text of Dr. Kwanchewan’s talk and presentation


 The majority of the Karen peoples live in the frontier between Burma[3] and Thailand. In Burma, while some Karen live in the mountainous areas near to the border, many live on the plain of lower Burma. They are not confined only in the Karen state, which is the administrative zone set up at the same time as other ethnic groups states by the Burmese government in 1952. Many of them live in the coastal areas of Amherst and Thaton districts and in the central and western regions of the Irrawaddy delta area, especially Maubin, Myaungmya, and Bassein districts. In Western and Northern Thailand, most Karens live in the mountainous areas. The Karen population in Burma is variedly estimated by different sources at between 3-8 million, while an official survey of highland populations in Thailand in 2001-2002 found that there were 438,450 Karen living in 1,925 villages[4].

‘Karen’ is the generic term for people who share cultural features such as language, religious belief and daily practices, i.e. costume style, housing style etc. It is an exonym, the term outsiders use as a name for other cultural/ethnic groups. While westerners use the term ‘Karen’, the Burman, the Mon and the Shan use the terms ‘kayin’, ‘kariang’ and ‘yang’, respectively. Karen people did not originally use these terms themselves. Instead, each group has an autonym or its own term to identify itself, i.e. the term ‘pga-gan-yaw’ or ‘phlong’, used by people who are officially identified as Sgaw and Pwo subgroups of the Karen. ‘Pga-gan-yaw’ and ‘phlong’ people also identify themselves as belonging to ‘siong’ and ‘siu’ ethnic groups or ‘pa thi’, father’s side and ‘mo thi’, mother’s side. The two groups are the biggest among around ten groups which are generally classified as being under the Karenic speaking group. The other ten or so groups also have their autonyms. Only since the last century, when the need to organize peoples across small groups has arisen, has the term ‘Karen’, which was formerly an exonym, begun to be used by the people themselves. It has been further invested with the unified history and other ‘original’ cultural features in their claim to being a nation which is as great as the others.

One important historical fact is that the majority of the Karen had never had their own state. This is with the exception of Kayah people, if we classify them under the Karen, who had had their principality called ‘muang’ ruled by a king, in the same way as other Tai groups in the frontier between Siam, Burma, Laos and Yunnan. The Karen people have many folktales about caw pa, the king, and his relationship with the Karen. Because of this some may conclude that the Karen had had their own kingdom in the past. But the word caw pa, I believe, is similar to the word saw bwa, the Burmese term for a Tai king, which must be derived from chao fa, a Tai word for ‘The Lord’ (literally ‘Lord-Sky’). Besides which, I found no trace of a traditional structure which would have organized the Karen across villages. Karen villages which were near to other kingdoms; namely the Tai, Thai, Mon, and Burmese, were subjected to these kingdoms. But the Karen were usually at the periphery of these kingdoms and viewed by other groups as ‘hill or forest people.’ They lived scatteredly in hills and valleys and had no political center. The fact that each village was more or less autonomous; not controlled under a hierarchical structure, explains, I think, why the Karen had chosen various political and religious options when they tried to organize themselves to counter the threat from centralised powers. In this process, some who lived near Mon and Burmese Buddhists started to adopt Buddhism.

      Starting in the early 19th century, the British colonization of Burma brought about drastic changes in types of power relations. With the opportunities given by the British government and Christian missionaries, the educated Karen in lowland towns had created a Karen national organization to gain equal rights and status with the Burmese.  Since their independence in 1948, the Karen National Union, the political organization which developed from the organization set up during the time of colonization, has fought for an autonomous Karen state. However, many Karen in different locations choose to organize themselves in religious ways to create new religious communities to withstand and repel the dominating powers. The Talakhon, the Myitta Byamasoe, the Leke, the Do-Way, and various ‘Khuba’ movements focus on the construction of religious monuments[5]. A few are led by religious leaders from other ethnic backgrounds but largely upheld by the Karen. Some movements’ influential areas are across borders such as the Talakhon and the ‘Khuba’ movements, others are largely confined in Burma.

      I should explain here that I use the word ‘movement’ for the above mentioned Karen religious cults for two reasons. First, each movement has had a long life; they claim to have continued either the belief or the real organization since the time of their forefathers until nowadays. Second, each movement can mobilize a lot of followers across many villages and locations. In this paper, I use the term ‘movement’ when I refer in general to these Karen religious groups, and the word ‘cult’ when I specifically refer to an organization. I know that the word ‘cult’ could have a pejorative meaning but I use it to stress the fact that each religious group has developed its own characteristics, which often are the syncretism between their traditions and foreign religions. I prefer not to use the word ‘sect’ for it implies more a small group in the world religions.

      Although many Karen religious movements have lasted for a long time - more than a century from the colonial period until nowadays, when exploring each movement I found that tensions/disruptions have occurred many times during this long period, and that adjustment have been made. The disruptions/tensions can also lead to internal division and the setting up of a new movement. Here, I would like to put forward that the key to the continuation or discontinuation of the movement is the ability of the movement to construct and maintain the Karen’s imagination and aspiration for their own righteous ‘kingdom’, to strengthen their organization, and to construct and maintain their rules and practices in effective ways to unite the followers and counter and contest with other powerful groups. To illustrate this, in this paper I will discuss the case of Myitta Byamasoe Karen movement in Burma. Data for this case were mainly from secondary sources and from my field research in Hmawbi and Taungoo centres of Myitta Byamasoe in July 2004.

Myitta Byamasoe: from 1866 to present

      Myitta Byamasoe is the present official name of a Karen religious group which has its headquarters in Taungoo, the city at the northern end of the Bago division, around the frontier between Burma and Thailand. The word ‘Myitta Byamasoe’ literally means ‘Brahman’s kindness principle.’ The background of the foundation and more explanation on the meaning of Myitta Byamasoe can be found in “Myitta Byamasoe: a retrospection on the Karen Traditional Home Religion” pamphlet (hereinafter referred to as ‘the pamphlet’), as quoted:

…under the plight of difficult conditions of life some of our people for many reasons became Buddhist and later on when our country was taken over by the British imperialist many Karen who regarded white men as their younger brothers and who believed in the Bible History brought to them by white missionaries willingly turned into Christians.

But among the Karen there are some minorities like us who have faith only in the true tradition of our forefathers who used to worship the Almighty God since ancient times reunited themselves to pursue the way our forefathers had walked on…

…we have to bring together those whose faiths are common into one united group and formed a religious society. The leader who had emerged among our people to take up the responsibility and lead us in the rightful direction was the holy Karen elder called “Phoo Bu Bywe Mu” He was also revered by the Burmese who regarded him as a saint and knew him by the name of Boe Paik San. He laid down the path for his followers to the four fundamental doctrines of Bramans... …it conforms with the basic admonishments and doctrines of our forefathers. The names of our religious society which is called “Myitta Byamasoe” is also derived from the fact that we stick to the four fundamental rules of Bramans which are love, compassion, rejoice in someone’s accomplishment, and magnanimity. [Emphasis is original].

(The pamphlet n.d.: 2,3)

      So the pamphlet clearly explains that the movement emerged in order to unite the Karen who did not want to be Buddhist or Christian but to stick to the forefathers’ tradition. This is also reflected in the emphasis that Myitta Byamasoe is “the Karen traditional home religion”.

      To understand the historical context in which the movement emerged, here is a chronology of the Myitta Byamasoe and important historical events.

During the pre-colonization of Burma

      In 1826, after winning the first Anglo-Burmese war, the British government took control of the coastal areas of Arakan and Tennessarim. In the same year, the missionaries started evangelizing the Karen and in 1828 were able to convert the first Karen, Ko Tha Byu.

      In 1840, Hsar Phaw Wa, literally star white flower, was born to a Karen family in a village of Papun town around the Yunzalin/Salaween area.

      In 1852, after the second Anglo-Burmese war, the British government took control over lower Burma including frontier areas between Burma and Siam.

      In 1866, Phoo Bu Bywe Mu Boe or Boe Paik San started preaching the Myitta Byamasoe[6]

During the colonization of Burma by the British government

      In 1885, after the third Anglo-Burmese war, the British government took over the whole of Burma and tried to suppress revolts which occurred in many places. One of the Shan princes of Lin Pin revolted and attacked Shwegin.

      In 1888, after receiving information on his connections with the rebels, the British Government arrested Boe Paik San and sent him to Moulmein Prison[7]. The pamphlet however explains a different motivation for this arrest:

‘At that time Boe Paik San had already gained a large number of his followers in the eastern hilly region in “Taungoo” district. And during that time the western missionaries who tried to convert the majority of the Karen people to become Christian saw Boe Paik San as a barrier to their mission. So to slander the name of Boe Paik San, false information was reported about him to the British authorities to get him arrested.’ (3)

      In 1889, upon release, Boe Paik San with his disciples converted to Christianity and started to build many monuments and infrastructure in many locations.

      In 1909, Boe Paik San left the Baptist mission with all of his followers and formed the new group called “Free Church Mission.” He died in 1912.        

      In 1926, Dr. Durmay Po Min was anointed to become the cult’s head. He organized a Karen association call Tha Taw G'rare or "The Loyal Karen Association." He died in 1931.

      In 1931, Saw Thomson D Po Min, Dr. Durmay’s son, was anointed to be the new head. He emphasized the importance of the La Bwe Bwa, literally moon-full-old, or one day after full moon, on which the ceremony is to be held. He registered the cult under the new name: Dator Dalo G’rer, or “Society of Righteousness”. He died in 1945.

      In 1946, the elder brother, Johnson, succeeded to the position. He set up many new policies especially the purification of their practices such as forbidding alcohol, drugs and smoking. He also changed the ceremonial day to the La Bwe, full moon day.

After Burma got independence in 1948

      In 1952, Johnson established the headquarters at Hmawbi, a town in the suburbs of Rangoon. The split between the La Bwe Bwa and the La Bwe started. He died in 1971. His wife then succeeded to the position.

      In 1984, the headquarters was moved to Taungoo. Victor D. Po Min, Johnson’s son, was anointed as the new head.

      In 1988, the La Bwe Bwa groups from Hmawbi, Padoplaw and other places, but not D. Po Min’s La Bwe group in Taungoo, met and agreed to hold the worship ceremony on La Bwe Bwa day.

      In 2000, the La Bwe Bwa groups met and elected a new leader of Hmawbi and Padoplaw.    

      From the chronology above, the Myitta Byamasoe development has gone through at least three different periods: the pre-colonization, the colonization and the nation-building periods. In each period, the structure of power relations was different and thus the experiences of the head, the leaders, and the followers of the cult. The cult identity and strategies had been reconsidered and reconstructed to be able to maintain the movement. As we can see, during the pre-colonization period Boe Paik San had been able to mobilize a lot of Karen followers who upheld traditional religions. In the colonization period, the British authorities saw his movement as a threat to their government and arrested him. Upon release, Boe Paik San decided to convert to Christianity in order to learn more about Christian doctrines and its evangelization among the Karen, which had gained momentum. During this period, he gained many more followers among Christian Karen. However, before he died in 1912, it was said his popularity had declined. Many problems reportedly happened including his remarriage, which led to some disappointment among some of his followers who expected his sexual restriction. Lewis (1946: 296) summarized that he took his life because “he was despondent probably over his sins, his debts, factions within his group, his diminishing leadership, his loss of popularity, and his friend’s deception.”    

      After Boe Paik San, leaders were educated Karen born in the time when the Karen nationalist idea had been formed. However, they chose not to join Karen nationalist movements but to continue the Myitta Byamasoe religious movement. In this last period, tensions occur internally between those who upheld the La Bwe Bwa and those who upheld the La Bwe; the former claimed to be more traditional because it had been upheld since the time of Boe Paik San, while the latter had only been upheld since the time of Johnson in the late 1940s.          

Myitta Byamasoe religious organization

      Three important components of the religious organization are the prophet or the head, the leaders, and the followers, each of which plays an important role in strengthening the movement. The prophet could not emerge if the prophecy had not been repeated and reproduced by potential followers. The speculation in the prophet was usually aroused at the point where people collectively felt or were made to feel oppressed or dominated.     

Prophecy and speculation in the prophet

      Living side by side with Mon, Shan, Thai or Burmese Buddhist neighbors, the Karen learned the idea of Bodhisattva, the Buddha or a deity reborn in different versions, to teach people, directly or indirectly, to observe morality to prepare for the millennium brought about by Ariyametrai, the fifth Buddha. Based on missionaries’ and British officials’ reports during 1830s-1870s, Gravers (1999:99, 105, 106) refers to many religious/political movements led by charismatic Karen leaders, called min luang in Burmese (‘king in the making’), in the Yunzalin/Salaween area, which is also the birthplace of Myitta Byamasoe. During 1844-46, Maw Lay or the prophet Areemaday emerged and led the fight with the British. In 1856, another Karen leader from Papun named Saw Dwe Gow led the attack of British forces. In 1867-1868, another prophet, Maung Dee Pah, appeared in Papun and mobilized the Karen in the Salaween area[8]. As Gravers observes, it seems to be a long – almost dynastic -- tradition of rebellion, as Muang Dee Pah referred to his predecessor, Saw Swe Gow; Saw Swe Gow had repaired the pagoda built by Maw Lay, and Maw Lay’s sons also joined Saw Swe Gow. The tradition has not yet ended as in 1938, Phu Gwe Gow, a Karen leader, built a monastery near Kler Doe Kya in the Papun Hills, in the Salween district. He was however killed during the war.

Within this historical context, in which Karen peoples were insecure and at a crossroads for which direction to go, speculation in the Karen’s own prophet was aroused. The speculation is practiced by telling or speaking out or writing about the prophecy allegedly given by a mythical figure or a former prophet, and by looking for one whose charisma is more or less in accordance with the prophecy. This can be seen in the writings about the emergence of the founder of Myitta Byamasoe and his successors.

Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min’s[9] book is the most complete in explaining the background of Myitta Byamasoe and the biography of Boe Paik San and Dr. Durmay Po Min.  The book does not specify the publishing date but it must have been published after 1970 because one of the references is published in 1970. The book is one out of many attempts to fix the collective memory of members on the history of the cult and the biography of its leaders. It is also used to explain to outsiders and to educate their own members.

In the book, Boe Paik San is said to be the reincarnation of a former prophet, Phoo Kaw Moo, a Paduang born in the area which is now the Kayah state. As with other prophets, stories about Phoo Kaw Moo’s miracles were written. His mother had not married but got pregnant after receiving the light beam from the sky. 15 days after being born, Phoo Kaw Moo was able to speak and walk. He could accomplish his work successfully for example in building a temple. Once he thought of digging a pond. After only one time digging, water flew out and became a pond. His reputation was later known to the Lord who tried to kill him. With the Lord’s ill intention, Phoo Kaw Moo finally became mad and was executed by villagers. Before he died, Phoo Kaw Moo gave the prophecy regarding the next prophet that:

When he dies, bury his body at the foot of the hill. There, a pine will grow. If its northern branch falls, he will be born female. But if its southern branch falls, he will be born male, which then makes people very happy. If its western branch falls, war will emerge. Then only one person is left to construct a temple, a resting hall and a wall. People will know that that person is nobody but him…

As it is described in the book, a tree grew up and a southern branch fell. People then remembered Phoo Kaw Moo’s words and believed that the next prophet had already born as a boy. Not long after that, people heard that Boe Paik San had built many temples. People who knew Phoo Kaw Moo assigned three leaders to visit Boe Paik San. The first leader had full faith in Phoo Kaw Moo; the second one had some belief in Phoo Kaw Moo; the last one did not believe in Phoo Kaw Moo. As a result of visiting to Boe Paik San, the first one said that Boe Paik San looked like Phoo Kaw Moo; the second one said that the former was half similar to the latter; and the last one said that the former was very different from the latter.

The book by Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min also confirms the prophecy of Phoo Kaw Moo, which confirmed that Boe Paik San was the next prophet. Maw Lay or the prophet Areemaday mentioned above also gave a prophecy that one day a sacred man would be born in the area to the North. He urged that people saved money and built temples and water reservoir so that that sacred man would lead them to salvation.

Maw Lay, who seems to have the traditional religious position of ‘wee’ or a person who can conduct the divination, is found recorded by missionaries who started converting the Karen in Burma in 1826. Judson (1833: 39-44) and Mason (1862) (referred in Gravers 1999:99-100) while traveling on the Yunzalin and Salween rivers since 1830s met a famous Karen religious leader, whom they called ‘the prophet Areemaday’, which is the name of the coming Buddha. It was found that he had followers in the whole region as far as Moulmein and attracted Karen from all parts of Burma. He rejected conversion and his followers became increasingly hostile towards the missionaries. At the end of his life, he joined the Kayah chief to fight against a Burmese force in 1844-46. He was then killed in battle. Marshall (1922) writes that:

when he [Maw Lay] appeared among the white men he was called Jesus Christ, and that when he appeared among the Karen he was known as “Maw Lay” The new cult originated about the middle of the last century and spread rapidly into almost every district where the Karen are found. At one time its adherents seem to have numbered some thousands.

So Boe Paik San is a reincarnated successor of previous prophets according to the interpretation of followers and his own claim. He has many different names. The Burmese would call him, Ko San Ye, ‘Mr. rice and water’, or Boe Paik San, ‘Lord of Money’[10]. The name Boe Paik San derives from the fact that he was able to mobilize a lot of money to build religious monuments and other infrastructure project. The Karen would call him by another honorific name Phoo Bu Bywe Moo, literally ‘Lord-grain-full-heaven/life’. 

As described by Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min, Boe Paik San had got the sign that he would become a prophet long before he started the Myitta Byamasoe movement. When he was young, he went to study at a Buddhist temple in the town of Shwegin. But he could not stay until he finished because he had no money. He then returned to his village and later worked as a cook for Saw Thet Paw, a wealthy man who owned an elephant camp[11]. One day, Saw Thet Paw was to visit elephant camp so Boe Paik San went into the jungle to hunt for game to cook for his boss. He sighted a white elephant and attempted to shoot it but it disappeared when he aimed his gun. This happened three times.  He then realized that it was in fact a sign of divine revelation, which inspired him to do something good for his people. As further described, when all the workers returned to the camp, he gathered them and told them what happened. He said what happened implied that other nations would interfere with their religion, destroy Karen people and deteriorate their religion. He said it was the right time to maintain their culture and teach the right things.  He volunteered be the one who would be responsible for the protection of their traditions and culture. 

As with other prophets, Boe Paik San was said to possess supernatural powers. Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min describes 29 events which were evidence of Boe Paik San’s supernatural power. These include, to mention only some of them, Boe Paik San’s ability to lengthen and shorten his body; to stop the sun descending; to turn cooked duck to living duck, to turn around the sun, to ripen green banana in a second, to stop a moving train by just pressing a foot on the train, to be able to communicate with birds, to catch stars, to divide his body into two, to be able to walk in the sea, and to resurrect seven days after death.

As it was written, before he died, Boe Paik San told his disciples that he could no longer lead them through all the hardship and obstruction. Disciples and followers should try to proceed without hesitation because there would be a Karen who would be able to make their religion prosperous. This would be the one who owned white elephants. To help followers remember this prophecy he built a statue of a white elephant at the Nyuang Lay Bin building. He stressed that after his death the Karen should wait for that leader and follow his leadership.

As written in the pamphlet, Boe Paik San had prepared for his last day. He summoned his followers and said to them that “From now on I will leave you in the hand of God so you all must keep to the good tradition of our forefathers whose way is free from all the influence of foreign cultures and strings.”(The pamphlet, n.d.:5) The story around Boe Paik San’s death; that people did not believe that he died but that he took a journey somewhere else and would come back some days later, also opened the speculation in the prophet. 

One day in 1912, Boe Paik San’s body was found submerged in the well at Pa Do Plaw. According to the pamphlet (n.d.: 7), when people saw his body, they were not sure if it was Boe Paik San. On the morning when people found his body, a farmer had seen him passing his field to the east with a bag slung from his shoulder. An officer at the railway station also saw him buy a ticket to Rangoon. He even claimed to have had tea with Boe Paik San and then accompanied him to his wagon and saw him off. 7 days after his death, his brother-in-law saw his resurrection with a holy spirit but only told this to others fifty-five years later, just before he died. As written in Lewis (1946: 298), “there are still many thousands who believe in his future resurrection.”

After Boe Paik San died in 1912, Phoo Ywa Do, who Boe Paik San said was his father in his past life, carried on the movement as a caretaker, until fourteen years later, in 1926, Phoo Ywa Do approached Dr. Durmay Po Min (henceforth Durmay) to invite him to be the head of the Myitta Byamasoe.

According to Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min, Durmay was born in 1877 at Thayedo village, Thandaung Township, east of Taungoo. He started to gain a sign of being the next prophet when he was a child. He attended a missionary school in Shwegin. One day when he walked back to the village and crossed a river, a flash flood came, he was carried away and remembered that he shouted for help from the God before being drowned. When he regained consciousness, he found himself lying on the riverbank, no wound was found on his body and his clothes were dry. He then heard a voice saying that his life was saved because one day in the future he would be the one to save his own nation.

Durmay studied medicine in Calcutta and later worked at a clinic in Taungoo. At the same time he also had a business rounding up wild elephants and training them to work in logging activities. Before getting a white elephant in 1919, he also got a sign. In his relative’s house in Taungoo, when he sat in the guest room, a hen came and laid an egg before him. When he went to the backyard, another hen jumped on his shoulder and laid egg in his shirt pocket. Some people then had expected that he would soon get a white elephant because the word ‘chaw’ for chicken is similar to the word ‘ka chaw’ which means elephant. As he was selected as the Karen leader, he went to England at his own expenses and promoted the “Karenness” by republishing Smeaton’s book on ‘Loyal Karen of Burma” and distributing it to people in London. After having caught white elephants, he traveled with his white elephant to England again in 1926, to America in 1927 and to India in 1928. 

In 1926 Durmay was anointed as the leader of the followers at Tongyi (Pegu) building with a grand celebration reportedly attended by at least 100,000 people. He assumed the title of Phoo Kahsor Wah Gaza, “Lord of White elephants”. Durmay organized a Karen association called "Tha Taw G'rare" or "The Loyal Karen Association" to unify Boe Paik San's followers. Before he died in 1931, he had said that although he was unable to fully achieve the goal of their religion, his children would carry on with better achievements.

According to Mann Linn Myat Kyaw (1980), although the elder son Saw Johnson De Po Min[12] (henceforth Johnson) should have succeeded to the position of religious head, because he was so busy with representing his people in the political field the duties of the religious affairs were temporarily entrusted to the younger son Saw Thomson De Po Min (henceforth Thomson). Thomson assumed the title of “Phoo Gaza Hto Mae Ba”, ‘Lord of Wild Boar’s Tusks’. He registered the sect under the new name, "Byamazo Sect" or "Society of Righteousness" on the 3rd of May 1934. Over 80,000 members were registered. He had actively carried out his leadership until 1941 when the Second World War and Japanese invasion had arrived in Burma. In 1942, he was arrested by the British Government for a while together with his elder brother Johnson. During the Japanese occupation he was arrested again and was tortured, and later released. To avoid further arrests and torture, he went into hiding in the jungle where, in 1945, he died of malaria.

Mann Linn Myat Kyaw (1980) further describes that after Thomson, in 1946 Phoo Ywa Do anointed Johnson to become the cult’s head. Johnson was born in 1904 at Taungoo and finished his study from Judson College (the so-called Karen College) in Rangoon. Being the religious head, he assumed the honorific name of "Phoo Da Moo Gaza," ‘Lord of Living’, which is the same as the name of the Da Moo Lor building in Pa Do Plaw, which was built by Boe Paik San and where he was anointed the head. In 1952, Johnson established the center at Hmawbi, a suburb town of Rangoon. He had further purified the cult’s practices such as forbidding alcohol, drugs and smoking. He also changed the worship day to full moon day, la bwe, instead of a day after full moon, la bwe bwa. After he died in 1971, his wife became the next leader, being Phi Da Moo Gaza. She later moved to Taungoo and established the headquarters there. She died in 1984 and her son, Victor De Po Min, succeeded to the head position, being Phoo Ner Doo until nowadays. 

Religious leaders and followers

Whilst the prophet is an important component in the religious organization, it is quite clear in the case of Myitta Byamasoe that religious leaders, such as Phoo Ywa Do, played an important role in interpreting the prophecy and deciding together with other leaders on who was a true prophet. Honorific names were bestowed on the prophet with the consensus of religious leaders, who represented Karen from many villages. It has to be noted here that the title phoo, in case of a man, and phi, in case of a woman are Sgaw Karen words normally for ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandmother.’[13]  However, among the Karen in Burma it is used as the title for the head of a Karen religious cult.[14] Thus the word’s meaning is changed from being old and having at least one grandchild to being respectful and legitimated to lead the cult. Besides being legitimated and respectful, the prophets are believed to gain support from deities, emerge to create and spread their religion, and usually possess supernatural power to thwart off evils which would obstruct their path to salvation. Thus this new meaning of the word phoo is much closer to the word ‘Lord’.

Names given to the heads of Myitta Byamasoe also reflect the belief and the hope of the followers. The meaning of the names can be related to a powerful and great life such as Phoo Bu Bywe Moo, literally ‘Lord-grain-full-heaven/life’. It can also relate to certain powerful symbols as with Phoo Kahsor Wah Gaza, ‘Lord of White elephants’. Also, it can be the name of the forefather in the Karen myth i.e. Thaw Meh Pa. This way the name serves as the embodiment of the collective memory of the Karen origin and identity. In addition, in many cases, not only Myitta Byamasoe but also other Buddhist movements, the name of the head sometimes derives from the name of the place where he set his center i.e. in the case of Phoo Da Moo Gaza. Alternatively, the place can be named after the name of the religious head[15].  The implication of this is that the place is marked as belonging to a certain Lord, in the same way as the traditional belief that there are spirit owners of nature as appear in the names of Lord of Land and Water, Lord of certain mountains, Lord of certain streams, etc. In this way the place serves as the embodiment of the memory of the existence of the Karen Lord and their activities in the past. As often as not, the prophecy regarding the birthplace of the future Lord is interpreted to be the place not far from the present prophet’s place. This is why the area around the Yunzalin/Salaween watershed, which is the location for big towns such as Shwegin, Nyanglebin, Papun, Taungoo, has been continuously the ground of Karen religious movements and rebellions led by charismatic religious leaders.

In any Karen religious movement, as in the case of Myitta Byamasoe, in each community, which can be a village or larger, there is a religious leader who will lead in rituals in accordance with the movement’s rules. He has to see that followers practice in accordance with the movement’s ideology and regulations, even during the period when the prophet is absent. The relationship between the prophet, leaders, and followers has to be maintained in the way that first, the prophet and leaders perform in accordance with followers’ expectation; second, the prophet’s practices are in the way that can draw faith and supports from followers; third, leaders legitimate the existence of the prophet and support the prophet’s activities; fourth, the succession process in which some followers become new leaders is always in place. The disruption or the breaking down of the movement in a certain period is usually the result of the broken linkage between the prophet, religious leaders, and followers.

Religious practices and the monuments construction

While the organization and relations between the prophet, leaders, and followers are important to maintain the movement, the movement’s practices are also crucial in this respect. Religious practices include those practiced by individual members in daily life, and communal rituals and ceremonies conducted on various occasions in the religious hall. For the Myitta Byamasoe, the main practices which make the cult different from other religions are being vegetarian, the organization of worship ceremony on La Bwe Bwa day, the worship of Boe Paik San and Kahsor Wah Gaza, the wearing of Karen costume on ceremonial days, and other religious techniques and procedures of worship. However, it is noted that the practices have been modified during the movement’s life, which is longer than a century. Also, practices of followers in each center could be different. For example, I was told that in the beginning everybody was vegetarian so they did not raise chickens and pigs but now they were vegetarian only on religious days. In the Hmawbi center in 2004, the followers told me that now they raise chickens following the Karen tradition but they do not raise them inside the center compound. Here, their religious day is on La Bwe Bwa, not La Bwe day as upheld by the Taungoo center. I was also told that Boe Pike San is the only Ywa, the God that they worship. In Taungoo, the followers are vegetarian on every Wednesday, La Bwe day and other religious days. Here, the leaders who are Johnson’s children clearly differentiate Myitta Byamasoe from Christianity. They told me that the Bible is only for the Jews not for other peoples. There is only one Ywa, the same God worshipped by every religion. Jesus is a prophet not the Son of God and he represents only the Jews not other peoples. For the Karen, it is Boe Pike San whom “Almighty God’ sent to lead the peoples.

The Myitta Byamasoe principles and practices have been constructed based on the appropriation of certain elements, symbols and meanings of Karen and other traditions. By ‘appropriation’, I follow the definition in Tanabe and Keyes (2002:23): “We define appropriation as a process of making one’s own the messages embodied in these cultural practices.” In this case, leaders select some elements of Karen and other traditions, combine or integrate them together to become the new cult which reflects ‘Karen’ identity in a more powerful and strategic way.  We have to accept that knowledge, experiences, visions, and the creativity of leaders are important components in the establishment of a strong movement. Certainly, the leaders’ new ideas and practices must reflect peoples’ experiences and stimulate their inspiration and actions.  In the case of the Myitta Byamasoe, Boe Paik San’s practices of many religions and his creativity in forming new practices and giving new meanings can be seen from his biography.

Mann Linn Myat Kyaw (1980) writes that after receiving the sign that he was selected to be a savior, Boe Paik San, then Hsar Paw Wah, left his work at the elephant camp and returned to his village. He married but later lost his wife and child due to illness, despite worshipping and propitiating traditional spirits. He then considered the spirits unreliable. He left his village and studied Buddhism at a monastery in Shwegin township Also, according to Harris (referred in Lewis 1946: 283), he retired to a high mountain peak, about twenty-five miles east of Shwegyin town, “Like Buddha, after the tribulations of the world struck the undergirdings of life from under him, San Ye retired to the life of a recluse, to meditate on the meaning of life for seven years.” In 1866, he began to wear a white robe, eat only vegetables, practice the five precepts (sila) and began preaching about the four Byamasoe. The pamphlet, however, explains that it was a strategic move of Boe Paik San:

To avoid being suspected of insurrection against the Burmese monarchy and its rule, he at first had to work his way like hermit by meditating and preaching on a hill in a suburb of “Shwegin township”. Lots of people from nearby villages regarded him as a saint and came to listen to his preachings. Then the number of those who believed in him grew rapidly in short time. His fame spread to the other parts of the region so that more and more peoples around there were eager to come and see him.

      Also, because he accepted baptism in 1889, many Christians also followed him. He started to build many religious monuments, infrastructure and facilities from the large amount of money he was able to mobilize[16]. His popularity and his unusual method of collecting money was mentioned by San C. Po (1928), the Karen national leader in that time:

The influence and personality of this man was simply wonderful among a certain class of Karens, and he was such a man of mystery that people of all classes were not satisfied until they had seen him, and had shaken hands with him once in their lifetime. One of his methods of procuring money was to invest in a few hundred rupees work of safety pins which he would sell for one rupee each. People would pay for them without a word just for the sake of having a memento of Po Hsan Ye…He would receive the money that was given him in a silver or brass bowl containing water. “For,” he said, “money is hot, and it must be cooled down, and washed in water to make it fit for good use.”

      Purser (referred in Lewis 1946: 285) also described his popularity based on his combination of many religions:

He conceived the idea of combining some of the more popular of the ancient customs of the Karens with the teachings of Buddha and Christ, as far as he knew them. He soon become remarkably popular, and crowds of Karens flocked in the place he had built in imitation of a pong-gyi-kyuang (Buddhist monastery) and enrolled themselves as disciples. The initiatory rite consists of taking a morsel of rice from the hands of Ko Pi San. Rs 30/- in the case of a man, Rs 20/- for a woman, and Rs 15/- for a child. The new disciples undertook to eschew strong drink, and to keep the Sabbath, when they have these services in imitation of the Christians.

      After being baptized together with one hundred and forty disciples, Boe Paik San had studied the bible for a year. As reviewed by Lewis (1946: 286-287), missionaries had mixed feeling toward him: being admired, appreciated, but also skeptical. Some were not sure if he went the right way for he based his knowledge and practices on elements of not only Christianity but also Buddhism and Karen traditions:

Although Ko San Ye was unable to read and write, he acquired a considerable knowledge of Bible truths. “He had peculiar influence over the heathen Karens,” says S.R. Vinton. The people crowded to him evidently believing that he possessed occult, super-human powers. He knew some of the Old Karen Y’ah (God) stories, some of the animistic lore of the naht-worship, and some of the ridiculous rebirth stories of Buddha. He had a fascinating way of telling of his dissatisfaction with Buddhism and his complete satisfaction in Christ. Sometimes, however, he and his followers jumbled these truths and part-truths together and from this hodge-podge of doctrines and practices came the cults of the Ko San Ye sect.

      Lewis (1946: 291-292) refers to Harris who commented about the unnecessary large monuments built by Boe Paik San that:

These buildings were much larger than could ever be required for legitimate Christian work. Ko San Ye himself represented that they were simply for the accommodation of the people when they assembled for worship, but some declared that they were to be courts and palaces for Ko San Ye when he should be appointed and established by God as the Karen Messiah.

…And since, Ko San Ye was useful in bringing the heathen to hear the gospel, -- and the missionaries preached often by invitation of the old man, they felt that Ko San Ye was valuable to them…

…for the Rev. Andrew Van Buran Crumb, of the Paku Karen Mission, Toungoo, mentions him in the Burma Baptist Missionary Conference in 1889-90 as “the false prophet”.

      Boe Paik San had been under the Baptist Mission for 20 years. He then left the Mission with all of his followers. According to Lewis (1946: 295), the new group was known as the “Free Church Mission.”

Construction of the religious monuments and other infrastructure led by Boe Paik San and other leaders, with a great amount of money and labor invested by followers, was also an important activity which strengthened and expanded the movement. I would say that this was because the activity embodied the ‘social memory’, which was, according to James Fentress and Chris Wickham (1992: 25) (referred in Tanabe and Keyes 2002:3): “an expression of collective experience, giving a group a sense of its past, and defining its aspirations for the present and the future”. The building of religious monuments and infrastructure reminded the people that in the past the initiative to build and the patronage of the monasteries was the task of the King and his noblemen. It gave the sense of belonging and the spiritual fulfillment during and after the construction. It also gave hope for the Karen kingdom to emerge in the future.

In Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min’s book, Boe Paik San had built around thirty religious monuments and other infrastructure during 1888-1909, when he was a Baptist. These include ceremonial halls, rest-houses, rice barns, temples, rice mills, wells, etc. The amount of money used in the construction was from 1,500 kyat to 200,000 kyat. They were built on land which was bought by Boe Paik San, or given by the British government, or donated by his relatives and followers. Many construction projects were conducted in cooperation with missionaries.

Many edifices were made of teak and so huge, as Lewis (1946: 289) writes, that two thousand or more people could assemble at one time comfortably. This was why people commented, as mentioned above, that they were intended to be the palaces of the coming Karen King or messiah. Moreover, many edifices were also built near towns beside the railway tracks and visible from the car-windows to everyone; as at Hmaw-bi, Ok-kan and Let-pa-dan on the Rangoon-Prome Railway line and Ton-gyi and Nyaung-le-bin on the Rangoon-Mandalay line. Lewis referred to a missionary in reporting that “So great has been the sum of money spent on these futile buildings that thousands of the poor Karens have impoverished themselves, having mortgaged their fields, in providing the means for their erection.”

Among the many buildings the outstanding ones are the church building in Pa Do Plaw, a new village meaning Great Field. Boe Paik San established this village where there was only a big Banyan tree, and the land was suitable for cultivating. The Da Moo Lor building, which was built in 1895, has 131 pillars imitating the Ko Tha Byu 100 pillar church that he had seen in Bassein.[17] Another church built in Nyanglebin was named Six Languages Church for Boe Paik San’s vision that people from six language groups would live together in the future.


This paper describes the case of Myitta Byamasoe Karen religious movement which was founded in 1866 and continues until the present (2005). It originated in the Yunzalin/Salween area but later focused in the area around Sittoung River covering the big town like Taungoo, Nyanglebin, Shwegin and expanded to the suburban area of Rangoon.  The paper shows that the continuation of the movement depends largely on the way the religious organization is reconstructed and the practices are reproduced and modified to maintain the members’ inspiration and actions to achieve the movement’s goal. The cult practices have been the result of the integration of selected elements from Karen and many other traditions. These include individual practices of being vegetarian and rituals conducted, and collective activities such as the construction of religious monuments including the use of symbols such as white elephants which reflect the ethnic and local identity of Myitta Byamasoe’s followers. As it is described, the practices have been adjusted to be the most effective to draw followers together and to contest with other powerful groups which have changed in the different contexts of power relations. Tensions within the group also occurred as to which type of organization and practices would most closely reflect the followers’ experiences and their inspiration. In Saw Muang Toke (2004), there are around 100,000 Myitta Byamasoe, out of which 50,000 belong to La Bwe Bwa and another 50,000 belong to La Bwe.

I believe that so far as the Karen as an ethnic minority of Thailand and Burma are still marginalized, the conditions for the emergence of the religious/political movement has always existed. The prophecy is still kept alive and the speculation in the prophet, the practice of vegetarianism and ascetic practices, and the construction of monuments seem to be continuously used as effective tools to unite these marginalized followers and to contest with others. However, the identity and strategy of each movement has to be diversified as it has to reflect the collective experiences and ideas of diverse groups of Karen.


Cohen, Paul T.  2000. "A Buddha Kingdom in the Golden Triangle: Buddhist Revivalism and the Charismatic Monk Khruba Bunchum," The Australian Journal of Anthropology  11(2): 141-154.

.___________. 2001. "Buddhism Unshackled: The Yuan 'Holy Man' Tradition and the Nation-State in the Tai World," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 32(2), pp 227-247.

Gravers, Mikael. 1999. Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma: an Essay on the Historical Practice of Power.  Great Britain: Curzon Press.

Kwanchewan Buadaeng. 2002. “Khuba Movements and the Karen in Northern Thailand: Negotiating Sacred Space and Identity” Cultural Diversity and Conservation in the Making of Mainland Southeast Asia and Southwestern China: Regional Dynamics in the Past and Present, Collected Papers originally presented at Luang Phrabang, Lao P.D.R., 19-20 February 2002. Yukio Hayashi and Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy eds. Bangkok: Amarin Printing and Publishing Public Company Limited. 

Kwanchewan Srisawat. 1988. "The Karen and the Khruba Khao Pi Movement: A Historical Study of the Response to the Transformation in Northern Thailand," M.A. Thesis, Ateneo de Manila University.

Lewis, James Lee. 1946. “Self-Supporting Karen Churches in Burma: A Historical Study of the Development of Karen Stewardship.” Th.D. A Dissertation presented to the Faculty of the Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

Mann Linn Myat Kyaw. 1980. Karen Traditions Digest. Rangoon.

Marshall, Harry I. 1945. The Karens of Burma.  Burma Pamphlets of the Burma Research Society. Rangoon: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd.

“Myitta Byamasoe: a Retrospection on the Karen Traditional Home Religion”, a booklet brochure.

Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min. n.d. Justice of Teaching History.

Po, San C. 2001 [1928]. Burma and the Karens. Bangkok: White Lotus.

“Salween District”, 1961 (reprint) Burma Gazetteer.  Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing and Stationery, Union of Burma.

Smeaton, Donald Mackenzie. 1887. The Loyal Karens of Burma. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Co.’s Publications.

Stern, Theodore. 1968. "Ariya and the Golden Book: A Millenarian Buddhist Sect among the Karen," The Journal of Asian Studies 27(2): 297-328.

Tanabe, Shigeharu and Keyes, Charles. F. 2002. “Introduction” in Shigeharu Tanabe and Charles F. Keyes, eds. Cultural Crisis and Social Memory: Modernity and Identity in Thailand and Laos. London: RoutledgeCurzon.


After an extended question and answer session in which members of the audience revealed an extensive, and in one case a familial knowledge of the subject of Dr. Kwanchewan’s paper, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria.


[1] A paper presented at the International Conference on Southeast Asia: A Global Crossroads, organized by the Southeast Asia Regional Exchange Program(SEASREP) during  8-9 December 2005, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Data written in this paper is from the two-year research project (2004-2006) on religious cults of the Karen peoples both in Myanmar and in Thailand. The author would like to specially thank the Toyota Foundation for financial support and Mrs. Yumiko Himemoto-Hiraishi for administrative support and encouragement.

[2] Researcher, Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, 50200, Thailand, e-mail:srxxo012@chiangmai.ac.th

[3] The name is changed to Myanmar in 1989. But this paper uses Burma throughout the whole paper because it is largely dealt with historical event and for the sake of consistency.

[4] An official linguistic census of 1931 found 136,800 Karens. No official survey was conducted after that. The Karen National Union (KNU), the political representative of Karen in Burma estimated that at present there are around 8 million of Karen in Burma. Neutral estimate of the Karen in Burma is 3-4 million (Smith 1999: 30)

[5] To mention a few sources for further reading:  Stern (1968) for Leke and Talakhon; Kwanchewan (1988, 2002) and Cohen (2000, 2001)  for ‘Khuba’ movements.             


[6] The year specified here is from Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min’s book. In other sources, it can be different such as in Maung Toke (2000, 2004), PhooPi San was born in 1842, then started preaching in 1877; in Lewis 1946:283), he was born in 1845.

[7] See Mann Linn Myat Kyaw (1980)

[8] The rebellion was the main reason for the British government to set up the new Salaween District in 1872, separated from Shwegin District, in order to set up more administration and military posts (“Salween District” 1961).

[9] Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min is a daughter of Johnson De Po Min, the head of Myitta Byamasoe during 1946-1971.

[10] Pike is from ‘Pice’ which is a large copper coin of India and Burma (Lewis 1946: 283)

[11] Mann Linn Myat Kyaw (1980) says that then he worked for Bombay Burma Timber Company

[12] D. in the name of Durmay’s descendent stands for Durmay.

[13] When one has a grandchild, Karen people start to address him, Phoo or phi followed by the name of a grandchild (usually the eldest one).

[14] The use of ‘phoo’ as the title of the religious head is also found among the Leke and Talakhon cult. Heads of Karen religious groups whose title are phoo, whom I met recently are in their 20s-30s and have not married.

[15] For example, Thamaya hill is named after Thamaya Sayadaw, the revered monk

[16] See list of monuments and buildings including places and amount of money usedi n Naw Mu Loi Too De Po Min’s book.

[17] Ko Tha Byu is the first Karen convert who converted in 1828.

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