February 19, 2005

About the Karen New Year

THE KARENS' NEW YEAR DAY: A Brief Introduction
By -- Saw Kapi

Though the Karen people of Burma, due to continuous oppression by successive feudalistic and ethnocentric rulers of the land they have peopled through out centuries, have lost some of their cultural traditions and heritage (including their original Karen written language known as li-hsaw-wehh), a large number of them hitherto have maintained their separate identity and tradition. The celebration of Karen New Year, for example, remains the most significant and collective cultural expression of Karen people.

The Karens celebrate their new year in Thalay (month), as it is recognized as the time when the old year ends and a new year begins. When the then British Burma was separated from India in 1937, the Karen National Association (KNA), the oldest and leading Karen organization of the time, initiated a series of efforts for the rights and recognition of Karen people. The twelve Karen parliamentary members, majority of them being Buddhists, started their efforts with an attempt to gain recognition for a Karen National Day. The concern, however, was that designation of such day for one ethnic group could easily spur ethno-nationalistic sentiments from all other ethnic nationalities. Therefore, the Karens’ quest for a broader national recognition, to some extent, was compromised to a single acknowledgement of Karens’ New Year day.

“…the Karen era would be counted from B.C. 739, when the Karens completed their second phase of migration to the land now known as Burma. Thus, the nearest calculation of Karen era is to add 739 to Christian calendar year.”

As soon as the process for the initiation of Karen New Year started, the issue -- on which day of the Burmese calendar 1st Thalay actually falls -- quickly became a hotly debated question. At that time, two versions of calendar were presented, one that was presented by the Christian Karens and the other presented by a Buddhist Karen named Saw Maung Shwe of Min-Nan-Nwe village. Because it was too close to the time the official date was to be submitted, Karen parliamentarians skipped thorough research needed and presented the calendar proposed by a respected Karen elder by the name Poo-Yar-Nay from Myaung-Mya, which made the 1st Thalay falls on the first waxing day of Pyar-Tho on the Burmese calendar.

This led to an issue on how to organize Karen chronology. There were many suggestions made by several Karen leaders from different communities, but they finally agreed that the origin of the Karen era would be counted from B.C. 739, when the Karens completed their second phase of migration to the land now known as Burma. Thus, the nearest calculation of Karen era is to add 739 to Christian calendar year.

Saw Myat Thein, one of the twelve Karen Parliamentarians and a devout Buddhist from Hinthada, led a series of discussion with Saw Johnson Durmay Po Min from Toungoo about introducing a Karens’ New Year Day bill to the Parliament. The two later met with General Aung San and a few other Burma leaders as well. It was recorded that U Ba Dun, a Mon lawyer and Secretary of House of Representatives at that time, helped draft the original Karens’ New Year Recognition Bill, although the bill was introduced to the House of Representatives on 23rd July 1937 by Saw Johnson Durmay Po Min. The bill was passed and subsequently approved by the Governor’s Council. It became Karens’ New Year Recognition Act on 2nd August of the same year.

For the first time, Karens of all tribes and creeds came together to celebrate their first national New Year day in 1939, on the first day of Thalay, 2678 Karen Era. All Karen people came to recognize this day as the greatest gala day in the annals of Karen history. The first day of Thalay, since then, has been recognized as the official New Year Day of Karen people.

May this New Year bring you new ideas, new perspectives and new vision that would lead you to see peace within the world around you! Mar-nay Aw-keh Buh-duh Buh-dah!

For 1st Thalay 2743 Karen Era

Note: Extracted from various sources of Kayin Kyay-Mone published by Karen New Year Celebration Committee- Mahar Yangon (2002-2003), and from Pu S’gaw Ler Taw’s Central Political Training Manual published by Pa-an District, February 2001.)

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