February 19, 2005

Some Comments on Karens' Identities

SOME COMMENTS ON KARENS' IDENTITIES: Facing Naked Realities
By – Saw Kapi

First and foremost, Karen people do not share the same faith anymore since a significant percent of Karen people became Christians (35%, according to the latest estimate by the Karen Baptist Convention), while more than 50% of us have adopted Buddhist religion, and some remain animists still. It appears that we are almost equally split in terms of our creeds. The advent of Christian religion in Burma, however, is a recent phenomenon. It can be reasonably assumed that the Karens have been sharing a common tradition of faith, that is, their belief in nature and animism, which, in certain aspects, may be closely related to some practices of Buddhism, until the later part of 19th century.

“Sensitivity to and conscientious tolerance of cultural, language and religious differences even amongst ourselves are quintessential if we are to maintain at least a functional unity.”

Secondly, the Karens do not use the same written or verbal language. As far as can be ascertained, there are at least three major Karen languages: East Pwo, West Pwo and Sqaw. Even though legends and oral history tell us that we have our own original common language known as Li-hsaw-wehh, there is no scientific research finding that establishes proofs for it. Assuming, nonetheless, that the Karen people have had a common written language before, there is no indication of how and when it was lost. It is historically commendable, however, that the Karens had been surviving without communicating with each other in writing for several centuries. Fortunately in the late 1830, using Burmese alphabets, Dr. Jonathan Wade, an American Baptist missionary, helped invent modern written Sqaw Karen language. Subsequently, Dr. Mason launched the first ever Karen language newspaper, Hsar-Du-Ghaw, in 1841. Based in Tavoy town of present day Tanassarim Division, the publication lasted almost 100 years until the Fascist Japanese invaded Burma. The West Pwo Karen language was also created by Dr. Wade but revised in 1840 again by Dr. Brighton, another American Baptist missionary. So, today’s written Karen languages, except Eastern Pwo Karen, are the creations of non-Karens from far away land across the Pacific Ocean.

Thirdly, to what extent the Karens do share the same culture heritage is a question to be answered still. For example, East Pwo Karen and West Pwo Karen develop and cherish Done Dance, but the great majority of Sqaw Karen people do not have a good idea about that aspect of Karen culture. Many Sqaw Karen know that Done Dance is a cultural heritage of Karen people, and it ends there. For instance, in 1997 a group of Karen students (approximately about 70, most of them being Sqaw Karen) was asked to write an essay about either Done Dance or Klo, Karen Drum. Only two of them chose to write on the former, and both of them showed that they know little about the subject except the fact that they enjoy watching it so much.

Hence, there seem to be some inherent obstacles to building much needed unity among Karens of all tribes based on a sense of shared identities. Sensitivity to and conscientious tolerance of cultural, language and religious differences even amongst ourselves are quintessential if we are to maintain at least a functional unity.

Last but certainly not least, there is one thing that we all share, that is, our historical experience, i.e. a common history of oppression. Throughout history, Karens - East Pwo, West Pwo and Sqaw alike - have consistently endured oppression of all kinds from successive Chinese kings prior to their migration to Burma, and later by Burmese rulers and military governments interrupted only briefly by the British colonization of Burma. Thus, there seems to be a tendency among the Karen people that they draw their strength for the resistance to stronger and arrogant rulers from their shared historical experience. The danger though, in doing so, is that many of us ended up adopting victim’s mentality and searching for sympathy and support from outside, loosing track of the need to develop our own capacities – intellectual, professional or otherwise.

Ardeth Maung, a Karen political scientist currently teaching at the University of Massachusetts, observes that, “Karens may not share similar cultures, but our shared commonalities may be based on awareness about blood ties (that we may all have descended from the same language group, as identified by American missionaries or British colonizers), powerful myths about the origins of our ‘homeland,’ and shared experiences about the oppression of the Burmese military regimes. These, I believe, are the main common features that unite the Karen people. Identities are multiple, and they can change from time to time depending on the contexts.” It is evident enough that, languages, cultures and identities cannot be viewed as either exclusive or static elements of a society. They intermingle with others and are subject to changes over time. We should not fail to note that a national pride beyond social and historical realities is merely an arrogance that appeals to jingoism. Our only hope, hence, is to attain unity amidst diversity!


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