The Karen people of Burma: An "imagined community"?
By – Saw Kapi
Contrary to what most students of Burmese politics think, the Karen people of Burma do not share the same faith – a significant percent of Karen people have become Christians (35%, according to the latest estimate by the Karen Baptist Convention), while more than 50% of them have adopted the Buddhist religion, and some remain animists still. It appears that the Karens are almost equally split in terms of 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.
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 of its actual existance. Assuming, nonetheless, that the Karen people have had a common written language before, there is no indication still 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-Karen Christian missionaries.
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, the most recognized symbol of Karen cultural expression, but the great majority of Sqaw Karen people do not have a good idea about this particular 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 70, most of them being Sqaw Karen) were 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 collectivism among Karens of all tribes based on a sense of shared identities. Sensitivity to and conscientious tolerance of cultural, language and religious differences amongst these "imagined communities"[i] of Karen people are quintessential if, at the very least, a functional unity is to be achieved.
That said, there is one historical commonality among the Karens of all religious and cultural backgrounds, that is, their common history of oppression. Throughout history, Karens - East Pwo, West Pwo and Sqaw alike - have consistently endured oppression of all forms, by successive Chinese kings prior to their migration to Burma, and presently by Burmese rulers and military governments interrupted only briefly by the British colonization of Burma in the early 20th century. Consequently, 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, technical 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 change over time. Those striving to liberate the Karen people should not fail to note that a national pride beyond social and historical realities is merely an arrogance that appeals to jingoism. The only viable hope for the Karen people of Burma, hence, is to attain unity amidst diversity!
[i] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.
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December 21, 2006
The Karen people of Burma: An "imagined community"?