Interim 1999
Sociology/Anthropology 263:

The Karen of Northern Thailand

Michael Leming, Ph.D.

Professor

 

 

Politics
Brad Lindbergh, Sonja Renander, Sara Ursin, Amy Kirchner

 

Education
Sara Dahl, Mee Vang, Caroline Hilk

 

Economics
Heidi Larson, Betsey McLain, Alecia Swenson

 

Family
Annika Harrington, Heidi Lellman, and Ann Westby

 

Religion
Lillian Harris, Beth Henry, Dan Kuehl, Angela Miller

 (Outline)

 

The Karen of Northern Thailand: Class Overview

Seventeen junior and senior students (15 females and 2 males) arrived in Bangkok, Thailand (via Northwest Airlines) on January 5 at 11:00 p.m. We immediately went to the beautiful Montien Riverside Hotel and slept until 7:00 at which time we had a great breakfast and then took a tour of the Royal Palace, visited the royal temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Po (the temple of the reclining Buddha), and Wat Arung (the Temple of Dawn). During this time we gained an appreciation of the importance of monarchy and Buddhism in modern Thai culture and society.

The next day we left for the Ancient City near Bangkok. On our hour bus ride to the historical park I discussed the Ancient City and what the students might expect to find. The Ancient City is referred to by many as Thailand in a "nut shell." It provides students with an opportunity to understand Thai history, culture, and the emergence of the modern Thai State. In the evening we took a boat ride up the Grand Canal and gained an appreciation of the importance of the modern capital city of Bangkok (The City of Angels and the Venice of the East). We stopped for three hours to eat at a river restaurant when I introduced the students to Thai cuisine and gave a Thai lesson on ordering food in a restaurant. We were joined by Luyen Phan (St. Olaf Alum working for World Teach in Bangkok) and Dr. Leedom Lefforts Jr. Professor of Anthropology at Drew University and expert on Thai society.

On January 8th we flew to Chiang Mai via Thai Airlines. We arrived in Chiang Mai and were met by Ajarn Add from the Department of History at Chiang Mai University. We took a city tour and then went to the Hot Springs at San Kamphaeng. At this site we talked about the Northern Thai Kingdom of Lana Thai and the importance of the 700 year-old city of Chiang Mai. After about 3 hours we returned to Chiang Mai and moved into the Suan Doi House for five days.

While we stayed in Chiang Mai we heard lectures at The Tribal Research Institute, visited three temples (Cheddi Luang, Phra Singh, Umong) with a guided tour and lecture by Ajarn Sommai (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology), visited an Elephant Camp, Butterfly and Orchid Farms, the 14 waterfalls at Mae Sa, and the most famous of Chiang Mai’s temples, Wat Doi Suthep. We also received a lecture by Professor Herbert Swanson of McGilvary Seminary on the Christian Church in Thailand and visited Chiang Mai’s resources for Karen tribal people--Center for the Uplift of Hilltribe Peoples, Tribal Research Center, Thailand Karen Baptist Church, New Life Center, and Thai Tribal Crafts Center. During our field trip to the Buddhist temples we were joined by Pat Quade, Mark and Linda Edwards.

On January 13 we traveled to Bon Mai Phattana with Ajarns Tete and Soredit. The trip took five hours but only covered 100 kilometers (62 miles). After arriving at the Hilltribe Resources and Development Center we moved into a new hostel built earlier this year. We stayed for two weeks in the village. During this time we interviewed male and female village leaders (headmen, pastors, teachers, healthcare workers, governmental workers, village weavers and agricultural specialists, governmental workers, shaman, and a variety of village elders). These interviews constituted our primary lectures within the village. They consisted of approximately one and a half hours each and prior to the interviews students we to read condensed versions of field notes taken by Professor Leming during his 1996 sabbatical when he interviewed these same people. This allowed students to pursue more questions in depth during the interviews.

The St. Olaf student group also taught English and played volleyball and basketball at the Friendship School, attended two worship services, a wedding, two wedding receptions, interacted with the girls at the center, and attended a village feast on the occasion of their leaving. We visited two Hmong villages, a Lisu village, and seven Karen villages. We attended a Christian Karen wedding, a village sing, a dedication feast for the new Bible School, and a Lisu new year's celebration. These experiences, along with extensive readings provided by the professor, became the basis for the ethnographic paper written by all students.

On January 29 we took the night train (4:20 PM) to Bangkok. When we arrived in Bangkok we immediately boarded a tour bus and traveled to Pattaya to spend two days at the beach. We took a boat to an island, ate a seafood lunch, recreated at the beach, attended a cabaret show, and returned to Bangkok on February 1. The next morning (4:00 AM) the students either returned to Minneapolis or extended their interim break as they traveled to parts further south.

Students completed a ethnography on the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah and in the process gained an understanding of the relationship between the Thai government and the Karen people. They also explored ethnographic studies of Thai tribal groups in northern Thailand--especially the Karen, Lahu, Akha, Hmong, Lisu, and Yao tribes. While participating in the daily life of the Karen people and interacting with the people at the Hilltribe Resources and Development Center--a cultural center attempting to preserve and perpetuate Karen cultural values within Thai society—the students became aware of the problems faced by minority ethnic cultures in Northern Thailand.

As the group of students wrote their ethnographically oriented research paper of 150 pages related to the study of Karen village life, they became aware of significant methodological and theoretical issues that are fundamental for liberal arts students in Sociology-Anthropology. We will also produce a website related to this ethnography and create a cultural artifact exhibit for the students, faculty, and staff of the St. Olaf community. It is my assessment that the experience was academically rich and personally rewarding for every member of our group. I will be using student evaluations and comments to improve the program should I lead it again.

 

 

REQUIRED READINGS

Cooper, Robert and Nanthapa. 1984. CULTURE SHOCK! THAILAND. New York: Times Books International.

Fieg, John. 1989. A COMMON CORE: THAIS AND AMERICANS. Intercultural Press.

Goodwin, Sharon. 1997. "’So many dreams’: The Hill Tribe Resources and Development Center at Mu Si Khee." Paper presented to the School for International Training College Semester Abroad.

Hayami, Yoko. 1992. "RITUAL AND RELIGIOUS TRANSFORMATION AMONG SGAW KAREN OF NORTHERN THAILAND: IMPLICATIONS ON GENDER AND ETHNIC IDENTITY." Ph. D. Thesis Department of Anthropology, Brown University.

Hovemyr, Anders. 1989. IN SEARCH OF THE KAREN KING: A STUDY IN KAREN IDENTITY WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO 19TH CENTURY KAREN EVANGELISM IN NORTHERN THAILAND. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University Press.

Keyes, Charles F. (Editor). 1979. ETHNIC ADAPTATION AND IDENTITY: THE KAREN ON THE THAI FRONTIER WITH BURMA. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Marshall, Harry Ignatius. 1922. THE KAREN PEOPLE OF BURMA: A STUDY IN ANTHROPOLOGY AND ETHNOLOGY. Columbus: Ohio State University.

Maybury-Lewis. 1997. INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, ETHNIC GROUPS, AND THE STATE (The Cultural Survival Studies in Ethnicity and Change). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Mulder, Niels. 1992. INSIDE THAI SOCIETY: AN INTERPRETATION OF EVERYDAY LIFE. Bangkok: D. K. Book House.

Renard, Ronald D. 1980. KARIANG: HISTORY OF KAREN-T'AI RELATIONS FROM THE BEGINNINGS TO 1923. Ph. D. Thesis Department of History, University of Hawaii.

Renard, Ronald D., et. al. 1988. CHIANGES IN THE NORTHERN HILLS: AN EXAMINATION OF THE IMPACT OF HILL TRIBE DEVELOPMENT WORK 1957-1987. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Research and Development Center, Payap University.

Schrock, Joanne L. , 1970. ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY SERIES MINORITY GROUPS IN THAILAND. "Chapter 13. The Karen." Washington, DC: Center for Research in Social Systems.

Yoshimatsu, Kumiko. 1989. THE KAREN WORLD: THE COSMOLOGICAL AND RITUAL BELIEF SYSTEM OF THE SGAW KAREN IN NORTHWESTERN CHIANG MAI PROVINCE." Final research Report presented to the National Research council of Thailand, Bangkok.

And the following articles: James Conklin "World View Evangelism: A Case Study of the Karen Baptist Church in Thailand." And Oliver Koehler "Tee Mae Ker Lah and The Karen Baptist Church."

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

(Detailed Table of Contents)

Chapter 1: The Politics of Change: The Effects of Thai National Government Upon the Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah

Chapter 2: Education in Northern Thailand

Chapter 3: Mu Si Khee: A Region of Economic Transition

Chapter 4: Family Structure of the Karen of Northern Thailand

Chapter 5: Animism, Buddhism, and Christianity: A Karen View of Religion

 

Chapter 1:

The Politics of Change: The Effects of Thai National Government Upon the Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah

Brad Lindbergh, Sonja Renander, Sara Ursin, Amy Kirchner

 

Underlying all political developments and power struggles between the Karen and the Central Thai government in the remote village of Tee Mae Ker Lah, found in Chiang Mai Province, is the question of land. Using the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah as a case study we broach the presence of the Central Thai government amongst the hill tribes of the north, the role of regional politics, and finally an analysis of the power structure and issues within Tee Mae Ker Lah.

Historical Background

Political struggle and persecution are not new themes for the Karen people, rather they appear as ongoing themes in their history. In order to understand the political system of the Karen requires a basic knowledge of their origins, settlement patterns, and the presence of Christianity within the context of their historical experience.

Due to an oral tradition and only the relatively recent adaptation of the Karen language to the Burmese script much of the knowledge of Karen history remains unsubstantiated. Their historical absence resounds further because of their isolation from other tribes (Schrock, 1970 801). Although presently the Karen are considered from Burma and Northern Thailand their historical origins reach to distant lands; some suggest their lineage lies in Tibet whereas others contend the Karen are one of the lost tribes of Israel (Schrock, 1970 797). The Karen’s migration across a river of "running sand" into Burma occurred roughly around 800 BC (Schrock 1970, 800) making them one of the original ethnic groups to settle the region. Originally the Karen held a great deal of political power in areas of northern Thailand and the Shan States of Burma (Schrock, 1970 801). Yet, the flourishing Karen kingdom did not last, and instead a pattern of domination over the Karen persisted. Burma, Britain, the Mon, and Thailand have all shared in ruling over the Karen in the relatively recent past. Presently the Karen population of Southeast Asia again falls subject to other powers. Primarily the Karen can be found along the eastern edge of the Burmese border and in the North and West of Thailand (Hovemyr, 1989 3).

The First Burmese War (1824-26) fought against the British brought the first contact with the Karen by a Western power. Concurrently, Western missionaries exposed the Karen to Christianity. The onslaught of war also resulted in mass movements of Karen over the border to what was then known as Siam (Hovemyr, 1989 104). During the Second Burmese War (1852-53) most of Lower Burma which had a large Karen population came under British authority (Schrock, 1970 801). Realizing the advantages of siding against the Burmese the Karen along with the Mon supported the British after the final Burmese War in 1885. Under British rule the Karen controlled three of the Shan states Kantarwadi, Kyebogyi, and Bawlake. Again in 1947 the new independent state of Burma recognized the area as Karen but the Karen themselves did not think the constitution granted them sufficient autonomy or adequate territorial holdings (Schrock, 1970 802). One year later, in response to the Burmese government the Karen mobilized and formed the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) in order to seize control of disputed areas and promote more autonomy for the Karen states.

Revolt soon broke out and a prolonged conflict was inevitable given the tenuous Burmese/ Karen relations over the past century. In 1952, the Karen declared an independent sate consisting of the Swaleen area and several adjacent districts (Schrock, 1970: 804). Yet already by 1955 the Karen’s strength was severely weakened leaving them with only the Swaleen district. Realizing their compromised position leaders of the KNDO signed a truce agreement with the Burmese government in 1964. However, other KNDO members did not accept the truce and remained committed to an independent Karen state. Today the KNDO still remains a force in Burma promoting the recognition of autonomy for the Karen.

 

 THAI NATIONAL GOVERNMENT:
Thailand’s Constitutional Monarchy and it’s Major Players

The past century has brought many Changes to the Thai government. Since 1932 the government of the Kingdom of Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy. The country had been an absolute monarchy for approximately 800 years before a bloodless coup that occurred on June 24, 1932 brought it to an end. King Prajadhipok signed Thailand’s first constitution on December 10, 1932. Following the British system and style, the basic concepts of constitutional government and monarchy that were established in this constitution have remained practically unaltered.

With the transfer of power to a constitution-based system of government, the King is now the chief of state but with few executive responsibilities. He exercises his legislative power through the Parliament, his executive power through the Cabinet and his judicial power through the courts. The monarch is still held sacred and inviolable and the King is not to be exposed to any sort of accusation or action. The current King, his Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, ascended the throne in 1946 and is the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. He is also the longest reigning king in Thai history. While King, Bhumibol Adulyadej has brought the monarchy into direct contact with the provincial population.

Although it is the monarch with the advisory role as chief of state, a Prime Minister is nominated to head Thailand’s national government and act as chief executive. Currently, Mr. Chuan Leekpai is Prime Minister of Thailand. The Prime Minister selects the Cabinet or Council of Ministers, which he heads. The cabinet is responsible for the administration of twelve ministries, the Office of the Prime Minister and the Office of State Universities. The legislative branch, the Parliament or National Assembly, is made up of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The 270 member Senate is appointed by the King on the recommendation of the Cabinet. The public directly elects the House of Representatives, totaling 360, to four-year terms. In Thailand the Senate is not as powerful as the House of Representatives. The Senate votes on constitutional Changes while the House writes and approves legislation.

Thailand’s military has had a substantial influence on the nation’s political affairs. Generals have commanded the premiership for 46 out of 64 years. Anand Panyarahun, interim premier for two short terms in 1991 and 1992, was able to diminish the military’s power considerably when he revoked a 14 year old ministerial order which gave the supreme commander powers as internal peace keeping director. Anand also decreased military power by ousting officers from executive posts. Currently the military works within the constitutional system to influence politically, decreasing the occurrences of revolutions and coups.

 

Regional Divisions

For governmental purposes, Thailand is separated into various divisions that are determined by population. The country is divided into 76 provinces. Those provinces are further divided into districts or ampurs. Districts are then divided into sub-districts or king-ampurs, which are once more divided into smaller divisions called tambons or village groups. Each tambon consists of numerous villages or muu baan. Within each village is a headman, assistant headman and village council.

An elected or appointed official heads individual divisions. Each province has a governor and every district a district officer, responsible to their provincial governors, who are appointed by Minister of Interior for four years: a system that leaves much room for corruption. Cities are headed by an elected mayor, tambons by an elected kamnan and village people elect a headman. Tee Mae Ker Lah is in the Ampur of Mae Chaem and the Tambon of Ban Chan. Ku Saw is currently the headman of Tee Mae Ker Lah.

A recent trend within Thai Government is decentralization in order to give villages more local power and control. At present, the Ministry of Interior has 70% control over village development and circumstance while the village has only 30% reign over these matters (Interview, Pichart, 21 Jan 1999). Gradually the Government wants each and every village to have complete control and authority over itself. To help with this process of decentralization the Government has created a county level organization, the Apawtau (A.P.T), which will be explained in greater detail later.

 

National Presence in North

Although Thailand’s Government is in a process of decentralization and giving more local control, National presence in the northern hills and tribal villages has continually increased over the years. As stated earlier, the Thai National Military has had a strong influence in political affairs. In the early 1700’s the Karen sided with the Mon in Burman conflicts. Shortly after fighting broke out many fled to Thailand, called Siam at the time, as refugees (Hovemyr, 70). With the fighting and constant conflict came military presence and influence. Even in the 1880’s, after permanently settling in villages in Mu Si Khee, contact with the Thai had been relatively limited (Hovemyr, 71). The Karen revolution in Burma is still a problem today that brings military power and influence with it.

The creation of roads has been a principal motive for the increase in National influence. The first road was created during World War II from Chiang Mai through the Mu Si Khee area to Mae Hong Son. It made little impact though because of the poor condition it was in. About 1955, the government completed construction of a road from Chiang Mai to Pai, giving villagers more access to ready-made goods and store-bought items (Renard et al, 100). The roads have also given villagers more possibilities to sell their own products in Chiang Mai and create a cash economy for themselves.

Along with better roads came government officials, travelers and tourists. In 1955 King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the first ruler to visit the northeastern provinces of Thailand. By talking with resident farmers and monks, government officials and enthusiastic crowds, he made actual contact with people and observed first hand the problems of the people. It has been said King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a ruler who clearly both listens and cares about village problems.

Even today the roads from Chiang Mai to Tee Mae Ker Lah are not in the greatest condition. Two government organizations help with bettering road conditions: the Highway Department and the Rural Development Department. Recently though, the Highway Department has constructed only five new kilometers of road and the Rural Development Department only ten new kilometers (Interview, Pichart, 21 Jan 1999).

In addition to road expansion, government developments have brought National influence and presence to the North. The largest of these is the King’s Royal Project, established in 1968. Soon after the King’s visit in 1955 and his observation of village poverty, land slash-and-burn and drug production he instituted a program to help hilltribes improve their standard of living. The aim of the project is to stop opium cultivation, slash-and-burn method of cultivation and forest destruction and to enable the people to grow useful crops that will earn them a good income (Interview, Pichart, 21 Jan 1999). Among other things, the tribal people are taught proper use of land, soil conservation, proper use of water and forest preservation. Villagers are being introduced to new crops to the benefit of Thailand economy.

In getting the project off the ground, the King worked through appropriate government agencies and at times in the early stages used his own funds. The King and government officials never simply issue directives. The impetus comes from the local population who must agree with the proposal and cooperate to see that it is successfully implemented (Interview, Pichart, 21 Jan 1999). Villagers would disagree. Thai and Karen government often differs with each other on what is wanted and done for a village. In the past Thai officials didn’t know much about Karen people and culture so the government would use its power to see what it wanted to see, not what was really occurring. Villagers feel that government officials just come and do, without asking (Interview, Paulo, 25 Jan 1999). Another Karen villager, Tongdee, believes local government thinks only of themselves and has different ideas about what to do with water, dirt and forest problems. For example, at one time the King’s Royal Project, whose mission is to preserve land and forest, planned on cutting pine trees in the Mu Si Khee area. The villagers were against this and put an end to the plan (interview, Tongdee, 27 Jan 1999). With the King’ s Royal Project the Karen have moved from a traditionally subsistence economy to a cash economy.

In addition to agriculture needs the National government has helped with the social welfare of the hilltribe people by bringing medical and educational programs. The King’s Royal Project has brought educational and medical facilities to permanent settlement in Mu Si Khee. Public health stations have been built and Western medicine is now the preferred treatment. The government schools are Thai oriented and children are taught Thai language, history and politics instead of their own. With these facilities come Thai government officials, employees and teachers who take up permanent residence in the villages.

Military presence and the Royal Project have also come about because of drug and narcotic problems in the hills. Law enforcement has extensive problems with the production and selling of opium, heroine and amphetamines among the villagers and within the country. The last century has brought much National presence and influence to the hilltribes of Northern Thailand whether the Karen appreciate it or not.

 

REGIONAL POLITICS

The village of Tee Mae Ker Lah lies in the ampur of Mae Chaem and within the Ban Chan tambon. Although seemingly less important than either the national or local level both the tambon and ampur levels of regional government constitute a much more important role than ever before as attempts to solve regional problems depend more on regional responses than solutions from the Central Thai government. Referred to as decentralization, this shift of power aims to empower local residents to seek solutions tailored to their individual needs. Unfortunately, several stumbling blocks stand in the way of allowing decentralization to fulfill its potential including: bureaucratic government, corruption, environmental degradation, land questions, and drugs.

Although decentralization appears as a catchall solution for a government, which has been unable to meet the needs of the remote hill tribes, many problems still impede the success of decentralization. Plagued by not only bureaucratic but also corrupt agencies regional government has many obstacles on its way to being an effective tool of Change for the people.

The Agricultural Extension Department, the Forestry Department, the Royal Project, the Forest Industry Organization, and the Public Health Department all share interests in the Mae Charm ampur according to Pichart (Interview, Pichart, 21 January 1999) the director of the King’s Royal Project at Wat Chan. Conflict arises not over the presence of numerous agencies, but because the jurisdiction of each agency lacks any have clear definition.

Land claims in particular illustrate the jurisdictional problems well. Beginning in 1964 the passage of the Reserved Forest Act shifted control of forest resources from local residents into the hands of the state. Placing land allocation power with the state removes all land holding rights from the indigenous residents making land holdings one of the primary points of contention in the region. The situation becomes further complicated because while the Thai government designated the Public Welfare Department the responsibility of caretaker of the hill tribe populations, the Royal Forest Department oversaw the forests, and the Land Development Department for land usage (Renard, 1988 55). In an attempt to remedy the overlapping spheres of influence the government initiated Fifth Economic Social Development Plan under the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB). However, further analysis of the problems presently facing the region surrounding Tee Mae Ker Lah demonstrates the failure of the NESDB’ plan to distinguish the responsibilities of each department.

Plagued by ineffective government effective regional politics meets further opposition because of the corruption within the varying government agencies. Although guidelines exist for the development and protection of the land they do not guarantee the protection of the land, or its proper development. Because most of these deals occur under the table they are difficult to document, but a recent incident in Mae Hong Song Province involving the Interior Minister illustrates the degree of corruption found throughout government offices. Sanan Kachornprasart the Interior Minister allegedly issued fake permits to allow the Timber Group to illegally cut trees for his own personal use (Bangprapa, 1999 2). With the very people who are supposed to uphold the law and implement the law breaking it, it is easy to understand why the effectiveness of regional politicians will remain limited until the corruption and bureaucratic mess of overlapping agencies are dealt with in the northern hills.

Yet recently, attempts to grapple with problems of corruption and ineffective top down government are bringing about decentralization of central decision making authority to give more power at the tambon level. The decentralization process relies upon a new decision making power known as the Apawtaw (APT). Comprised of two elected village members and the headman from 6 villages the APT aims to serve as a more effective medium to seek out the most pressing local issues to residents and then seek solutions (Interview, Ku Saw, 29 January 1999). Roughly every four months the APT members meet for 15 days to discuss the village proposals. Mr. Chatana a locally elected APT member confides that they meet usually only 4 to 5 days every couple of months and that it is ample enough time to discuss the village projects. The elected members are able to determine the pressing issues through a constant dialogue with the villagers and village wide meetings. Once the residents and APT agree upon the projects it is up to the APT to appeal to the central government for funding. Such new found ability to bypass the traditional command structure means villages normally stymied by bureaucratic government might actually see new roads and clean water in their respective villages.

Initially the APT appears as the perfect resolution to not so perfect government. Even the Kamnan, or head of the Ban Chan tambon concurs that the APT promotes effectively the wishes of the villagers in ways the traditional power structure did not before (Interview Bur Kay, 26 January 1999). Yet it is important to note that decentralization is not yet widespread within Thailand, and instead is experiencing a test run within several different tambon. Furthermore, Bur Kay explains that the structure of decentralization is not uniform either and is happening differently everywhere.

Given the relative newness of the APT it is hard to know exactly what kind of effect it will have upon the people of the northern hills. Clearly the prospect of more self-rule after years of subjugation to a central authority which neither has the time or the knowledge base to make good decisions for the Karen people is a step in the right direction. Furthermore, the APT proves interesting because its new position of prominence and effectiveness seems to usurp the traditional system of authority through the village council. In terms of solving initiating projects such as reforestation, increased water quality and the building of dams (Interview Chatana, 28 January 1999) the APT in the last year has been highly successful. Still the APT’s success rate with regional problems of the environment, drugs, and land ownership rest more ambiguous.

As alluded to above the question of land ownership stands at the center of nearly every problem of the northern hills. Without land ownership the villager’s rights become much easier to manipulate especially since they are at the mercy of various government agencies. Although no one owns the land outrightly residents do pay a land tax on all fields and on any property. Tongdee states that the taxes are unreasonably high for the people of the region because their menial annual income and the small return of government services.

Hand in hand with the question of land ownership is the problem of land stewardship. Ecologically Mae Chaem district confronts many of the same water, soil, and reforestation problems as the rest of the country. Paulo Pazoo, a young farmer and aspiring village leader, responds to a question about the most pressing problem facing the village with one word: water (Interview, Paulo Pazoo, 25 January 1999). Not only does the quality of water pose a problem, but also the mere presence of water is becoming more questionable. In addition to water, forestation sits high on the list of environmental problems. Although many laws exist to protect the virgin forests of the area continually they are ignored in order to make a few extra baht.

While sitting talking with Paulo and other members of a youth band it is evident that questions of land management and environmental preservation constantly run through their minds. They are curious to find how others deal with similar problems in the United States. So concerned are these young men that presently they are about to embark upon a reforestation project sponsored by an American biologist, Jim Peters. Individuals like Paulo provide the hope that something can be done environmentally to protect the region, but they must conquer the huge hurdles of bureaucracy and corruption so entrenched that even the new APT cannot thwart them.

Finally, the presence of drugs within Mae Chaem depletes its potential by diverting resources towards the production of opium and therefore producing addicts who must steal to satisfy their habit. When asked the major problem confronting the village Ku Saw, the village headman responded that drugs pose the biggest problem (Interview, Ku Saw, 27 January 1999). In particular he mentioned those derivatives of poppies: opium, heroine, and now amphetamines. The presence of drugs is not new to the Northern Hills; in fact for many years they provided a steady source of income. Yet, today their presence wreaks havoc within the social structure of the village because scarce resources are devoted to fighting drugs and crime instead of improving roads or schools.

Giving each tambon the prospect of more self-rule provides the ideal construct for the hill tribes to create solutions for the problems the central government either ignored or didn’t know existed. Standing in the way of a successful decentralization program are the continuation of bureaucratic government and corrupt officials. As long as people who oversee the region do not hold its best interest at heart it will not matter what the new Awapataw wants to Change. Changes from bottom were necessary to empower more people, but the same is true at the top of the hierarchy as well.

 

THE VILLAGE EXAMPLE

The effects of the Thai national government decision to decentralize political control throughout the country has been felt with no more strength than in the Hill Tribe areas of Northern Thailand. The Changes in the national governments policy towards the Hill Tribes significantly altered the function and look of the Hill Tribe political system. Changes in government over the past year and a half, including the formation of new political seats in tune with the central government and an overall sense of heightened intrigue into village politics has lead to a series of alterations in both the structure and sources of power. While the long term results of the government decentralization plan are not yet apparent in the initial stages of the initiatives first years, a study into the Changes occurring in Hill Tribe villages like Tee Mae Ker Lah help shed some light on the political situation in Northern Thailand among the Karen.

Gaining an insightful understanding of the Karen political system in Tee Mae Ker Lah is hampered by two main factors. First, and most importantly, a wide range of ambiguity exists among the villagers understanding as to the function of political actors hand institutions. Only through extensive interviews with villagers, the political actors themselves and educated outsiders can a clear and concise picture of the Tee Mae Ker Lah political system be developed. Secondly, village politicians and institutions often struggled with the national government of Thailand over who actually hold the power to make decisions and regulate the actions of the Karen. But an overview of the government structure of Tee Mae Ker Lah does enhance an understanding of the Tee Mae Ker Lah Karen’s political system

Karen Hill Tribes have been recorded as having a formal village government system of over one hundred years. Overall politics in Tee Mae Ker Lah take place in a democratic style system. Political positions cannot be controlled by appointees or irresponsible politicians because all of the top officials in the Tee Mae Ker Lah political machine face political elections at least once every five years. Suffrage is impressed upon all residents of the area over the age of twenty who maintain a permanent residence in the village. Although high levels of voter turnout are reported by most villagers, patterns of voter turnout and participation are not yet apparent.

Even though elections do take place, many village citizens who have proven their worth in other important aspects of village life are asked by other influential villager to run for office. Those asked to run most often do so unopposed by any opponent and take office with no challenge (Interview, Mr. Chetana, 28 January 1999). Historically political leadership has not only been achieved through positive works in the village but has also often been passed down through family bloodlines.

 

Tee Mae Ker Lah Village Headman- Ku Saw

 In Tee Mae Ker Lah, the headman Ku Saw, even trough elected into his position took over for his father following the lather’s death. Although Ku Saw was voted into the position of village headman for life, the Thai government has since imposed restrictions on term limits for elected officials. Headman are now required to ace elections every four years, but because Ku Saw’s election took place before Bangkok’s pronouncement he has been grandfathered into the system and may keep the position as long as he likes, or until his death.

Currently, Ku Saw is only 43 years old, and has no plans to retire from his post in the near future. He will likely hold Tee Mae Ker Lah’s highest political position for some time to come. While other villages in the area will enjoy frequent free elections, Tee Mae Ker Lah will have to wait out Ku Saw’s term until a free election for head man can take place in their village.

Before the current restructuring of the village government set-up by the Thai government, the headman traditionally controls most of the power in the village. Traditionally, each headman is the leader of a pairing of two hill tribe villages. In the Tee Mae Ker Lah example the village is coupled with the Buddhist village of Hwuih Bong. Ku Saw is elected and by members of both villages and represents the two as a single unit to the Thai government. While the two villages do share differing religious beliefs governing both of them as one unit has not proved to be a major obstacle for Ku Saw. (Interview, Ku Saw, 26 January 1999.) The Headman’s main duties include going to monthly meeting of all the headmen from the Mu Si Khee area and presiding over village council meeting in Tee Mae Ker Lah. He receives a very small stipend for his work and must travel many months of the year to assure the voice of the villagers is heard among the Thai government.

 

The Village Council and Assistant-Headman

Because of the great strain the duties of the headman place upon Ku Saw, a strong supporting cast is present in Tee Mae Ker Lah to assist Ku Saw in his official duties. To fill these voids, the village council was set up as a representative body for the village. The council consists of seven members, four from Tee Mae Ker Lah and three from its partner village Hwuih Bong. Tee Mae Ker Lah holds more seats in the council because of its larger size. At least one members of the village council must be a woman according to village law. Out of the entire council, one member is chosen by the headman to serve in the village as the assistant-headman. The assistant headman in the Tee Mae Ker Lah government lives in village which the headman does not, which almost always is the smaller of the two villages in the village pairs. The assistant headman provides the headman with a partner who can attend to the village political occurrences when the headman is not available.

In congruence with the assistant-headman, members of the village council are elected every four years and are not compensated for their services. Each member of the council is required to take charge of a village subcommittee all of which deal with important issues in the village. These committees include the rice bank, youth, education women, development and environment committees. (Interview, Jim Peters, 20 January 1999) While these committees most often meet only once every month, they provide the villagers with an outlet to voice their concerns and ideas in an informal setting before they are brought in front of the village council.

The councils main responsibility is to act as a kind of middle man between the headman and the village at large. At least once a month the village council meetings are held and members of the council are allowed to present the concerns and request of the villagers to the headman in a formal session. Villagers themselves are also allowed speak during council meetings, but most villagers are either not interested or believe the village council meeting do not matter and do not attend the meetings (Interview, Tongdee, 27 January 1999). To make up for those who do not attend the village council meetings, Tongdee often attends himself to voice the opinions of others. In the village political system, the people with the loudest voices have the most influence. While many subjects are debated in the council setting, issues pertaining to land and water usage, along with discussions over the future growth of the village fill the councils agenda. Along with these primary functions, the village council also provides for many other important needs in the area.

 

Tee Mae Ker Lah Village Tax Collection

The village political machine receives money for it’s operating costs from two main sources. First, the Thai government, through its "self-help" policy provides a small stipend to the village. As of 1995, the central government allocated only $82 American dollars a year to the Tee Mae Ker Lah. While funds from the Thai government are inadequate, village tax collection occurs on a yearly basis to help compensate for the lack of money received from the central government. The collection of these taxes is one of the responsibilities of the village council.

The council collects two basic forms of taxes from the villagers of Tee Mae Ker Lah, sales and land tax. According to Tongdee, the taxes imposed on the villagers by the central government and collected by the council are very large in comparison to the small amounts of tangible property owned by each villager. Each rye of land owned by the Karen is subject to a five baht tax which goes directly to the central government coffers. The council itself also imposes a three percent tax on any sale of land between villagers (Interview, Tongdee, 27 January 1999). Many villagers, including Tongdee, disagree with the levels of taxes placed upon them while the value of their land continues to depreciate as the taxes grow larger.

Tax collection provides the village with enough limited resources to tackle numerous environmental, social and welfare concerns. Recently, the Tee Mae Ker Lah government has used most of their funds to build, repair and pave the roads through the center of town. Along with road development the village council has been active in promoting reforestation plans and proper irrigation systems to facilitate better crop growth and yields.

 

Debate, Development and Enforcement of Village Law

Another key function of the village council is debating, developing, writing and enforcing village law. In the Mu Si Khee example, most laws focus themselves around Christianity and the moral codes of the Christian faith. The Christian tradition, as incorporated into village law, has allowed the village to enjoy a relatively safe and prosperous history.

While a written set of village laws does exists and has been past down over the last 130 years, the village council often convenes to create new laws to counteract recent problems which develop in Tee Mae Ker Lah. "The villagers of Tee Mae Ker Lah abide by a set of written laws totaling 15" (The Karen of Northern Thailand, 47). These laws include:

1. Villagers should not quarrel, but should have unity

2. Villagers are expected to preserve Karen cultures and costumes. Adulterous behavior is not tolerated; villagers must love only one spouse.

3. No addictive substances (drugs or alcohol) are allowed in the village. No such substances are to be sold within the boundaries of the community.

4. If an outsider moving to Tee Mae Ker Lah wishes to build a house in the village he must get permission from the village council and from the other villagers.

5. Villagers should not steal.

6. Villagers are allowed to walk around in the village only during the day. A seven o’clock curfew is enforced in the evening. Any villager who must be out past the hour of seven p.m. must carry with them a torch.

7. Villagers are not allowed to use firearms in the mountains. Excessive noise is not tolerated.

8. A gardener must construct good fencing around his patch. A person who raises animals must care for them nicely. If one’s animal digs in another villager’s garden, the owner of the animal must pay for damages

9. If a person wishes to work outside of the village [i.e. Chiang Mai], he or she must inform the village council. (Note: This law was placed in effect a short time ago as a result of the Thai government wishes. The Thai government is primarily interested in Karen employment for reasons of demographic research and the allocation of government funds.)

10. If a villager commits a crime, the village council calls the individual before them. The person who does wrong may be warned against such action a maximum of three times. If the wrong-doer does not Change his or her behavior he or she will either be asked to leave the village or be referred to Thai authorities. The nature of the punishment depends upon the seriousness of the crime. (The Karen of Northern Thailand 48)

Attached to each of the laws is the punishment for breaking each individual law. The most common form of punishment is a monetary fine, however in extreme cases the punishment can be expulsion from the village. Enforcement of the laws has been ambiguous and family ties and status often do factor into whether or not punishments are enforced. Although written punishments do exist, they are not always enforced as written. Village law enforcement often deal with problems by not dealing with them at all and retribution often takes place much like it did in the Wild West in America, with villagers taking matters into their own hands when the village council does not (Interview, Jim Peters, 20 January 1999).

 

Thai Military Presence in Mu Si Khee

Villagers are not only subject to the laws of the village but are also subject to the national laws of Thailand which help to supplement the village law. No national police force is present in the Tee Mae Ker Lah area so the village council acts as the local police. The closest Thai police stations is 200 Km away from the Tee Mae Ker Lah area. Although here have been plans to built a police sub-district in the Mu Si Khee area, the current financial crisis in Thailand has delayed this endeavor indefinitely (Interview, Hans Srithep, 26 January 1999). A small Thai military presence also exists in the region and is responsible for enforcing Thai laws.

In the past, the Thai military once held enormous amounts of power. But over the last ten years this power base has shifted over into the political realm. Even so, the military does play a major role in the Mu Si Khee area.

The military provides social services in the Tee Mae Ker Lah area mainly through the Queen’s Royal Project. The main function of the Queen’s Royal Project is to provide weaving instruction and materials for the women of the village. They also provide marketing assistance for the products woven by the villagers with all of the proceeds from the sales returning directly to the women. The Queen’s Royal Project in Wat Chan also consists of service projects such as a rice bank, a library and a grocery store.

In addition to providing social services the military is also present in the region for national security purposes. Although the distance to the militant Burmese boarder is technically a long distance from Wat Chan, the threat of fighting, especially in the dry season as violence escalates keeps the military on patrol.

Hans Srithep, a career military man who is based in the Mu Si Khee area, specifically Wat Chan, provides a living example as to the military build up in the area. Although now stationed at the Queen’s Royal Project in Wat Chan, Srithep illustrated the volatile nature of Thailand’s northern boarders, sharing his war stories which testified to his injuries which resulted in the loss of a finger and chest injuries caused by shrapnel from a hand grenade. Though the dangers for a military man in Northern Thailand are high, the men’s loyalty to their country cannot be mistaken. Srithep felt no animosity following is injuries, "I did it for Thailand" (Interview, Hans Srithep, 26 January 1999). While the boarder has remained relatively quiet in the past years, the military has kept a substantial presence in the north in case new security problems do arise.

The Thai military’s most important role in the region revolves around it’s efforts to combat drug related problems. Through initiatives led by international agencies such as the United Nations and the Red Cross, the Thai national government in conjunction with the United States government has developed many programs to prevent and destroy any growth of the opium poppy among the Hill Tribe groups.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the Hill Tribe Welfare Committee has established projects which promote the development of alternative crops, such as strawberries and fruit trees in order to provided alternative sources of income to groups who were previously dependent on opium sales for survival. As a whole, the Karen have not been a major grower of opium due to inadequate soil for growing the plant. Yet, the effects of the opium industry are felt by all tribal populations, including the Karen. While alternative crops have come a long way in preventing the excessive growth of the opium poppy in the hills, many poppy fields still dot the landscape, requiring constant policing to ensure their eradication. 

Because the Thai military is present as a security force in the region, they have also taken up the role of drug task force. Hans Srithep’s daily routine in Ban Wat Chan revolves around drug enforcement related activities. While he does provided some public services, such as checking up on the older members of the village, the majority of his day is spent checking co-op shops for signs of drug sales and production. He also spends a considerable amount of time wondering the fields of the surrounding villages searching for the raw opium poppy. He explained the drug trade as basically a three step business system which occurs in the north. First, the opium poppies are grown in hidden fields, then they are distributed throughout the villages for production into opium byproducts such as heroin and amphetamines, which has replaced raw opium as the drug of choice amongst many of the village producers (Interview, Ku Saw, 26 January 1999). The final step in the drug trade is the sale of the final product to dealers from the Chiang Mai area who drive to the villages, acquire the drugs, and then take the product back to the city for sale.

To combat this drug syndicate effectively, the military targets opium production at it’s source, the growers. Attacking, arresting and incarcerating opium poppy growers is an attempt by the military to curb the drug problem in it’s beginning stages before the raw plants are distributed into smaller quantities among high tech mobile labs which can process the plant, tear down their operation and move out before the military has any chance to intercept them.

 

Government Official

Traditionally the headman of the Karen held the seat of power in the village, but the Thai governments push for decentralization has necessitated the formation of a new village official. This official has usurped much of the power formally held by the headman even though the position has been in existence for less than one year. Werachi, the government official for Ban Chan Tambon, which includes the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah was elected by the village to represent them at the Tambon level through the APT.

Because the position of government official requires strenuous travel, Werachi was unavailable to discuss his position. However, Mr. Chetana, an elected member of the Ban Chan government explained the position of government official. The government official works as a liaison between the Thai government and the village. Government officials only receive a 500 Baht stipend a month from the Thai government therefore Chetana must supplement his income working as both a farmer and a caretaker of the young boys at the Hill Tribe Resource and Development center in Ban Mai Phattana.

Leading a village coalition of three members (including the headman) the government official is responsible for finding the needs of the villager and voicing these needs at the monthly meetings at the APT level.

Prior to the development of the APT and the position of the government official, the central Thai government held all of the power for the development and implementation of government works projects at the village level. Often, nationally sponsored projects did not combat the most pressing issues of the area and were not suitable for the village. The position of government official has aided in solving this problem by allowing the villagers a direct representation in the implementation of development projects. The government official is responsible for calling meeting in which villagers area able to voice their needs and concerns. The projects developed out of these meetings most likely would not have occurred if the APT and the position of government official were not established.

 

Sources of Authority

The chain of authority from headman through village council provides Tee Mae Ker Lah with an officially recognized source of authority. However, these government institutions are not the sole source of authority for the Karen. Traditional sources of authority have remained strong even with the institutionalization of power. The church, village elders and educated or esteemed members of the community provide the main forms of traditional authority in the village. Before the formalization of the village political structure, the traditional forms of authority held the power to make key political decisions in Tee Mae Ker Lah.

In Tee Mae Ker Lah, the church is the most influential traditional source of authority. Ajarn Chatree (Timothy) stands out above the rest and often acts as the village judge, having the power to impose fines, or expel members of the village who have violated moral codes. Timothy’s main form of legitimization comes through his role as the leader of the church, which is the most important institution in Tee Mae Ker Lah. The churches influence is exemplified by the role it plays in the daily lives and routines of the villagers. Most of the village activities are centered around the church and when problems arise the villagers often turn to the church leaders for advice, They receive this advice and guidance through church organizations such as prayer groups, church committees, and Wednesday night cell groups consisting of three to four families who unite each week for devotions.

Even the laws of Tee Mae Ker Lah have a basis in Christian morality. "Subjects of the Karen law include industry. indolence, helping the poor, widows and orphans, evil-doers, duty to parents, humility, swearing, covetousness, partiality, backbiting hatred, quarreling , falsehood, oppression, theft, etc." (The Karen of Northern Thailand 47).

The Church’s moral influence has allowed it to control development interests in the village. If the church singles out a project in need of development they are able to allot the appropriate resources and manpower to complete the project. The church as an institution is the most influential form of traditional authority.

The elders of the community also hold a position of traditional authority which characteristically follows the Karen tradition of hold the older members of the community it high esteem.

Often a blur develops between the two forms of authority in the village. According to Jim Peters, when there is a serious problem in the village with a government program, the traditional leaders stand out and exert their influence independently from the Tee Mae Ker Lah government. An example of traditional authority exerting its influence was evident in the area eight years ago when the Karen, along with several NGOs successfully banded together to block a systematic pine logging programs by the King’s Royal Project even though it was supported by the national government. While the official government in Tee Mae Ker Lah remains influential and purposeful, the "traditional will prevail" (Interview, Jim Peters, 20 January 1999) when disagreements with the official government spring forth.

 

Current Issues

The vast majority of current key issues in the village revolve around the constant misunderstanding between the Thai and the Karen. The main conflict between the Thai’s and Karen centers around the usage of water, soil and forest in Mu Si Khee (Interview, Tongdee, 27 January 1999). While conflict over land control and usage still exist, both groups are on the road to a better understanding of the others desires. While it is true the Thai government does hold all of the power over the Karen, as they have filtered up into the hills they have begun to Change their views of the effects of the Karen people on the forest. The Thai government has begun to realize that the Karen are responsible and use the forest in a manner that they approve. The government is starting to see what they want to see in the area: the Karen do not participate in slash and burn agriculture techniques and have initiated beneficial programs to improve the land.

Land is not the only issue separating the Thai’s and Karen. The misrepresentation of the Karen people in the national media in an attempt to sway Thai’s against the Karen and in favor of the Thai government official policy programs have angered many villagers. (Interview, Tongdee, 27 January 1999).

Although a separation of opinions still exists between the Karen of Mu Si Khee and the Thai government, initiatives are being taken by the Karen in an attempt to created better relations between themselves and the Thai people. Examples of this effort can be seen in both the younger and older generations of the Karen. Through all generations, the goal of someday bridging the gap between the Karen and Thai is a shared dream. Younger Karen children are currently educated in Thai language to familiarize them with the southern majority. At the same time children are encouraged to maintain their Karen roots through simple activities, such as wearing their traditional Karen dress to school on Wednesday and church on Sunday. There is a strong push in the community to teach the younger children to read and write Karen script so the language does not become dead. The push towards higher education is mainly lead by the older generation. The lack of education in this age group has severely hindered their ability to work with the Thai, and in turn become a threat to the survival of the basic culture of the Karen. Education is seen as the best chance for the younger generation to survive in a world heavily influenced by the outside Thai stimuli.

Even as the children are prepared for advanced interaction with the Thai, elders members of the community refuse to let the Karen identity be lost. "We can speak Thai and look Thai, but in our hearts we are not Thai" (Interview, Tongdee 27 January 1999). They these serve as an example of the elder generations push to assure the survival of Karen pride and tradition.

The Karen have also created many alternative avenues, especially among the younger generation, in hopes of creating a better understanding between Thai’s and Karen. One of the most creative attempts towards education has come in the form of Mr. Tongdee’s music. While touring Thailand as a famous folk singer, Tongdee has incorporated messages of Karen life, culture and pride into is songs to share with the Thai fans who attend his shows.

A more conventional approach to the situations has been taken by Paulo Pazoo, a 25 year old farmer, who volunteers his time to travel between Chiang Mai and Tee Mae Ker Lah, serving as a liaison between the Karen and Thai government in deforestation issues. The interest of many NGOs in the state of the Northern forest has also lead to their entrance into the political scene in Mu Si Khee. This phenomenon has forced Pazoo to also work with these groups to assure the Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah and the NGOs are asking the same questions and making the same demands to the government (Interview, Paulo Pazoo, 26 January 1999). Both groups are extremely concerned with the destruction of the watershed forests and the infiltration of pollutants into the water supplies of the hills. Paulo’s efforts and drive provide an example to the Thai government of the Karen’s willingness to work for a joint solution to the pressing issues of Mu Si Khee.

Regardless of the efforts of both parties, obstacles constantly hinder the goal of a better understanding. One major roadblock are the political actors themselves. Corruption has proven to be large problem, both on the local and national level. Corruption on the local level has often been the result of selfishness and greed. Often political leaders who prove to be honest have had severe difficulties functioning in the political arena and have developed little or no power. Bribery is more of a problem with national officials, but it too trickles down to the local politicians.

Further burdens which plague the Thai and Karen relationship is the disattachment of many of the key political actors from their constituents. Those who hold the power are often in positions which require extensive travel that takes them out of Tee Mae Ker Lah and distances them from the true problems and concerns of the villagers. Also, when politicians in upper levels receive their monetary compensation for their work, it most often comes from the Thai government, as in the case with the government official. This situation can unintentionally cause a bias from the official towards the policies and wishes of the Thai government.

On the surface the government of Tee Mae Ker Lah is running smoothly. Yet, the underlying problems, if they continue, may cause major rifts in the political climate. Dirty politicians plague both the national an local political scene and make achieving useful goals a strenuous challenge. Leaders who attempt to bridge the differences between the Karen and Thai desires often are forced to leave the village for an extended period of time and as a result become disattatched from the village life and distance themselves from the needs of the Karen.

Political activity in Tee Mae Ker Lah is dynamic and is currently in a state of transition as Changes are being made to assist in the national governments goal of decentralization. A shift in power has occurred which lessens the power of the headman in order to make room for the government official. There has also been a split in the authority between the official government system and the traditional forms of authority, however, the two forms of authority compliment one another well and create a functioning system. Although new political issues often arise for the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah, the most pertinent issues are those that have existed for some time: land, drugs, water and relations with the Thai. The younger generations are preparing themselves to tackle the same issues and claims as their parents, and will be ready to lead when their time comes.

 

References Cited

 Bangprapa, Mongkol. "Chalerm: Interior Minister Involved in Illegal Logging." Bangkok Post. January, 29 1999: 2.

Burkay. Interview. 26 January 1999.

Mr. Chatana. Interview. 28 January 1999.

Hovemyr, Anders P. In Search of the Karen King: A Study in Karen Identity With Special Reference to 19th Century Karen Evangelism in Northern Thailand. Uppsala: Studia Missionalia, 1989.

Ku Saw. Interview. 26 January 1999.

Leming, Mike ed. The Karen of Northern Thailand. 1998.

Pazoo, Paulo. Interview. 25 January 1999.

Peters, Jim. Interview. 20 January 1999.

Pichart. Interview. 21 January 1999.

Renard, Ronald D. et al. Changes in the Northern Thai Hills: An Examination of the Impact of Hill Tribe Development Work. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Payap University, 1988.

Renard, Ronald D., et. al. Changes in the Northern Thai Hills: An Examination of the Impact of Hill Tribe Development Work: 1957-1987. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Research and Development center, Payap University, 1988.

Schrock, Joanne L. Ethnographic Study Series: Minority Groups in Thailand. "Chapter 13. The Karen." Washington DC: Center for Research in Social Systems, 1970.

Srithep, Han. Interview. 26 January 1999.

Tongdee. Interview. 27 January 1999.

 

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Chapter 2:  

EDUCATION 

Caroline Hilk, Sara Dahl, Mee Vang

 

Education in Thailand is experiencing great Changes that are affecting both its structure and function, as well as the lives of people throughout Thailand. Tribal peoples like the Karen are facing the influx of Thai and Western culture and education is one of the central mediums where this is happening. Surapon, a Karen from the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah, is one example of how education is changing the lives of those who receive it. She recently returned to the village to visit after completing her master’s degree. Surapon represents the opportunities made possible by education for the people of her village as well as for Thailand in general. Thailand has always valued education, and the opportunities available to its people have varied over time. With the more recent development of formal education among the Karen, the protection of their traditional culture and lifestyle is a crucial issue today. For the Karen, education brings many benefits as well as new challenges.

 

History of Thai Education

Before the development of any formal educational institutions, learning was done in the home and parents and elders were the teachers of young people. Education was practical and informal; young people learned the skills and knowledge needed to live in their society. Girls learned household chores and domestic skills while boys were taught how to farm and perform other masculine duties. Understanding and behaving in a manner appropriate to one’s gender was also central to traditional education. Traditional education created a new generation of adults who could live competently in the society in which they grew up. While traditional education was a part of everyone’s life, formal education was unavailable to many young people. Currently Thailand promotes a school-based primary education for all children, but many have not had access to Thai schools for geographic as well as financial reasons. For these people, education through the Buddhist monastery has been a valuable alternative. The monkhood offers males the opportunity to study spiritual as well as secular materials while gaining an experience that is respected in Thai society. It also provides food, shelter, and protection for males coming form poor and isolated backgrounds; something that many parents can not always provide.

Spending some time in the monkhood is a popular option among Thai males. While there are approximately 30,000 senior monks who have been in robes for ten years or more and seriously follow religion in their lives, there are 75,000 or so who have a temporary experience in robes (Mulder, 1992). Most of the temporary monks spend about three months in the monastery and believe that their time serves as a transition period between adolescence and adulthood. The remainder of the nearly 225,000 monks in Thailand are there for the educational benefits and typically stay for three to five years, or until they are ready to move on. The only requirement for entering the monkhood is completion of compulsory primary schooling (Mulder, 1992).

As women are not allowed to become monks, they traditionally missed the best opportunity for affordable, advanced education in Thai society. Formal education was not seen as necessary for women because their work would be done in the home. Today, women in Thailand are also required to complete the same compulsory primary education as men, and their opportunities are growing.

 

Thai Curriculum and Structure

Schools in Thailand are centralized, and all of their curriculum comes from the government in Bangkok. For this reason, most people refer to it as "the Bangkok Curriculum". Students were formerly required to complete their compulsory primary schooling for six years, but it has recently been increased to nine years. Many schools are now beginning to offer all nine grades in one building. All students in grades 1-9 are required to study Thai language, science, and mathematics. English formerly began at age eight or nine, but has recently been added at this level as well (Jantra, 1/25/99). Schools also have required electives, such as physical education, art, music, practical skills, and religion (Buddhism and Christianity). Both boys and girls take the same courses, but there are some variations. While boys in a practical skills class in Hwuih Ya made bricks, girls learned to weave. There are also a number of extracurricular activities available to students. Karen language and culture is taught in some areas after school, and scouting is an extracurricular activity that is required of all students. The scouting program teaches students patriotism and outdoors knowledge through class time as well as an overnight camp program. Sports are also available to students, and volleyball and basketball are the most popular and accessible choices for students.

 

History of Karen Education

For many Karen, education at home was based on cultural tradition. Before the missionaries came into the Karen villages and began the teachings of Jesus Christ, many families were brought up with Karen morals. Some of these teachings dealt with ceremonial traditions such as learning about the different rituals with death and burial, marriage ceremonies, and the positions of women in society.

The lack of education brought upon oppression and much of the suffering of the Karen people when the British came to colonize Burma (Marshall, 1922). Many Karen were forced to migrate to Thailand because they did not want to pay tributes to the Burmese government (Ajarn Sompob, 1/11/99). In Thailand, the Thai government started oppressing the Karen community by trying to convert them to become more Thai-like.

Growing up, Su mentioned how she remembers when her brother and sister had to help each other pound rice grains in the rice pounder. A long log is the main architecture of the machinery. The log is positioned so that it resembles a teeter-totter at which one end is attached a smaller log perpendicular to it. To work this device, a person would step on one end while another person is positioned at the other end, with the perpendicular log, ready to toss the grain as the log is raised. Since the log was so big and heavy, Su and her siblings would help each other pound the rice. Su mentioned how her sister would help her step on the log so that it would raise and give her brother enough time to toss the wheat (rice) grain. This chore was part of her informal education.

Growing up as a minority, many Karen’s right to lead their own lives with strictly Karen ways were taken away from them—with the control of the Thai government. Along with schools opening and missionaries coming into the villages to teach about the bible, modern industrialization allowed the Thais to move into Northern Thailand. Many people like Su and her family were forced to spend their time studying rather than help around the house with traditional chores. They base their daily lives on jobs they have obtained in the cities through the education they have received from their studies.

In correspondence to these activities in Northern Thailand, Herb Swanson made an insightful comment on the lives of many tribal people, in Thailand. In a class lecture, he mentioned how the missionaries were an aid to the Thai government to destroy Northern Thailand and bring in Thai culture. Swanson believed this was the reason why the Thai government (made up of mostly Buddhist followers) did not attempt to stop the incoming missionaries (Swanson, 1/11/99).

The educational system shows the great dominance of Thai culture in the tribal villages. For instance, Thai laws state that no tribal language can be spoken or taught in the schools (Grunewald, 1/26/99). Amy Grunewald mentioned how the Central Thai classes that are being taught in the village schools have no relation to the lives the Karen children lead when they go home. A typical schedule for a Karen student would be to take an English, Mathematical, Thai dance or culture, and Thai history class. Often times, Karen children will wai their elders (teachers) upon greeting them. This is something that has been adapted from Thai culture that has never been used in Karen culture (Grunewald, 1/26/99).

Although Karen administrators and parents have had many conflicts with trying to obtain Karen values and culture within the schools, the Hwuih Ya Government School is seen as most prominent with its efforts by going around the Thai laws. Hwuih Ya is an elementary school that is Kindergarten through the eighth grade. During an interview with the principal of Hwuih Ya, he mentioned the chaotic situation with the Thai government not allowing Karen ways to be taught in the schools. The principal and teachers at Hwuih Ya finds ways to accommodate both the Thai laws and the need to maintain Karen culture by holding after school classes that teach the Karen language. However, in the home economics classes, some of Karen culture is visible in which girls are taught how to weave and boys are taught how to make bricks.

In an interview with the medicine man, we learned that many parents, like he, want to see their children achieve a higher living standard. He wants his children to receive the best qualitative education they can so that they can obtain a job where they would not have to labor all day in the rice fields as the medicine man and many people of his generation has been brought up.

 

Daycare and Preschool

The daycare center/preschool in Tee Mae Ker Lah was started with assistance of Ajarn Tete and the Hilltribes Resource and Development Center. The preschool now receives support from the government. The tuition cost for a child is 1 baht per day, but even the children who can not pay are still allowed to attend. This time of separation from the children allows parents to work in the fields or at jobs outside the home. Students come to the center from 8:30 until 3:30. Presently there are more than 20 children who attend the center everyday. If even a few more students enroll another teacher would be needed (Preschool teacher, 1/20/99).

The children start the day by lining up outside the building next to the playground to sing the national anthem and raise the flag. They also celebrate a Christian worship and pray in the morning. They begin to learn their ka-kai, co-cai (Thai ABCs) by chanting as a group. The teacher tells them stories in Thai; for many Karen children this experience is their first contact with the Thai language. Dancing for physical exercise is also part of the routine. At 12:00 every day the children eat rice for lunch and then have naptime.

In this center, a point is made to teach the students about the Karen culture. The teacher has more flexibility in what she teaches the children because at the pre-primary level the government has less control. Karen baskets and games are seen around the room to encourage the children to appreciate their Karen heritage.

The school has one building, without electricity. There is a swing set outside that makes up the focus of the play area. Inside there is artwork hanging from the ceiling made from straws, pop cans and paper. Posters of birds, plants, fruit and numbers cover the walls. A raised area with sleeping mates is used for naptime. The children seem to enjoy coming to the school. Many children run to grab a spot on the swing set or inside on the floor when the teacher begins a lesson. During observation the children were well behaved and enthusiastic. After age 5 the children begin the next step of kindergarten at one of a few schools in the area.

 

Primary and Middle School

Both the Hwuih Ya government school and the Sahamit or Friendship School follow the same government prescribed curriculum and have the same calendar. Students attend classes from June through September and November through February with a break in October and summer vacation from March through May. In addition there are many holidays during the school year. As one teacher commented, "the Thais really like to have festivals so there is one for almost everything" (Jantra, 1/25/99). Several educators, including teachers and the principal of the government school, commented that the lack of continuity in both schools is very apparent. Most teachers take roll in their classrooms, but attendance is very laid back for both the students and the teachers. Some teachers come and go as they like, even if it means there is no teacher for their classes. Evaluation of students is very difficult because school is so irregular. Sometimes educators find it necessary to ‘cheat’ and show the government what they want to see with a certain spread of scores (Grunewald, 1/26/99).

Two farang teachers who have spent time at both Hwuih Ya and Sahamit schools remarked that teachers have a real drive to get the students to score well rather than to be sure they are learning worthwhile material. Teachers use the rote method of teaching, often standing in front of the class and having the students repeat after them. Students hold their teachers in very high regard. Social bonds between teacher and student, similar to a parent-child relationship are common among the Karen.

 

Sahamit or Friendship School

The Sahamit School was founded in Matah but was later moved to Tee Mae Ker Lah when land could be purchased in 1963. When the school started 45 students enrolled. The school is owned by the Baptist Christian Service Foundation and recent contributions from the Swedish Church Aid have allowed for building additions to be made to the school (Leming field notes).

Today the school provides K-9 education for over 460 children from Tee Mae Ker Lah and surrounding villages. Many students who live further away stay in a nearby hostel during the week and go home over the weekend. Most of the students are from the Karen tribe but there are also a few Hmong, Lisu and Northern Thais. In 1995 the tuition fees were 250 baht for elementary school (Leming field notes) but today in 1999 there are no fees because of increased support from non-government agencies. The government pays for a certain percentage and the rest is covered by a charitable organization called Compassion (Jantra, 1/25/99). Unlike the government school, the Sahamit School has enough money to provide students with the necessary supplies and textbooks.

There are 27 teachers at the Sahamit School. All but two of the teachers are Karen and Christian. The average income for a teacher at this school is approximately 6,000 baht per month. Some of the more educated/experienced teachers make a maximum of 10,000 baht per month. This is about 60 percent of the average salary at the government school and most of the teachers have other jobs working at home or in the rice fields to supplement their income. Jantra, and English teacher at the Sahamit School commented that she teaches because, "I love the students and I want them to get a good education" (Jantra, 1/25/99). This attitude seems to be common for many educators, despite the apparent problem of inconsistent attendance of some.

During one day of observation Jantra was forced to combine two levels of English classes because the other English teacher did not show up to teach his classes. Her class swelled to 45 students of varying levels. Jantra commented that this was a very normal situation. Teachers come and go and teach when they like, if the students are lucky another teacher will step in otherwise they are left with a period of recess. For some students a lack of teachers in attendance can mean a whole afternoon of volleyball, basketball or playing games with friends.

The daily schedule for school is from 8:00 am until about 3:30 p.m. There are seven periods a day for older students. Kindergarten meets for four hours each morning. Some students go home for lunch at 12:00 while others bring lunch from home. The kindergarten and first grade students are given curry and/or vegetables for lunch; all they need bring is rice.

Although Bangkok sets the curriculum there is some limited flexibility for the Sahamit teachers to Change their curriculum. The government provides educators with a list of books to chose from and the teachers select ones from which they will teach. Grading is done on a 4 point system, 4 being the best and 1 failing. Students are expected to complete tests and assignments for each class. In addition, some teachers also take attendance into consideration.

Students are expected to take classes in geography, science (chemistry), math, and language. Learning English begins in kindergarten and by the ninth grade students are expected to read, write and be able to use English in daily conversations. Art, music, cooking and some vocational programs are offered as elective courses.

The Sahamit School just started teaching Karen a couple years ago. The chaplain of the school holds classes twice a week in which students can chose to learn more about the Karen language, music or handicrafts. This is one of the only options they have for squeezing Karen into the Bangkok Curriculum.

Christianity is something that is maintained at the Sahamit School. Because it is a Christian school Sahamit receives less funding from the government than other schools. Every day the students start the school day with a prayer and chapel service. They are expected to attend a Bible class taught by the chaplain once a week. Children learn biblical stories and good Christian habits. Teachers also have their own Christian chapel service every Wednesday.

For each grade there are certain objectives that need to be passed before a student can continue into the next grade. For example, in a Thai language class a student is expected to begin reading and writing by the completion of first grade. In second grade they will focus on spelling and sentence structure. Each year’s objective contains certain expectations in the categories of vocabulary, grammar, comprehension and practice. In the past if students could not pass the objective they would stay in the same grade until they could pass. Jantra stated that one student had spent 10 years in the second grade. Now they allow the student to keep taking the exam over and over in the same year until he or she passes; the goal is to keep them moving through the system.

When speaking to parents about their impressions of the Sahamit School all felt that their children were getting a very good education there. The parents wanted to prepare their children to study elsewhere after the ninth grade and the perception was that Sahamit did an adequate job doing so (Esther & Timothy 1/26/99, Jantra 1/25/99, Udom 1/26/99, Tete 1/27/99). It is interesting to note that the principle of the government school also sends his children to the Sahamit School for their education.

 

Hwuih Ya Government School

Hwuih Ya is not a typical Thai government school because its principal Udom is so dedicated to giving his students the best education possible. According to those who work with Udom he is a very giving man with a strong faith in God (Grunewald 1/26/99). Unfortunately there is not enough money or resources for Udom to put all his plans into action. Currently a new cafeteria with a cement floor is being built so the students will have a central location in which to eat lunch. The next project that Udom argues the school needs desperately is a water system (Udom 1/27/99). Currently students have to carry all the water they use up a fairly large hill. After this project Udom would like to begin work on building some new study rooms and classroom space.

The school relies heavily on outside donations of pens, notebooks and sports equipment to keep the school running. Amy Grunewald, an English teacher at the Hwuih Ya School, recalls several times when students had notebooks that had been cut in half because supplies were so short. Many students resort to writing in the margins of used pages once the notebook is full. Grunewald believes that the shortages are a result of very little money and the Karen mentality of using things up as soon as they are received.

Although Hwuih Ya is a government school, Udom still insists that the students start their day with a short prayer after the national anthem and flag raising. The government does not allow Christianity to be taught in the government school but extra curricular classes in Bible study are offered.

Most of the students at the government school live in dormitories. There are approximately 150 students of varying ages that live on the school grounds. An average of 12 students sleep on mats in a given room. The dormitory residence provides an opportunity for students to become good friends with one another. The Compassion charitable organization pays the students’ dorm fees, tuition and buys some supplies/uniforms. The yearly tuition is 95 baht for the primary grades and 135 baht for the junior high. The government provided only 100 uniforms for the school and many students do not wear uniforms because they don’t have the money to purchase one.

The government school, like the Sahamit School follows the Bangkok Curriculum. Teachers are expected to teach certain material. Science classes such as chemistry are stressed at Hwuih Ya. In the lower levels students are also required to take a class to create good habits. They learn how to wai, behave with elders and act with good manners. Boys and girls also take home economics classes in which they learn how to cook and clean.

Nothing is taught about local culture; everything is on a national level (Grunewald, 1/27/99). The books that are used in the cities of Thailand are the same books being used in the rural villages. This can be a problem when certain issues or examples that appear in the text are characteristic of city life. Students are shown examples of city buses, video games and book stores- not things a Mu Si Khee resident would be familiar with. All classes are taught in Thai and the Karen language is not taught at any level.

One of the crucial focuses at the Hwuih Ya school is the vocational training programs. Girls and boys are separated into two groups. The boys learn how to make cement bricks and girls learn how to weave in the traditional Karen fashion. There is some overlap, many girls learn brick making in addition to weaving and some boys try weaving. Both programs offer hands-on-experience from start to finish and students are rewarded for exceptional work. This type of training is one way for children to learn practical skills they can use after finishing school if they chose to stay in the village.

There are a total of 12 teachers at the Hwuih Ya school including 1 monk, 2 Thais, and 1 farang. The rest are Karen. The teachers at the government school make 9,000 baht per month on average. The teachers enjoy their work but many confess they are frustrated or bored. Udom remarked that there is a shortage of teachers at the school and often, older students are asked to watch over a class with no teacher. The students receive approximately 3-4 hours of proper schooling a day due to conferences, meetings or other activities that keep teachers or children out of the classroom. Many educators feel there is an endless circle of poor education-lack of sponsorship-continued poor education (Tim, 1/22/99). They want their students to go on to further education after the ninth grade but for so many students this plan is not feasible.

Similar to the Sahamit School, teachers are in charge of certain activities and serve on committees. Various groups have been established to make decisions about certain aspects of the school such as parent-school relations, budget, extra-curricular activities and sponsorship committees.

Some classes are held outside with students sitting on benches others are held in classrooms with thin walls. Most classrooms have a chalkboard with rows of tables and benches. In the lower levels children sit on the floor while the teacher presents charts of numbers and the alphabet.

There is no doubt that the Karen students who attend either Hwuih Ya Government School the Sahamit Friendship School are greatly influenced by Thai culture in their schools. With the increasing presence of television many young children are being flooded with new ideas about art, music, love and behavior. The impact this viewing has on the children’s ‘Karen-ness’ depends on who one talks with. Karen educators such as Jantra see it having little affect on the children’s views (Jantra, 1/25/99) but farang educators with an outside perspective see television as a profoundly detrimental influence (Grunewald 1/26/99). Most educators want their students to get a good Thai-style education, have a good standard of living and preserve their Karen culture (Udom, 1/27/99). Whether or not this combination can actually survive remains to be seen.

 

High School and Post Secondary

After finishing the eighth or ninth grade in the villages, the Karen children must attend schooling in the bigger cities; such as Chiang Mai, in order to graduate from high school. Esther and Timothy have sent their children to the cities to finish their schooling. They both come from a very respectful and religious family. Like many people from their community, they want their children to achieve the best education possible in hopes of saving them from a bitter future. They do not want their children to work in hard conditions and long hours for little pay.

Esther and Timothy mentioned, in an interview, some of the negative and positive aspects of sending their kids to school in the cities. The positive aspects of sending their children to the cities are that they will adapt to Thai ways and better prepare them for their futures. However, Esther and Timothy fear that the negative things will outweigh the positive things in sending their children off to study in the bigger cities. One of their biggest fears is that their children will have a hard time assimilating into Thai culture from the lives that they have lead in the mountains of Thailand.

 

Tete’s Project

There are many problems oppressing the tribal people of Northern Thailand. Additional to the Thai government pressuring for modernization, there are other problems conveying in the lives of the Karen. Many of these problems deal with the use of heroin and prostitution.

Ajarn Zothansiami Ralte, also known as Ajarn Tete, is one of the few women who have been courageous enough to go up against the drug dealers and prostitution solicitors. She started a program to help needy children. In a personal interview with her, she listed the qualifications to be accepted into her program. A child must be either an orphan, come from a big family, or has been requested to be taken into her hostel because of his (or her) impoverish surroundings. Sometimes, a child is accepted into her hostel because the parents are paying for the child’s stay with money.

She sets up different chores for the Lisu, Karen, and Hmong students who come to stay with her, in order to go to school at the Sahamit Private School. The chores are to help these young men and women access their own personal needs while their stay. For instance, the girls gather firewood and bring in waters from the reservoirs while the boys tend to the gardens and the farm animals. These chores are given to the children in order to provide for their living with clothing, food, and water.

Through the chores and living arrangements, Ajarn Tete hopes to teach the children sharing and communication skills. Also, her chores and programs allow the students to achieve a higher self-esteem in who they are, receive mentoring and tutoring with homework assignments from other students and people who come to stay in the hostels as teachers or student groups, and receive occupational training (Goodwin, 1997). Sometimes, the children receive extra tutoring with their writing and speaking skills with the biblical studies provided at the hostel. Like bible school, the children learn how to read write by citing the bible, through prayer, and through singing biblical hymns.

Ajarn Tete’s program not only works with young women who are attending the private school but other women who come to live with Ajarn Tete through an application process. Through occupational training, these women learn how to weave, bake, and sew. During the interview, Ajarn Tete mentioned how the weaving and sewing sessions are also opened to the community. Sometimes, women from the community will come to these sessions and learn certain patterns to go back and work on their own.

Because her sewing and weaving groups are open to both the community women and her students, she hopes that this will help maintain some of the Karen ways of weaving and gain the ability to pass along the different sewing patterns. At the same time, she hopes that by holding the sewing group sessions and weaving classes, she allows the women to work with sewing and weaving machinery they can not afford on their own. Also, she wants the women to more easily access materials to help them weave and sew.

In return for all of Ajarn Tete’s efforts, she wants the students and women from the community to be able to earn a living and not have to worry about other alternatives (Ralte, 1/28/99).

Ajarn Tete has informally opened her baking school. The baking school still needs some machinery and ingredients; but so far, it is the central bakery section of Tete’s hostel.

Before the girls leave her hostel, Tete hopes that the skills they have obtained from sewing, weaving, and baking will help them find jobs in the long run. Also, that these skills that they have obtained in the hostel will grow in the Karen villages.

 

Continuing Education

 For adults who are looking to gain new job skills and learn better ways to work, the King’s and Queen’s Royal Projects are extensive resources for continuing education. The King’s Royal Project is a non-profit government organization initiated by the king to provide education and other resources for farmers. The projects goal is to help farmers learn and use good agricultural techniques that will increase their yields and lessen the need to expand their farmland further (Steve Bailey, 1/21/99). Some of the strategies they use include making cuttings and grafting plants as well as shifting plants varieties to more effective ones. They also have extension training for farmers and will come to a farmer’s field and demonstrate their ideas to them. They also have one area they use as a demonstration area on their own land for farmers.

The King’s Royal Project also assists farmers in marketing and selling their crops. They have encouraged some farmers to grow more cash crops, such as fruit trees, to increase their incomes and diversify their farming. While this can bring benefits to the Karen farmers in the area, it also increases the farmer’s dependence on the services of the Royal Project. The Project provides materials to farmers in exchange for some of their harvests earnings. It is only with the seeds, fertilizers, transportation, and marketing of the Royal Project that these farmers are successful. For this reason, some Karen are reluctant to take the subsidies offered by the Royal Project. They would prefer to farm independently.

Another option for further occupational training and education is the Queen’s Royal Project. There are a number of project sites in the area, including one at Bon Wat Chan. The project primarily serves women by teaching them how to weave and assisting them in the marketing and selling of their products. Women who participate in the Royal Project can get thread and other supplies by paying for them with a portion of their profits from their finished goods (Hans, 1/20/99). The Royal Project also assists women in the marketing and selling of their products. As transportation to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and other cities can be difficult and expensive, this service makes it easier for the women to earn money for their labor. While the Royal Project provides women with the skills to weave effectively, they do not teach traditional Karen weaving techniques. Unlike local projects like the one led by Ajarn Tete, the weavers at the Queens Royal Project do not create traditional hill tribes goods. The Royal Project is part of the Thai government and it chooses to create goods demanded by the Thai people. At the time of our visits to two Royal Project sites, both were weaving a solid sky blue fabric to market. Like the King’s Royal Project, the Queen’s Royal Project benefits many Karen people, but success comes at the cost of more dependence on outsiders for their economic survival. Women gain many practical skills from the Royal Project, but often at the cost of not learning traditional Karen crafts.

 

Religious Education

 Another opportunity for education for the Karen people today is through religious teaching. The Tee Mae Ker Lah Baptist Church is the central venue for religious education among the Karen in the village and it has programs for both children and adults. Children participate in five Sunday school groups where they learn verses, stories, and songs from the Bible. Occasionally, the Sunday school classes will participate in and lead the Sunday church services. Two times a year, there is also a Vacation Bible School program where children have an extended opportunity to learn and play together in a religious setting (Timothy, 1/27/99).

On Sundays, adults have multiple opportunities for religious education. Besides the sermon in the Sunday noon service (10:30-12:00 p.m.), they can participate in the Sunday evening Bible study as well as the other church services that occur throughout the day. On Wednesdays, there is also a Bible study meeting where topics are given out for people to study individually. Pastors and elders go on religious retreats throughout the year and there is a meeting every three months to review the education program at the church (Esther, 1/27/99).

In addition to the formal religious teaching found at the church, family-based education in the home is an important aspect of religion for the Karen. For Timothy and Esther’s family, spiritual education is a significant part of the time they spend together. They have family devotions together, where they stress living according to the lessons in the Bible. Timothy and Esther also incorporate music and singing into their worship. They teach their children Christian songs as well as how to play guitar with them. Most importantly, Timothy and Esther believe that spiritual education should take the form of teaching by example. They try to follow a way of life that is in accordance with God and they hope that their children will learn this lifestyle by watching them (Timothy and Esther, 1/27/99).

Adults in the village also have further occasions for spiritual education in their homes. Couples often learn together, and many follow the topics given for individual Bible study on Wednesdays at home. As men and women gather together for weaving or other social events, the fellowship in the group provides other opportunities to learn and grow together. As nearly everyone in the village in Christian, informal spiritual lessons abound.

 

The Future of the Karen

There are many kinds of learning, formal and informal, going on in the villages of Mu Si Khee, and new opportunities are coming there all the time. The Changes brought by Christianity and formal education have benefited the Karen in many ways. Learning new and better ways to perform traditional labors and gaining other ways to earn money has increased the standard of living significantly in the village. More people have expanded into other occupations besides rice farming and students have traveled throughout Thailand and abroad. While this has been favorable, increased education has come at a price.

The increased Thai presence education brings to the village has threatened the traditional Karen culture and lifestyle. As we have seen, Karen children are often not following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents, and many elders have mixed feelings about this. Education brings many opportunities, but also many new questions to answer. If children are to grow up and become rice farmers like their parents, why do they need to go to school? If they do go to school, what can students do with their new knowledge and skills if they return to the village? Do the job opportunities in the village really make education worthwhile?

From our perspective as outsiders, education is valuable and we believe it will be increasingly worthwhile for young people over time. Tourism is growing in northern Thailand, and as transportation to the hill tribes improves, more and more visitors will come. The Karen will need skills in English, business, and other areas in order to adapt to and manage these Changes successfully. If the Karen are unprepared, they will lose even more of their culture to the Thais or others who come with the tourism industry.

Schools for the Karen today are not providing an education comparable to what is found in urban Thai schools. The Karen believe in the importance of education, but they will be left behind if they do not have educational opportunities equal to the rest of Thailand and the world. It is the Karen’s number one goal to gain a better, more equal education, and with their determination and commitment to education, the Karen will soon have it.

 

References Cited

 

Surapon (Su), interview, 27 January, 1999.

Bailey, Steve, interview, 21 January, 1999.

 Boon Na, interview, 18 January, 1999.

 Esther, interview, 27 January, 1999.

 Goodwin, Sharon. So Many Dreams: The Hill Tribes Resources and Development Center at Mu Si Khee. Paper presented to the school for International Training College Semester Abroad, 1997.

 Grunewald, Amy, interview, 26 January, 1999.

 Hans, interview, 20 January, 1999.

 Jantra, interview, 25 January, 1999.

 Leming, Michael, Field Notes: "The Karen People of Tee Mae Ker Lah", 1996.

Marshall, Reverend Harry Ignatius. The Karen People of Burma: A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1922.

Mulder, Niels. Inside Thai Society: An Interpretation of Everyday Life. Bangkok: D.K. Book House, 1992.

Preschool teacher, interview, 20 January, 1999.

Ajarn Sompob, interview, 11 January, 1999.

Swanson, Herb, lecture, 11 January, 1999.

Ajarn Tete, interview, 28 January, 1999.

Tim, interview, 22 January, 1999.

Timothy, interview, 27 January, 1999.

 Udom, interview, 27 January, 1999.

 

Go To Top 

 

Chapter 3:

 

MU SI KHEE:
A REGION OF ECONOMIC TRANSITION

 

Heidi Larson, Betsey McLain, Alecia Swenson

 

 Introduction

 In researching the economics of the Tee Mae Ker Lah village and the surrounding areas, the traditions, occupations, and developments of the Karen were addressed. Originally, the region maintained a subsistence agricultural economy. The present economy has evolved as a result of outside influences. Missionaries, Thai government officials, programs, and mandates, along with other Western influences, catalyzed the transformation to a cash economy which can be seen through new job opportunities and an increase of stores and restaurants in the area. Although the focus on the cash economy has been beneficial, it brings forth externalities, such as soil pollution, air pollution, and increased demand for resources. The following discussion will focus on the growth of the cash economy around Tee Mae Ker Lah and the potential outcomes and problems.

  

Farming

There are two main types of farming: slash and burn and paddy. Slash and burn farming involves clearing an area of trees and then burning the underbrush. The burning process adds minerals to the soil, which helps crops to be grown. Unfortunately, the negative aspects outweigh the positives. This process strips the soil of essential nutrients and leads to more erosion, therefore, only allowing crops to be grown for a few years. As a result, the Karen have begun to utilize the process of paddy farming more often than slash and burn. Additionally, rice grown in paddy farms tastes better and has higher yields. Instead of installing an irrigation system, a paddy farm is flooded by a close river in order to water the crop. Clearly, this displays a financial advantage of paddy farming.

As seen with only these two types of farming, rice was the main crop. For the Karen, rice was always consumed by the family and never sold for profit. The isolation of the villages prevented them from using cash transactions or trade. Since rice continues to be the staple food for the Karen, agriculture remains to be an important aspect of their lifestyle and economy.

 

Herbal Medicine

Before the introduction of Western medicine to the village, medicine was found in the forest and cultivated by the village medicine man. Traditionally, one individual in the community was responsible for the gathering of herbs. This knowledge of medicinal herbs is usually passed through generations. Boo Na, the Karen Medicine man of Tee Mae Ker Lah, learned about herbal medicine from his father. He explained that as people requested herbs, he would only gather the amount necessary, so as to prolong the herbs existence. However, the demand for herbal medicine has decreased. In Thorn Seng, a health care worker, stated that "a mixture of herbal and pharmaceutical drugs is more effective than just one or the other." He expanded that finding herbal medicines has proven to be increasingly difficult. This Change to combining forms of medicine illustrates the penetration of outside influence.

 

The Royal Project

Purpose

The Royal Project, created by the King in 1968, serves as a means of improving the standard of living for hilltribes by enabling them to raise income generating crops. In addition to these humanitarian goals, the King wanted to address the problems associated with the cultivation of opium and slash and burn farming. By educating the farmers about profitable crops and different farming techniques, the King hoped to address both of these problems. The King and a group of advisors created this list of objectives:

 To render suitable assistance to hilltribes

To reduce the destruction of natural resources

To stop opium cultivation

To make proper use of the land

To produce crops to the benefit of Thailand economy (Royal Project).

  

History

The Royal Project arose after a decade of trying to control and end opium production in the Northern Thai hills. The government had found little success and realized that it needed to offer alternate forms of income in order for anything to Change. This task was especially difficult in certain areas because opium farming was conducive to this climate and soil content. Furthermore, opium could be stored for long periods, transported in small quantities with little special handling, and created a high income for its producers (Renard, 62).

  

Plan for the Project

The government, acting on behalf of the King, implemented the Project across the country, but focussed on poor areas and areas of high opium production (Tong Dee). First, the government offers educational opportunities for the farmers in which they learn about different crops and techniques. Then, the Royal Project lends the farmer the inputs necessary to implement the program. In offering the inputs, the government lends seeds, fertilizers, and livestock to the farmers. Inputs also include services, like irrigation machines and education to best manage the generated profits from the sale of the product (Jim Peters).

The Royal Project offers several different means of production: short-term crops, livestock, and long-term crops. The short-term crops imply that the maturation period is four or five months. Examples of these crops include pumpkins, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, gladiolas, and carnations. The livestock options provided by the government include pigs, cows, chickens, and fish. Finally, the long-term crops are the fruit trees, such as plums, pears, coffee, mangoes, and avocados.

The farmers repay the loan by returning the finished crop to the Project to sell. The Project transports the goods to a major market area to sell the product. From the sale, the Project deducts the expenses (the cost of the seeds, fertilizers, etc., and the cost of transportation). Then the Project pays the farmer. The Project, being funded through subsidies, charges only the amount of the expenses because it is a non-profit organization (Pichart).

This project enables the government to curb opium production and increase the farmers’ standard of living through an increased income.

 

Funding

The government serves as the primary financier of the Royal Project. However, shortly after its establishment the government received assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who created a contract with Thailand to aid in the efforts of finding alternative crops for opium (Royal Project). It seems that since the Project is funded through the government, the Asian Economic Crisis did not impact the program severely. Unfortunately, money given by the high officials to the program has often been embezzled from the government (Tong Dee).

 

Satisfaction

The satisfaction of the program is difficult to determine. The Project is run in honor of the Royal Family, therefore, a commoner would never state any type of complaint towards the Royal Family. A comment of this sort would be completely disrespectful. However, the Royal Project also faces a dilemma. A failure of the program in one location reflects poorly on the Royal Family because other locations have been successful (Tong Dee).

Some feelings portrayed by villagers were of dissent. They were often grateful for the opportunities offered by the Project, but skeptical of the Projects’ use of money. Other comments referred to the insufficient education of the farmers and the lack of a real plan. The lack of education resulted in over-fertilization and under-fertilization, as attaining accurate calibrations is often a complicated process. In reference to the "real plan" this refers to the problems faced by introducing new crops. The Project, after attaining success in other regions with crops, transplanted the idea to the Mu Si Khee region. The land and climate were not suitable for these crops, so the efforts were wasted. Had the program researched the area, the climate, and the land, the Project would have been able to make educated suggestions to the farmers.

While feelings of disagreement existed, so did feelings of appreciation. One farmer, Moo See Pa, has worked with the Royal Project for 10 years. When interviewed he appeared appreciative of the opportunities granted by the Project. He has been able to install an irrigation system, use fertilizers, and experiment with new crops.

 

Problems for the Future

One major issue for the country is the land. Only about 1/4 of the land in the Mu Si Khee area is suitable for crop production (Tong Dee). As a result, the people must be careful not to overuse the land, while working to increase production from the land to feed the increasing population. The population also poses a problem as the parents divide the land to the children. This creates a problem as the size of the farms becomes so small that none of the children are able to fulfill their needs.

 

Plans for the Future

Due to the limited amount of land, the Program has been working to find new plants which attain increased levels of production. For example, the Project developed a type of rice that yields more than the current strain (Pichart). The Project also believes that its education serves as the means to correctly use the land, with fertilizers and crop rotation.

 

The Development of Roads

The roads have brought many Changes to the Mu Si Khee area. When Thra Baw Ney came to Mu Si Khee in 1933, which was before the construction of the roads, he noted that the Karen were far from any outside influences and were relatively untroubled by others (Renard, 98). Many residents lived traditional lifestyles until the development of the roads which brought people closer to outside influences. In the 1950s, missionaries from the American Baptist Mission began entering the hills to work with the Karen and support the work of the Karen evangelists like Thra Baw Ney. Both the Baptists and the members of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship brought not only religious Change to the hill people, but also built roads, brought medicines and efficient measures of public health, and suggested new ideas for agricultural crops and livestock (Renard, 48). In 1955, the government completed construction of a road from Chiang Mai to Pai which allowed villagers of the Mu Si Khee area to have access to goods coming by motor vehicles to a road-head which was within one day of fast walking from the village (Renard, 100). The easier access to the market has led the Karen people from a traditional subsistence economy to a cash economy. The roads have created new opportunities for the Karen to receive an income, and thus participate in the cash economy.

 

Cash Economy: New Opportunities

 

Teachers

The first two groups of people to start receiving an income were schoolteachers and pastors. In 1960, the Karen Baptist Convention and the American Baptist missionaries started the first educational programs in Tee Mae Ker Lah, but the first official school opened in the village in 1973. This brought much Thai influence to the village because Thai teachers started living in the village, the students began learning Thai language and also about the outside world (Renard, 109). Sahamit School, which is a private Christian school from kindergarten to ninth grade, provides job opportunities for more than 30 people, with 27 teachers, 4 administrators, janitors and a chaplain. Several of the teachers also have another form of income other than just teaching. Dam Rong, who is considered to be well off in Tee Mae Ker Lah, was the principal at Sahamit School for 27 years, but is currently a teacher. Since he is a senior teacher, he is making 10,000 Baht/month whereas a first year teacher makes 6,000 Baht/month. In comparison, a typical farmer who sells rice and vegetables only makes 2,000 Baht/year. Besides being a teacher, he is also an entrepreneur. Furthermore, his wife brings in more money by selling vegetables, weaving, and raising pigs and then selling them.

Jantra, who is 34 years old and has been a teacher at the Sahamit School for 8 years, also brings in an extra income to her family by knitting and owning a store. In every spare moment she has, she knits, even while teaching. In order to knit one hat, it usually takes her about 6 hours, which is equal to about 2 nights. She sells her hats for 55 Baht each whereas she sells her crochet hats for 65-70 Baht because they usually take her 3-4 nights to crochet. Although she owns a store, she said that she does not make much profit, but her main reason for the store is to benefit the people of the village by selling them products that they need at low prices. Jantra said that several of the teachers also do other things to bring in money. For example, a teacher named Sara, sells passion fruit in Chiang Mai. Other teachers who own trucks transport things, such as wood and rice during the harvest season, for people during the nights and holidays when there is no school. However, for many teachers, teaching is their only source of income in their family. For example, the principal’s wife does not work, but she spends time in the rice patty where they grow their own rice. Many of the teachers have their own rice patty so that they do not have to buy rice. Jantra’s husband, Bravit, is also a teacher at Sahamit. Fortunately, Bravit’s mother takes care of Jantra and Bravit’s son while they are teaching. There was only one month where they had to pay for a babysitter because Bravit’s mother was helping with harvest. They are saving a lot of money by not having to pay a babysitter whom they had paid 50 Baht a day for babysitting from 8:30-4:00 each day of that month. Jantra and Bravit are not the only married couple at Sahamit; among the 27 teachers at Sahamit, there are four married couples who both teach at the school.

 

Church positions

Although there are 14 workers at church, including the pastor, elders, and secretary, the pastor is the only paid job. As a pastor, Timothy said that he has four main duties, which are the following: continue education to best help church members, plan services, programs, and the future actions of the church, teach members the way to actively serve God, and teach members to cooperate in attaining goals. He receives his income from the offerings of the church congregation. The CCT, the Christian Church of Thailand, has set a standard income for him and will fulfill it if the offerings neglect to. However, he said he has yet to ever get paid from the CCT. His income has increased over the years due to further study. Before he studied 4 years at Bangkok Bible College, he was receiving 6,000 Baht/year. When he studied at Bangkok, he received a 10,000 Baht scholarship per year from the church to attend school. After his Bible education in Bangkok, his income greatly increased to 2,700 Baht/month. In 1998, he had another increase to 3,200 Baht/month, but he does not expect an increase for the year of 1999 because there were many rice problems last year. Timothy also earns money by speaking at seminars in which he gets paid about 300-500 Baht.

Although Timothy holds the only permanent job that receives an income, his wife, Esther, is receiving an income from the Swedish Church for working on a history project, in which she is trying to uncover the history of 8 churches in the area. She said that she enjoys the project, but it is very time-consuming. She has already spent 3 years working on the project, and expects that it will take another 10 years before she has completed it. Since she is being funded by the Swedish Church, she is paid a much higher income than Timothy, and has received 6,000 Baht/month in comparison to Timothy’s 3,200 Baht/month. She expects to have a raise this year to 6,500 Baht/month. Although Esther does get paid for doing this history project, she does many other things in the church that she does not receive any salary for.

 

 Weaving Projects

Another opportunity for villagers to receive an income is through various weaving projects. A weaving project is one of the four projects of the Queens Development Center in Wat Chan. The other development projects include helping people improve their cooperative store, offering a rice bank in which people borrow rice and pay back with interest in rice, and providing medicine and a health care center. Currently, they are working on establishing a drug treatment center. The Queens Development Project has been in existence for 15 years and employs seven soldiers who oversee the project as part of their two-year obligation to the Thai government for service. The weaving project is open to anyone who is interested. If a new villager wants to join but does not know how to weave, a chairman of the weaving committee will teach him/her. Presently, there are 74 members involved in the weaving project. The weaving project is free for the people with free access to big looms. The weavers have the option of either using the materials that the project provides or of investing in the materials themselves and selling their weavings to the project. If the villagers use their own thread and dye, they receive 75-80 Baht/meter from the project. If the villagers choose to use the thread and dye of the Project, they then only receive 40-45 Baht/meter due to expenses of the materials. One piece of cloth usually measures 20 meters in length and 1 meter in width. If a villager weaves from morning till evening, they can usually finish 4 meters so if they were to use their own materials, they would make about 300 Baht/day whereas if they pay for the use of the Project’s materials, they would make about 160 Baht/day.

The weavers of the Queens Development Project make a basic piece of cloth instead of Karen products which takes more time to make. However, Tete, who is a woman in charge of the Hilltribes Resource and Development Center, also has a weaving project for people in the village who focus on weaving traditional Karen products, such as shoulder bags, shirts, skirts, blankets, etc. The weaving project is one of the many projects that Tete has developed in order to help the Karen people carry on their traditions and learn how to help their own people with the available resources. When she began the weaving program 8 years ago, the products were not of very good quality. However, the quality has drastically improved, although every once in a while, she still receives some poorly woven products. Currently, there are 147 weavers within 8 villages, with a leader in each village. The leader is in charge of checking the products to make sure they are of good quality. Most of their products are sold to foreigners, including friends in Japan, Trinity Lutheran Church in California, St. Olaf students, and the University of Southern California. When the Thai people buy their products, they always want to bargain to a much lower price. Her friends in Japan buy many of her products. She said that the Japanese are very picky and her products have to be of high quality and perfectly clean in order for the Japanese to buy them. However, she is very thankful to Ajarn Mike and the Fox Family from Trinity Lutheran Church who buy the products, like the brown bags, that are leftover from the Japanese. In order to get the products to Japan, she drives them to Chiang Mai and then ships them to Japan. Her friend in Japan has a woman’s organization that sells the products to various churches. They also have a craft fair once a year in Kyoto and Tokyo in which they sell Karen material.

Tete charges 160 Baht to each villager for the cost of the thread, dye, and other materials. She then sells it for 200 Baht, which is money that goes into the Revolving Fund. From this Revolving Fund, she buys the materials, pays the weavers income and pays Tatoomo, who is the manager, her monthly income of 1,400 Baht. In the past, her Revolving Fund was very low so sometimes the weavers would not receive their money for 3 months. However, since they received a wonderful $3,500 donation from the Virginia Women’s Institute to contribute towards the Revolving Fund, she has been able to pay the weavers faster.

One of the problems that Tete encounters with the weaving project is that weavers will hire others to weave it for them at a lower price, thus making their own profit. As a result, she receives many products that are not of very good quality. Although Tete does receive some lower quality weavings, she buys all the weavings but deducts 5 Baht if it is of poor quality. If the weavers continue to turn in low quality materials, she gives them 2 warnings and then asks then to stop and relearn from their leader on how to improve their weavings. Another problem that she encounters is that the weavers want to weave and weave in order to make money, yet she does not have enough buyers. This especially was a problem last year when the rice production was low because people needed to earn money in order to buy their rice. In order to solve this problem, she says that she hides the thread.

 

Other Projects of Tete

Furthermore, Tete also has a sewing project at the Center where girls from the hostel and girls in the vocational training program learn how to sew. Recently, women of the sewing project have begun to sew uniforms for the school children. This is another way of circulating the money within the community while also providing work for the villagers.

 

Another project that Tete has designed for the children is called the pig project. Each child has a sponsor who pays $14/month in order to cover supplies, uniforms and lunch at school. Just recently, the government has provided lunch for the kids so Tete has decided to use the lunch money to buy a pig for each child. If the kids raise the pigs for a year, they can use it to feed their family or to sell it for no less than 2,000 Baht. Last year, due to the bad rice crop, they gave rice to the child instead of a pig, which also helped money stay circulated within the area instead of buying rice from Chiang Mai. In regards to rice, Tete also has a rice bank in which villagers can buy rice for the same price that she buys it in Chiang Mai, which is 300 Baht/30 kilo bag. The villagers do not pay for any transportation because friends in California have sent money to cover the transportation charge. Every once in a while, villagers borrow rice if in desperate need and then pay back later when they have money.

Another idea that Tete has in order to circulate the money within the village community and benefit the villagers instead of the Thai people is to start a cooperative store. She wants to invest in a whole sale store because right now the Thai people benefit from the stores in the village by selling goods to the people in Mu Si Khee for high prices. By starting a whole sale store in Mu Si Khee, she will create more jobs for the villagers, such as someone to be in charge of selling and marketing, someone to be an accountant, and someone to drive the truck between Mu Si Khee and Chiang Mai.

 

Store Owner

It is possible to start a store and make a lot of money by selling products at high prices, but like Tete, Jantra has started a store not to make a profit, but to benefit the villagers. She and her husband just opened the store last June. In their store, they sell food and drinks, such as rice, noodles, eggs, canned fish, oil, fish sauce, sugar, salt, ground coffee, Milo and Pepsi. They also sell detergent, shampoo, wool, and thread. Bravit drives to Chiang Mai twice a month in order to buy their products at a grocery store. When Bravit goes to Chiang Mai, he also buys gasoline for a village and then delivers it to the village when he returns to Mu Si Khee. In their store, they sell rice for 370 Baht/30 kilo bag whereas other stores in the village sell it for 480-500 Baht/bag. When they do make a profit from the store, they use it to buy more products and save the remainder in the bank.

 

 Truck Driver

Another way to earn money in the Mu Si Khee area is to be a truck driver between Chiang Mai and the villages. The access to the city of Chiang Mai has Changed the villager’s diets. The villagers used to live off of large game, which has drastically declined in the area so there has been a loss in the traditional protein source. The villagers are now replacing this traditional protein source with food such as fresh fish, dried and canned fish, and other preserved produce which is brought in "food vehicles" from Chiang Mai (Renard, 84). While we were in Mu Si Khee, we saw trucks bringing ice cream to the stores, which they never had before. There are 8 different trucks that drive between Chiang Mai and Mu Si Khee. Each day, two trucks drive down to Chiang Mai at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. while two trucks drive up from Chiang Mai at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Each truck driver belongs to the Transportation Corporation to which they have to pay a membership fee each year. Each driver charges the same price to drive between Mu Si Khee and Chiang Mai, which is 100 Baht/head. Sometimes, they only have a few passengers so then they will transport rice for villagers and charge per kilo. Among the 8 truck drivers, only one is Karen while the others are Thai. Tete hopes to turn one of the Center’s trucks into a truck that drives to Chiang Mai in order to provide another job opportunity for a man of the village.

 

Health Care Worker

One further job opportunity for the villagers is to work at a health care center. When the missionaries came, their presence and the existence of the road helped facilitate modern health services. We visited with In Thorn Seng, who is a health care worker. He has been working there for 20 years and is the only employee. Unfortunately, not many people who are studying medicine, especially the Thais, want to live in the village because they think it is too dirty there and would rather work in the city. Furthermore, In Thorn Seng said that most of the people who are studying in Chiang Mai are studying to become teachers rather than doctors. Sometimes, the KBC sends him helpers, but they are not very helpful because they usually know nothing about medicine. He wishes he could have more people working there, but there is not a salary available. As a result of being the only employer, he usually is on-call 24 hours each day. However, sometimes he is not around so the health care center is closed. On average, he has about 10 people come in per week, but he spends a lot of time going to see people in their village. Many times he will go to see one patient, but then others hear that he is in the area so they also ask him to stop by. In Thorn Seng never turns anyone down who comes for medicine. If the patients can not pay him back, they can pay him later or they do manual labor at either his house or the hospital.

The health care center is funded by the Conklin family and the KBC. All of the money is filtered through the KBC from whom he receives his income. Once a month, he goes to Chiang Mai on his motorcycle to receive his payment and to purchase medicines and materials. The most common problems in the village are skin irritation, and stomach irritation, especially worms. Sometimes, farmers are affected by the pesticides and have a fever and skin rash so he gives them a shot to cure that. He said he has a few cases of TB, leprosy, and malaria and currently has no cases of AIDS, but is expecting to have AIDS cases in the near future.

One of In Thorn Seng’s biggest frustrations is that recently, many villagers have been coming in with severe aches and pains which come and go, yet he does not know how to treat it. He feels badly when he sees them suffering and is not able to help them. Unfortunately, he has not had the chance to receive a bachelor’s degree due to lack of money. If someone could sponsor him to study, he would go, but he also does not want to leave his wife to farm the rice by herself. It frustrates him that there are many people with bachelor’s degrees and would be able to help the villagers, yet do not want to live in this area. In Thorn Seng has 5 kids, 4 of whom are studying at Chiang Mai and one who is a "lazy boy" and stays at home. He is struggling financially because he only makes 3,900 Baht/month and it cost him 3,000 Baht/semester for school and 3,000 Baht for housing for each child. He wishes he could save money, but he has to spend every penny. His family does not have any other source of income. He and his wife farm 4-5 rai of rice, which his family consumes. In Thorn Seng is such a hard worker and is so dedicated to his job, yet he receives a very small salary.

 

Construction Workers

Since the development of the roads, there have been more and more Thais coming to the villages. The first Thais to live in the village were the teachers of the government school (Renard, 101). Currently, another job opportunity for the Thai people in the village area is construction. Unfortunately, the Thai government hires mostly Thai people to work on the construction of buildings. As a result, many of the Karen are denied the opportunity to learn how to construct and the opportunity of earning more money (Amy Grunewald). However, there are a few Karen people who are helping construct a new health care center in Mu Si Khee. We visited with one construction worker who is working for a schoolteacher. He makes 100 Baht per day regardless of how long it takes him to finish a certain project. Due to the increase of construction in the area, people are beginning to earn another source of income by making cement post foundations. The construction worker said that they buy the cement posts for 85 Baht per post. However, Tete said that the price depends on the quality because she bought her cement posts for the Center buildings for 200 Baht per post.

 

Music

Since there are not too many jobs in which to earn a salary, some villagers have become creative in order to make a salary. One of these villagers who does something he loves while also making money is Tong Dee who sings and plays his instruments at other small villages, cities, and colleges. Although there are a few other bands in the area, Tong Dee is the only one who travels to other areas to play. He will play wherever people are interested. Sometimes he gets paid; sometimes, he does not. However, money is not the most important thing for him. He likes to play music in order "to promote the Karen culture and to focus on togetherness in their culture." Tong Dee also sells tapes of his music for 60 Baht each. All of the money that he makes from his concerts and tapes is spent on improving his garden.

 

An Example of a Villager’s Expenses

 Ever since the Karen economy has been moving from a subsistent economy to a cash economy, villagers have had to learn how to manage their money. Money never used to be a problem or concern within the area. It was interesting to visit with Dam Rong, the senior teacher at Sahamit School, and learn how he manages his expenses. His expenses for one year are as follows: He earns 120,000 Baht/year from teaching plus an additional 20,000 from selling vegetables and rice, which totals 140,000 Baht. He is taxed 18,000 Baht on his salary but is not taxed on his land. He also gives 3,000 Baht per year to the church. Thus, before he spends any money on his children, he is left with 119,000 Baht. He has five children. He gives 5,000 Baht to his 23-year-old daughter who works in Chiang Mai. His 22-year-old daughter studies at Payap University, which costs 50,000 Baht/year. His 20-year-old son receives no money because he lives at home with him. His 17-year-old son attends Chiang Mai High School, which costs 20,000 Baht/year. Lastly, he pays 3,000 Baht for his 15-year-old son to attend Sahamit School. Therefore, after he has spent his money on his children, he is left with a yearly income of 47,000 Baht. One can note from this financial record that expenses really add up quickly. Furthermore, Dam Rong is a special case because he makes a high teaching salary of 120,000 Baht a year while most teachers make about 72,000 Baht per year.

 

 Effect on Environment

 Erosion

 The introduction of roads brought about more Changes to the Mu Si Khee area besides new jobs and a growing market for farmers. As the roads became more frequently traveled, and as new roads were built, the surrounding environment received increasing amounts of damage, all of which were in direct correlation to the building of roads in the area. While the building of roads brings positive aspects for the economy, it also creates negative aspects for the environment. The most obvious problems the Mu Si Khee area faces due to the increase in road usage are soil erosion, pollution, and deforestation. Foremost, as new roads are built and frequently used, the soil slowly crumbles and blows away, causing problems for the growth of new trees and plants essential to the area (Renard 68). Trees and undergrowth plants play such an important role because they are fundamental in retaining the topsoil necessary for the agriculture that sustains the Mu Si Khee area. (Jim Peters). Trees must be removed and land bulldozed in order to construct the roads. Through the road construction process, erosion becomes a problem. For example, the hill near the Royal Project had to be sliced to accommodate the road, and daily the dry soil crumbles away possibly taking plants or trees with it. In general, the loss of topsoil also contributes to the loss in fertility of the soil. The loss of topsoil was measured by the Royal Irrigation Department showing that the sediment in the Mae Taeng River increased from 1,000 kg/ha in the late 1960s to more than 3,000 kg/ha within 10 years (Renard 71). It can be surmised that the same rise in sediment has occurred elsewhere in the hill areas, including Tee Mae Ker Lah. Moreover, the increase in sediment in rivers of the region illustrates the damaging effects on the forest and vegetation, wildlife in the rivers, and agriculture.

 

Pollution

Another hazard to the environment that occurs with the building of roads is the increase in use of vehicles. As more roads are built, more vehicles can be used which leads to a rise in pollution through carbon monoxide. Moreover, the roads make the trip to the city of Chiang Mai much easier and therefore it is more frequently made. Consequently, as more people buy trucks for transportation and travel to Chiang Mai more often, the pollution from the vehicles increases and subsequently damages air quality.

 

Deforestation

The third major problem the Mu Si Khee area is currently facing stems from their traditional source of food and commerce, which is agriculture. The Karen people have traditionally been subsistence farmers and have practiced both crop rotation and slash and burn agriculture. But the utilization of the slash and burn type of farming has caused problems with deforestation. "All of these Changes [due to roads] has brought tremendous pressure on the forests of the Doi Inthanom Range. . .quite often this destruction has been blamed primarily on tribal swiddening [or slash and burn]" (Renard 70). The slash and burn process only allows the land to be used for a few years before the nutrients have been completely stripped. Therefore, in order to yield enough rice for food each year, a farmer has to move when one area of land cannot be used for farming. The old farm then is abandoned and new land cleared in the same process of cutting down trees and burning underbrush. The result of slash and burn agriculture is large open areas of land that cannot be used for farming and cannot sustain vegetation. The problem is augmented when slash and burn farming is commonly practiced without reforestation. Lately, the Karen have been using crop rotation as their main avenue of agriculture due to the involvement of the Royal Project. By practicing crop rotation, the Karen are now able to use their paddy or upland fields to grow other crops outside of the rice growing season. The Royal Project has pushed the idea of agriculture as a market for the Karen people of the Mu Si Khee area to increase their income. Government protection of the forest began in 1969 with the Reserve Forest Act, which gave the State control over all forest resources (Renard, 54). Additionally, in 1989, the government of Thailand declared a nationwide ban on logging (Vieg, 336). On the same note, illegal logging has also added to deforestation and has been helped by the building of roads. "Road-building exacerbates this by making it possible for lowlanders to drive close to previously untouched forests." (Renard, 71). Another situation that has contributed to deforestation was the increase of opium crops by the Hmong in the 1970s. As opium became more sought after, large portions of land was cleared, destroying trees as well as natural habitats for animals such as elephants (Renard, 70).

 

Future Problems

 Soil

Obviously, the introduction of roads to the area has affected the Tee Mae Ker Lah village and its surrounding area in both positive and negative ways. The negative aspects include erosion, pollution, and deforestation. When looking towards the future, environmental problems will still remain significant in the productivity of farming and inadvertently hinder the economy the Karen are currently striving towards. Although the Royal Project has played an essential role in educating the villagers, they have fallen short in some aspects concerning new crops, crop rotation, pesticides, and fertilizers. For example, the Royal Project gives pesticides and fertilizers to farmers to aid in crop growth and yield (Tong Dee). But according to orchard grower Tong Dee, problems arise because many of the older Karen farmers do not know enough Thai to fully understand the directions and amounts to use. Therefore, a fertilizer or pesticide intended for peppers could be used on sugarcane. Moreover, excessive amounts of pesticides could be put on fields, thereby polluting the soil, the crop, and water sources through run off. Tong Dee also states that the Royal Project will show slides and videos on the use of pesticides and fertilizers, but then allows the farmers to do the rest on their own. Jim Peters further states that measuring fertilizers and pesticides is a complicated process that must be calculated and calibrated and that the Royal Projects’ instruction is not always enough. On the other hand, the director of the Royal Project states that experts go to one specific farm and teach the farmers of the area about pesticide and fertilizer use (Pichart). The soil can also be replenished through the practice of crop rotation in the sense that different crops give back a variety of minerals into the soil. The Royal Project promotes crop rotation, but some farmers have yet to practice crop rotation. As stated previously, the soil also could have damage from previous or current slash and burn farming.

 

Competition for Resources

Other problems with farming arise from competition for land. As previously stated, Tong Dee estimated that only one-fourth of the land in the Tee Mae Ker Lah region is suitable for farming. Therefore as the population increases and new types of crops become available, the amount of useable land remains the same or even drops (Renard 71). Farmer Moo See Pa has also experienced difficulties with land availability in his lifetime. Moo See Pa was not able to inherit much land from his father because he had other siblings whom received the land. Luckily, he was able to purchase some of his own land, but he talked about his future problems when his children want to inherit his lands. This complex cycle of land inheritance also creates problems because of the limited land in the area.

 

Effect of New Farming

All of the above environmental and farming issues are well known throughout the Tee Mae Ker Lah village. The Karen people have been searching for answers to solve these pressing problems and to present a better future. Thus far, the topic of limited land has been addressed through the use of crop rotation. Instead of clearing new land for different crops, farmers have begun to plant crops that grow in different seasons. The practice of crop rotation can lead to a higher income for the farmers as well. Another alternative to farming, and thereby the issue of limited land, is raising livestock. Presently, many Karen raise pigs and chickens, but mainly for their personal consumption. One proposal is to stop farming and focus on raising livestock. When interviewed, Tong Dee strongly stated his belief that the raising of livestock would bring back more revenue than farming. Plus, the livestock can graze on lands that might not have suitable soil for farming.

 

Eco-Tourism

Another revenue making venture for the Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah could be a type of eco-tourism. Since the mid-1970s, tribal tourism from Chiang Mai has brought thousands of tourists, the majority of them Westerners, into the hilltribe region (Renard 72). "Chiang Mai city has dozens of trekking tour organizations that take tourists virtually everywhere in northern Thailand’s hills" (Renard 72). Many of these tours advertise using the hilltribes and their lifestyles as a drawing point. The future of this type of tourism could bring income for the Karen to sell some of their traditional goods. But difficulties arise with dependency on the tours to bring in revenue. Also, environmental damage can occur with this type of tourism through air pollution as more people travel to the hills and through waste deposits. A type of eco-tourism could be worked out to promote education about the hilltribes to preserve and maintain their way of life.

 

Conclusion

The future of Tee Mae Ker Lah’s economy is uncertain. Problems facing the region include the environmental issues and the sharing of economic success. Similarities can be drawn between the popularity of a crop after a successful year, and the rising number of convenience stores within a close proximity. For example, once a certain crop is successful, the following year sees an influx of that specific crop to the market. In the same way, villagers observe the success of a neighborhood store and hope to earn the same profit through opening their own store. Problems arise when the market becomes flooded with a certain crop or when an area is overwhelmed with identical convenience stores. Therefore, the villagers face the challenge of finding new job opportunities in order to earn an income and survive in the current cash economy.

 

References Cited

 

Boo Na. Interview. Trans. Ajarn Tete. 18 January, 1999.

Construction Worker. Interview. Trans. Ajarn Mike. 26 January, 1999.

Dam Rong. Interview. Trans. Ajarn Mike. 26 January, 1999.

Grunewald, Amy. Interview. 17 January, 1999.

 In Thorn Seng. Interview. Trans. Amy Grunewald. 26 January, 1999.

 Jantra. Interview. 22 January, 1999.

Moo See Pa. Interview. Trans. Ajarn Tete. 21 January, 1999.

Peters, Jim. Interview. 18 January, 1999.

Pichart. Interview. 21 January, 1999.

Renard, Ronald D., et. al. Changes in the Northern Hills: an Examination of the Impact of Hill Tribe Development Work 1957-1987. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Research and Development Center, Payap University: 1988.

Royal Project homepage. HYPERLINK http://www.cyber-image.com/royalproject/index.htm, http://www.cyber-image.com/royalproject/index.htm.

 Shithep, Hans. (Soldier at Queen’s Project). Interview. Trans. Ajarn Tete. 20 January, 1999.

Tattoomo. Interview. Trans. Ajarn Tete. 28 January, 1999.

Tete. Interview. 22 January, 1999.

Timothy and Esther. Interview. Trans. Esther. 27 January, 1999.

Tong Dee. Interview. Trans. Jim Peters. 18 January, 1999.

Interview. Trans. Amy Grunewald. 27 January, 1999.

 Vig, Norman J. and Michael E. Kraft. Environmental Policy in the 1990s. Washington D.C. Congressional Quarterly Reports: 1997.

 

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Chapter 4:

 

FAMILY STRUCTURE OF THE KAREN
OF NORTHERN THAILAND

 

Annika Harrington, Heidi Lellman, and Ann Westby

 

 During our time in the Karen village we witnessed the traditional family structure of the Karen culture. We were privileged to participate in daily family interaction in order to gain insight into their traditional family values. Along with spending time with them we held both formal and informal interviews so that we might obtain a first hand account of traditional Karen family customs. The following is an ethnographic compilation of our interviews, observations, and daily involvement in the lives of the Karen people of Mu Si Khee.

 

Marriage Customs Then and Now

Marriage customs among the Karen have seemed to both change and remain much the same over time. I was immensely glad to have had the opportunity to see a Karen wedding firsthand while in Thailand. Much of the changes that have occurred in wedding rituals may have occurred during the Change over to Christianity, from Buddhist/Animist, as the religion of the people. Many of the animist and "akha" portions of the ceremony have been removed, while the non-secular portions remain a part of this cultural experience.

As I interviewed people, many told me that historically, marriages were arranged by the parents. Some of the literature seems to indicate otherwise, saying that couples are able to initiate interactions and suggest possible marriages. Palo, an outspoken leader of the younger generation and farmer, told us of the old match makers in Mu Si Khee. He said that often a matchmaker would arrange a marriage between two people who had never met. Perhaps if the boy had his eye on some woman his parents would suggest to the matchmaker that they try that arrangement. Once the matchmaker proposed a marriage, the couple had the choice whether to accept or not. In most cases the arrangement was accepted since the couple had never even seen each other before, they couldn’t not like the other person.

I talked with several people from the Mu Si Khee area about their courtship and mate decisions. Overwhelmingly, the couple talked and learned about one another before making a decision to arrange a marriage. It seemed also that a typical couple would consist of an 18-19 year old bride and a slightly older male (early 20’s). The patterns of courtship have not changed so much over the years but they have slightly adjusted some of their patterns. In the past, an interested young man may call upon his choices’ house, speaking to her in 7-syllable couplets. The courtship would rely on the couple’s ability to continue the rhyming. This would continue for some time. In some circumstances, the woman’s parents would be present, at other times the parents would stay inside the house to listen, but their presence wasn’t so obvious. While in the present day courters no longer rhyme with one another, they still spend much of their courting period on the porch of the woman’s home talking and sharing with one another. It seemed through my interviews that most people knew each other about one year before they became engaged.

Another popular way for young man to initiate a relationship is in the form of letter writing. This is how Tatoomo, head of the weavers and kitchen help at the center, and Tattoopa, pastor and center accountant, began their courting. The two met through a mutual friend and Tattoopa later wrote Tatoomo a letter. After the letter writing, he began to visit her at her father’s home. After a time, her father blatantly asked what his intentions were with his daughter. And so, their wedding was arranged. One of our students, while in Mu Si Khee, was a recipient of one of these love letters. She received a letter from Palo. This was Palo’s way of initiating a possible courtship. The letter is not usually delivered in person, it is handed off to a friend who will deliver it safely.

Once a couple knows that they want to be married, they speak with their parents and begin to arrange the ceremony. Again, there is a large mixture of both old and new customs. Traditionally, the brides’ family, both arranges and pays for everything in the wedding. An Animist/Buddhist celebration customarily lasts for several days, with many feasts and ceremonies spread over the time.

There may be one or two go-betweens among the bride and grooms family who act as messengers for the couple and help in preparations. The bride must make for the groom a new traditional Karen red shirt, and should also prepare her new married woman’s outfit, a skirt and embroidered top. In Buddhist/Animist traditions, the first day of the wedding celebration consists of a procession of the groom and friends to the brides’ home. The go-between starts the procession, which includes the groom and another local woman who carries the grooms’ gift for the bride’s family. There is a feast that evening at the bride’s home. On the 2nd day the couple performs a brief "au-xhe" ritual, Which involves a very intricate and special animal sacrifice, then a ceremony occurs to offer the groom’s gift to his new family. Later in the day, the groom performs a ritual whereupon he is welcomed into his new house and Changes into his new shirt and headdress. On the 3rd day, the bride Changes into her married woman’s outfit. After the wedding is completed it is considered bad luck for the couple to leave the bride’s home for several days (Hayami, 339-354).

In modern times, especially in Christian marriages, many things have Changed. In the Christian wedding we saw, there had been a feast the night before. Then the morning of the ceremony the bride (age 17) left her house dressed in married women’s clothes and wearing a veil. She had 3 attendants with her, all dressed in the traditional unmarried girl’s dresses. The groom (age 19) wore a Karen red shirt and tie, with white pants. The groom was Thai, but had decided to live as a Karen in the village. The couple met in the road and the entire party walked together to the church. Just before entering the church the youngest attendants threw flowers over their shoulder in front of the couple. The wedding was at times very reminiscent of a Western ceremony, with prayers, songs, and a sermon. However, the traditional go-betweens from each family were again seen. The pastor (not ordained) asked for support of the marriage by a representative from each family. Once the two men had approved the ceremony, the couple was blessed, stood, and held hands as their vows were spoken. The couple did not speak the vows themselves, rather the pastor taught them how to live as a husband and wife. The couple then signed the legal marriage certificate and then distributed gifts. They gave a gift to both of the go-betweens and the attendants.

After the ceremony, there was a huge banquet at the bride’s home, after which we departed. As is normal by Karen standards, the couple will live in the bride’s village. Since the groom is Thai, he will begin to learn the Karen language and has begun to adopt many of the Karen ways.

 

Male and Female Roles and Distribution of power

With just a glance at a Karen gathering, it is noticeable that there are defined male, female and child roles within the community and household. Roles that have been in existence for many generations and are still being instilled in the children born today. Overall, the Karen insist that they live in an egalitarian society. Men and women are equal in status, in theory, but in practice, I see a different picture. There are very defined roles that both the men and the women play in the home and outside of the home.

The family is the center and the core of the community. One is given a new title or name, once the first child is born. The parents take the name of their first child and the mother adds "mo" to the end of it, while the father adds "pa" to the end. "Marriage is not a man’s ultimate goal, women on the other hand, need marriage for prestige and status" (Hayami 356). Being single past a certain age is greatly looked down upon. Even being married and having no children is almost a disgrace. "Older unmarried women are often objects of joking by villagers. Married but childless persons especially women are also accorded low status" (Hayami 142). Older unmarried men, on the other hand, are not looked down upon at all.

Within the home, it is said that the man is the main decision maker. An interview with Mr. Tongdee, an inventive business man and well known musician, it was made clear that the man holds the ultimate authority and power, but the house is run on a day to day basis by the mother. "Women are associated with fertility while men control power and maintain natural and social order" (Hayami 355). Mr. Tongdee used a banana tree to describe the family. The mother is the trunk of the tree, the father is the top layer of leaves and covering and the children are the individual leaves along the trunk.

The mother is the sole keeper of the children. She teaches them, cleans them, and feeds them, along with keeping the household in order. A comment made by Palo struck me as very odd. He said that Karen children don’t want to be with their fathers. They look for their mothers. I, in my western mind frame thought of how important it is in our society to have both a male and female role model in our children’s lives. I didn’t question Palo about it. In a later interview with Mr. Tongdee, I found out the truth behind Palo’s statement. Mr. Tongdee explained that women are the keepers of the children and the ones in charge of discipline. The father, along with the mother, is also in charge of discipline but in most cases chooses a more physical method of punishment, such as whipping. So the children know that if they go to their mother first, the punishment won’t be as harsh.

Women not only are in charge of the household , but have a number of other designated female jobs. The most common occupation for a woman to hold is weaving. They weave all the traditional clothing for their household along with blankets and table coverings, to name a few. Women are also allowed to serve on political counsels and organizations. They are treated as equals in that respect and their ideas are considered just as those of a man. Overall, women do just about everything that men do in the village, yet men, on the other hand, do not do everything that the women do. It is very unusual for a man to help our around the house or with the children. Palo says that the only time that man does household chores is directly after his wife has given birth. At this time, the man does everything around the house from cooking and cleaning to doing the laundry. He will continue this until the wife has regained her strength and capabilities.

Men and women try their hardest to help each other out and live the most harmonious life possible. The Karen people are very happy and have very happy households. Their way of living is all that they know and therefore they can not strive for another way of life like so many people in the West do.

 

Divorce

 I asked Ester one day to tell me about divorce among the Karen. "No," she said, "We do not divorce." She explained to me that among the Karen, divorce happened only rarely. In Tee Mae Ker Lah, she knew of 3 circumstances of divorce, none of these had happened inside the church. She then added that when divorce does occur, it is usually the result of the husbands going off with another girlfriend.

This concept of adultery interested me much. According to David H. Marlowe, "Two of the few truly religious rules of ‘Karen-dom’…specify that one marries once and forever, or at least until the death of one partner and that the only legitimate sexual intercourse that can take place must take place within the framework of that one indissoluble marital union" (Keyes 174). Ester also continued and said that sometimes when Karen men go to Chiang Mai for school or learn Thai culture that they pick up bad habits or learn new things from Thai society, like divorce.

 

Single parenting

Since the Karen culture is such an egalitarian society where the men and women help each other doing their respective tasks and duties, one would think single parenting would be almost impossible. Well there is some truth to that statement. It is not common to see a one parent household for a number of reasons. The main reason being that divorce almost never occurs. Mae Tom, a single mother living at the center, explains the difficulties she has had as a single mother and her goals for the future of her children. Mae Tom’s situation is especially interesting since her original marriage was to a Thai man. "Marriages between Karen women and Northern Thai men are usually thought to be short lived and thus potentially disgraceful for the Karen (Keyes p 145)." It is unknown to us how the death of her husband occurred. (It is also rumored that he is still alive.)After his death she moved in with some relatives, but not for very long. She had two small babies at the time and was unable to work in order to support them. This was too much of a stress on her relatives and Mae Tom came to live at the center with Tete.

At the center Mae Tom is able to work and earn money in order to maintain her household and have the luxury of child care right at the center. She has said that she will never marry again. Her worries now are for her children. She has to make them understand that they do not have a father As far as having a male role model in their lives seems to be the least of her concerns. Since the children in a two parent household are raised and educated by the mother it is not all that different. She wants the best life and education possible for her children. Her lifestyle is very accepted at the center and she is given all the help that she needs.

In other single parent situations, the first place the parent turns is to their parents. Most are welcomed back into the home and given the support needed. Mae Tom tried that and it wasn’t working for her. The Karen are very willing to help those in need but in the long run it is very important to have a self sufficient family.

 

Childhood in Mu Si Khee

The Karen people of Northern Thailand are facing some serious issues concerning the preservation of their culture. Due to several environmental issues they are dealing with the conflict between sustainable living and current usage of the earth’s resources. They are also faced with the intrusion of Thai influence, both from the government and from visitors who have easier access to the hill tribes due to the construction of the road that winds up the mountains. This includes the arrival of machines, televisions, and other modern amenities that are intrinsic to the process of globalization. Additionally, the ideas of efficiency and capitalism are rapidly being introduced to traditional hill tribe culture. All things considered, some things never Change. One of those things is the way in which children develop and grow. Although the environment in which Karen children are raised has undergone some Changes, kids will be kids. They will always grow and play and run. They will learn how to express themselves through their words and actions. And they will learn how to walk and shout and dress themselves.

The purpose of my paper is not to make comparisons between the development of Karen children and that of American children. Instead, I have complied what I found to be meaningful observations of the children in Mu Si Khee. I also interviewed several mothers about their own childhood and their observations of their own children. One thing that rang true throughout my experiences with the children and their mothers in Mu Si Khee is that children are definitely raised by the whole village. (I was there eight days before I figured out which child belonged to which mother). In addition, children are highly valued in the Karen culture. They are the future caretakers of the Karen culture.

 "Fertility and motherhood are a Karen woman’s source of pride" (Hayami 303). A study presented by Hayami showed that every Karen woman said she wanted at least one daughter (304). This is not to say that boys are not treasured by their parents. It’s just that only a daughter can live with her parents after marriage, and she would be a dependable help and support to her parents in old age. In any case, whether boy or girl, the first born child "bestows the parents with paternal status, who are thence identified as so-and-so’s mother or father using the eldest child’s name" (305). For example, Tatoomo and Tattoopa are the parents of Tatoo. Upon the birth of a child, the parents take their newborn’s umbilical cord to a spirit tree and ask the spirit tree to watch over their child. In addition, the afterbirth is placed in a bamboo tree because "the trees of the forest give so much to Karen people and we want our children to do the same" (interview with Boon Na). The Karen people embrace very strong morals, as noted by the hopes and dreams they have for their children.

 I asked one of my favorite Karen women, Tatoomo, what she desired for her children. She replied, "I hope Kookah will continue school through 12th grade and then go to Bible School to train to be a teacher or a preacher of the Bible". Pastor Timothy and his wife, Esther, want their children to go to school so they can get a job with a good salary which will allow them to have good living conditions. The headman wanted his children to be healthy and to be spiritually educated. He also said that he tried to raise his children to be contributing members of society. It is interesting to note here that the headman held a very personal dream even as a young boy for his future. As a child, he desired to be the next headman after his father. He wanted to be an even better headman than his father and so he was very dedicated to his studies.

 In my estimation, it seemed like Tatoomo and the headman had hopes that their children would remain in the Karen village or at least return after their education. However, Boon Na, a former medicine man, clearly stated that he didn’t want his children to be like him. He said, "We work so hard as farmers and don’t get very much in return". It was also clear that someone with a higher education, such as Sue, doesn’t fit very easily back in the village life. The next generation will determine the preservation of the Karen culture, and that is largely dependent upon the older generation teaching the younger generation the traditions of the culture.

Ajarn Tete, the mind and the will that drives Mu Si Khee, has made it her mission to do just that. She has a dual purpose in mind: the prevention of girls being sold into prostitution, and the desire to maintain the Karen culture by passing it on to the next generation. She achieves this goal through the instruction and the experience she gives to the children in Mu Si Khee. Tete stated, "the typical parenting style of Karen parents is freedom". She said that freedom to experience life is very important, but equally important is the instruction needed to be a responsible citizen. That is why Tete maintains a structured daily routine for the children at the hostel. Their schedule includes chores, worship, school, study, and playtime, in addition to mealtime and time for rest at night.

As I watched the children play at Mu Si Khee I was struck by their creative play and the ability of the little ones to keep up with the older ones. I think that the Mu Si Khee environment serves as a prime example of Bandura’s theory on social learning. Bandura argues that human behavior is a direct result of social modeling. For example, Sitigan and Nigimui both have very advanced large motor skills (eg. running, jumping) for their young ages of 13 and 15 months old. It could be well argued that because Sitigan and Nigimui have 51 mothers (all of the young girls living at the hostel plus Tete), they are products of a type of socialization that is the result of the collective culture. The responsibility of childcare is taken on by the whole village, rather than by one specific set of parents. This has two major affects on child development. In one sense, they have a dependency on the entire village due to the collective culture. In another sense, they are self-sufficient, but they are not independent in their thinking (interview: Amy Grunewald).

A prime example of this juxtaposition of dependence and independence can be observed in Amoo. Amoo has recently celebrated her forth birthday. As she earnestly climbs the railing next to the stairway and slides back down again she appears very self-assured and self-reliant. She then runs to climb up the side of a nearby building without any problem. There seems to be a trust assumed by parents. They trust that their children will be taken care of if they are out of sight. This freedom gives children a sense of adventure. Still, Amoo’s mother’s arms appeared to be the very place of security and comfort at the end of the day.

The school age girls in Mu Si Khee were extremely responsible. They were cheerful workers as they fetched water, swept the floors, did their weaving, and washed their clothes in the river. They diligently did their homework and they were eager to participate in worship each night. Tete was quick to say that the girls’ spiritual instruction has instilled character in each one of them and that it also lends to qualities such as leadership and maturity. It is interesting to note that Amy Grunewald made a clear distinction between maturity and respectfulness. She said that Karen children learn to respect others at a very young age, but that maturity is a Western value; a value that does not apply to young men. For young men, "the time before marriage is a time of adventure when wandering without responsibility is permitted" (Hayami 300). Young men are seldom seen in their own parents’ houses "as they are busy among their network of friends" visiting in groups from house to house (299). In contrast to the mobility of boys, girls stay in their mothers’ houses. One thing the young men have in common with the young women is that they both greatly show their affection and comradeship among their same gender. They lean on each other, hold hands and inter-lock arms, and freely hug one another. Another sign of their emotional stability is the way in which many of the children seem to have transcended their family problems. This is not to say that all of the children come from dysfunctional families, but we know that some of them come from less than ideal family situations.

Tete closed our interview together with this thought: "It is good to be with the children. We can see more of ourselves in them." The children in Mu Si Khee are truly exceptional human beings. They are so kind-hearted and loving. Their hospitality and joyfulness is unmatched!

 

References Cited

 Hayami, Yoko. 1992. "Ritual and Religious Transformation Among Sgaw Karen of Northern Thailand: Implications on Gender and Ethnic Identity." Ph.D. Thesis Department of Anthropology, Brown University.

Keyes, Charles F. (Editor). 1979. Ethnic Adaptation and Identity: The Karen on the Thai Frontier with Burma. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Ajarn Tete, Interview January 1999

Boon Na, Interview January 1999

Esther, Interview January 1999

Grunewald, Amy, Interview January 1999

Headman, Interview January 1999

Jantra, Interview January 1999

Mae Tom, Interview January 1999

Tatoomo, Interview January 1999

Timothy, Interview January 1999

 

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Chapter 5:

Animism, Buddhism, and Christianity:
A Karen View of Religion
 

Lillian Harris, Beth Henry, Dan Kuehl, Angela Miller

 

Those that have studied the Karen in Thailand have not found that the Karen associate their identity with a distinctive religion. Rather, the Karen follow a number of different religions while still remaining Karen: traditional forms of spirit and ancestor worship, a tattooing cult (cekosi), several varieties of millenarianism, Christianity, and different types of Buddhism... few, if any, local groups of Karen in Thailand hold that particular religious forms distinguish Karen from non-Karen" (Hayami, p. 2). Karen ethnic identity is not found in a particular religious base no more than an American would consider that being American means that he or she is a Christian. Of course there are undertones, hints of Christianity within the framework of American society, such as holidays attributed to traditional Christian worship services. Yet, how much do Americans really attribute Christianity to what it means to be an American? One would list general observations and characteristics such as Americans tend to like competition, or they live a very busy, rushed culture. It seems that diversification of religion in America naturally resulted in a divorce of a certain religion to what it means to be an American.

Defining what it means to be an American, then, should have little to do with religion. Yet it does, and so does Karen culture. Culture is evolving and shaping with changes, and studying religious change is a way to understand what a particular culture is thinking. Reasons for the change are insights into how a culture views the world and its place within the framework. The traditional Karen religion "Animism" can give deep insight into how the Karen might approach the new religions, and by looking at Buddhism and Christianity, one can decipher what failed or was missing from Animism. Looking at Animism, Buddhism, and Christianity in Karen culture will give an understanding of "Karenness", but will give deep insight into Karen culture and how it might influence their view on themselves and the world.

 

Animism

The idea that "Karenness" does not include Animism is also held by one of the leading promoters of traditional Karen culture, Tongdee, living in Mu Si Khee, a Northern Karen village near Tee Mae Ker Lah. He promotes traditional Karen music through his own playing and actively participates in teaching others about Karen culture. He believes that being Karen has little to do with being Animist and more to seven qualities that link all the Karen people together. They are: "respecting parents, welcoming to outsiders, speaking one's thoughts, blowing on one's food first, filling guests with food, shy about self, and examining self if things are not right" (interview with Tongdee, 1/28/99). Tongdee lists interesting qualities and strong morals that the Karen hold for themselves, but the reason behind these qualities is what fascinates outsiders. People viewing cultures from the outside always want to know why there are differences between that culture and their own. To know this, one often needs to understand the history of a culture. Animism could quite possibly link some of these qualities and morals to present actions, although some Karens would like to keep Animism in the past.

Most religions try to explain fundamental questions such as how their specific people came to be and their specific relationship with a higher being or world. In Karen folklore, a creation story explains why the Karen people are divided and scattered. It emphasizes the former greatness and unification of a once Karen kingdom. At this time, the Karen were the people of the god, Y'wah. Eating a forbidden white hen caused the downfall and Y'wah abandoned his people. The Karen were then scattered and divided (Conklin, p. 38-40). Another consequence of Y'wah forsaking his people is forced appeasement to the spirits, hence Animism.

A story that is told repeatedly in Mu Si Khee is a story about "The Golden Book." It also explains why the Karens were orphaned by Y'wah. Tungdee, as well as a former Animist priest who had converted to Christianity in his thirties, Mojopa, explained this story (interview with Mojopa, 1/16/99). In the past, all were brothers and sisters. The oldest was Karen and the youngest was the white man. They were each given a golden book of life. One day, the Karen man left the book in the field when he was busy working, and it was accidentally burned. He took the remaining charred fragments back to his house where they fell through the cracks of his bamboo floor and were eaten by the pigs and chickens. For the Karen Animist, this meant that pigs and chickens hold some knowledge that humans do not possess. This explains why the bones of pigs and chickens are consulted for answers.

The reason for the popularity of the story is because the village of Mu Si Khee is Christian. Stories that have similarity to beliefs held now by the people will be important to them. There have been comparisons between this story and the account in Genesis where God forsakes his people. Some Karen believe that Christianity fulfills the legend that the Karen will one day be reunited with Y'wah by retrieval of the book.

Other slight variations of this story exist. One such variation is that the white man was given three books and was supposed to give his older Karen brother the most splendid copy. Instead, the younger white brother kept the splendid book for himself and gave the Karen man the poor copy (Schrock, p.826). Tungdee thoroughly denied that such an interpretation of the story could exist. Yet, no matter what exact interpretation of the story is accepted, the message for animism is that Y'wah has left the Karen, orphaned, for the seventh heaven. In everyday life, Y'wah is not important for ritual or sacrifices. This account of Y'wah's departure, told by an elder in another Karen village, gives his view:

One day, Y'wah decided to leave the Karen. Before leaving, Y'wah looked for somebody to take care of the Karen. Do s'ka (a man-eating giant) and Si kho miu xa offered themselves. Y'wah tested them, and found that Si kho miu xa was cleverer. Furthermore, Do s'ka was greedy and asked for the sacrifice of one human being annually in exchange for taking care of the Karen. Y'wah consented and asked Si kho miu xa to look after the Karen. Since then, Karen hold Au xae rituals for Si kho miu xa (Hayami, p. 51).

This explains the relationship between Y'wah and the spirit world. Si kho miu xa is the primary spirit, seen sometimes as a benevolent protector and other times fearsome. If not appeased properly, it can become angry and cause harm or trouble. This dual nature is what causes continued sacrifices to be performed. It is also the reason that utmost care must be taken in performing the ceremonies correctly. Villagers often are less willing to discuss the nature of Si Kho Miu xa in case of offending the sprit.

There are five main reasons for sacrifice: appeasing demons to prevent misfortune, appeasing demons feeding on the K'la, calling back the K'la that have left the body, appeasing bgha (the family spirit), and appeasing Si kho miu xa (Schrock, p. 833). Most deities tend to have a less then perfect image, prone to do good or evil depending on sacrifices. It seems the only control the Karen have over the consistency of the spirits' actions is to perform the sacrifices well.

The idea that the spirits are in control of everything exposes the Karen concept of sin and suffering. Suffering is caused in two ways, inability to appease the spirits or wandering of the K'la spirits from a person's body. Either should be able to be appeased through ritual sacrifices. Sin is often attributed to the spirits themselves, not a conscious action of a particular individual. If a person contains an evil spirit, such as Na, the sins that person commits would be the fault of that spirit. An explanation of Na follows in the subsequent paragraphs.

Visiting a nearby village, Ban Wat Chan, and striking a conversation with a local hairdresser, Somchip, proved to reveal interesting ideas about village life. The village is both Buddhist and Animist. He stated that if everything was not well with the village, for example, crop failure, the people of the village would be asked to contribute 100 baht to the village leader. The leader would then buy pigs to be sacrificed. All the food would be taken to the spirit house (there is one spirit house to a village) which lies behind the Animist leader's own house. This would take place any day, except Wednesday, from 9:00 in the morning to 1:00 in the afternoon (interview with Somchip, 1/27/99).

Somchip also explained how the animist religion influenced the legal system. If someone steals a buffalo, for example, an offering is made and that person must confess. He was fairly adamant that the one who had committed the crime would confess. The reason for this is because of the offering. If a spirit is in control of a person's actions, then it should be dealt with rather then the actual person. Making the sacrifice should cause the ill-tempered spirit to confess.

One of the most mentioned spirits is the K'la. The K'la also have a dual nature. While they are the keeper of a person (they maintain health) they also are the principle spirits blamed for madness, epilepsy, lechery, wrath, bad dreams, and languor (Schrock, p. 831). There are differing accounts to the amount of K'la, but the most common number is thirty-three. In Yoko Hayami's thesis, she lists 37 noting that one village elder claimed that Karen had 37 K'la while all other Thais had 33. The K'la has often been compared to western understanding of a soul, but as one can see, it does not seem a perfect match. A soul, for example, does not usually cause epilepsy.

Another spirit, the Na who is principally evil, causes disease and blindness. Anyone possessing Na was previously put to death because he or she was seen as a malignant influence in society.

The family spirit, bgha, is thought to be unique to each family. It also needs to be appeased by sacrificing pigs and chickens (Schrock, p. 832). It is an eternal spirit, but each family acquires a new bgha spirit.

Two good spirits are the Pheebee-yau and the mukhas, or family spirits. The Pheebee-yau protect the harvest and the K'la of the people who enter the field. The Mukhas are attributed to performing meritorious deeds. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. The Mukhas can become vampires, so sometimes one must appease them.

The most important ritual is the rite of Au xae. It is terribly important for the well being of the family (Hayami, p. 197). All the family members must be present. The Great Sacrifice or Au xae occurs in some villages every one to three years. It occurs in a building with seven posts and a seven-tiered roof. Each family brings a boar and white fowl. The Animist priest takes a bullock or goat. The animals are tied to the posts, and below them a jar of liquor is placed. After a prayer, the animals are slaughtered. The gall bladder is inspected to see if it is round. If it is not round, then other sacrifices must be performed because the sins of the people were not atoned. People are required to confess their sins (Schrock, p. 834).

Other important ceremonies are the K'la ceremonies. After the birth of a child, a string is tied around their wrist to prevent the K'la from leaving. If a person becomes ill, it is often thought that the K'la have wandered away from the person because of fright (Schrock, p. 834). The family members will try to coax the K'la back into the sick person by placing a bowl or plate of cooked food at the head of the stairs to the house. A lump of rice is thrown down the stairs with a string attached from the plate of food. Then the stairs are beaten with a stick until the K'la come back. A string is tied around the sick person to prevent future wanderings. For demons feeding on a sick person's K'la, the family members tempt the demon away by the aroma of a sacrifice. Then a zigzag path is taken home so that the demons become confused in following.

Although many religions are now becoming seemingly more important, as in the case of Christian Tee Mae Ker Lah, there are still villages that hold strong to many of their Animist practices. In Ban Wat Chan, for example, the people still consider themselves as much Animist as Buddhist. The only members of the village who do not pay respects to the spirits are the monks. Yet, some ceremonies are being replaced by less costly Buddhist ones. Ceremonies for death and burial are largely now Buddhist. The Karen have always adapted, apparent by the ease in which they incorporate other religions and deities into their everyday life. As their world around them changes so will their religious ideas. The future of Animism seems to be in question. Change could occur because of high cost (cost for multiple sacrifices) and inefficiency. It will, probably, however, prevail in pieces and fragments.

 

The Buddhist Karen

 Becoming Buddhist

According to the Tribal Research Institute, in 1989, over one half of Karen people in Thailand were exclusively Buddhist; another 16% practice a combination of Buddhism and animism. Buddhist missionaries have been officially active among the Karen of Northern Thailand since 1965. The two agencies were the Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Religion of the Ministry of Interior. Unofficial sources show that Buddhism has existed among the Karen for much longer, depending on the source. Chumpol Maniratanavongsiri mentions some of the different theories. Francis Mason, in 1832, wrote that Karen immigrants to Thailand were Buddhist. The migration that he referred to took place in the late 1700's and early 1800's. Others think it was through contact with Burmese traders and lumbermen that allowed exposure to Buddhism.

 

Reasons for Conversion

Buddhism, as a religion, is compatible with many different ideas. The Animist creator Ywa became Buddha. Buddhism effectively allowed the Karen people to discontinue the relations with Mu Xa, which had become too much of a financial burden. But, unlike Christianity, it allowed the Karen to retain many elements of the traditional practices of Animism. The Buddhist practice of merit making was incorporated into the traditional Animist rituals. The motives of the missionaries will be questioned, as will the motives of the government. Many see similarities in Thailand and in the situation in Burma, the government is interested in national security. The Karen live near the borders, and if they did not support Thailand, security risks could increase. The idea may be that, by making the Karen Buddhist, they are also becoming more Thai. King Rama VI, according to Mulder, stated that the three elements of Thai national identity were nation, king, and religion (94% of the population is Buddhist). The first two simply require certain geographical locations.

 

The Practice and Functions of Buddhism

Buddhism, like all religions, offers its believers answers to changes and disruptions in the social order. Karen people subscribe to Buddhist ideas about death and the afterlife. The cycle of rebirth, or a samsaric existence, requires a way out. Nirvana is a Buddhist idea that allows liberation from this samsaric existence. Nirvana can be reached through virtue and wisdom. It is not a gift like heaven is to Christians. A person's karma determines what happens to them, and karma is a direct result of an individuals actions. This creates responsibility on a personal level. These ideas have helped to shape the Buddhist Karen notion of a good life. They do not have the option of forgiveness for bad deeds.

Buddhism also ensures that parents will be taken care of by their children. Since the children were dependent on their parents goodness, they are required to return the favor. If they neglect this duty, they will have bad karma.

Traditionally, education was a function of the temple. This is less so now, but still applies. Becoming a monk was a way to receive an education, especially for underprivileged males. It is common for young men to become monks for three months, during the Buddhist lent. Many of them study for longer periods of time, they can finish school and make merit for their families. The monks, in turn, teach the children of the village.

The temple creates village unity, people come together for a variety of events. The events are not for the sole purpose of religion, they even create an opportunity for courting. Dance classes are sometimes held, and of course there is some type of school at many temples. They also are an agent of socialization. Buddhism has answers to what things are not socially acceptable, these norms are then reinforced and made sacred.

All of the seven functions of religion are present in Buddhism among the Karen people. Religion calls societies norms into question, which then forces a village to regroup, and come together to make them sacred again. It assists in rites of passage, like that of adolescence to adulthood for males who become monks during lent. Buddhism gives the Karen a sense of identity and personal definition, as do Christianity and Animism. Nirvana serves the function of providing a transcendental relationship, and Buddhism assists people in breaking points of their existence.

 

Buddhism and Karen-ness

Since the Karen people were not traditionally Buddhist, the next question becomes, how has Buddhism effected Karen culture. Many think that Buddhism makes Karen more 'Thai', since most Thai's are Buddhist, and Karen must travel to specific temples and learn from Thai monks. This is not the case. Buddhism allows the Karen to hold on to their traditions, by its cohesiveness with Animism.

 

Christianity Comes to the Karen

In Thailand, the percentage of Christians is small (composing only but .5% of the population), but in the Karen of Burma and Thailand, there is a much higher percentage (around 18%). Christianity has found a niche among the minority groups. While it is not true to say that the majority of Karen are Christians, it should be noted that the Christians have had an impact on the Karen.

The Karen have traits which have influenced the acceptance of Christianity, more so than the Thai people do. One of the traits is a sense that they have been left as orphans. In Karen folklore, there are stories of the Karen being left behind and losing their power. Traditions tell the story of being brought again to a state of prosperity. The Karen also have a feeling of being morally superior over other peoples. Feeling that the Karen are purer than others causes them to strive to maintain their culture as being different than others. According to Hovemyr, "Karen groups who adhere to traditional Karen religious beliefs tend to live in isolated areas, far from lowland societies, and interact much less with these (10)."

The principle means of spreading the Christian message through the muang nua, the village areas of northern Thailand, was through Karen Christians from Burma. There were also efforts by American Baptist missionaries in Bangkok and American Presbyterian missionaries in Siam. However, the Karen were most interested in listening and learning from Karen people, for there culture was so important to them. So missionary efforts often involved westerners coming to the area and converting some people who became the evangelists of the hills.

In 1813, the Judsons arrived in Siam. Their first convert to Christianity was like gold hidden under a thick layer of tarnish. Ko Tha Byu, after living a life of robbing and murdering, was rescued from slavery by the Judsons. He was converted, then baptized in 1828. They eventually sent Ko Tha Byu out to villages nearby to preach. He helped convert a man named Quala, who became one of the most prominent Christian leaders in the 19th century. In 1831, Jonathan Wade and Francis Mason became key missionaries. Immediately Wade reduced Sgaw Karen language to writing, using a modified Burmese alphabet. Maso then began long-term work of translation of Sgaw Karen. By 1853, the entire Bible had been published in Sgaw Karen. As for the Pwo Karen, the New Testament translation was completed by 1852, and the whole Bible by 1878. While this had been going on Ko Tha Byu and Quala had each been working hard, creating many churches with thousands of people being baptized (Hovemyr 98-99).

In the spreading of their religious beliefs, the missionaries stumbled across a valuable coincidence. The Karen already had folklore and beliefs, which provided a common table for the missionaries to spread out the gospel on. The Y'wa tradition of the Karen was much like the Yahweh tradition of the Christians. Hovemyr records the Y'wa story of creation as follows:

 When first the earth was made,
Who worked and built it?
When it was formed,
Who was the creator?

 

When first the earth was formed,
It was Y'wa who formed it.
When first the world was formed,
It was God who fashioned it" (66-67).

 

The Karen also had a tradition that parallels the story of Adam and Eve of the book of Genesis. The missionaries picked up on certain stories, which they praised as being true about their God. It allowed the missionaries to allow the Karen to hold on to their identity while gaining a new understanding about their relationship with God. While Y'wa is an important figure to the creation of life, He doesn't play a role in the religious life of the Karen. The missionaries brought with them a new understanding of Y'wa by teaching about Yahweh and His love for His people through sending His son to die for them. The missionaries coming to the Karen with these scriptures containing similar stories they knew combined with new scriptures of God's son Jesus was a fulfillment of their prophesy. The Karen had been awaiting the return of their younger white brother, bringing them their lost book. It is the reuniting with their brother that the Karen were to expect prosperity and the return of a powerful Karen king.

Karen prophesy about becoming prosperous began to come true. The missionaries brought along with their message a whole new way of life. They brought education and medicines. They brought a new way of religion that was cheaper, easier, and not as time consuming. The missionaries brought more than just a Christian message, they brought a whole package of the advances of the world with them.

The rituals of animism, especially Aux Xae were hard to keep up. They were tedious, requiring much time focused on detail. They also often required the whole family to be involved, which meant not only were people brought in from the fields away from their work for the ceremonies, but also brought in from great distances sometimes. Whether or not the family had moved a great distance away, they needed to be present at the ritual in order for things to go correctly. The rituals often required a lot of time, including preparation time, and the successful performance of the ritual. If something in the order of events was not perfect, the ritual needed to be started over again. This also caused the rituals to become quite expensive for the humble living Karen.

The medicines that the missionaries brought with them were an element of wonder. The animist rituals of healing by calling the departed spirits to come back into the body were often long ineffective efforts. Especially when the people saw what the missionaries could do for them with their medicines, they realized that discarding their rituals for medicine was easier and took blame off people for doing the ritual incorrectly. The missionaries often brought free medicine with their first visit to the village, while trying to convert the people, then tried to give them additional medicine at cost. People often became so impressed by the effectiveness of the medicine that they took it as a sign that God was with these people and the miracles that they were doing.

Education from the missionaries became an important piece to the acceptance of Christianity by the Karen. The missionaries brought with them a Burmese script of the Karen language. This allowed the Karen to be able to read and write. The missionaries set up schools and trained teachers to help teach the children. Now the children would become more advanced in learning their Bible, plus many other subjects.

The missionaries used these pragmatic reasons to help aid their evangelism. Baptist Missionary James Earl Conklin laid out a report of how they evangelized the hills. Some methods were effective, and some were not. Of those that were effective, he used Karen people in evangelizing to show that Christianity wasn't just for white men; he used all age groups to demonstrate that Christianity was for everyone; he made sure that someone would be with the villages for a length of time so that a fuller commitment could be made and questions could be answered; and he used testimonials through films to show that other Karen villages had adopted Christianity and were doing better off than they were before. The Karen were fairly receptive to the evangelism when all these things were in place. It also helped to have influential people be persuaded in the village. Conklin mentions a time when a man in a village had a vision that the white men were going to return with the Word of God soon, and the next day the missionaries showed up. The man proclaimed that his vision proved the men to be bearers of God's Word, and convinced the entire village to be converted to Christianity.

Although many converted to Christianity for reason besides thoughts of salvation, change was gradual in people in accepting Christianity as a fulfilling part of their lives, or to many, it became their lives. Worship became important, and they tried to understand God's Word through learning more about the Bible. What began to occur was the acceptance of Christianity for pragmatic reasons transformed into the maintaining of Christianity for spiritual reasons. The missionaries often recognized this happened, so they worked at getting numbers of converts regardless of their strength of faith, expecting that their spiritual maturity would come later.

 

The Village of Teemeagala

 

"The Karen are dominated by the Thai culture. We are in jeopardy of losing the Karen way of life. We must educate ourselves about the Karen way. We should respect our traditions, learn our written and spoken language, wear our costumes, tell our stories and poems, sing our songs, pass on Karen culture to our children, and don't let our culture be diluted by Thai culture or any other culture."

These are the words of Thra (Pastor) Baw Ney. Baw Ney is a Christian and his story goes back to when he was a child. His parents became Christians under a Burmese missionary. They moved to a new village of Christians called Ban Pa Koh. They eventually moved to another village Ehnoe with 10 families. His sisters and father raised Baw Ney. He had 2 years of education in Church where he learned to read the Karen Bible and write Sgaw Karen. He was baptized at 15, then went to Chiang Mai to Karen Bible Training Center. When he got there, he found that the center was closed, so he instead trained with Thra Pho Too to become a missionary. He went out with 2 other Karen men to evangelize the Karen hills. Walking on foot wherever they went, Baw Ney and Kaw Peh were led by the Holy Spirit to Mu Si Khee, which is the greater area in which Tee Mae Ker Lah is situated. There they helped people in the fields, earning the friendship and unity with the people. They became interested in what they had to say. What they had to say was that Christianity was a better way of life than animism. They directed efforts towards the children, teaching songs and the written Karen language. Doing so got adults interested in what they were doing. Baw Ney brought the message of their old stories and prophecies have come true through Christianity. They began to believe him, and decided to follow his advice for at least Christianity would be cheaper and easier than animism, so they could only benefit from conversion. Four families converted that first year (Leming 2-3).

Baw Ney started a church in Teemeagala, which is still the center of social life in the village. It was founded Jan. 1, 1940, and is now on its third pastor. Pastor Timothy has been the pastor since 1980, although he was not ordained until 1996. The church serves the purpose of Sunday worship services, Bible studies, retreats for clergy, vacation Bible school for children, and regular teaching of Bible verses and songs to children. The church also has a gospel team that goes to other villages for fellowship and teaching. They also help poorer villages by donating clothing or medicine. The church in Teemeagala is the mother church in an organization of 8 churches in Mu Si Khee. They work together as a church body. The church's focus is education, ministry, agriculture (through education for raising animals and vegetation), and health (through the health centers). The church brings together money to get community projects done. Recently the church has teamed up with the Christian Church of Thailand. The church informs the CCT on what occurs at the village. In turn, the CCT gives money to help support the church.

For Pastor Timothy, he desires to study more to share with the church, becoming educated to educate. He takes care of administrative duties, along with lessons and activities for the church. He tries to teach the people of the church to become active members, working together to achieve goals.

Pastor Timothy is very aware of the importance of hanging on to Karen culture. He acknowledges the importance that the missionaries have played in bringing the gospel to the Karen, and he will continue to use stories of the Golden Book to older people in order to help convert them. However, he prefers to use Bible scripture as the means of bringing people into the light of the Gospel message. He realizes that Karen people are typically superstitious, so this is a barrier he must cross with Christianity, since the two don't mix too well. Timothy believes the church helps the Karen learn and use their language. It also encourages them to wear their costumes, as they wear them to services and to festivals. The ultimate goal for him is to create a Karenized church, where they can learn more about their religion in Karen ways.

 

The Contemporary Karen View:
Tradition and Religion

 Introduction

When the Golden book was brought to the Karen by their younger white brother a long awaited prophesy was fulfilled. The orphaned Karen found Ywa, their father and creator, who had been distant since the beginning of time. Not only were the lost people now found, the absent wisdom the Karen always sought after was returned to them in a leather bound Bible and a new way of life. The missionaries knew that the Karen could not accept an alien religion unless it could make sense in relation to the way they tilled their land, raised their children, and sacrificed to the spirits. What the missionaries brought was not just Baptist Christianity but a whole package filled with all the wonders and disasters of the modern world. Or some perhaps would claim that the Karen were westernized. From a broader perspective labels on a package are irrelevant to the present day benefits, as well as challenges owned by the Karen as a result of the missionaries' work. The Karen traditional way of life has been changed by religion but these changes do not mean complete destruction of Karen culture nor is it possible or desirable to regain the old ways. The purpose of this segment on Karen religion is to bring to light the nature of the changes that the missionaries brought, the involvement of Thai society with the Karen, the present Karen worldview as shaped by Christian faith, and finally the relationship between their modern Christian way of life and Karen tradition.

 

I. What the missionaries brought

 "These thoughts led me to begin to questioning institutional evangelism through public health, education, or agricultural improvements. I began to see that if non-Christian Karen were to hear the good news they must be able to perceive it as an integrated whole"(Conklin, 43).

Reverend Jim Ernest Conklin saw that early on in order to build faith and acceptance in the Karen, one had to show the improvements of living that came along with the good news. At the heart of the conversion Conklin saw that the Karen possessed their own unique world view which had to be reconciled with Christianity. Thus when the American Baptist missionaries reached the Karen in Thailand shortly after W.W.II, the hill tribe was exposed to a brand new way of life as defined by American values and the modern world.

 "Modernism involves the introduction of competing worldview systems which are antithetical to traditional society where a common universe of meaning exists"(Berger 1974, quoted by Renard et al. 1988). The common universe of meaning that exists for the Karen is shaped by relations with outsiders and non-humans, vision of the universe, spatial and temporal orientation, as well as values and norms(Kraft, 1978a:4, quoted by Conklin). This worldview is what gives meaning to the actions of human beings. Naturally there was a gradual loss of Karen tradition as it melded with the modern world culture, whose heart lies in both educational and technological advancement. This phenomenon is called globalization. The package presented to the Karen by the American Baptist Missionaries held a number of new opportunities in medicine, education, and technology. Along with these institutions came ideas of democracy, science, capitalism and not lest of all Christianity.

Soon after the coming of the American Baptist missionaries in 1952 and the formation of the Karen Baptist Convention in 1955, there was a creation of two convention-wide programs aiding in developments of living standards. As a result the increase of church growth since the coming of the American Baptist Mission climbed nearly 650% in thirty years. The integrated approach of the missionaries was found to be extremely successful due to the visibly clear improvements of those villages that had accepted Christian faith. In the mind of the Karen animist it no longer made sense to sacrifice to spirits which were unreliably appeased, leaving family members ill or continued crop failure.

The two institutions that were able to help demonstrate the advantages of Christianity and its package deal were "Village Uplift"(1965-1970) and "Fishing in Deep Waters"(1971-1976). Village Uplift was a five year program which helped to improve the quality of home and village life and Fishing in Deep Waters was a local church centered program to help local congregations reach out spiritually (Conklin, 53). The uplift effort began with ten extension centers focused on upgrading diet, improvement of health and productivity of livestock, development of a diversified economy and to give Karen physical qualities of health and beauty. All these objectives had their ends in distinguishing the Christian from non-Christian villages. The non-Christian Karen did not have to travel very far to witness these improvements because all these images could be projected onto an old sheet hung on a tree. The equipment brought with the missionaries on their excursions was gravitated both consciously and unconsciously towards the use of western technology-microphones, lights, movies as well as medicine. The missionaries would administer the children with a deworming medicine out of initial concern for their health, but soon it turned into another evangelizing technique. The medicine and abundance was shown to be the work of an ever-gracious God. Although the missionaries' technological based method of communication was natural to their Western minds, the impact on the Karen perpetuated an eventual shift in their worldview.

Education is the door to initiation into the modern world into which the Karen were thrown. Initially education was primarily religiously focused in order to educate church leaders of the bible and the Karen language. The Center for the Uplift of Hill Tribes trained young adults in church leadership but ironically the center required an entrance exam at the seventh grade level, in Thai and pertaining to Thai history and curriculum. Thus the uplift center provided an educational service but the Karen began to be faced with the pressures of Thai society's expectations. Many Karen did not meet the standards and often less then ten people were accepted into the school. Within the Karen village schools the children were fortunately beginning to be taught to read and write Karen but the Thai influence could not be avoided. In 1955 the Sahamit school, a Christian government sponsored school, was built between Teemeagala and Wat Chan. The school in its beginnings was sponsored by foreign missions and it was later that the Thai government decided to become involved. The motives for interest in the Tribal people by the Thai government is believed to be rooted in their attempts to insure polity against the British in Burma (Hayami). In other words their support of education was mostly aimed in their own interest, thus the curriculum has little to with Christian ethics and more to do with the creating of a good Thai citizen. In the Sahamit school the basic curriculum includes at least Thai and English. Education has brought irreplaceable opportunities to the Karen. Increased literary has made it possible for them to learn Karen and thus gain a wealth of spiritual as well as secular knowledge. Despite all the obvious benefits of education, the frequent contact with Thai culture and their piece in the so called modern age quickly began to replace tradition. This loss of tradition will be discussed later on in terms of the Karen belief system.

Along with education the most powerful catalyst for change given to the Karen by the missionaries was health care. Instead of performing wrist tying and sacrifices, the Karen now could receive miraculous drugs that could effectively cure. Thra Baw Ney, a revered pastor and area evangelist, asked Rev. Jim Conklin to send a nurse to the Mu Si Khee churches. Health care began as a church related service and continues to be church sponsored today. A local women Naw Win was aided by Conklin who contacted Dr. John Bisset who was able to help her finish medical training at McCormick hospital. Soon after the Conklin clinic was established where Naw Win worked for thirty years. Health care remained primarily supported by Baptist associations, it was not until 1981 that the Thai government first attempted to step in the realm of health care in the villages. Naw Win always incorporated spirituality into her work, praying for the health and well-being of her patients. Here evident in the health care of the Karen, religion still forms the foundation of all activities. Despite drastic change, the forces of a higher power are involved in every aspect of living and this has not changed from the days of animism. Now as Boon Na, a would be medicine man, says instead of natural medicines or sacrifices, he calls on his pastor when someone is ill. Boon Na as well as other village elders, have the perspective of past traditions and how present practices have naturally replaced them while maintaining their basic function in Karen society. Boon Na is of a dying breed according to the Karen Kamnon which suggests that there have been no traditional Karen herbalists in Mu Si Khee for at least forty years.

 

II. Karen Christianity- The chosen people?

Some of the underlying reasons why many Karen made the choice to convert to Christianity were previously discussed. Now I am going to discuss the sociological and psychological reasons for conversion. Why and how did a religious tradition from the other ends of the earth fit so comfortably into the Karen worldview? Or how was the Karen world view altered to a Christian belief system? Before these questions can be answered one has to define the term worldview. Anthropologists have repeatedly defined this term but very simply it is the way in which a culture defines reality. This reality shapes all aspects of life and by no means can the term worldview be substituted for religion, rather it forms the value system of society naturally inclusive of religion. Having defined worldview it becomes clear that Christianity may have altered the Karen worldview in many aspects, but the more profound changes came about through the religion's appendages, modern culture.

Ritual is an integral aspect to all religious traditions. Particularly for the Karen animist ritual is the corner stone and definitive characteristic of animistic belief. Sacrifices are performed for the purpose of maintaining order in the universe. For the Christian or Buddhist convert, the heavy reliance on ritual transformed into prayer or making merit, respectively. Many individuals living in Teemeagala are well aware of the influence of prayer on every aspect of their lives. Tete attributes all her success with the Hilltribe Resources and Development Center to the power of prayer. Similarly Mojopa sees that Christianity freed him from the burden of sacrifice, it was less restrictive thus a more practical way to live. Despite the fact that the Karen have seemingly given up their ridged ritualism, the frequent worship services indicate a heavy emphasis on ritual. In addition to having several services a week, on Sunday alone in the Teemeagala church they begin the day with early morning prayer, Sunday school, choir, morning service, afternoon service, youth service, and evening service. Along with these services there are six cell groups who meet every night and families all take turns hosting the group. The Baptist faith in comparison to other Christian sects, appears to be more ritual based because of the importance of baptism and communion in particular. The Karen's ability to find a strain of continuity in terms of ritual practices is one reason why they could convert more naturally.

When considering the past animistic worldview which perceived the world as teeming with spirits, neither good nor bad but rather temperamental, it may be less then conceivable to understand how the Karen could be so strongly Baptist today. Yoko Hayami, in her doctoral thesis for Brown University, attempts to reveal remnants of animistic behavior or beliefs in the new Karen Christian. She asks an informant "Do you believe there are still spirits(Ta Miu Xa)?" The informant responded by saying that the spirits are essentially just metaphors for our fears and sins. The informant appears to have a very sophisticated view of traditional animism. However in a sense the Karen have not given up a very dualistic view of the universe; the distinction between the home and the forest(land of spirits). From personal observation the devil has singularly taken the place of spirits as the opposing force in all life struggles. In Teemeagala church services I heard many times how the Bible and prayer were the only defense against the demon. And it is a genuine belief that prayer really works.

There is an uncanny resemblance between the Karen and the Hebrews on the most basic level. This common is found in their struggle in the face of oppression and under the sincere belief that they are in some way chosen, the benefactors of a divine power. The ongoing Burmese-Karen conflict had long perpetuated millenarian expectations among Karen revolutionaries, similar to the Hebrews awaiting a political messiah, or the Buddhist's future Buddha. The Karen today remain connected to the Hebrews, seeing them as people of a similar past. When Mojopa was asked if there were any ties to the old Karen religion he said that the bible states to throw out the old. In terms of the new testament, the reference was to dispel superfluous ritual and sacrifice in the Hebrew tradition. This is how many Karen view their old traditions as well as associating Animism with a sort of silly superstition. However in a historical sense there remains a respect for Karen animism as being a part of Karen tradition that should be taught.

  

III. Karen tradition and Christianity--The plight of preservation

In the various interviews conducted by the St. Olaf Sociology 263 class, the elders and prominent leaders of the Teemeagala village told some of their opinions about Karen tradition. For some the spells of the shaman, the rituals of burial, and the stories of Ywa and the Golden book were spoken of and prominent in their thoughts. Karen tradition in itself are now these stories, a way of life not so distant in the minds of elders but are rapidly becoming history to the youth. Karen tradition, however, is not a one dimensional finished history book, rather the Karen customs are breathing and changing every minute of every day. The informants also give their hopes for the future of the Karen and their feelings about their rapidly changing lives.

Boon Na is a fifty-eight year old man who has knowledge of natural medicines and many animist practices. He described the rituals surrounding childbirth for animists. The placenta is placed inside of a bamboo water pipe then put into a tree. This reminds the people of their connection to the tree and nature. Boon Na refers to this time in the history of the Karen when they did not know God or have education but it was their culture(a lu, a la). Boon Na describes himself as being a father foremost, not a spirit doctor, who went to the forest to get medicines for his children. He still uses natural medicines but now he calls the pastor instead to come and pray for the child. The intervention of a religious authority in illness is something that to most American Christians is unheard of unless in serious cases. Boon Na when he receives medicine from the forests he makes a prayer of thanks and then blesses the medicine before giving it to the patient(Again revealing reliance on ritual). Boon Na intends to pass on his knowledge of the medicines in the forest to his children before he dies.

Mojopa was next in line to inherit the position of the village spirit doctor. He was a Buddhist/Animist for many years of his life but found Christianity to be less restrictive and freed him from sacrifices and rules. He said that Christianity first brought health to the people then faith came later. We then asked if there were any ties to the old Karen religion in Christianity. Mojopa said that the old Karen culture is somewhat destroyed but the Bible says to throw away the old(this statement stresses their connection with the Hebrews). When asked if he saw Ywa as the same God as the Hebrew's Yaweh, he said that Karen religion mentioned many gods of water and land but not God. The Karen people made offerings to these gods. So was Karen religion in continuity with Christianity? Was Jesus the ultimate sacrifice? Mojopa answers that Jesus takes his burden, the burden of sacrifice is lifted. Mojopa describes Jesus as being "our own king," he is not white but my own. Jesus is God but also human because he came as a human. Clearly here Mojopa sees the fulfillment of prophesy and Jesus as a messianic leader. He is king the one to led the lost orphans, the Karen.

Tongdee is a musician, entrepreneur, and role model for the young men of Teemeagala. He is well-traveled in comparison to fellow villagers and he has what can be described as a pan-Karen view. Tongdee is extremely open-minded and knowledgeable of the surrounding world and is willing to accept change easily if it's purpose is pure. He refers to Animism as a time when the people viewed the law as spirit but now the spirit(God) is the law. Tongdee continues and says that the Karen have always believed in a creator or God but not always Christianity. I then asked if he saw Christianity preserving culture. "Yes, we believe in God but respect our parents. Belief in God has more strength then in parents..." He goes on to tell the story of the Golden book and how they had forgotten that God hadn't forgotten them so they created their own(religion) in the meantime. Tongdee recognizes how the Karen have made the transition to Christianity. He sees the past (animism) as primarily paying reverence to ancestors, but now worship of God is stronger then this reverence for elders.

Timothy and Ester are strong church community leaders. Timothy is the pastor for the Teemeagala church and Ester acts as an unofficial associate pastor of the church. Timothy and Ester have very defined opinions about the enculturation of Thai society on the Karen because through various organizations such as the TKBC or CCT they have had frequent contact with outside Thai society. Timothy sees the mixing of cultures and if it is used in the right way it can be good. They feel that their children have lost some of their Karen ways and that they are now half-Karen, half-Thai. They have only recently within the past three years begun to work with the CCT. This organization provides benefits to pastors such as a discount card, but they only receive this with education. Pastors receive no benefits without education because the test to receive a salary is in Thai, so many have a difficult time passing it. However the secretary of the CCT tries to help by translating the test into Karen. When asked about the old traditional stories of the Golden Book, Timothy explains that these stories are just an explanation to the older generation and to convince non-Christians to convert. I then asked if the Old Testament is now more important and they said that now they do rely solely on the Bible. To Timothy the animistic beliefs are superstition and thus some of them are good to lose. However when asked about his vision for the church he said he wants to educate the people about the old Karen religion and Christianity in order to discover not just a Western Christianity, but Karen Christianity. He also wants to build a more Karen style building, and during service have Karen music and decoration.

 

Conclusion

Since the arrival of Christianity in Thailand and Burma, the Karen began to undergo a dramatic change in their worldview and life-style. Many people hear the word missionaries and they shudder with hatred or disgust at a group of people who influenced such rapid enculturation. Although this perspective is in many ways justified even by the Karen themselves when they see the deterioration of Karen tradition, but it is important to understand the necessary strength they have gained which enables them to survive in this increasingly competitive world. Christianity has given them knowledge, health, and immeasurable spiritual strength. The world is truly getting smaller when one can walk into a remote village called Mu Si Khee and the children shout "Hello!!, Good-bye!" The global culture, the age of technology, whatever the new lingo is for the present sharing of knowledge is neither our saving grace, nor the nemesis of dooms-day. The Karen people are intelligent, open-hearted, and diligent race whose culture is not fading away into the immense abyss of global technology, rather they have a grasp on who they are, where they have been, and what they need in the future to thrive as a people.
  

References Cited

Conklin, James E. Worldview Evangelism: A Case Study of the Karen Baptist Church in Thailand. Doctoral dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, June 1984.

Hovemyr, Anders P. In Search of the Karen King- A Study in Karen Identity with Special Reference to 19th Century Karen Evangelism in Northern Thailand. Studia Missionalia Uppsaliensia: Uppsala, 1989.

Hayami, Yoko. Ritual and Religious Transformation Among Sgaw Karen of Northern Thailand: Implications on Gender and Ethnic Identity. Doctoral thesis, Brown University, May 1992.

Leming, Michael R. The Karen People of Teemeagala.

Maniratanavongsiri, Chumpol.

Mulder, Niels. 1992. Inside Thai Society: An Interpretation of Everyday Life. Bangkok: D.K. Book House.

Renard, Ronald D. 1980. Kariang: History of Karen-T'ai Relations From the Beginnings to 1923. Ph. D. Thesis Department of History, University of Hawaii.

Schrock, Joanne L. , 1970. Ehtnographic Study Series Minority Groups in Thailand. "Chapter 13. The Karen." Washington, DC: Center for Research in Social Systems.

 

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