Video Tape:

The Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah:
Rabbits in the Mouth of the Crocodile
(Ordering Instructions)

Created and Produced By:
Michael R. Leming, Ph. D.
Professor of Sociology and Anthropology
Saint Olaf College

Mu Si Khee -- The General Area in which the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah is located

Scenes in Video

Scene 1 -- Thailand & The Setting of Tee Mae Ker Lah

Scene 5 -- Sahamit School and Village Politics

Scene 2--Traditional Beliefs and Practices

Scene 6 -- Farming & Raising Livestock

Scene 3 -- Reverend Baw Ney & Christianity

Scene 7 -- The Tee Mae Ker Lah Church

Scene 4 -- Village Life (House, Gender, and Weaving)

Scene 8 -- Rabbit in the Mouth of the Crocodile


Scene 1 -- Thailand and The Setting of Tee Mae Ker Lah

The country of Thailand has a population of approximately 61 million people, and almost 695,000 of those are what the Thais refer to as Chao Khao--or tribal people of the mountains. (See Map) The six major tribal groups in Thailand are the Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, and Lisu. There are almost as many Karen as all other tribal groups combined--nearly 322,000 people. The majority of all Karen are divided into two groups: Sgaws and the Pwos. The small minority of remaining Karen are collectively referred to as Red Karen. Although all Karen speak related languages, individual Karen sub-groups speak languages which are sometimes unintelligible to other groups.

The Karen oral traditions refer to crossing a river of "running sand" as an important event in their history. There are Chinese sources which refer to the Gobi Desert as the "river of sand," and it is probable that the Karen originated in an area bordering Tibet, crossed the Gobi Desert into China, and gradually made their way into the mountainous areas of Burma. In ancient times most of Thailand's Karen came over the eastern borders of Burma, and this is still true today. They most likely immigrated to Thailand before the Thai, and just after the Mon Khmers. Today almost all of Thailand's Karen live in the western part of the country along the shared border with Burma, known today as "Myanmar".

The largest group of Karen (roughly 106,000 live in Chiang Mai Provence. This is about one third of Thailand's Karen population. The Sgaw are the largest group of Karen. All the Sgaw Karen share a common language and biological characteristics. They also share a cultural heritage. This includes Karen history, tales, legends, myths in songs, poetry, and prose; religious rituals; and preferences for dress and food.


This film will document the lives of the Sgaw Karen from the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah, situated 120 miles northwest of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Tee Mae Ker Lah is a Christian Karen village and is in the Mae Chaem district of Chiang Mai Provence. By Thai Karen standards, Tee Mae Ker Lah is a large village having approximately 80 houses and 400 residents. In contemporary Thailand, approximately 55% of all Karen are Buddhist, 18% are Christian, 10% are traditional Karen animists. The remainder is eclectic--choosing to practice both traditional Karen animism and Buddhists rituals.

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Scene 2--Traditional Beliefs and Practices

Before becoming Christians more than sixty years ago, the people of Tee Mae Ker Lah practiced animism. Their religious practices consisted principally of attempts to gain the favor of the spirits that they believed surrounded them. Since they believed in many different kinds of spirits or "gods", they always had to give sacrifices to, and seek counsel from, these supernatural forces before they started a journey, went hunting, bought animals, or took part in any business ventures.

The most important person in the traditional non-Christian animist Karen village was the priest. The priest was always a man who inherited his position from the deceased priest from his father's lineage. Karen people will consult the village priest when asking for advice from the spirits or gods. He will determine the will of the spirits through the casting of lots, and for this purpose he will consult special divining paraphernalia such as seeds of rice, bones from chickens and pigs, ashes from a ritual fire, and even common bamboo or wood.

In addition, the village priest, in consultation with the elders of the village, admits people into the village, allocates rice fields to the households of the village, and asks people to leave the village if they have broken an important taboo. The Karen are strongly monogamous (divorce is very rare) and they have a tradition of being extremely moral people with strong group sanctions against theft, physical violence, and both premarital and extramarital sexual relationships. It is the task of the village priest to restore harmony to the village by requiring a sacrifice of a pig or buffalo from those who have violated the morality of the community.

Before becoming a Christian, Mojopa was the village priest of Tee Mae Ker Lah. There were three basic animist rituals in which he was involved. One ceremony was for the village and the other two rites were performed within his own home and within the homes of all other traditional animist Karen.

As the ritual leader of the village, it was Mojopa's responsibility to set the date for the "The Great Sacrifice" -- an event held once every three years, where each family of the village brings a boar and a white chicken to the village priest. The people of the village are then required to confess their sins and the priest slaughters the pigs and chickens on behalf of the villagers, to the "Lords of Land and Water". The gallbladders of the pigs are inspected to see if they are well-rounded, in which case the sacrifice it thought to be acceptable to the gods. If not, it is believed that the sins of the people have not been sufficiently atoned, and the priest will call for more sacrifices. As a consequence of this ceremony, the village is confirmed as both a social and religious unit.

Karen house rituals were of two types--wrist tying or the calling back of the k'la; and house rite of 'au xae.
It is the belief of traditional animist Karen that the body has 33 spirits called k'la. An oversoul, or the principal k'la, determines the timing of one's life and death. The oversoul also directs the other 16 pairs of k'la which control the body's parts. When k'la wander, the person becomes ill. Therefore it is necessary to call back the k'la and have them remain in the body.

Wrist tying is a ritual performed in the home at least twice a year. Once at the new year (end of December or early January depending on the moon) and the other half way through the year (in the month of June). During the wrist tying ritual the k'la are called back to the person and the family is unified.

The wrist tying ritual begins with a small round table arranged with an assortment of things associated with traditional Karen culture (man's red shirt, long black or blue pants, woman's red skirt, woman's black blouse, a turban, blankets, money, cookies and sweets, rice seeds, wine, curry, and cooked rice). These are placed on the table to tempt the k'la to come back from the forest. The people in the house then knock on the table and call to the k'la to come back. The priest then takes a small amount of rice seeds, if the number of seeds is even, everything is acceptable and the k'la are coming back, but if number of rice kernels is odd, something has been left out, and the priest must insure that all the necessary items are on the round table. If everything is on the table and the number of rice seeds is still odd, then each member of the household must give a money offering. This is continued until the number of rice kernels is even. The spirits will then leave the forest and come back to the house and eat the rice, sweets, curry, and other food items placed on the round table.

Included in the ceremony is the drinking of wine. The participants call all the spirits of the mountains, water, forest, and land to come and drink the wine. Then each participant must drink a small amount of wine before the priest will tie one wrist of each person. It is this act of binding the wrist which symbolizes the return of all the wandering k'la. If there is any wine left in the bottle, the woman of the house must finish it.

This ritual is only performed when all members of the family are present, because the k'la of each person will be influenced by the k'la of the others. K'la of one member of the family will encourage other k'la to come back. Furthermore, strong k'la can help weak k'la, therefore, members of the family are thought to help each other. And it is in this process that family unity is promoted. For this reason it is essential for every member of the family to be present, including the elderly, sons and daughters in-laws and their parents, and other consanguinal kin. Since one has relationships with many households, one will attend many of these ceremonies. So this practice provides not only family unity, but also strong village solidarity.

Mojopa had ten children, 30 grandchildren, and a very large extended family. Therefore, getting them all together created a very great burden for his wife and him (especially when his children were studying in Chiang Mai and Bangkok). In order to avoid this burden of animism, Mojopa and his family became some of the first Christians of the village. Other people of the village also left animism for Christianity because of the difficulty and expense of meeting all of the requirements of the animist rituals.

The second ritual performed within the home was created to appease si kho miu xa, the god or spirit of the house. This ritual is called 'au xae and is the most important of all traditional animist Karen rituals.

Traditionally the Karen practice 'au xae whenever someone is sick in order to cause the sick person's k'la to come back to them. It is thought that when si kho miu xa is hungry he eats the k'la and causes the person to be sick. If the family will sacrifice chickens and pigs to si kho miu xa he will become satisfied and allow the k'la to be reunited with the body of the sick person, causing them to be well again. For this reason all traditional animist Karen will, by necessity, have to raise an ample supply of both chickens and pigs for health ritual purposes.

Like the wrist tying ritual, the husband, wife, and all the children of the house must be present and collectively perform the family rite of 'au xae. During this sacrifice, the husband must wear the Karen man's red shirt and go into the forest and cut some bamboo, some banana leaves, and other types of leaves taken from a place near the rice field. From these materials he will make a small ritual house for si kho miu xa, and bring it into his home and put it on the floor in the corner of one of the rooms.

If the 'au xae involves the sacrifice of a pig, the husband will then tie the feet and mouth of the pig and all members of the family will gather around the pig. Every member of the family must touch the sides of the pig with their hands beginning with the husband, who is followed by the wife; next to touch the pig is the eldest of the children and so on until the youngest child has touched the pig. The husband will then kill the pig and remove all of the internal organs. A rod will then be put through the entire body of the pig and the pig will be put into the fire which removes all body hair. The pig will then be washed, and all of the meat will be cut up into large chunks. During the entire process special attention is paid in regard to following correct procedure, so as not to offend si kho miu xa.

As each member sits around the fire, each takes in turn a small amount of the meat to eat and a small amount of water to drink. The water has been taken from a vessel which had been previously placed in si kho miu xa's ritual house. Finally, the husband will take the bones from the ribs, the internal organs, and the pigs hoofs and tail, and rap them in banana leaves. He will then place the bundle in an old basket along with si kho miu xa's ritual house and hang this basket in the forest in a very old tree. When this ritual has been completed, the family will feast upon rice and the remaining pork.

If the person becomes well then si kho miu xa's appetite has been satisfied and the k'la has come back to them. However, if, after the family rite of 'au xae, the person remains sick, the village priest will be consulted in determining the cause of the disease. A typical method for making a diagnosis for an illness or for determining its remedy, is for the priest to examine the bones of a chicken or pig used in the rite of 'au xae.

As is often the case, if a person does not get better after many sacrifices of pigs and chickens in the rite of 'au xae, in addition to having chronic health problems, the family will also become very poor. For this reason many Karen find it financially advantageous to convert to Christianity or Buddhism, because they are freed from the time consuming and expensive demands of Karen animism.

For many Karen the smoking of opium was another way of coping with chronic health problems. Because health care within the village was very limited, and because many people were chronically ill with malaria, intestinal, and respiratory problems, opium smoking became both an effective pain killer, coping mechanism, and a popular pastime for the infirm. Until recently, opium was easily grown by other tribal groups living near Karen villages in the hills of Thailand. As a result, not only was the supply of opium both plentiful and cheap, but many Karen became opium addicted.

Today the Thai government has effectively eliminated the production of opium in the hills of Thailand. But a steady supply continues over the border from Myanmar. The difference today is that the price is considerably higher than before and the product is more pure and potent causing many addicts to graduate in a short time to injecting heroin. As a result, opium smokers and their families have become desperately poor, and many addicted parents have sold their daughters into prostitution in order to support their addictions. What you have just been seeing is a simulation of opium smoking by a former addict. He has not used opium in six months but his poverty lingers as a residual effect of his addiction. Today some of his new friends from his church in Tee Mae Ker Lah are helping him to build a new house.

Prior to becoming converts, the first Christians of Tee Mae Ker Lah worshipped the spirit si kho miu xa every day and were opium users. Because they carried the heavy burdens of animism and opium addiction without much relief from their problems, they decided to seek another way.

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Scene 3 -- Reverend Baw Ney and the coming of Christianity

Reverend Baw Ney was the founder of the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah. Today, at age 86, he lives with Kar Bu, his wife of 55 years, next to the Tee Mae Ker Lah Church that he pastored for more that 40 years. He was born in 1909 in Lampang, Thailand. Before he was born, Baw Ney's parents became Christians under the preaching of Karen missionaries from Burma.

Coming from a poor family, Baw Ney and his sisters did not have a chance for a formal education. He did, however, receive two years of non-formal education from two Burmese women in the Karen Church where he learned to read the Karen Bible and to write Sgaw Karen. He was baptized when he was fifteen years of age and later, when a Karen missionary challenged him to give his life in service, he followed the call to Chiang Mai and received six months of missionary training.

In 1935 Baw Ney went to preach to the Karen of Musikee, the area in which the village of Tee Mae Ker Lah is located. Today the road from Chiang Mai to Musikee is a rain-rutted, twisting dirt road, but in those days there were no roads, and it took five days to walk to Musikee. Once in Musikee, Baw Ney traveled of foot to many different surrounding villages preaching the Christian gospel.

When coming to a new village Baw Ney would gather the children and sing traditional Karen songs for them. After he had the children's attention, he would teach them to sing the Karen songs and to read the Karen Bible. Soon the adults of the village would gather to see what was happening.

It was at this time that Baw Ney recited traditional Karen poems and stories. One of the stories he always told was the ancient Karen story about the Golden Book of Life.

After Y'wa created the earth he decided to go on a long journey, and so he called his sons together and gave each a book of life. To the Karen, the eldest, he gave a Golden Book of Life. To the others he gave other books of life, until finally to the white man, the youngest brother, he gave a White Book of Life. The white brother took his White Book of Life and went away to the west, and was never seen again. As long as the Karen read and followed his Golden Book of Life, his life was happy and prosperous.

One day the Karen brother was burning and clearing a field in the forest. He put his Golden Book of Life on a stump in the field while he was doing his work. In his carelessness, the Golden Book of Life was burned, leaving only fragments that he brought back to his house. Gradually the older brother neglected these fragments, until one day they fell through the cracks of the bamboo floor in his house, and the pigs and chickens underneath ate them up. When he no longer had his book of life, his life became more and more wretched with fears, sickness, crop failures, and persecutions from outsiders.

The Karen brother hoped that some day his white younger brother would come back on the wings of a great white bird floating in the water and bring his White Book of Life to share with his older Karen brother. The Karen waited for the white younger brother to restore to them the prosperity that Y'wa had intended them from the beginning.


In the 1820s American Baptist missionaries Judson, Wade, and Mason came to Burma and evangelized the Karen. In the process they translated the Christian Bible into the Karen language using the Burmese script. Baw Ney believes that before the preaching of the gospel, the Karen people were like the people of Israel. They sacrificed chickens and pigs. So in animism, the Karen were in the stage of waiting. Before the good news of Christ's atoning sacrifice, the Karen were subject to the obligation of sacrifice in atonement. Now the Karen people can accept Jesus' death as their ultimate sacrifice and they no longer need to practice 'au xae -- Jesus becomes the acceptable sacrifice.

For Baw Ney, Christianity is the fulfillment of traditional Karen culture, in the same way that Christians claim that Christ came to fulfill the promise of Judaism. For the Karen of Musikee, who suffered under the burden of making costly sacrifices of chickens and pigs to si kho miu xa, this was good news.

Rarely did the people in the villages become believers at the first hearing of Baw Ney's message. But during the first year there were four families who came to a faith in Christ--the families of Su Na Hae, Da Mer Ler, Bu Kar, and 'Hu Hae. Baw New established the new village of Tee Mae Ker Lah with these first converts.

Today, sixty years later, the Tee Mae Ker Lah church has more than 300 members, and there are 31 Karen Baptist churches and hundreds of baptized Christians in the villages where Pastor Baw Ney preached during those early years. The present and second pastor of the Tee Mae Ker Lah church is Baw Ney's son, Timothy. He has served since 1980, when his father "retired." Nearly all of the 400 residents of Tee Mae Ker Lah are decedents of Baw Ney's first converts.

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Scene 4 -- Village Life (House, Gender Roles, and Weaving)

The smallest social unit among the Karen is the nuclear family, which occupies one household. Most households are made up of a husband, wife, and any unmarried children. But it is also common for younger married couples to live with the parents of the wife for approximately three years before building their own home on the compound of the wife's parents home or on a separate piece of property. There are some family compounds within Tee Mae Ker Lah on which as many as four family houses are built.

If all of the children of the family are married, it is also common for the youngest married daughter, her husband, and her children to care for her elderly parents in the home in which she was raised. When her parents die, she will inherit this house.

Karen House

The Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah traditionally built simple houses on stilts, usually using split bamboo for walls and floors, with roofs made of thatch or grass. Chickens, pigs, buffalo, and cattle are kept under the house at night. Adjacent to the house is an outhouse and a granary made of the same materials. The later is used for the storage of rice, squash, and pumpkins as well as farm equipment. Many houses also have rice-pounders under the house, There are three families in Tee Mae Ker Lah who own diesel rice mills and will provide the service in exchange for the bran that is milled from the rice. This payment of bran becomes the protein-rich food fed to the pigs of the millers.

All traditional Karen houses have a spacious covered veranda which is used for preparing food, weaving, doing other work, and as a place to chat with friends and accommodate overnight guests. The houses usually consist of three or four rooms, one of which is used as a seeping compartment.

In the main living room, located in the center of the house, there is a fireplace surrounded by cooking utensils, and dishes. Over the fire is suspended a woven bamboo tray that is used for drying and storage. The fire is often kept going day and night and is used for cooking, to keep the family members warm, and is a deterrent to mosquitoes, helping to protect the residents from malaria. The family sits and sleeps on thin, woven plastic mats laid on the floor.

Today there are a variety of houses in Tee Mae Ker Lah village. Most new homes are being built from lumber, rather than bamboo, and brick and cement block is increasingly being used in designs more typical of the houses in small Thai villages. The villagers collectively make bricks for community endeavors such as the new hostel for the Sahamit School. One brick machine and four men can make approximately 100 bricks per day. The building of the hostel took about 5000 bricks and approximately 50 bags of cement. The cost for raw materials is 4 cents per brick. One of the side benefits of brick making is the very large hole from which the dirt was dug. This hole has been converted into a fish pond which will help to feed the children of the hostel in the future.

Even though the average number of residents per house is decreasing, the average size of new houses is increasing. This reflects the relative prosperity of families building new houses. Uncharacteristic of the Karen, the younger generations are attempting to create a status hierarchy through material acquisitions. Status symbols in the village now include large Thai-style homes, pick-up trucks and motorcycles, battery operated televisions and video cassette recorders, radios, walkie-talkies, and "iron-buffalos." Some mid-life teachers and their families are beginning to move to the edge of the village where the sizes of house-building sights are much larger and where they are able to build houses at least twice as large as homes in the village.

As one looks at the sexual division of labor within the home, it appears as though woman do most of the house work, child care, feeding of pigs and chickens, gathering and chopping firewood, fetching water, cooking and weaving, in addition to helping their husbands in the rice fields. Men, on the other hand, do the heavy work of plowing, the raising of most of the vegetables in the family gardens, the hunting of wild game, fowl and fish, the building and maintenance of the family home, and the responsibility of making cabinets, shelves, tables, and chairs. They weave baskets and other bamboo products, repair vehicles and farming equipment, and are the most likely to interact with the outside world on behalf of their families.

In interviewing a number of women from Tee Mae Ker Lah, all agreed that husbands seem to have more leisure time and that men do much less work within the home, even though women share responsibilities for work outside the house. Yet none seemed truly angry, because, in their words, "our husbands often do share the work within our homes." For marriages of younger couples, men and women share more equally the work within the home. A general observation of village life reveals that men and women often do most chores together, especially child care and the work in the fields.

Regarding child care, women naturally take more responsibility when they are nursing, but when the children are older, husbands share in the duties and responsibilities of raising children. Men seem to spend a lot of their time with children and grandchildren of BOTH sexes; and within the church, men are more often found teaching youth in Sunday school classes and special youth programs. It is the consensus of the women of Tee Mae Ker Lah that men often take a stronger role is attending to the spiritual needs of their families.

Karen have often been characterized by outsiders as being fearful, timid, and shy. The Karen themselves claim to value group consensus and equality above assertiveness and an entrepreneurial spirit. Women have been socialized to exhibit these traits even more than their male counterparts. For that reason, even though culturally the Karen husband is considered the head of the house, he will always consult with his wife before making a decision that will affect the entire family. Privately, both husbands and wives share equally in decision making regarding family issues, though the husband is usually the one to announce the decision in public. If one were to risk a comparison of the actual gender behaviors of couples in the United States or in Thailand to those couples in Tee Mae Ker Lah, Karen families appear to be much more egalitarian.

One place where gender differentiation is most noticeable is in the traditional clothing. While in any given day approximately one forth of the people in Tee Mae Ker Lah will wear Karen clothing; everyone owns Karen clothing, and all will wear it on special occasions and to church on Sunday, and almost every woman of the village can weave her family's clothing if she wishes. If one asks the people of the village what is distinctive about being Karen, after mentioning the ability to speak and read the Karen language, the second answer given will always be the wearing of Karen clothing.

In Thailand, the Karen are most famous for their ability to weave cotton on their simple back-strap looms. In the nineteenth century Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) so valued the Karen cloth for its beauty and permanence that he purchased five Karen shirts and an abundance of Karen cloth to use for the curtains on his royal boats. Throughout the nineteenth century Karen cotton and cloth was a major export of Siam to the countries of Europe.

The village of Tee Mae Ker Lah has a woman's weavers group with 35 active members. The basic function of the group is to assist the weavers of Tee Mae Ker Lah in the dyeing of threads and in the production and sales of the woven products. The women of Tee Mae Ker Lah weave for three reasons: to clothe members of their own families in traditional Karen costumes and therefore help to preserve the Karen culture; to augment family income; and to occupy themselves in a recreational pursuit.

If a woman were to sell her weavings, on average, she would make about 50 cents per hour. For example, it takes two days (approximately 16 hours) to make a piece of Karen cloth that will sell for about 8 dollars. For comparative purposes, men working as day laborers in the rice fields will be paid about $3.50 per day--a similar wage.

Presently, all of the women of the village know how to weave, yet only half are members of the weaver's group. Some do not partake because they do not have time to weave, while others prefer to weave by themselves and find their own markets for what they weave. The women of the weaver's group like to work collectively because they can dye all the threads cooperatively and then divide the thread among the members. Most women still weave by themselves in their homes, but occasionally some will weave together making their labor a social activity. As a group of weavers, they also have a better opportunity to market their products.

Originally, all clothing was made of homespun cotton cloth. Today the Karen usually purchase cotton thread from Chiang Mai, often adorning their multicolored weavings with embroidery and seed work which makes for widely varied types of clothing for both men and women. Tee Mae Ker Lah still has a few older men who continue to spin the cotton thread, and most women prefer to dye the thread themselves using traditional natural dyes of many colors.

The upper garments worn by men, women, and children are constructed from two strips of hand-woven cloth, the width depending on the size of the wearer. These strips are folded in half, the fold forming the shoulders of the garment. They are then stitched together, leaving openings for the head and arms which are bound with braid of a contrasting color which becomes a part of the decoration. Most often men and boys wear red or blue Karen shirts, single women long white cotton shifts, and married women wear red sarongs and black or blue over-blouses decorated with embroidery and seeds--the two-piece construction making it more convenient for nursing mothers. Woven Karen shoulder bags are used by both men and women and are produced in any color and popularly sold throughout all of Thailand. To protect the head against the cold or heat, both men and women often wear terry-cloth towels as turbans. On special occasions, such as a wedding, a woman will wear a hand-woven highly decorated red and white turban with a long fringe.

Karen women and girls wear multiple strands of small plastic beads around their necks. The most common colors of these strands are red, yellow, and orange. Sometimes an old silver foreign coin is added as a pendant in the center of one of the strands. Karen women also pierce their ears and wear silver cup-shaped earrings having a cylindrical bevelled section which is thrust through the rather large hole in the ear. The only other pieces of jewelry worn are simple bracelets of silver, brass, or aluminum -- some times as many as two on the right wrist and three on the left.

The importance of dress is best displayed around the time of a Karen wedding. The night before the wedding is to take place, the family of the bride will invite their friends and relatives to their home for a religious service of general thanksgiving where prayers are offered for the girl and her family as she becomes a married woman and an adult member of her community. Before this service the family of the bride will slaughter one or more pigs and offer a feast for all of the wedding guests.

The only persons conspicuously absent from this pre-nuptial feast is the groom and his family. Prior to the wedding, there is a general reluctance, embarrassment, and shyness by both the bride and the groom indicating that they dislike leaving their single state of life. It is considered to be of poor taste to be excited about one's wedding, even though the couple themselves, with the permission and guidance of their parents, have made the decision to marry. The Christian Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah almost always marry in an endogamous manner another Christian Karen from their own or a nearby village.

After the pre-nuptial feast, a religious service will be held under a canopy constructed at the home of the bride. Chairs will be arranged in rows and the bride and her attendant will be seated in the front row while her guests will be seated behind her. She and her attendant will wear the long white dress that indicates their single status and virginity to all of the guests in attendance. (Premarital sexual intercourse is a great violation to Karen mores and in earlier times would have been strongly sanctioned, but today violation will only be informally sanction.) A worship leader will read Scriptures, pray, and direct the congregation in songs of thanksgiving. The minister will lecture the girl on the qualities needed in marriage and will pray for the bride and her family. Guests from other villages will spend the night at the bride's home or in other homes in the bride's village.

On the next morning the wedding will take place at the home of the bride. The bride and her family will do all final preparations early in the morning, including bathing in the nearby stream, and dressing in their traditional Karen outfits. However, on her wedding day the bride will wear, for the first time, the two-piece costume of the married woman--a red skirt and a black blouse.

The wedding will begin when the groom, his attendant, and his family walk from his home to the foot of the stairs of the house of the bride. The groom's wedding party will all be dressed in Karen apparel and the groom and his attendant will wear matching wedding shirts woven for them by the bride. The groom awaits his bride who, in great secrecy, has been changing from her white single girl's dress to the married woman's skirt and blouse. She will go out to meet the groom and his family accompanied by her family and attendant. Since the wedding of this film took place between two people who lived next door to each other, the groom and his family did not have very far to walk.

A Tee Mae Ker Lah wedding is primarily a Christian worship service and will be led by a member of the congregation. During the service, in addition to the wedding sermon, there will be scripture readings related to a Christian view of marriage, hymns sung by the congregation, special music, and prayers for the bride and groom. Just prior to the wedding vows a pastor, in this case an uncle of the bride from Chiang Mai, will deliver the wedding sermon in which he lectures the couple on the importance of a Christian marriage and the need for each person to love and give themselves freely to the other person. He also stresses that marriage for the Karen is more than the uniting of two people: it is also the bringing together of two families--meaning that the bride and groom will have to make sacrifices for their respective parents-in-law. This is especially important for the groom, since he will be living in the home of his wife until they decide to build a home of their own.

After the sermon, the couple will exchange wedding vows and sign the marriage certificate. This document is then signed by a number of witnesses, after which time, members of the audience will stand up and give advice or say something about either the bride or the groom. During this particular wedding service there was more than one hour of such advice giving and/or edifying comments thought to benefit the bride and groom. The entire wedding lasted about two hours. The wedding service was then followed by a huge feast where pork, rice, and several kinds of curry were served to the guests. Throughout the feast and afterwards, wedding pictures were be taken by parties from both families and by the wedding guests.

There is no such thing as a Karen honeymoon. The same evening as the ceremony, before the family retires, the groom is brought to the bride's home for a prayer service, led by the pastor or village elder. Members of the church will also attend this 30 minute worship service. After the service the groom moves into a bedroom that has been prepared for the couple in the home of the bride's parents. The couple will reside in this home until the pressure of the growing family makes it necessary for them to construct their own house which will be built about fifty feet away. Later in the week, the couple will visit the groom's parents for a few days giving the bride an opportunity to show her respect for them by being of service to her mother-in-law.

The Karen wedding perhaps best exemplifies all important aspects of Karen culture. The entire service is performed in the Karen language, everyone dresses in traditional Karen clothing, Karen hospitality is extended to all guests, Karen food is prepared for the guests, traditional Karen stories are told during the wedding sermon, traditional Karen songs are sung, emphasis is place upon the importance of both the nuclear and extended Karen families, and the entire service is a reflection upon the Christian Karen heritage that has unified this village for more than sixty years.

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Scene 5 -- Sahamit School -- And Village Politics

The children of the village, especially teenagers, seem to prefer to wear Western- or Thai-style clothing, but like their parents, they will always wear Karen clothing to church, for special occasions, and to school on Wednesdays. At the Sahamit (or Friendship) School, Wednesday is tribal day when all children are supposed to wear their respective tribal outfits. The Sahamit School is a private Christian school built in 1963 by the Karen Baptist churches with assistance from Swedish and Norwegian Church Aid as well as Baptist mission groups.

The Sahamit School teaches 460 children from Tee Mae Ker Lah and other surrounding Karen and Hmong villages in grades kindergarten through the 9th Grade. There are 27 teachers, four administrators, and a janitor. The highest salary for all employees is 320 dollars per month, but most teachers earn between 200 and 280 dollars per month. It seems as though the teachers hold the highest status position in the community, mostly due to earning power and level of acquired education. They have the most stable salaries in the village, earning approximately six times as much in salary as the average family in the village earns from farming, and only Reverend Baw Ney receives more respect from Karen villagers. Yet the Sahamit school teachers earn about sixty percent of what the teachers are paid at the Thai government school, located 3 miles away.

Because the Sahamit School is a private school, students must pay tuition. In 1995 the students paid $10 per year for grades Kindergarten through grade 6 and $28 per year for grades seven through nine. In addition they must buy school uniforms and pay for nominal school supplies. Tuition only accounts for 6% of the cost of educating the children. Compassion, the Christian relief organization, and the Thai Government pay for almost all of the remaining costs. The school is open 205 days per year. The first term of the school year begins on May 15th and ends in October 15th. The second term starts again on November 1st and finishes on March 31st.

As a Christian school, The Friendship School is different in the following ways from the Thai government school located 3 miles away. They receive less of their funding from the government, only 40% of actual costs. The school starts each day with prayer and has a daily chapel program. With the exception of one Thai teacher, all teachers in the school are Christian and take turns leading the children in chapel. Each grade will also have a Bible class taught by the chaplin once a week. The teachers also have their own chapel program which meets every Wednesday. Of the 27 teachers at the Sahamit School, 25 are Karen.

Like all other schools in Thailand, even the Sahamit School, which is supervised by the Karen church and the student's parents from Tee Mae Ker Lah, has as it's primary goal the turning out of responsible and loyal Thai citizens. This goal manifests itself in the socializing of the tribal children to have a Thai identity and to maintain Thai loyalties. While this does not necessarily mean the gradual undermining of Karen identity, it does lead to cultural assimilation, which is often a by-product of any education in Thailand.

The reasons for this are the following: All instruction in the Sahamit School is given in Thai rather than in the Karen language. The curriculum for the school is set in Bangkok, and while students study Thai history and culture, there is no place in the curriculum for Karen history, language, or culture. If students want to go beyond the ninth grade, unless they do correspondence study, they must leave Tee Mae Ker Lah and go to Chiang Mai or another large city where only a small minority of high school students will be tribal.

If the smallest social unit among the Karen society is the nuclear family, then the largest social unit is the village itself. Tee Mae Ker Lah, rather than the Karen tribe as a whole, has a greater claim upon the loyalty of the people. The village is presided over by a headman who is recognized as the village's political leader by the government of Thailand. From the Karen point of view, the village headman has little power or authority. His duty is to determine the village consensus and then to follow it carefully. This can put him in a difficult position, as he needs to remain a "good Karen," while at the same time carry out whatever duties the Thai authorities require.

Most Karen do not aspire to this position because of the potential conflicts that might arise. A Karen village is a very democratic place. Decisions are made by the whole group with the men doing most of the talking (at least in the meetings!). Unanimity is an important ideal and goal before any decision is reached. It is generally safe to say that issues that are never agreed upon are never acted upon. The headman is not so much a decision maker as the voice of the group after a consensus has be reached.

The present headman of the village, Ku Saw, lives across the road from the Tee Mae Ker Lah Church where he is an active member. His father was the village headman until he died and Ku Saw became his successor. A few years ago the village headman was selected for life or until he or she no longer wished to serve, but now Thai laws require that the headman of the village be elected by a popular vote and serve for a term of five years, after which he or she is eligible to run for additional terms.

Ku Say was elected by a majority vote of the residents of Tee Mae Ker Lah and receives a small stipend for his work. On average he spends 10 hours per week including his work of chairing the village council and his attendance at the monthly subdistrict meeting held in the village of Ban Wat Chan--six miles away.

Ku Say is assisted by two assistant headmen who work fewer hours per week and receive a smaller stipend than the headman. In addition to these three people, there are five other members of the village council all of whom are elected for a term of four years and serve without compensation. By rule, there must be at least one woman on the village council.

In reality the village council becomes a place where the disputes and concerns of the people of Tee Mae Ker Lah can be heard and an agency through which the Thai government can communicate its local policies to the people of the village. Unfortunately for the people, if any of their concerns require money to bring about change, they are out of luck, because the entire yearly budget for the village council is only $80.

Ku Saw and the village council point to a single telephone booth and a new water system, where all houses in the village have access to running water, as their greatest accomplishment in the past several years. For many years the council has tried in vain to get electricity for Tee Mae Ker Lah, yet five years ago Plaw Doe, a smaller village across the river, received electricity.

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Scene 6 -- Rice Farming and Raising Vegetables & Livestock

If the village government is a relatively unimportant institution of the village, then farming economy is just the opposite. Everyone in Tee Mae Ker Lah is a farmer, including the teachers and the pastor. The Karen are subsistence livers--they eat only what they are able to grow or raise. A few families in Tee Mae Ker Lah are able to grow a surplus of rice or vegetables, or raise more animals than they eat, and are therefore able to sell their surpluses to the King's Project located in Plaw Doe or to the markets in Chiang Mai--located 4 hours away by four-wheel drive truck. However, most families of Tee Mae Ker Lah have almost no cash incomes and only eat what they are able to raise.

There are two types of farming in Tee Mae Ker Lah--wet rice or paddy rice farming, and dry rice or upland gardening. Today most of the rice that is grown in Tee Mae Ker Lah is paddy rice. The people prefer the taste of the patty rice and the yield is much better when compared to upland rice farming. The production of rice is increased by the use of chemical fertilizer, but the cost per acre is $8, and that is very expensive from their point of view.

Most farmers in Tee Mae Ker Lah have about two or three acres of rice fields. Since Tee Mae Ker Lah is located in a government protected forestry area, there is virtually no more farm land available for the people to clear for new rice fields or upland gardens. Therefore, in the future, most of the village's children must move away from the hills and live in the city unless a non-agrarian cash-based economy emerges. Presently, the only salaried people in the village are the 27 teachers at the Sahamit School, four health workers, and the pastor of the church. There are also six families that run small village stores, but the income from these ventures is very limited. Consequently, it is only the salaried people of Tee Mae Ker Lah who can afford to own a truck or a motorcycle.

Rice is planted in the following way: In May the ground is plowed with the assistance of a water buffalo or a garden tractor. It takes about four weeks to do the plowing with a buffalo. Some farmers have garden tractors and can accomplish the same task in two days, but the cost of a tractor is $1,500 and a buffalo costs only $150. As a consequence, only a few farmers in Tee Mae Ker Lah own tractors.

When the plowing is completed and the rains begin after the long dry season, the rice seed is broadcast in early June. After three days fertilizer is spread over the scattered seed. Toward the end of June the small rice plants are transplanted and fertilizer is again applied.

After the transplanted rice is established, weeding is done by hand. This is very difficult work and must be done almost daily for about a month until the entire field is weeded. Weeding customarily takes place two or three times per year. Rice is harvested in late November or early December. Both men and women work in the fields, but men usually do the heaving plowing.

Each acre of land will produce 150 tang of rice--a tang being 20 liters of rice. If the rice were sold in Chiang Mai, its value would be approximately $210.00 per acre. The entire value of the rice produced for an average size rice field in Tee Mae Ker Lah is fewer than $600.00 per year. Most families also have small gardens next to their houses and will raise fruit trees, green leafy vegetables, peanuts, squash, pumpkins, taro, potatoes, onions, peppers, and garlic. They will also raise a few pigs and chickens, but only for their own consumption.

Some families also grow cash crops and sell them to the King's Royal Project located in Plaw Doe. The Royal Project is a program initiated by the king of Thailand to help the hilltribe people become more productive in farming, have better incomes, and become more self-sufficient in their living. The program helps the tribal farmer develop new crops in their gardens that are not normally grown in Thailand. Currently they are encouraging the development of three types of flowers (gladiolus, status, and eucalyptus), six types of fruits (persimmons, Japanese apricots and pears, avocados, peaches, and plums) and fourteen kinds of vegetables.

The Royal Project supplies seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, training for growing, packing, and transportation. The Royal Project then sells the goods in foreign countries and in the city and distributes the money to the people within a week of the sale. The Royal Project charges the farmer 20% for the services they provide. The people you have just seen are sorting and bagging gladioli bulbs to be transported to the King's Project.


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7 -- The Tee Mae Ker Lah Church

By far the most important social institution in Tee Mae Ker Lah is the church. Virtually every adult member of the village is a member of the Tee Mae Ker Lah church. The church is the center of all social life in village.

On any given Sunday the Tee Mae Ker Lah church has the following services:

Early Morning Prayer Service (6:30 AM)
Sunday School Classes for Children (8:00 AM - 9:15 AM)
Choir Practice (9:45 AM - 10:15 AM)
Morning Service (10:30 AM - noon)
Woman's Service (2:00 PM - 3:00 PM)
Youth Service (3:30 PM - 4:30 PM)
Bible Study (5:30 PM - 7:00 PM)

On Wednesday evening, from 7:30 to 9:00 PM, there are six cell groups that meet in homes of church members. Every family in the church is assigned into one of the six cell groups and there are approximately 15 families in each group. Each week the meeting will rotate to another family until all fifteen families have hosted the cell group and then the rotation begins again. Throughout the year each family will host the group three times. Even though not all members of the church attend all cell groups, each must, for obvious reasons, attend the meeting when it is held in his or her home.

Prior to the cell group meeting, two leaders from each group will get together, plan the meeting, and prepare the lesson. During the cell group meeting someone will begin the meeting with a prayer, followed by the singing of Karen hymns--led by a person selected from within the group. One of the leaders will then present the Bible lesson. The topics for each lesson will be selected by Pastor Timothy and resource materials will be distributed to the leaders of each group once each month during a meeting with the pastor. Each week all cell groups will discuss the same lesson for approximately 30 minutes. The lesson is then followed by a prayer session to be led by another member of the group addressing the needs of the church and the members of the group.

Every Saturday evening there is a prayer service held at the church followed by a Bible study taught by either Pastor Timothy, his wife, Esther, or Ko Thoo--three members of the church with significant Biblical and theological training. Throughout the year there will also be many special assemblies, evangelistic and preaching services, choir concerts, business meetings, youth training sessions, and denominational conferences, conventions, and seminars.

Some might think that women do not exercise much leadership within the church because only men serve in the more visible roles of pastor and deacon. However the women of the Tee Mae Ker Lah church feel that their status is equal to that of men. Women often take very active spiritual leadership roles within the church including leading Bible studies and cell groups, teaching in the Sunday school program, leading Sunday worship services, preaching, and doing the mundane work of the church. Women also have their own organization within the Tee Mae Ker Lah church which provides weekly worship services attended by both men and women that are entirely led by women. According to the women of the church, whoever has more Biblical knowledge and training will be asked to teach or preach. Since women have received equal or more opportunities to study and attend Bible schools or training centers, they are just as likely to be asked to preach or teach during worship services.

The Karen Christian churches of Thailand have, from their beginning, been relatively independent from direct foreign non-Karen spiritual influences. While the Karen of Burma were initially evangelized by the American Baptist missionaries in the nineteenth century, the Thai Karen were evangelized by Burmese Karen missionaries.

The people of Tee Mae Ker Lah were primarily evangelized by Pastor Baw Ney, who was born in Thailand and was trained by Burmese missionaries. It was also Baw Ney who settled the village with his first Christian converts. As a Karen Christian village, the pastor of the Tee Mae Ker Lah church is equivalent in influence to the animist priest of a traditional Karen village. He is the person given the greatest respect in the village and it is his advice and council that is sought above all others.

The Tee Mae Ker Lah church was founded with 54 charter members on January 1, 1940. From an western point of view, there appears to be few distinctions between lay and clergy in the Tee Mae Ker Lah church--both lay men and women preach, lead services, and serve as evangelists. Furthermore, those called to be pastors, often serve for as many as ten or twenty years without being ordained.

Yet, ordination is significant to the membership of the Tee Mae Ker Lah church and all other Karen Baptist churches in Thailand. Only ordained pastors can baptize believers and serve communion. For Baptists these are the two most important rituals of the church.

Even though Timothy, the second pastor of the Tee Mae Ker Lah church, has served since 1980, when his father "retired," he has yet to be ordained, and is therefore unable to baptize believers and celebrate communion. In Karen churches pastors must be proven to be worthy of ordination. For this reason they often serve for many years before they are offered ordination and perhaps even longer before they accept this honor and responsibility. Furthermore, a church must be in need of an ordained pastor before ordination is offered to one serving as the pastor. Therefore if a "retired pastor" lives in the village and is able to serve communion and baptize believers, ordination is not a pressing need for a congregation and therefore will not be offered.

The Tee Mae Ker Lah church has two retired ordained pastors as members, Reverend Baw Ney (age 86) and Reverend Burney Pho (age 71), for that reason Timothy has yet to be ordained. However, it has just been announced that in April of this year, Pastor Timothy will receive ordination at the annual meeting of the Thailand Karen Baptist Convention.

Baptism is a requirement for membership in the church and must be initiated by adults who have experienced Christian conversion and believe in the efficacy to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Most Christian Karen will be baptized sometime after the age of 16 and before they are married. However, should adults become believers at an older age, they are encouraged to become baptized immediately after conversion.

The baptism service in this film is conducted by Pastor Burney Pho for a family from the village of Plodo who began attending the Tee Mae Ker Lah church a few months earlier. Prior to their conversion they practiced a combination of traditional Karen animism and Buddhist rituals.

A baptism service only takes place once every three months, and then immediately following the 10:30 worship service. At 2:00 PM of that same day, Christian communion, the second most important ritual of the Karen Baptist church is held. Communion is a religious service only open to baptized members of the church. Today the family from Plodo will be welcomed into church membership and experience their first Christian communion. Pastors Baw Ney and Burney Pho will conduct the service and be assisted by the three deacons of the church. During the service Scripture verses describing Jesus' last supper with his disciples will be read and small portions of bread and grape juice will be distributed to the members in attendance. The service will also include prayers and the singing of traditional Karen hymns related to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. The service will last approximately 30 minutes.

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Scene 8 -- Rabbit in the Mouth of the Crocodile

The Karen of Tee Mae Ker Lah, like all other ethnic groups, are confronted with social change. As much as they want to maintain their Karen ethnic identity within the country of Thailand, they are being pressured to assimilate into the larger society. Some of the social changes promote what Karen consider to be a better life for their families--they have greater access to education, health care, food, transportation, communication, better housing, ample water, warm clothing, and energy to light their homes and cook their food. Yet, such benefits may come at the cost of loosing their Karen culture.

Increasingly the primary language of Karen children is Thai and presently few children are able to read and write their tribal language. Traditional Karen dress, an important source of ethnic pride and identity, is now reserved for special occasions. The performance of ancestral Karen music and dance is so rare that even most middle-age adults are unable to participate. Historic Karen stories, poems, and songs are no longer a part of the collective memory. Their history and folk heros are not even taught in the private schools that they themselves sponsor. Given the fact Tee Mae Ker Lah is located in a government protected forestry area and there are virtually no additional rice fields being cleared to provide for the needs of the village's children and their future families, how long will it take before the Karen people are completely assimilated into Thai society once they leave their mountain homelands and move into the large urban centers of Thailand?

Reverend Baw Ney tells a traditional Karen story that describes the plight of his people and provides an answer to their dilemma.

Once upon a time there was a rabbit that went to drink water from a big river. He saw a crocodile floating down the river and the rabbit thought that perhaps the crocodile was just a big log. In order to make sure it was a log, he said to the log, "If you are a log float up the river and if you are a crocodile float down the river." Then the crocodile went up the river to trick the rabbit. But the rabbit said, "If this really is log, how can it go up the river? It can't, if it truly is a log."

Another time the rabbit came to the same river. This time the crocodile did not let the rabbit see its head, only his back. But again the rabbit was not fooled. So the rabbit said to the crocodile, "The water here is not good. There is a cleaner river with more water in it on the other side of the mountain. Do you want to go with me?" The crocodile said, "Yes." So the rabbit and the crocodile went together.

After they had walked together for some time they heard the sound of the wind blowing. The crocodile was getting tired and thirsty because he was not use to being out of the water for a long time. But the rabbit, hearing the wind, told the crocodile, "See, we are coming closer, I can hear the sound of the water." When they arrived at the peak of the mountain, the crocodile looked down but there was no river. So he decided to go back, but as he walked down the mountain the rabbit picked up a stick and hit the crocodile on the back and tormented the crocodile throughout the return trip. After they reached the water again, the crocodile was very angry at the rabbit. So the crocodile decided to hide from the rabbit. When the rabbit stopped to take a drink of water, the crocodile came from behind and snapped up the rabbit in his mouth.

In seeking revenge upon the rabbit, the crocodile kept the rabbit in his mouth for a long time before swallowing him. Then the rabbit said to the crocodile from within its mouth, "If you are female say 'Hum.' If you are male say, 'Ah.'" When the crocodile said "Ah," the rabbit jumped out and was free.

As Pastor Baw Ney interprets the story,

"The Karen people are the rabbit who are presently in the mouth of the crocodile. The mouth of the crocodile is the country of Thailand and Thai culture. The Karen people are dominated by the Thai people and culture. They are in jeopardy of loosing their distinct culture and their Karen way of life. The Karen people are very clever and talented, but unless they use their cleverness and best talents they will be swallowed by Thai culture."

The Karen people must now think of the way of resisting cultural assimilation. How should they to do this?

Baw Ney says,

"We must know about the Karen traditions and customs, we must educate ourselves about the Karen way--respect our traditions, learn our written and spoken language, wear our costumes, tell our stories and poems, sing our songs, and pass on Karen culture to our children and grandchildren and not allow it to be diluted by the Thai or any other culture."

"Today the Karen culture is being swallowed. This cultural dilution starts with the forsaking of the Karen language in favor of Thai, then the people abandon their traditional costumes. Then they leave the mountains and move to the cities where they look, act, and marry Thai people. When they have come to this place, they have been 'swallowed by the crocodile.' It is only God's protection that will keep the Karen culture from being swallowed."



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