Sunday, February 2, 2020

Between the Mountains and Plains: the Karen of Northern Thailand


                                                                 by Jim Goodman

weaving on the back-strap loom and dressed in traditional style
       The highlands of Northern Thailand are home to several ethnic minorities, collectively known as the ’hill tribes’—the Hmong, Lahu, Akha, Yao, Lisu and Karen.  The Thai never settled there, preferring the plains and valleys.  In fact, until the early 19th century, when the Karen began settling in the lowlands along the western border with Burma, the northern highlands were virtually uninhabited.  A century ago only a handful of villages of the other hill tribes existed in the far north.
       The major impetus for migration came in the 1960s, when various ethnic minorities in Myanmar began armed struggles against the government.  The resulting chaos of armies contesting control of villages led many hill residents to flee the country and settle in the remote mountains of northern Thailand to live a peaceful existence far from the insurgencies. 
old-fashioned houses in a Karen village
       As the wars in Myanmar gradually wound down (though still not entirely) migration into northern Thailand eased.  The hill tribe population today is nearly a million, half of them Karen, and the mountains are the site of so many settlements that the traditional slash-and-burn agricultural system is no longer viable.  Most farmers now rely on cash crops like cabbages, tea and coffee that don’t require new fields every two years.
       As recently as the early 1980s many mountain villages also cultivated opium.  Tourist literature promoted visits to the hills to meet minorities and see the opium fields.  By the late 80s, thanks to new roads cut into the hills and aerial surveys, the government had eradicated all but the smallest private fields. 
Karen village in Mae Satiang province
       The Karen in Thailand were not involved in commercial opium cultivation.   For one thing, they occupied the foothills, rarely as high as 1000 meters altitude, and opium only grows successfully here above 1000 meters.  Opium was not part of traditional culture.  Families living higher up above 1000 meters might grow a little for medicinal use, but rare was the Karen addict.
       Like the other hill tribes, the Karen originated from remote mountainous regions north of Thailand and Myanmar.  They migrated into Myanmar at least 800 years ago, settling along the Salween River and the border areas next to Thailand.  The dialects of their language are part of the Karenni group, but linguists debate whether Karen dialects should be included in the Tibeto-Burman group of Sino-Tibetan languages or classified as a separate group of their own.
elderly Pwo Karen woman
Karen man and his pipe 
       Karen dialects are not mutually intelligible, a factor in their development as relatively autonomous villages that were not linked in anything resembling a unified state.  Just as the Karen never had hereditary kings, it had no nobility or privileged class.  It was an egalitarian society.  Even the family inheritance was divided equally among the surviving children.
at ease at home in Mae Khanat, Lamphun province
       A headman assisted by a Council of Elders managed village affairs.  The council was all male, but women had a high status.  When they married, instead of all their children becoming part of the husband’s line,  only the males did.  The daughters became part of the matrilineal line.  Important annual rituals were jointly conducted by the headman and the senior woman of the oldest matrilineal line.
       Their religion was animist, accented by strong notions of omens, propitiatory rites and the dangers of unknown spirits.  Very early in their history they adopted the use of bronze drums.  These were very large, over a meter diameter, with the top inscribed with concentric designs and often decorated with animal figures, especially frogs, on the rim.
       During the height of the dry season people beat the drums to summon the monsoon rains.  The sound resembled thunder and aroused the frogs, also associated with rain, and thus encouraged the rain to come.  They also beat them at important ceremonies to frighten off nefarious spirits.
Karen girl, Mae Sariang province
Pwo Karen girls dressed in their best 
       When they migrated into eastern Burma the choicest plains locations were already occupied by Burmese or Mon.  So they settled away from these areas to the far edges of the plains and into the lower slopes of the hills.  Those on the plains grew wet rice, tobacco, betel, and various fruits.  Those higher up grew dry rice, yams, tea, chili, vegetables and cotton.
mahout directing an elephant's work on the Salween River, 1977
       In the surrounding forests men hunted boar, deer, squirrel and lizard.  Women and children gathered frogs, mushrooms, insects and larvae, honey, field crabs and medicinal herbs.  The village goal was self-sufficiency.  That was nearly impossible to fully achieve, but they relied on the market for very little of their everyday needs.
       They stayed as isolated as possible from Burmese administration, carried on feuds with each other, making raids and counter-raids, and periodic conflicts with their neighbors the Lawa.  Changes came with the British colonial period in the early 19th century.   In terms of taxation and corvée labor, the Karen found the British much less demanding than the Burmese and did not resist the new system.  The British sent missionaries into the Karen villages and because the Biblical stories and Christian precepts often coincided with some of their own ancient legends and traditional values, many Karen villages quickly converted.
Ruammit, the Karen village for riding elephants
       Some missionaries, upon discovering these similarities, began persuading the Karen that they were one of the lost tribes of ancient Israel.  They may even have believed it themselves and outlined a migration route from Israel after the Roman conquest, up through the Caucasus, across central Asia, the Gobi Desert, then down through the snow-capped mountains of southwest China and Tibet and finally into Lower Burma.       
       The Christian British also treated their Karen subjects the same way they did their Burmese subjects, an equality imposed by colonialism.  This also influenced the decision to convert.  Later on the British introduced schools, educating both men and women.  This had an unintended effect of stimulating pan-Karen nationalist sentiment.  When the British prepared to withdraw, Karen nationalists were ready to campaign for a high degree of autonomy within the coming independent state of Burma, if not their own separate state entirely.
Karen mahout near Samoeng
feeding the elephants near Samoeng
       Supposedly the Burmese leader Aung San was sympathetic to their demands.  But after his assassination the new government refused to consider Karen autonomy.  War broke out between the two sides.  Many of the Karen fighters had served in the British army during the war with Japan, so their officers were just as experienced as those on the Burmese side.  In the beginning the Karen occupied the Ayeyarwaddy Delta and nearly captured Yangon.  But the Burmese regrouped, drove the Karen out of the Delta and carried the war to Karen territory.
weaving in Mae Khanat, Lamphun province
       They never fully subjugated all of the Karen lands, though gradually pacified most of them.  The intensity of the conflict subsided over the decades, yet the insurgency has still not ended.  The war drove many Karen refugees across the border, living in camps until they could find a place to settle.  The fact that they had fled into what was already territory occupied by Karen migrants for several generations certainly eased their assimilation.
       Most of the Karen in Thailand belong to two groups—the Sgaw and the Pwo.  They live the same way, but speak mutually unintelligible, separate dialects. Both Sgaw and Pwo Karen women provide their families’ garments by weaving bolts of cotton cloth on a back-strap loom.  They used to grow and spin their own cotton, but in recent decades they have opted for buying machine-made thread in the markets. 
       Nevertheless, the rest of the process still follows the traditional procedures.  They wind the thread into balls and then prepare the warp threads by winding them out around pairs of bamboo sticks, changing colors where necessary.  When that’s done they mount the warp threads on the loom by tying them around end sticks, separating every other thread with a continuous, single-thread heddle, and attaching the near end stick to a strap that wraps around the waist while they are seated.  The far end stick they fasten to a house post, back of a trailer or anything strong and immovable.
marketing Karen textiles, Li district, Lamphun
       The weaver leans forward to loosen the tension on the warp threads, lifts the heddle stick to separate the warp set and create a ‘shed.’  Through this opening she tosses the shuttle with the weft thread.  She then leans back to tighten the tension and knocks the weft thread into place with a wooden beating sword.  She then repeats the process, but tosses the weft shuttle in the opposite direction. As the web of cloth gets bigger she may add patterns onto the surface by inserting what’s called ‘supplementary weft.’  These are often done using woolen thread to make them stand out more.
       The result is a tightly bound, strong and durable strip of cloth 50 cm wide and up to four or five meters long.  They stitch sections together for various articles of clothing.  The most common is the shirt, worn by both sexes, though with different patterns for each.  The head fits through an opening at the top and the sides and hem may be fringed.  The long dress that young women favor is a longer version of the shirt, reaching to the shins.  Usually it’s basically white.  Sgaw girls add some fringe on the sides and over the front.  Pwo girls fringe the top and decorate the section below the knees with bright red pile embroidery patterns.
       Most of the rest of the cloth goes to make sarongs, the everyday garment for women.   Another portion is for shoulder bags and the rest for blankets and cloth for swaddling babies.  With the onset of tourism and Karen involvement in the trade, the women now have incentives to produce traditional textiles for new, non-Karen customers.
young Karen man, Li district
elderly weaver near Mae Sariang
       With new roads connecting Karen villages with the outside world, the youth have been migrating out for education, jobs and new trades.  Modernization also means that seasonal labor or temporary work on construction projects is also possible.  Some Karen became successful tour guides, for the average trek of three to five days included at least one night in a Karen village and the customers usually preferred ethnic minority guides for visiting hill tribe villages.
still using mortar and pestle to pound rice
       In the 20th century many Karen men worked in the logging industry, particularly in Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang provinces.  They were the mahouts, the elephant handlers who trained the animals to haul logs out of the forest and assemble them into rafts to float downriver.  Towards the end of the century the government, in response to rapidly shrinking forests, banned logging.
       Throughout the 90s tourism began growing fast and the industry found a new use for the Karen mahouts and their animals.  Riding elephants became one of the things most tourists had to experience while in the north.  They had the option of the elephant show at Mae Rim, less than an hour north of Chiang Mai, where short rides were possible. 
Karen woman from Mae Sariang province
Karen woman, Mae Khanat, Lamphun
       If they had the time, though, they preferred going further away, somewhere looking less touristy and more authentic, even though it was set up for tourists.   One early popular excursion was the Karen elephant village Ruammit, on the banks of the Kok River west of Chiang Rai.  Not only did the ride take place in a genuine rural environment, customers also enjoyed the one-hour boat journey from Chiang Rai through the rural scenery, passing villages, temples, farms and other boats.
       Other riding centers sprang up in the forests near Mae Taeng, the remote streams of Mae Wang district and the hills above Samoeng.  Some camps also educate their customers on caring for elephants and learning about their nature.  The Karen have been involved with elephants for many centuries and certainly know them intimately.
Karen women at Chiang Mai's Tribal Life Festival
       Despite the changes of the last few decades, the Karen still live mostly according to traditions.  Historically a shy people, they have managed to stay aloof and largely unaffected the modernizing world.  Though about 15% are Christian, and a smaller percentage still animist, the majority are Buddhist, influenced by their long proximity to the Burmese Buddhists.  And like their Burmese (and Thai) neighbors, they never really abandoned animist beliefs, like the dangerous presence of bad spirits that must be placated.
       Their material life blends their tradition with the influence of neighbors.   When they build something to replace their bamboo and thatch house, it’s a stilted wooden house, like those of their northern Thai neighbors.   They use electricity instead of oil lamps now, but still pound rice the old way.  They might buy modern jackets in the city markets to don in cold weather, but still prefer, the women especially, their traditional, hand-woven clothing, as well as ornaments like the many brass and silver bangles around their arms. .
       They are also very community-conscious.  Family and kin are especially important.  While they devoutly observe religious holidays, special family occasions, especially weddings, are events demanding gusto and exuberance.  At such times drinks flow, frivolity follows, jokes and laughter fill the room and the normally hidden gregariousness of the Karen people puts on a full display.

conviviality at a Karen party

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