A Conversation With Mikael Gravers: Research Among the Karen, Past and Present
By Pia Jolliffe 7 July 2017
This week on Tea Circle, we’re pleased to feature an interview with anthropologist Mikael Gravers, an expert on nationalism, ethnic conflict, and peace and reconciliation, with extensive experience working among Karen communities in Thailand and Myanmar. He is the author of a number of books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma/Myanmar— Where Now?, Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, and Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma. He is also a researcher on the project “Everyday Justice and Security in the Myanmar Transition.”
Firstly, what made you initially interested in Burma? Or was it the Karen in Thailand, and Burma came later?
Yes, actually I was reading Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma while I was preparing for fieldwork and it inspired me so much I decided I would like to do similar fieldwork, but it was not possible to do it in Burma at that time. I was in Burma in 1972, but this was during the Ne Win years and it was very difficult. I went to meet a Christian Pwo Karen and just minutes after, I was stopped by an MI [military intelligence] agent on the bus. I don’t think anything bad happened to this Pwo Karen, because the MI guy never asked me any questions about the visit, but it dawned on me that you couldn’t do any decent fieldwork. This was in 1972. But I also did fieldwork on the Karen in Western Thailand in Uthaithani 1970-72 with two Danish colleagues, and the first visit, the first stop was in Sangkhlaburi at Three Pagodas Pass, where the Karen National Union (KNU) and U Nu had camps. It took more than 12 hours to reach the place in a boat. We saw wild elephants come down to the River Khwai to drink water. I visited the Baptist mission, and an American missionary, Emilie Ballard, who was evicted from Burma by Ne Win in 1962, gave us her excellent Pwo Karen language material. The teacher was Saw Tha Din, former President of Karen Central Organization until 1947, when it became the Karen National Union. He stepped down because he realized that he could not stop the young militant Karen. He wanted to negotiate, but he saw what was coming, so he stepped down. He was sent to prison for 4 years by U Nu and Ne Win. When he came out, he went to Sangkhlaburi and he worked as a missionary. But he and his wife were our teachers, and this was the beginning of my work actually, because after the language lessons, he gave lessons on Karen politics and Karen nationalism. He explained why there was this very strong ethnic Karen nationalism. He explained that Christianity was not a new religion, but that the original belief of the Karen was that they had lost their script, knowledge and religion in the past –it was the ‘white brother’ (in the shape of American Baptist missionaries) who returned the ‘lost book.’ Elder Karen firmly believed this myth.
So he mentioned and referred to this script, the lost book that was found?
Yes, missionaries created two Karen scripts in the 1840s. Then he said, well, ‘If you want to know about Karen nationalism, you should go to the British Library!” To the India Office Library. He told me he lost all of his papers in 1949, but he was in the Karen delegation to London in 1946 and they distributed a memorial and a pamphlet to the parliament. These papers were not seen for a long time. When I consulted the literature at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s, you couldn’t find anything, so I decided to search for the documents – I got some money in 1988 from the Danish Research Council, and after a few days, I found these documents, including Saw Po Chit’s booklet on Karen nationalism. I think they are quite important to understand and explain the Karen expectations at that time (at the end of the British Empire). Many Karen were convinced that the British would come and help them fight for an independent State.
And do you think that this expectation still exists?
No, not like in that time. But, the narrative still exists.
So you found these documents in the British Library? And they should still be there?
Yes, they are. I think I am going to re-print one of the documents in an upcoming edited volume about the end of the empire in Burma. I used the map from the pamphlet in my 1996 article, “The Karen Making of the Nation,” and the KNU territorial claim was really unrealistic because they claimed part of western Thailand. They said the border area is also the Karen land and could be included since the Thai government supported the Japanese in the beginning of the war.
So, they include the area, for example, Mae Wang? Or only the border area like Mae Hong Son?
I’m not sure, but the KNU mentioned Mae Sot and the border area to Chiang Mai province. They believed Sangkhlaburi and Tak province were old Karen principalities. The Thai king had appointed Karen governors of the border area around 1800 – they were guarding the border against Burmese invasion. Many Karen became allied with the Thai king after King Alaunghpaya’s conquest of the Mon kingdom in 1755, which included present Karen State. The KNU’s claim was unrealistic – but they never got a clear reply from the British government. Because I think, the British government found the claim to be too far out.
Yes, but still, if these documents existed then…
I gave Saw Tha Din’s daughter a copy of it during a visit to Sangkhlaburi in 1996. Saw Tha Din had died just one year earlier. But, looking into Karen history, you can also see in the important documents how Karen Christians and Buddhists had different opinions on a state inside or outside the Union. And this divide was also really prevalent and important in 1945. Especially, in 1946, there was a Buddhist Karen organization, Burma Karen National Association (BKNA) who disagreed with the Christian Karen National Association. They wanted to negotiate with U Nu. And we have seen this divide many times in history. The most recent of them was in 1994-95 when Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization and Army was founded and split from the KNU.
Yes. Do you think it is really a religious split/conflict, or is it more related to resources and political power that different groups have? How important is religion in this split?
It’s important to look into the main differences of identity within the Karen group; of course there was political disagreement, and the schism in 1994, when DKBA was formed, was really also about class, education. All the front line soldiers, most of them were poor, less educated, often Buddhist Pwo Karen, whereas the leadership of KNU was almost entirely Christian. The Christian elite has access to education and hospitals in Thailand. They’re relatively well off, and sent their children to school in Bangkok. And as it is now, it there is also a competition for resources between armed Karen groups.
Do you think it exists still today, that there is this competition for resources— for example, access to scholarships and other resources— among Christian and Buddhist Karen?
Yeah, there is still lingering conflict. As you saw, U Thuzana, Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, he was constructing small pagodas near Christian churches and Muslim mosques last year, supported by Ma Ba Tha. It’s perhaps not so important inside the KNU just when we are speaking now, but it’s still there. And as you said, it’s not just religious. It’s also about class, the economy, and political disagreement.
Exactly. And what is the role of foreign donors in this? Because obviously some of the Christian groups can offer scholarships because they receive donations from international groups.
Well, yes. It’s partly this kind of donations— scholarships and aid— that, how can I say, maintain the boundaries between these groups of Karen.
And do you think that these boundaries, that they’re something that donors or foreigners ask and expect? For example, that Christian Karen keep a boundary between them and the Buddhists?
I’m not sure they ask. I don’t think they ask this directly, but it’s an indirect effect. U Thuzana has connections to Thai business people, while the KNU leadership has contacts with, for example, Japanese firms. Foreign companies want various development projects in Karen states and we have seen the same tendency in (other) conflict areas of Burma— it has been called ‘ceasefire capitalism,’— when officers turn into business entrepreneurs.
‘Ceasefire Capitalism.’— it’s the first time I’ve heard of it. It’s an interesting notion. Can you tell more about it?
Yes, this was coined by Kevin Woods, who has written about Kachin state. For example, the illegal logging and trade in timber, mining, copper plantations, so it is, rubber plantations by the Burmese Army, but also by foreign companies— and this is very bad in my opinion because this may do a lot of damage to natural resources. It may also prevent decent sustainable development and has resulted in widespread land grabbing.
That’s right. And the new Karen leadership, they also practice ‘ceasefire capitalism’?
Yes, yes. According to our information in Myanmar, all Karen armed groups engage in business. You can also see some of the breakaway groups, like the Karen Peace Council, and the Karen Peace Force who signed agreements, and then got some license for plantations and mining, or trade licenses, from the Myanmar army. They settled there, say half a battalion. DKBA also took land, and when it was transformed into the Border Guard Force (BGF), it continued.
Some of the Karen officers are wealthy, as leading officers in the BGF, DKBA and KNU are involved in business. Some are believed to be involved in the drug trade, some have rubber plantations. So this may—how can you say—this may generate new conflict between these military entrepreneurs and common people, especially because of land grabbing.
For your fieldwork— you started in 1970, in Thailand? In Sangkhlaburi, you learned the whole Karen language, and then you spent two years there, and then on-and-off as you continued your fieldwork in the same area— in Lamphun?
Yes, first in Uthaithani province among Pwo Karen in the hills. Almost two years, and they are Buddhist. Then, I spent time at Chiang Mai, the Mae Chaem area, just near the top of the Doi Inthanon mountain. That was a Baptist Sgaw Karen village— they converted from Animism in the 1980s. And then in Lamphun in Wat Phrabat Huai Tom, which was a very interesting place really, because this has inspired the famous Thamanya Sayadaw and U Thuzana in Karen state. The monk in Huai Tom, Kruba Wong died in 2003. His body is kept in a glass coffin in the monastery. He is one of several monks who— how can I say it— are strict vegetarians. He lived among Karen and he spoke Karen, so the Karen actually consider him as a Karen. Some 17,000 Karen live in the monastic settlement and have contacts in the Karen State [see Paul Cohen (ed.) 2017, Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism].
So he helped the Karen from Burma?
No, no, from Northern Thailand. But there was also a monk from the Karen state who joined him at one point. His name is Chao La’ and he died in the late 70s. He was a very controversial figure—the Thai military thought he was a communist. But these monks, they went to the poor hill Karen and invited them to stop the sacrifice for the spirits. This was almost at the same time as the Catholic mission came to the area where I had been. This was a very significant point in Thai history, because the Thai prime minister was really powerful at the time and the army was very anxious to prevent communists from gaining a foothold among the Karen. On the other hand, the Karen were quite frustrated, because of new roads made into their areas and the confiscation of land for national parks, and a lot of other economic, social and political pressures. So, these monks here, they told the poor Karen, “You should join us, you have to quit sacrificing, become vegetarians and convert to Buddhism’. And then, Khruba Wong invited several villagers to come and settle in Huai Tom, Lamphun. The first group who came down, they had a very hard time, because the soil was very poor. Many got malaria, and local Thais opposed their settlement. This was in 1969-70, at the same time as I was living in Uthaithani.
And at that time, there were not yet refugees from Burma in Thailand? That only started in the 1980s, right? The camps at the border?
Yes, the first groups to come started in 1983 or 1984, but I mean there were refugees along the border who came as early as 1950-52. Saw Tha Din, his family came in 1949. And actually the people I studied— in the group I was living among in Uthaithani— they were refugees from 1780-1800, after the Burman conquest of the Mon kingdom.
And did they consider themselves as displaced persons, or did they integrate themselves over the generations into this western Thai Karen society?
They were not very integrated into Thai society. They spoke only a little Thai.
Really? After all these decades and centuries?
Yes, the first story they presented to me was about their exodus from Burma (known as Ba Yaung Khaung in Pwo Karen) and they told the story like this: They sent a messenger to the Thai king and he agreed that they could settle in the mountains because they were slash-and-burn farmers … and we know from historical records that they acted as border guards, as spies. They were not in the Thai army when the Burmese invaded, but some were border guards and fought the Burmese. One particularly famous one was Pha Wau, who served the Siamese king. There is a statue of him and shrine on the road to Mae Sot in the mountains.
Did they ever obtain Thai citizenship?
They have citizenship, yes. But they belong to one of these many Millenarian Karen sects called Phloung Lu Baung, the “Yellow String Pwo.” They have a yellow string tied around their wrists, as a symbol of being ‘pure Buddhist Karen,’ waiting for the next Buddha. I would say they are Buddhist, but they are not recognized as real Buddhists in Thailand. In Thailand they are called Ruesifollowers, that is, followers of ‘hermits’ (yathey). Their religious leaders are dressed in white. However, they also have monks and monasteries. But they believe the monks’ teaching will decline, as the Buddha prophesied.
And in all your years of fieldwork, have you observed how the Karen in Thailand related to the Karen in Burma in different ways?
Yes, because the Lu Baung used to visit Burma and visit monasteries where they learned the Mon alphabet. They went to monasteries, they became monks, they returned to the monasteries on the Thai side, but they never really engaged in this struggle for Karen independence in Burma. I have not met any Thai Karens who joined the KNU army– they were interested in the struggle, but they didn’t join or support it.
And why do you think? It’s interesting that this was happening. Why was it that the Karen in Thailand actually never joined the Karen in Burma and found a shared Karen identity to actually have a state together? Why did that never happen, in your opinion?
Well I’m not sure I can give a full answer to this, but you know, one thing is to have something in common and to have a shared identity, but another thing is a shared political project. As it was inside Burma, fighting the Burmese army, they were very much afraid also that they would be punished and couldn’t return to Thailand. I mean, armed struggle is not… it’s a very hard thing for Karens to start. They prefer peace to struggle and conflicts, so I think they are not really happy to fight. They felt suppressed by the Thai in the 1960s and1970s, and when the communists tried to recruit Karen, they only managed to recruit a small group in 1973-74 in Tak province and a few persons in Uthaithani, but it dawned on the Karen that they were actually then fighting some of their own people, which was very bad. Karen killed Karen, I think they don’t really like this kind of a situation, where they are not in control of what’s going on. I met some of these persons who joined the communists and— it’s very funny— one guy was still wearing the cap with the red star, looking like Mao. But very few became communists. They were angry at the Thai incursion on their communities. The Thais really looked down on them and discriminated against them and bullied them – as I have seen.
You mentioned that you’re preparing for your retirement?
I retired the January 1, actually.
So now you’re freshly retired. What are your plans for your retirement?
Well, this year I’m still working on a Burma project (“Everyday Justice & Security”) and in January I’m going to the Karen state to do fieldwork, and I may also go in January 2018, if I can manage. This project will finish in 2018 and the plan is I have to publish from the project. I am also writing a monograph on my many encounters with the Karen, their culture, religion and struggles.
What can you say about the differences between doing fieldwork in the 1970s and today?
When I retired, it dawned on me after the recent fieldwork, traveling in a car and bringing a lot of medicines and a computer…I first came to the Karen area in 1970 in a bus, and then I had to walk for 6 hours uphill. And my friends, they came out to another area with a boat, and between our two villages were 3 days through the jungle. I tried this tour one time and then I had a small bamboo house constructed, 3×7 meters. I had all kinds of animals coming in and out— snakes and rats and Palm rats— there were still tigers, barking deer, and other wildlife. Then, I stayed with the village headman’s family. He was actually the first teacher in the area. And there were about 10 villages in this community of about 1000 (Pwo Karen), so I walked between these villages and dressed in a longyi, and I had a sleeping bag and a small portable typewriter. I had a box of small pieces of paper for my language study— writing in the Baptist Pwo Karen script from Burma, and then translating into Danish!
Do you still have these field notes?
Yes. And I’m preparing to organize them for our research archive at Moesgaard Museum (Aarhus University), but I still need them for writing the book. I brought home a large collection of ethnographic items for the Museum, as well as 6000 photos and tapes with prayers, music, and poetry. Let me show you one…this is poetry. This is translated by an assistant, actually a student from Burma, a refugee, who now lives in Ratchaburi. But my own handwriting is not so beautiful. And my dictionary – this is my own, handwritten dictionary in Pwo Karen. I speak Karen like a foreigner who has learned some of the language, especially some of the religious language. But when I come to Burma and speak (Pwo Karen) they use a lot of Burmese words, for example, for school or monastery, but I learned the Thai words— so this is a huge problem when I am in Burma now. If it’s about religion and you don’t need any modern words, then it’s ok. But as soon as you discuss modern times— politics for example— it’s very hard for me, so I need assistants, translators. However, it is improving. I could even speak Pwo with the Karen Muslims in Karen State.
All the material I have collected will be organized in the archive and available for future scholars – and I hope that includes Karen scholars.
So I was living there for almost 2 years and eating with my fingers. Have you tried that?
Yes, I always ate with my hands.
And then I brought some medicine and gave it away at first, but then my mentor said to me, why not take just one Baht each time (to re-supply)— so my small house was a kind of clinic.
So what kind of medicine did you bring?
For myself, I had malaria medicine. I got malaria.
And was it treated?
In Denmark, when I came back from to Burma. I also got amoebic dysentery, because there was an epidemic. But otherwise, it was very nice— sometimes exciting—and people were so kind. I have been re-visiting this place many times –first I was ‘nephew’ or ‘cousin’, then ‘uncle’ now I am ‘grandfather’ – a higher status than I have in Denmark!
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.