Celebration, Affirmation & Transformation: a 'Traditional' Festival in a Refugee Camp in Thailand


In 1996, approximately 1500 people lived in Camp 5, a refugee camp located in the jungle on the Thai-Burmese border. The camp was open and self-administered, with refugee-run schools, two churches, and one Buddhist monastery. Though unavoidably and significantly influenced by displacement, cultural life in Camp 5 was vibrant. Refugees were able to celebrate annual festivals in the camps; for many internally displaced persons inside Burma, such celebrations have been impossible for some years. One such festival is diy-kuw.

The people living in Camp 5 call themselves Karenni and have fled from Kayah State (referred to by the Karenni as "Karenni State"). Kayah is Burma's smallest state, bordering Thailand's northwestern province of Mae Hong Son. Although some political leaders and more entrepreneurial Karenni have lived in Thailand for thirty years or more, significant numbers of Karenni refugees first arrived in 1989. Another major influx of refugees began in 1996 as a result of widespread forced relocations of villages in remote hill areas. There are now well over 18,000 Karenni refugees in Thailand, living in three main camps. All of these refugees live under an administration described by the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) as a government-in-exile.(1)

Karenni refugees have diverse reasons for going into exile. Their socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, levels of political awareness, religion, and ethnicity also vary. Roughly twelve ethnic groups consider themselves ethnically distinct but still identify as `Karenni.' `Karenni' is used in this sense as a territorially, historically, and politically defined umbrella term. It also refers specifically to the Kayah, the largest ethnic group among the Karenni.

The Festival

Diy-kuw, second in importance among Karenni festivals, is held when the rice plants have begun to head. The festival anticipates a good harvest and gives thanks in advance. Though diy- kuw seems out of place in the context of a refugee camp where residents have neither land nor permission from their Thai hosts to grow paddy, celebrants talked as they have always talked, as farmers rather than refugees.

All but one of the Karenni ethnic groups represented in Camp 5 have a tradition of celebrating diy-kuw (the Paku Karen from the southwest of Karenni State are the exception). `Diy-kuw' is Kayah in linguistic origin, but is used by all Karenni ethnic groups. It literally means sticky (küw) rice (dïy), but in practice refers both to the festival itself and to the triangular parcels of sticky rice wrapped in wild sorghum leaves that are served to guests as an important part of the festival.

In Karenni villages, an older man uses chicken-bone divination to determine the most auspicious time for the festival. The celebrations are scheduled at different times so that villagers may attend festivals in other villages as well. No one in Camp 5 in 1996 knew how to do chicken-bone divination, so a committee (including the headmaster of the high school and the KNPP's Minister for Education) was formed to oversee all arrangements. During the week immediately preceding diy-kuw, people were busy making rice beer and preparing diy-kuw sticky rice parcels. All available trucks were enlisted to carry sacks of sticky rice (most of which were paid for and distributed by the KNPP) back from Mae Hong Son market.

The festival did not begin with a formal ceremony; people began to go visiting by lunchtime on the first day. I was invited, along with others, to a house in one section of the camp. We drank rice beer, ate sticky rice, and were later fed pork and green bean curry. After we left, we were called into another house on our way home, where we ate and drank more. Indeed, food, drink and company are the essence of the festival, but diy-kuw is more than mere revelry.

Dancing is of particular importance. The dancers in Camp 5 were all school students, men and women between about fifteen and twenty-three years old (the musicians were older, married men). The dance -- performed to the rhythmic, hypnotic beats of two gongs, a pair of cymbals, and a drum -- mimed the rice-focused activities of a given year: planting, tending, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, cooking, and eating.

Visiting one house at a time along a predetermined route, the students danced from one end of the camp to the other. Houses belonging to wealthy and more important community members (e.g., KNPP leaders, teachers, senior army officers, and shopkeepers) were more likely than others to receive a visit. Household heads made cash donations (money subsequently went to the KNPP to pay for the rice served during the festival) and provided the dancers and their significant entourage with beer and sticky rice.

Thoughts of Home

On the festival's final evening, I sat with the headmaster, schoolteachers, and roughly twenty-five dancers in the house of a senior member of the refugee camp for the closing ceremony. Most of the meeting was conducted in Burmese, the lingua franca of the multilingual, ethnically diverse group, but the diy-kuw story was first told in Kayah and then translated into Burmese.

A long time ago, there were two brothers. The elder one was Chinese, and the younger one was Karenni. They decided to migrate south from Mongolia, following the Salween river downstream.

Eventually, they reached the Salween Delta, and they were hungry, so they set about catching prawns. They cooked their catches separately. The Karenni brother thought that the prawns turning a red color meant that they weren't yet properly cooked, so he was afraid to eat them and kept cooking them for days and days.

The older brother, meanwhile, had finished eating his prawns and decided to go back up north. The younger brother said he'd follow when his own prawns were cooked. The older brother said, "Alright, I'll set off now and cut down banana trees as I go so that you know which way I've gone and can follow me without getting lost."

Eventually, the younger brother realized that his prawns must be properly cooked after all, and he ate them. He set off in pursuit of his brother. Unfortunately, banana trees grow very quickly, and by this time they had already grown back, so the younger brother had great problems following his older brother. At Demawsoe [now a town in Karenni State near the present capital of Loikaw] he finally gave up the journey and decided to stay were he was.

He settled in the area, and after a while his people, the Karenni, began fighting the Youn [variously the Chinese or Shan, depending on informant] because the latter had invaded Karenni land. At first, the Karenni were not very successful in their fight, because they had no leader. In order to have a leader and be unified under him, the Karenni made a "king" out of bamboo -- a `phü-diy-khriy', or idol. The man who actually made the `phü-diy- khriy' was called Heh Reh.

The Youn were exceedingly rude about this `phü-diy-khriy', laughing loudly at it. In the end, one of the Youn kings kicked and destroyed it. The Karenni got very upset at this lack of respect for their king, and their anger unified them and made them fight very fiercely indeed.

This anger, together with the Karenni invention of `diy-kuw' -- little leaf-wrapped packets of sticky rice -- meant that the Karenni succeeded in defeating the Youn and driving them out of Karenni land.

We hold this festival of `diy-kuw' to commemorate this victory over the Youn and to celebrate the invention of `diy-kuw' rice parcels....

The festival's meaning is particularly significant given the contemporary conflict with the Burmese. Karenni refugees clearly identify with the Karenni in the diy-kuw story: outnumbered by a superior enemy, but with resourcefulness and unity on their side.

After the diy-kuw story was told, people talked about the events of the previous two days. One teacher praised the incredibly strong red corn beer back in his village and lamented the camp beer's weakness and inferior taste. This comparison sparked a number of wistful reminiscences about diy-kuw in the villages. People mourned the absence of the phü-diy-khriy figure -- both a symbol of the diy-kuw story and a means of divination -- at the camp festival. In the villages, the figure is made each year from cotton fabric wrapped over a woven bamboo frame. As Lu Reh and Su Reh, two of the guests, remembered diy-kuw and the phü-diy-khriy in their villages, they discovered some fascinating and often amusing differences. Su Reh described a game played in his village, for example, that had no corollary in Lu Reh's village:

Before it can be asked any questions, the `phü-diy-khriy' is hidden by some older men in the corner of the house where it...[resides] during that year's `diy-kuw'. It is covered with a mat. Children of the village must then pretend to be hunting dogs, crawling and making barking noises about the village and then the `phü-diy-khriy"s chosen house. They are hunting the `phü-diy- khriy', and they pretend that the mat under which it lies is really a stone that buries it. They must dig it out.

Lu Reh found this story absolutely hilarious.

Throughout the festival, the camp celebrations were compared with diy-kuw in the villages. Those with memories of the village celebrations emphasized that the festival lasts much longer there and that certain important traditional elements were missing from the camp version. In Karenni State, dancers perform for two days or more, often without sleeping, so that they can dance outside every house. Various other activities -- including the construction and launch of a rocket made of bamboo and propelled by gunpowder -- sometimes occur during the festival. The rocket launch is primarily sport (people place bets on how far it will fly and where it will land), but also plays a role in expelling bad spirits from the village. Like the chicken-bone divination, the rocket launch was absent from camp celebrations.

Some were saddened by this village-camp discrepancy, but others did not share their sense of poignancy because of either a diminished awareness of village-camp discrepancies or a different attitude toward the festival. Christians, for example, see diy-kuw as an important expression of political and cultural unity rather than as a continuing a body of tradition.(2)

For those who did have a strong sense of village-based diy- kuw practice, however, talking about it was both enjoyable and important. Reminiscences anchor present celebrations in the past, providing a sense of continuity important both at individual and group levels, particularly after traumatic upheaval. Reflections on the festival are important in a displaced context where the security of loved ones remaining in Burma and the threat to Karenni culture are constant concerns.

Refugees lack the continuity of place that defines "home." Karenni refugees endure this period of suspension in a marginal space that offers neither the familiarities of home nor the advantages of Thailand (better markets and more readily available consumer goods, etc.). Discussing village diy-kuw celebrations provides not only a temporal sense of continuity with the past but also a sense of spatial connection to the village and "home." Individuals remember not only elements of their lives before becoming refugees, but also aspects of the cooperative nature of the festival and village life. Indeed, most talk revolves around the essentially communal practices like dancing, reinforcing not only individual perceptions of the past, but also relationships within the group. Both despite and because of their displacement, Karenni refugees have strengthened their attachment to the places they think of as "home." In the process, they have also strengthened, and in some ways altered, their sense of who they are.

References & further reading

Dudley, S.H. (Forthcoming). "Displacement and Identity: Karenni Refugees in Thailand." DPhil. thesis in Social Anthropology, University of Oxford.

Lehman, F.K. (1967). "Burma: Kayah Society as a Function of the Shah-Burma-Karen Context" in Steward, J.H., ed. Contemporary Change in Traditional Societies. Volume II. Asian Rural Societies. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. Pp 3-104.

(1). KNPP is composed of a relatively well-educated, mainly Christian, male elite. Its primary objective is the recognition of Karenni State's independence from Burma.

(2). While the majority of the Karenni refugee population is Christian, there are large numbers of Buddhists and those practising traditional religion.

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