A Home Away from Home

Maintaining cultural identity is hard enough for indigenous peoples in countries that are politically stable, but the problems are vastly more difficult when war and persecution push indigenous people into refugee camps across a border. Few indigenous people have had as much experience with those challenges as the Karen.

Riding north along the Thailand-Burma border en route from the town of Mae Sot to Mae La refugee camp, I held on tightly to my friend and translator Htsa Klo as he maneuvered our motorbike down the jungle road in the pouring rain. We shared the road with the cars of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and other relief agencies, which zipped past us with their windows tinted and their occupants dry inside.

They reminded me of my conversations a few weeks earlier with the director of policy and research for one of the largest NGOs working with the refugees along the Thai-Burma border. Looking to gather interest and support for my research, I had hoped that the NGO would recognize the importance of understanding the cultural concerns of the Karen refugees in Mae La camp, many of whom have been displaced for decades and have been forced to weave a new socio-cultural fabric in a temporary home. She kindly let me know that looking at protection issues related to cultural heritage and cultural rights was “not related enough to the organization’s needs at this time.”

UNHCR, like other aid agencies, is more concerned with physical survival than cultural survival. They are now in the process of registering the refugees in the camp, preparing them to cross new international borders and resettle in third countries such as the United States, Australia, or Canada. As part of this process, the Thai authorities have increased their presence inside and around the camp, making passage into and out of the camp very difficult for anyone without an official ‘camp pass,’ which is given primarily to those working for NGOs. The refugees’ ability to trade with local communities was restricted by the increase in security, as was their access to education, because foreign volunteer English teachers, some having worked in the camps for years, were being told to leave. Without the support of international NGOs and official status, I was concerned about how Htsa Klo and I would cross into the camp and where we would sleep.

Refugees fleeing across international borders, like the Karen living in the Mae La camp in Thailand, face significant threats to the continuity of their traditions. Conflict affects not only refugees’ physical bodies but also the core of their identities. Peoples’ ancestral lands are burned, their houses are looted, prohibitions are often placed on education in native languages, and attacks specifically target those expressing their cultural identity through dress, music, and religious practices. As communities are forcefully disempowered and divided by those seeking political and economic power, their social networks and civil society are destroyed. In the process, they lose the context necessary for transmitting cultural practices and beliefs from one generation to another.

In the camps, people are intimidated or prohibited from practicing certain forms of cultural expression by overcrowding, rules regarding community space and noise, and the convergence of diverse communities in a common space. The lack of freedom to move, trade, and harvest plants makes it hard for people to get the materials they need to produce traditional clothes, crafts, instruments, ritual objects, and medicines. And then there’s the fact that many forms of cultural heritage are intimately tied to specific lands and livelihoods. Children have little opportunity to internalize beliefs and practices out of their original context and indeed may find no utility in many traditional practices so important to elders.

Under these conditions, protecting the treasury of histories, knowledge, practices, and beliefs—what UNESCO terms ‘intangible cultural heritage’—becomes especially important. Unfortunately, this need tends to fall through the cracks in the mandates of institutions set up to provide assistance. Humanitarian and development organizations have unique access to refugee populations and the responsibility to uphold refugees’ rights, including cultural rights. However, either due to unwillingness or lack of resources, their policies don’t consider the cultural concerns of those forced to flee violence and persecution. Organizations such as UNESCO, which are dedicated specifically to protecting cultural heritage, may embrace these issues in theory, but they often are not operational on the ground. Unfortunately, the intergovernmental systems through which cultural concerns might be addressed often leave refugees out of the discussion and formulation of protection policies.

The inspiration for this journey to Mae La camp began with the countless individuals I met in the Balkans, Turkey, and on the Philippine island of Mindanao, who, even after being uprooted from their homes, witnessing the atrocities of war, and, in many cases, being attacked as a direct result of their cultural identity, expressed deep concerns about the preservation of their culture. I wanted to listen to the Karen refugees’ concerns, and find out how the people themselves were addressing these issues.

Two hours after leaving Mae Sot we arrived at Mae La, a community of more than 40,000 refugees, their houses squeezed tightly together along the roadside and spreading into the distance, huddled up against the jungle cliffs. Though maps circulated by UNHCR label the camp as “Karen,” Mae La is in fact an incredibly diverse community. While Sgaw- and Pwo-speaking Karen are the majority, there are many linguistic, religious, and ethnic minorities in the camp, even within the Karen themselves—minorities whose unique identities and cultural needs are not captured by most humanitarian agencies’ demographic analyses. Their commonality lies in their forced flight from their homes in Burma due to the human rights abuses they have faced and the ongoing civil wars between the state and numerous ethnic insurgency groups pushing for recognition and independence. The refugees living in Mae La began pouring into Thailand in large numbers the mid-1980s, when the 55-year-old struggle by the Karen National Union to gain independence intensified dramatically. While families have arrived at different times, many have been displaced over a decade, if not two. In addition to the refugees living in Mae La and other refugee camps in Thailand, hundreds of thousands of Karen remain internally displaced within Burma. And those numbers are swelling as Karen villagers continue to be raped, subjected to forced labor, and even used as human mine-sweepers. Elders in the displaced communities miss their lands and fear dying in exile. Many children born in the camp have never known the homeland of Kawthoolei of which their families dream.

Htsa Kloo stopped our motorbike at the far end of the camp and took a sharp left down a dirt path. He told me he knew a secret way to enter the camp, through a gate at the end of Zone C that is used for the Karen Kawthoolei Baptist Bible School and College (KKBBSC) and its visitors. Nervously walking through the gate and past the Thai army outpost, we found our way to the Bible school. While most of the camp is cramped for space, KKBBSC sprawls across a broad complex, which includes a large library, classrooms, and gardens. There are also dormitories to host students whose families are still in Burma, as well as youngsters from neighboring Thai-Karen villages and even the occasional student from Bangkok. We announced our arrival to the director, Reverend Simon, who welcomed us with a tour and a room for the night. He was careful to ask us about our purpose in the camp and how long we would be staying, while mentioning the many camp visitors—the Koreans who just left and the Europeans who would arrive in a few days. I was both thankful (for my own luck) and amazed at how easy it was for the minister to host groups of missionaries, considering the increased security and the general prohibition against foreigners staying overnight. A student later told me that Reverend Simon has an agreement with the Thai Authorities, who make exceptions for the visitors who come to give Bible lessons and English classes at the school.

Normally, higher education in the camp is forbidden by the Thai authorities, and such activities are often conducted under the guise of religious education in Bible schools. With education and access to the outside world being two of the most prized resources in the camp, the minister’s agreement with Thai security forces and his relationships with foreign religious organizations provide a great asset to the Christian Karen who are able to study at the college. The school’s permanent teachers from India and the steady stream of visitors from Europe, Canada, the United States, and Asia give the students a chance to practice their English—an extremely valuable resource for those hoping to further their education and develop links beyond the camp—and allow them to transcend, even if minimally, their isolation from the outside world. My translator Hsta Klo had achieved his own English skills through religious studies at a mission school not far from the refugee camp.

Seeing the opportunities available in the Bible school, I wondered whether the education policies of the Thai authorities and the obvious support of foreign missionaries might encourageothers in the camp to convert to Christianity and leave behind their own cultural practices. In Mae La camp, the Christian Karen community is especially well organized, and their political power within the Karen National Union has enabled them to infuse their ideology into Karen institutions responsible for education and camp affairs. Tun Tun, a local teacher who also organizes a summer course in Pwo Karen language and culture, told me about the many economic, social, and political barriers for non-Christians to establish Buddhist schools or improve literacy in languages other than the Sgaw Karen dialect, which most Christians speak. Not only is it more difficult for Buddhists and linguistic minorities to find funding for their schools, but powerful lobbies within the Christian Karen community have actively tried to block such schools from being formed in the first place. Clearly, NGOs working with indigenous refugees need to be ethnographically informed so they don’t contribute to conditions in which people have to abandon their cultural identity to gain access to scarce resources.

After a nap, we left the Bible school to walk around the camp and meet with community elders, teachers, and young people working on cultural issues. With most of this community having been displaced for years, they have done everything possible to make the camp look and feel more like home. Except for the numerous Thai army checkpoints and the barbed wire fence that forbids entrance, the settlement might appear from the road as a massive, overpopulated, hill-tribe village. The muddy paths are landscaped with jungle plants and flowers, the bamboo houses are not unlike those found in neighboring villages, and they have set aside a large area as a football field and reserved spaces for churches, mosques, temples, and monasteries. Then there is the music, which one hears everywhere: teens playing the guitar and singing songs about love, God, and revolution; church choirs waking the guests of the Baptist Bible School with their early morning praises; Buddhist monks chanting prayers in monasteries; and every so often the calming melodies of the Karen harp, t’nah, wrapping its voice around the sound of falling rain. Underneath the leaf-thatched roofs of their homes, women and their daughters weave the brightly colored bags that are carried by almost everyone in the camp, while elder men and women with red and black stained teeth sit nearby, chewing betel nut in the corner.

On our way to meet a respected elder in the camp’s Buddhist community, we crossed a small bridge, dodging young children running home in their traditional Karen shirts—the required school uniform on Wednesdays—and passed through a large market run primarily by the camp’s Muslim community. It is so well supplied that many Thai-Karen come from nearby villages to do their shopping in the camp. A short distance from the market we arrived at the house of Sein Tin Aye, the Buddhist leader. As we climbed the steps of his home and kicked off our muddy flip-flops at the door, he greeted us wearing a long fluorescent-pink sarong and white button-down shirt. His home was constructed as a temple, marked by a 20-foot-long altar decorated with colorful plastic tassels, Buddhist symbols, posters of monks, and vases of jungle plants and flowers.

Sein Tin Aye originally left his home in the Pa’an district of Burma for the border region in the early 1980s, in order to serve the Karen revolution using his medical skills. He is not your typical doctor, but rather a traditional healer who used his knowledge and spiritual power to help the soldiers suffering from snakebites, malaria, and other injuries and ailments faced by those fighting in the dense jungle. In an interview with the Burmese Border Consortium he laid down his philosophy as a healer: “You must be disciplined and clean in every part of living, in your mind and your body. You can never allow bad thoughts; you must always control your character and be clean.” After the Burmese army became aware of his work on the border, he was forced to come to Thailand, where he has lived for more than 16 years as a refugee, passing on his spiritual knowledge.

In addition to his role as a spiritual elder, Sain Tin Aye trains young people to play traditional Karen music, both independently and with his ensemble, the Golden Pestle. Recently he has also been working as a teacher for a traditional music project initiated by the Shanti Volunteer Organization, a Japanese NGO.

Treating us to sweet instant coffee and strong Karen cigars (cheroots), our host shared his story and his insights into the way his culture is influenced by the conflict and displacement. He brought out a book published inside Burma by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen political and military movement that split from the main Karen National Union and now cooperates with the Burmese military in exchange for self-governance in the areas they control. The book was an effort to create a new writing script that would be mutually intelligible by both Sgaw- and Pwo-speaking Karen. But neither Sain Tin Aye nor my translator could understand the new writing, though they were literate in the Pwo, Sgaw, and Leit San Weit scripts.

Sein Tin Aye recognized the original aim of the endeavor as a way to unite Sgaw and Pwo Karen in a time of conflict and disunity, but he felt that the actual effect would be further divisions between Karen peoples. While people who live in DKBA-controlled territory inside Burma might learn this new script, those in refugee camps and educated in the Karen Education Department’s camp schools (supported by the primarily Christian Karen National Union) would learn only the older Burmese-adapted script for the Sgaw dialect. He feared that if the DKBA project succeeded, over time the two Karen communities might no longer be able to communicate with each other in writing. It is one of many ways in which language, history, and other forms of cultural heritage are co-opted in political crisis as groups try to define their national ethnic identity or assert a political movement’s legitimacy.

Refugees themselves also construct various accounts of the histories and origins of the Karen people as they seek to know where they are from and strengthen claims to the land from which they have been displaced. A week earlier in another refugee camp, Umphiem Mai, I met with Moo Thaw Khee, a member of the Karen Cultural Committee, who is working to create a museum of Karen culture and history inside the Umphiem camp. He spread out his map of the world to teach me about the “Origins of the Karen People,” a version he discovered during his time in the camps, surely under the influence of missionaries. After making some simple calculations, he explained that the Karen people had first lived in the Himalaya Mountains, then left for Mt. Ararat in Turkey during the Great Flood before settling in Babylon for many years. Later, they returned to the Gobi Desert and eventually followed the Salween River to their present lands in Burma and Thailand. Neither of the two Buddhist Karen translators I was with had heard this version of their history and I was not so sure they believed it. While this story of the Karen’s origins may not have anything to do with reality in a factual sense, it demonstrates the needs of displaced people to search for their roots.

Later in the afternoon, Sein Tin Aye’s students and members of his music ensemble, the Golden Pestle, arrived: Two young girls, Eh Khee and Paw Klay, who sing and play the traditional Karen harp (t’nah); Eh Thoo, with his Karen violin (thaw tu); and Thai Thaw Khee, a young man who plays a modern mandolin as well as the t’nah. Following Sein Tin Aye’s direction, they picked up their instruments one by one to demonstrate their skills. The group played both traditional love songs and some of their teacher’s original compositions, which the group planned to present during an upcoming performance competition at the yearly wrist-tying festival, Lah Khu (see the accompanying photo essay). The songs performed by Sain Tin Aye and his group, while using traditional Karen melodies and instrumentation, are heavily influenced by the context of displacement. New songs speak directly about the issues and emotions of refugee life, and older folk stories are re-interpreted to find continuity and meaning in the current crisis. Many of Sein Tin Aye’s compositions speak to the Karen community about the importance of unity and keeping their traditions alive.

While singing, they each held a similar posture: With their spines straight and their spirits internally composed, they stared with a subtle passion, humble and hopeful, upwards and out into the distance.

After all his students had their turn, Sein Tin Aye picked up his k’nat (Karen mandolin) and plucked, slowly and softly, a tune about separation and loss that reminded me of the sweet sadness of an old bluegrass love song. As the evening set in, Htsa Klo and I left Sein Tin Aye’s home after agreeing to return the next day to record a CD for the Golden Pestle that they could give to other foreign visitors and the camp radio station. Passing back over the bridge, where women were washing clothes and bathing their children in the river below, we approached the Bible school and shared our day with the students and our host. We were surprised when Reverend Simon said that due to security we were not allowed to cross the bridge and visit other people and places in the camp. He added, however, that we were more than welcome to spend some days with the students at the Bible school. Not wanting to break our promise to the Golden Pestle nor disobey the reverend, we decided to leave the school that evening and sleep at the home of Sein Tin Aye’s neighbor.

As I fell asleep that night thinking about the next morning’s recording session, I heard Sein Tin Aye’s poignant song again in my mind, a song that seemed to capture perfectly the Karen’s longing for home:

At the end of the road everything is gone.
Many trees and many branches, it is not the same country.
Many new things appear, black and red.

In the foreign lands, by the riverside in the bush,
We sit down together, I hold your hand,
I hold it tight, friendly and tempted.
We must part to foreign lands.

Greg Scarborough is the director of Cultural Cornerstones and is currently a visiting scholar at the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University in Boston. He can be reached at gregoryscarborough@gmail.com. The music of Sein Tin Aye’s group, the Golden Pestle, can be heard at www.culturalcornerstones.org

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