Justine Chambers reviews the third of four panels from a recent Oxford workshop on the Karen.
As anyone who has spent time researching the lives of Karen people knows, migration has long been a part of their historical imagination and lived experience. According to legends told to me during my fieldwork by the grandmothers and grandfathers of the Kwaegabon Plong Karen region (Hpa-an district), Karen people found themselves in the fertile lands of the Salween basin after being chased south over many centuries by various Chinese rulers. These stories of movement can also be found in the contemporary experience of the Karen, where the Dawna Mountain Range between Thailand and Myanmar has become indented with the footprints of people fleeing conflict and seeking employment. Related experiences were discussed by Father Vinai Boonlue, Alexander Horstmann and Indrė Balčaitė on a panel titled “Migration, Conflict and the Borderland” at the recent Karen workshop hosted by St Antony’s College, Oxford. In this wide-ranging and insightful discussion, each of these scholars spoke to the many issues associated with Karen migration, but highlighted the importance of community networks and the resilience of Karen people in the face of hardship and suffering.
Over the last six decades, the movement of Karen peoples outward has come to be closely associated with one of the world’s most enduring civil conflicts between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the state military, the Tatmadaw. In this panel discussion, Father Vinai’s presentation explored the suffering and injustices felt by communities directly impacted by this conflict and the resilience of Karen people in seeking out a life. Through his vast experience of quite literally walking with the Karen back and forth across the Thailand-Myanmar border, Father Vinai highlighted the artificial nature of borders and the state – a state which for many people, as he notes, has only served to inflict violence and hardship on its citizens.
Father Vinai also emphasised the strength of the Karen people in their “suffering together” and the importance of religion and community in providing a sense of emplacement and home-making. This reminded me of what Al-Mohammad and Peluso identify as an “ethics of the rough ground”, where identity is conceived in relation to everyday violence, where “lives come together in complex ways and in which care, neglect and violence, ravel and unravel the entanglings of lives with others” (2012: 45). Father Vinai’s work also helps to remind us that as scholars, we must move beyond grand narratives of suffering and violence to help articulate the humanity of Karen people – the small gestures, moments of kindness, care and generosity, as the very grounds through which Karen people have been able to survive and live through the terror and uncertainty of the last six decades.
Part of this question of survival and the importance of community amongst the Karen was picked up by Alexander Horstmann. Based on over ten years of research amongst Karen refugee and migrant communities, Horstmann spoke about the strength and resilience of the Karen people in mobilising themselves and their cause in the international humanitarian sphere. Interested in what he calls the “humanitarian economy”, Horstmann’s presentation described the importance of faith-based networks and the unique role they have played in the provision of healthcare and grassroots education for Karen communities in both refugee camps and in Karen state itself (see also Horstmann 2011, 2014). As he noted, amongst the Karen, “faith and faith-based networks have been essential for networking, hope and supporting livelihoods.”
Similar themes also emerged in the work of Indrė Balčaitė, whose research has followed the networks of Karen migrant workers from the capital Hpa-an and its surrounding villages to Bangkok, in Thailand. As Balčaitė articulated, for a long time Thailand has offered the only economic lifeline for many families in Karen state and connections across the frontier are deeply embedded in the social fabric of most Karen families. One can see evidence of this long-standing relationship in a cursory glance when spending time in Hpa-an – in the Thai restaurants that are found in most villages and the size and grandeur of some houses of families that have returned after spending many years saving funds for their retirement.
In this presentation, Balčaitė documented the individual stories of women who have navigated the migrant route and life, working in jobs designated as dangerous, dirty and demeaning. Balčaitė emphasized that the decision to migrate is often complex and emerges only in the telling of individual life stories and narratives born from mobile people being connected to a broad kinship based network. Unlike much of the research on migrant labourers in Thailand which focus on human rights abuses and state-violence, Balčaitė instead highlighted the strength of these women and the importance of their income to the Karen family economic unit. Where mobility once used to be a male prerogative in Karen communities, Balčaitė further demonstrated that while creating new roles and obligations for Karen women, migration has enhanced their status and independence in their home communities.
In the Q&A, participants raised the question of identity and whether the migration experience has helped to forge new ties between different groups, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The panellists noted that even though certain boundaries remain amongst migrant and refugee communities, a more cosmopolitan identity is emerging amongst the Karen and the connections between ethnicity and conflict should no longer be considered inevitable. Indeed, there is no doubt that powerful external forces of change that sit outside the narratives of conflict and war have increasingly impacted and moulded the lives and life choices of Karen people.
Stories and tales of movement and connectivity amongst the Karen have ebbed and flowed over time in response to political and social changes, creating a fluid and ever-changing lived experience of being. Over the last three decades, this has naturally turned those few scholars who have worked on the Karen towards tracing the flows and movement of people, goods and ideas across the border to Thailand. The opening up of Karen State to long term research, enables us to reconsider some of the taken for granted categories of the Karen against the background of a constant flow of peoples, goods, ideas and systems. Where radical transformations are taking place in Myanmar and altering the course of Karen people’s lives, it is through long-term research that we can gain a privileged vantage point into the linkages between identity, society and culture. And yet, while the socio-political changes in Myanmar since 2012 are significant, these transnational connections are likely to remain an important part of the Karen story for many decades to come.
Justine Chambers is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the Australian National University. She is also the Associate Director of ANU’s Myanmar Research Centre and holds an MA in Development Studies. Her research focuses on understandings of morality and goodness in the post-conflict landscape of Karen state, getting to grips with how the significant social, political and economic changes of the last five years are impacting the lives of people both young and old.