Friday, November 9, 2012

Burma's amazing ethnic Karen people

Wisdom Quarterly; Harry Ignatius Marshall, "The Karen People of Burma: A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology" (a Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook, No.: 0800061h.html)

From Scandinavia to Southeast Asia with love: working with the Karen on the Burma-Thailand border. "I am very fortunate to work with these fantastic people!" (Line Ramstad)

Page: Meet Burma's dictator.
We are American Buddhists. We love Burma and ALL the people of Burma, a fraction of which is not Buddhist. Some of the loveliest are the Karen. We are American Buddhists. We do not stand idly by while Dictator Than Shwe and his military regime run the country into the ground then sell it out to the highest bidder (which used to be a Chinese relative of Gen. Shwe but is now US Sec'y of State Hillary Clinton). Burma's monastic-led Saffron Revolution was against this criminal military regime. Revolutions, however, started long before and continue to be waged by ethnic minority rebels fighting for their lives and separate identities, like the desperate Rohingya.
The gorgeous, animist Karen (phototravelasia)
MOUNTAINS OF BURMA - To many a visitor to Burma, who views the country from the deck of an Irrawaddy River streamer or from the window of a railway carriage, there appears to be little difference between [Sino-Tibetan speaking ethnic Burmese tribes] THE KAREN and the Burman.

This is not strange, for many individuals of the non-Burman tribes wear the Burmese costume and speak the Burmese language, and they present no markedly different characteristics in feature or color of skin.

I have often heard the remark that "there is no difference between the Burman and the Karen." It is doubtless because the Government of Burma recognizes that there is a difference in the tribal characteristics, customs, and religion that it has adopted the wise policy of publishing a series of complete studies, of which this purports to be one, of these various peoples.
    Karen in the mountain jungle (
    If the reader will have the patience to read these pages, it is hoped that he will realize that, though the Karen have lived for generations in the closest proximity to the Burmese, they preserve their own racial traits, which are quite distinct from those of their more volatile neighbors with whom they have had little in common.
    This work deals more particularly with the Sgaw branch of the Karen people. My own experience has been more intimate with this tribe, though I have known many of the other groups. This circumstance, together with the fact that the Bwe and Taungthu peoples have already been described in the Upper Burma Gazetteer...

    Rebels in Burma (
    In the earlier days among the Karen of the hills the "blaw" was an important feature of village life....It is the guest and club-room reserved in the central part of the village-house. Strangers coming in for a visit or passing by on their journey are entertained here. Such a convenience was quite necessary in the days when the taboo of the "Bgha" feast was strictly observed and no outsider was allowed to enter the family-rooms.

    My party and I have been entertained in the "blaw" of villages in the Pegu Hills on the Tharrawaddy side, while on tour.

    Gautama Buddha (N.A./
    In one village, which had adopted some Buddhist practices, along one side of the guest-room extended a high shelf upon which stood a small image of Gautama Buddha, with the usual offerings of paper flage and wilted leaves and flowers.

    At the back of the room was the raised dais on which I spread my bed, but I was prevented from enjoying a good night's rest by the number of other occupants. My cook prepared my meals at the little fireplace in the middle of the room. The villagers sat about and visited with us. When meal-time came the women and girls brought in their generous supplies of food, consisting of two large trays piled high with snow-white steaming rice, besides smaller trays and bowls filled with several kinds of curry, "ngape" water, and vegetables.

    The visitors were expected to eat something from every dish. While the meal was in progress the hosts withdrew, except one or two elders, the women returning afterwards to clear away the dishes and uneaten food with the polite remark that their guests had eaten very little. Many shared in receiving us, and we were spared the embarrassment, not to say the danger according to our belief, of violating the taboo that prevented our being entertained at the time by family in their own quarters.

    Burmese migrant worker rallies in Thailand holding up a sign that reads: "Mother Aung San Suu Kyi, Be Happy," May 31, 2012 (Wason Wanichakorn/AP/In Focus/

    Besides serving as a guest-chamber, the "blaw" has another important use, namely, as the gathering-place for the young men of the village. When a boy becomes a youth ("hpo tha hkwa taw"), he is expected to spend his leisure time in his parents' room, working and eating with them, as seems to be the custom. When evening comes, he repairs to the "blaw" to be with his fellows and to sleep there.

    This is a custom that is common among the Kachins of Burma and many other tribes of the Orient. Among the Kachins the "blaw" is a place of license.
    The Brecs also allow a great deal of liberty to their young people, and evidently advantage of it is taken by them. But among the Sgaw Karens, at any rate, the girls remain with their mothers. There is no common room for the girls, or any place where both youths and maidens may meet for restrained intercourse.
    No doubt among the Karen the use of the "blaw" as a club-room is for the purpose of keeping the young men together and separating them from the young women, thus preventing offense of the "by na," which would bring a curse upon the soil and damage to the crops.

    It has never been possible for parents to prevent all social intercourse between young people of the opposite sexes. In fact, it has hardly ever been attempted.

    As is shown elsewhere in this volume, there are occasions among the Karen when the sexes mingle, for example on fishing expeditions and at marriages, funerals, etc. If, however, a youth desires to visit a maiden, etiquette prescribes the way: he must take his harp ("t' na"), appear before her house, and serenade her. Sitting down, he sings to the accompaniment of his instrument.

    If she replies to his request to be permitted to visit with her, she does so on the jew's-harp ("t' xe"), answering him in verse. He then mounts the ladder and they visit together, either singing over "htas" already familiar to them or, if skilled in improvising, putting their own thoughts into rhyme. If too long an interval should elapse without the sound of either instrument, the elders would very likely put in an appearance to find out the reason.

    Love runs in two directions (Line Ramstad)
    The precept on indolence is full of moralizing. It condemns laziness and enjoins hard work in order to obtain paddy [raw rice]. It teaches the people to do their work with cheerfulness and gladness, as also thoroughly and well. "We love happiness," says the precept, "and our greatest happiness is to clear our fields and build our houses.
    Everything is in the earth. Work hard with the hoe to dig it out, and one can buy drums and silver and other things. It is better to work for wealth than to obtain it by raids and forays." This saying overlooks neither the spiritual nor material reward of labor.

    The precept on helping the poor, as well as those on fornication and adultery, contain references to famine, indicating that periods of extreme dearth of food must have been of frequent occurrence among the Karen. Fornication and adultery are dreadful sins because, among other reasons, they produce bad crops and scarcity of game. In times of famine the rich should help the poor...

    Karen flee gunfire, mortars (
    The presence of certain birth-marks on the children of Mongolian parents has been thought by some scientists to be an important criterion for distinguishing members of that race.[3-3] The Karen infants certainly have these blue patches on the back and buttocks. Sometimes they are so indistinct as to be hardly noticeable... The Karen explanation for them is that they are the stains of leaves, on which the spirits of the children sat or laid down to rest in the course of their long and wearisome journey from their former abode.
    These marks are thought to show that the children having them will be strong, and mothers are glad to see them on their offspring. Perhaps they reason that if the baby spirit was able to stand the long journey necessary to come to the birth, it will endure the longer journey of this human existence.

    I have noticed a few cases of homosexuals among the Karen, though they do not seem to be as common as among the Burmese. These individuals, who assume more or less the dress and customs of the [other] sexes, have been known to contract unions with the same sex to live as husband and wife. The cases I found have all been on the plains. More

    Felicity Huffman gives voice to the "Burma: It Can't Wait" campaign

    No comments: