A Conversation with Mikael Gravers: Research among the Karen, Past and Present [Part 1]

Pia Jolliffe interviews anthropologist Mikael Gravers.

This week on Tea Circle, we’re pleased to feature a two-part 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 Song?

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 organisation, 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 licence 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.

[Continue to Part 2]

Author: Pia Jolliffe

Dr Pia Jolliffe is a Research Scholar at the Las Casas Institute, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. She holds a DPhil in International Development (Univ of Oxford) and a MPhil in Japanese Studies (Univ of Vienna) Her book Learning, Migration and Intergenerational Relations. The Karen and the Gift of Education (Palgrave Macmillan) analyses the role of education in the lives of the Karen people in Myanmar, Thailand and the UK.