A Conversation with Mikael Gravers: Research among the Karen, Past and Present [Part 2]

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”.

[Continued from Part 1]

For your fieldwork— you started in 1970, in Thailand? In Sangkhlaburi, you learned the whole Karen language, and then you spent two years there, and then on-and-off as you continued your fieldwork in the same area— in Lamphun?

Yes, first in Uthaithani province among Pwo Karen in the hills. Almost two years, and they are Buddhist. Then, I spent time at Chiang Mai, the Mae Chaem area, just near the top of the Doi Inthanon mountain. That was a Baptist Sgaw Karen village— they converted from Animism in the 1980s. And then in Lamphun in Wat Phrabat Huai Tom, which was a very interesting place really, because this has inspired the famous Thamanya Sayadaw and U Thuzana in Karen state. The monk in Huai Tom, Kruba Wong died in 2003. His body is kept in a glass coffin in the monastery. He is one of several monks who— how can I say it— are strict vegetarians. He lived among Karen and he spoke Karen, so the Karen actually consider him as a Karen. 17,000 Karen live in the monastic settlement and have contacts in the Karen State [see Paul Cohen (ed.) 2017, Charismatic Monks of Lanna Buddhism].

So he helped the Karen from Burma?

No, no, from Northern Thailand. But there was also a monk from the Karen state who joined him at one point. His name is Chao La’ and he died in the late 70s. He was a very controversial figure—the Thai military thought he was a communist. But these monks, they went to the poor hill Karen and invited them to stop the sacrifice for the spirits. This was almost at the same time as the Catholic mission came to the area where I had been. This was a very significant point in Thai history, because the Thai prime minister was really powerful at the time and the army was very anxious to prevent communists from gaining a foothold among the Karen. On the other hand, the Karen were quite frustrated, because of new roads made into their areas and the confiscation of land for national parks, and a lot of other economic, social and political pressures. So, these monks here, they told the poor Karen, “You should join us, you have to quit sacrificing, become vegetarians and convert to Buddhism’. And then, Khruba Wong invited several villagers to come and settle in Huai Tom, Lamphun. The first group who came down, they had a very hard time, because the soil was very poor.  Many got malaria, and local Thais opposed their settlement. This was in 1969-70, at the same time as I was living in Uthaithani.

And at that time, there were not yet refugees from Burma in Thailand? That only started in the 1980s, right? The camps at the border?

Yes, the first groups to come started in 1983 or 1984, but I mean there were refugees along the border who came as early as 1950-52. Saw Tha Din, his family came in 1949. And actually the people I studied— in the group I was living among in Uthaithani— they were refugees from 1780-1800, after the Burman conquest of the Mon kingdom.

And did they consider themselves as displaced persons, or did they integrate themselves over the generations into this western Thai Karen society?

They were not very integrated in Thai society. They spoke only a little Thai.

Really?  After all these decades and centuries?

Yes, the first story they presented to me was about their exodus from Burma (known as Ba Yaung Khaung in Pwo Karen) and they told the story like this: They sent a messenger to the Thai king and he agreed that they could settle in the mountains because they were slash-and-burn farmers … and we know from historical records that they acted as border guards, as spies. They were not in the Thai army when the Burmese invaded, but some were border guards and fought the Burmese. One particularly famous one was Pha Wau, who served the Siamese king. There is a statue of him and shrine on the road to Mae Sot in the mountains.

Did they ever obtain Thai citizenship?

They have citizenship, yes. But they belong to one of these many Millenarian Karen sects called Phloung Lu Baung, the “Yellow String Pwo.” They have a yellow string tied around their wrists, as a symbol of being ‘pure Buddhist Karen,’ waiting for the next Buddha. I would say they are Buddhist, but they are not recognised as real Buddhists in Thailand. In Thailand they are called Ruesi followers, that is, followers of ‘hermits’ (yathey). Their religious leaders are dressed in white. However, they also have monks and monasteries. But they believe the monks’ teaching will decline, as the Buddha prophesised.

And in all your years of fieldwork, have you observed how the Karen in Thailand relate to the Karen in Burma in different ways?

Yes, because the Lu Baung used to visit Burma and visit monasteries where they learned the Mon alphabet. They went to monasteries, they became monks, they returned to the monasteries on the Thai side, but they never really engaged in this struggle for Karen independence in Burma. I have not met any Thai Karens who joined the KNU army– they were interested in the struggle, but they didn’t join or support it.

And why do you think? It’s interesting that this was happening. Why was it that the Karen in Thailand actually never joined the Karen in Burma and found a shared Karen identity to actually have a state together? Why did that never happen, in your opinion?

Well I’m not sure I can give a full answer to this, but you know, one thing is to have something in common and to have a shared identity, but another thing is a shared political project. As it was inside Burma, fighting the Burmese army, they were very much afraid also that they would be punished and couldn’t return to Thailand. I mean, armed struggle is not… it’s a very hard thing for Karens to start. They prefer peace to struggle and conflicts, so I think they are not really happy to fight. They felt suppressed by the Thai in the 1960s and1970s, and when the communists tried to recruit Karen, they only managed to recruit a small group in 1973-74 in Tak province and a few persons in Uthaithani, but it dawned on the Karen that they were actually then fighting some of their own people, which was very bad. Karen killed Karen, I think they don’t really like this kind of a situation, where they are not in control of what’s going on. I met some of these persons who joined the communists and— it’s very funny— one guy was still wearing the cap with the red star, looking like Mao. But very few became communists. They were angry at the Thai incursion on their communities. The Thais really looked down on them and discriminated against them and bullied them – as I have seen.

You mentioned that you’re preparing for your retirement?

I retired the 1st of January, actually.

So now you’re freshly retired. What are your plans for your retirement?

Well, this year I’m still working on a Burma project (“Everyday Justice & Security”) and in January I’m going to the Karen state to do fieldwork, and I may also go in January 2018, if I can manage. This project will finish in 2018 and the plan is I have to publish from the project. I am also writing a monograph on my many encounters with the Karen, their culture, religion and struggles.

What can you say about the differences between doing fieldwork in the 1970s and today?

When I retired, it dawned on me after the recent fieldwork, travelling in a car and bringing a lot of medicines and a computer…I first came to the Karen area in 1970 in a bus, and then I had to walk for 6 hours uphill. And my friends, they came out to another area with a boat, and between our two villages were 3 days through the jungle. I tried this tour one time and then I had a small bamboo house constructed, 3×7 meters. I had all kinds of animals coming in and out— snakes and rats and Palm rats—  there were still tigers, barking dear, and other wildlife. Then, I stayed with the village headman’s family. He was actually the first teacher in the area. And there were about 10 villages in this community of about 1000 (Pwo Karen), so I walked between these villages and dressed in a longyi, and I had a sleeping bag and a small portable type writer. I had a box of small pieces of paper for my language study— writing in the Baptist Pwo Karen script from Burma, and then translating into Danish!

Do you still have these field notes?

Yes. And I’m preparing to organize them for our research archive at Moesgaard Museum (Aarhus University), but I still need them for writing the book. I brought home a large collection of ethnographic items for the Museum, as well as 6000 photos and tapes with prayers, music, and poetry. Let me show you one…this is poetry. This is translated by an assistant, actually a student from Burma, a refugee, who now lives in Ratchaburi. But my own handwriting is not so beautiful. And my dictionary – this is my own, hand written dictionary in Pwo Karen. I speak Karen like a foreigner who has learnt some of the language, especially some of the religious language. But when I come to Burma and speak (Pwo Karen) they use a lot of Burmese words, for example, for school or monastery, but I learnt the Thai words— so this is a huge problem when I am in Burma now. If it’s about religion and you don’t need any modern words, then it’s ok. But as soon as you discuss modern times— politics for example— it’s very hard for me, so I need assistants, translators. However, it is improving. I could even speak Pwo with the Karen Muslims in Karen State.

All the material I have collected will be organized in the archive and available for future scholars – and I hope that includes Karen scholars.

So I was living there for almost 2 years and eating with my fingers. Have you tried that?

Yes, I always ate with my hands.

And then I brought some medicine and gave it away at first, but then my mentor said to me, why not take just one Baht each time (to re-supply)— so my small house was a kind of clinic.

So what kind of medicine did you bring?

For myself, I had malaria medicine. I got malaria.

And was it treated?

In Denmark, when I came back from to Burma. I also got amoebic dysentery, because there was an epidemic. But otherwise, it was very nice— sometimes exciting—and people were so kind. I have been re-visiting this place many times—  first I was ‘nephew’ or ‘cousin’, then ‘uncle’ now I am ‘grandfather’ –  a higher status than I have in Denmark!

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.