Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Buddhism and Christianity in Competition? Religious and Ethnic Identity in Karen Communities of Northern Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Buddhism and Christianity in Competition? Religious and Ethnic Identity in Karen Communities of Northern Thailand

Article excerpt


'Which religion do you think is the best?' During fieldwork in Karen villages, it is not uncommon to be asked questions like this. Karen take religion quite seriously, though not in a fanatical way. In a world of increasing ethnic and religious conflicts, studying the interrelationship between ethnic identity and religious identity within a single group consisting of different religions has some relevance. For example, how are religious and ethnic identities combined? Does religion have any significant influence on economic activities? Do conflicts or harmony usually prevail between followers of different religions? Is religion primarily a marker of identity vis-a-vis the outside world or is it meaningful within Karen society as well?

The term 'Karen' denotes several different but related ethnic groups speaking languages belonging to a distinct branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. The Sgaw and Pwo, numbering 350,000 of a total of 750,000 members of the hill tribe population of Northern Thailand, are the two main Karen groups in that country. Other subgroups include the Kayah, Palaung and Taungthu (Pa-O), but only a few thousand are living in Thailand. Estimates of the number of Karen in Burma vary from 2.5 to 4.5 million. (1) The research for this article, conducted over a total of twelve months between 1999 and 2001, was limited to Sgaw-Karen in the Thai province of Mae Hong Son and the districts of Mae Chaem and Mae Wang in Chiang Mai Province. Some villages are exclusively composed of Christians and others of Buddhists while still others have a mixture of the two religions. (2)

It remains unclear whether Karen migration to present-day Thailand occurred prior to the eighteenth century. (3) The main settlement areas are the provinces of Mae Hong Son and Tak along the Burmese border and the western part of Chiang Mai Province. The traditional Karen economy is based on subsistence dry-rice farming, but in the early twentieth century the Karen adopted wet-rice cultivation from their Thai neighbours. In contrast to Karen living in Burma, those in Thailand have never had centralised political institutions, and their villages constitute autonomous units. The traditional leader, whose power is limited, is called hi kho (village priest); he has a ritual relationship to the Lord of the Water and the Land (Thi K'cha Gaw K'cha) who protects the village. (4)

The Karen are one of the biggest Christian groups in Thailand; around 20-30 per cent of the Sgaw-Karen are Christians. The main group are Baptists, called Ble thi poh (Chri poh, Ba yoa poh). The second largest group, the Catholics (Pghi thi poh), number around 20,000 members while other Protestant denominations such as Seventh-Day Adventists, Methodists and Presbyterians are less prominent. (5) The number of Pentecostals, currently a small minority, seems to be increasing; quite a few Baptists attend both churches, or change to become Pentecostals. (6) Other Fundamentalist groups like the Church of Christ Mission are present but have had less impact so far.

The majority of Sgaw-Karen are Buddhists. Animists (Traditionalists) are officially subsumed under the 'Buddhist' category; therefore no accurate number is available specifically for that group. The Tribal Research Institute stated that Animists accounted for 16 per cent of the Karen population in 1989, whereas the figure in 1983 was still 42.9 per cent; in recent times, the figure has been much lower. (7) The core of Animism (believers are called mo lu pa la or aw cha) is ancestor worship (aw cha). The main ancestor ritual is in decline because of its complexity and the numerous taboos. It should be performed at least once a year and must also be held in case of serious sickness. All family members in matrilineal order have to stay together for at least three days, and no-one except family members is allowed to enter the house during this time; even the wife and children of the household's married sons are excluded. …

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