Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Karen Ethno-Nationalism and the Wrist-Tying Ceremony along the Thai-Burmese Border

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Karen Ethno-Nationalism and the Wrist-Tying Ceremony along the Thai-Burmese Border

Article excerpt


Several social anthropologists have questioned Karen identity and Karen ethno-nationalism. The constructivist argument is that the category of 'Karen' is itself an external invention of the modern world. Ananda Rajah characterised Karen identity as a case of invented tradition and the Karen nation-state as an imagined political community. (1) In a subsequent article, Rajah argued further that the emergence of the Karen nationalist movement along the Thai-Burmese border was fostered by Christian missions and academic attempts to set up a Karen ethno-history. (2) Charles Keyes similarly noted that the label 'Karen' was a product of Christian missionisation, colonial and postcolonial ethnographic research, as well as state policy on ethnic minorities. (3) In other words, 'Karen-ness' is a historical product of 'modernity'.

Should notions of an invented tradition and a sense of 'de novo creation, falsity and fabrication', (4) be applied broadly to understanding Karen culture, however? Along the Thai-Burmese border, several Karen practices appear to be substantially influenced by ethno-nationalism; this is especially true of the August wrist-tying ceremony. The annual ritual attracts large numbers of Karen who have fled their war-torn homeland inside Burma and live along the border. Yet the event seems to engender a Karen fascination with their own tradition and culture. As Karen F. Olwig and Kirsten Hastrup write: '[w]hile anthropologists are preoccupied with de-essentialising the concept of culture and deconstructing the notion of bounded, localised cultural wholes, many of the very people we study are deeply involved in constructing cultural contexts which bear many resemblances to such cultural entities.' (5) How should anthropologists understand the great Karen enthusiasm for such seemingly invented cultural activities?

I argue that the practice manifests itself as an aspect of border culture in which ethno-nationalism and the everyday practices of the Karen coalesce. The vernacular element of the wrist-tying ceremony has never been unmediated, given that it was adapted from indigenous ideas of soul-body relations. Hence, this symbol of Karen nationalism has become a significant part of the cultural complex of Karen living along the border--either as refugees or as migrants.

This article is part of the output from fourteen months of fieldwork in Mae Sot valley, a northwestern area of the Thai-Burmese border. I collected data among the estimated fifty to a hundred thousand self-settled Karen refugees in the area. The material in this article is mainly derived from participatory observation during a Karen wrist-tying ceremony in Sawtika village, as well as data from semi-structured interviews with some ceremonial participants and community leaders.

Karen wrist-tying rites

Wrist-tying is widely practised among different ethnic groups in mainland Southeast Asia. It is primarily associated with the notion of a soul (or spiritual essence) belonging to individual human beings. In a study on northeastern Thailand, Stanley J. Tambiah explained that 'khwan (or soul in Thai) resides in the human body; it is attached to the body and yet can leave it.... The very act of its fleeing the body in turn exposes the owner to suffering, illness and misfortune'. (6) The well-being of individuals thus depends on the coherence of their soul-body components. The rite of calling the wandering khwan to return to the body and tying it to its owner is an effective way of remedying discomfort and diverse problems.

In general, the wrist-tying rite aims to strengthen individual well-being at various stages of life or at times when a person is exposed to risk. Cotton threads encircling wrists have subtly nuanced meanings across mainland Southeast Asia. In northern and northeastern Thailand wrist-tying (thamkhwan, in Thai) is used in rites of passage such as marriage and ordination, in rites of reintegration after the return from a long trip or recovery from illness, and in rites for healing a prolonged illness or for dispelling bad luck. …

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