Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Towards a Moral Understanding of Karen State's Paradoxical Buddhist Strongmen

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Towards a Moral Understanding of Karen State's Paradoxical Buddhist Strongmen

Article excerpt

A long-running ethno-nationalist conflict has deeply affected life in Karen State, Myanmar. Soon after the country achieved independence from the British in 1948, Karen nationalists commenced an armed struggle against the state for the independent homeland of Kawthoolei (Smith 1999 and 2003; South 2011; Thawnghmung 2008 and 2012). The civilian population of Karen State faced decades of instability and egregious human rights violations under brutal military campaigns, which resulted in mass displacement and large flows of refugees to Thailand and further afield (Decha Tangseefa 2006 and 2007; Delang 2000; Lang 2002). International attention and scholarship has focused on the role of the military and the suffering this war has inflicted on people living in Karen State (Fink 2001; Lang 2002; Rogers 2004). The long-running conflict has also produced a strong normative narrative around the legitimacy of the ethno-nationalist organization the Karen National Union (KNU) and its struggle for ethnic political and economic autonomy (Brenner 2017; Decobert 2016; Gravers 1996; Harriden 2002; Rajah 2002; Thawnghmung 2008). In contrast, an offshoot of the KNU, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which signed a ceasefire with Myanmar's military government in December 1994, has been positioned as an extractive and violent organization that betrayed the Karen cause (Smith 2003; South 2007 and 2011). However, as a result of limited access for research in DKBA-controlled areas, there has been insignificant attention paid to how this rebel group and its armed commanders are understood and perceived by Karen people themselves.

In an effort to reach a deeper understanding of the DKBA as an institution and its commanders, this article explores the life of one powerful Plong (Pwo) Karen ex-combatant and the various sociocultural understandings of morality connected to his status within one community in Hpa-an district, Karen State. (1) This is based on eighteen months of fieldwork in Hpa-an district in 2015-18, where I conducted ethnographic research exploring Buddhist Plong Karen people's understandings of morality and ethics (see Chambers 2018). As a result of the DKBA's (now part of the Border Guard Force, BGF) power in Hpa-an district, I also examined its armed commanders and how they are configured according to Plong Karen social ethics. (2) Throughout my research I used a combination of conversational Burmese, eastern Plong Karen and English, and sometimes a mixture of all three. Hpa-an is a dynamic multilingual space and I followed suit throughout my fieldwork, changing the lingua franca I used depending on the people I was speaking to and their own preferred language for conversation at the time. Language learning is an iterative and ongoing process, made even more complicated in multilingual settings like Karen State; however, I endeavoured to learn both Burmese and Plong Karen. Throughout my fieldwork, I also had three Plong Karen--speaking students who assisted me with my research in Hpa-an and provided translation help during formal interviews with authorities such as monks, ritual elders, armed leaders or government staff.

In this article, I take the perspectives of my Buddhist Plong Karen informants on morality and ethics as a starting point to critique the prevailing view of the DKBA and its armed strongmen in scholarship on the Karen as coercive and extractive alone. I draw from the recent 'ethical turn' in anthropology and the observation that in understanding social and political life, we must return to an emphasis on the moral or ethical and the inherently evaluative nature of human-social relations (Keane 2015; Laidlaw 2014; Lambek 2015). By focusing on the moral frameworks which people use to evaluate these powerful figures, I add to literature on Southeast Asia's strongman tradition that calls attention to elaborate and sometimes contradictory value norms when studying the enactment of power (Bultmann 2018; Nishizaki 2011; Sidel 1999; Thawnghmung 2004; Trocki 1998). …

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