Fire Among Ashes

The Karen people welcomed the British colonial era in Burma (1824-1948 A.D) as a blessing bestowed upon them by their Supreme Deity whom they have trusted without fail. Most of the prophecies, foretold by their forefathers many years ago, seemed to have become materialized during this period. After suffering for nearly a thousand years under successive tyrants, the Karen finally found new hope in the hands of their colonial masters. Dr. San C. Po in his book “Burma and the Karens” reflected, “The Karens are not ashamed or afraid to proclaim to the world publicly or in private that they owe what progress and advancement they have made to the missionaries whom they affectionately called ‘Mother’ under the protection of the British government whom they rightly call ‘Father’”. It was not a completely unfamiliar culture. Since the beginning of their history, the Karen have much respect for their parents and elders. This remains one of their distinct characters today. They affectionately call their leaders, great father, great mother or grandfather. The following excerpt is taken from Ian Morrison’s “Grandfather Longlegs”, (The Life and Gallant Death of Major H.R Seagrim G.C, D.S.O, M.B.E.)

“Ever since they first arrived in Burma, the Karens appear to have been a subject race, oppressed by their stronger neighbors and frequently used as slaves. A thirteenth century Burmese inscription gives a list of thirty-one “Cakraw” slaves, the word ‘Cakraw’ probably being the same as the word Sgaw. To avoid oppression the Karens lived in the hills and remoter parts. But even those who came down to live in the plains preserved their language, customs and traditions. It is a curious thing that where as many other similar peoples (including their relatives the Talaings) were absorbed by the Burmese, the Karens succeeded in preserving their racial identity. They were scattered in widely separated communities all over Burma. They were a subject and despised race. But they remained Karens”. Another excerpt from Jonathan Falla’s “True Love and Bartholomew” stated, “There had been missionaries- French, Italian and Portuguese Catholics- in Burma long before the British came. In 1740 Father Nerini had noted the ‘wild populations styled Cariani living separately from others and in full liberty’. Captain Michael Sumes of His Majesty’s 76th Regiment of Foot (India), the envoy who arrived at the Court of Ava in 1795, went to these missionaries for much of his information about the country; thus, from the outset, the British were aware that, besides the Burmans with whom they were treating, there were other peoples both in the Delta villages and tucked away out of sight in the forests. The Burmans hardly encouraged contact with the Karens, dismissing them as ‘wild cattle of the hills’. Still, the newcomers were intrigued and Captain Symes investigated the ‘Carianers’ further. A modern American evangelist, Don Richardson, concerned once again with tribal prophecies of the return of the Book, gives an account of a meeting between Symes’ embassy and the Karens:
The year is 1795, and deep in the jungles of Burma hundreds of native tribesmen rush out to a clearing to greet a white-skinned stranger….

“This is most interesting”, the guide said, ‘These people think you may be certain “white brother” whom they as a people have been expecting since time immemorial.’
‘How curious’, replied the diplomat.
‘He’s supposed to bring them a book’, the guide said. ‘A book just like the one their forefathers lost long ago. They are asking _ with bated breath _ hasn’t he brought it?’
‘Ho! Ho!’ the Englishman guffawed.
Sadly, he didn’t have any books with him at the time, and it was another thirty years before the American Baptists converted their first Karen.

As soon as the British had established themselves in Lower Burma they began to explore their new domain and encounters with the Karen continued. Most reports struck a similar note: ‘The Karens are a simple, timed race with a spirit broken by centuries of oppression’, wrote Dr David Richardson who, in the 1820s, made research tours of the country. Turning up late at one village, Richardson was embarrassed at the seeming servility of the Karen who got out of bed to clean and cook rice for him at midnight. For the next hundred years, travelers on both sides of the border remarked that the hill Karen, or Karieng or Carianers, as shy, cowed and retiring:

The preceding passages are but a small sampling of evidence pointing to the indisputable fact that the Karens were enslaved, loathed and hated by the Burmese long before the arrival of the British.

Certainly, colonialism had both positive and negative impacts on the lands they intruded. In Burma, the British ended the warring dynasties and overthrew despotism. They introduced a civil administrative system and development in education as well as in other fields. During the warring-states period there were no clear cut boundaries between the traditional kingdoms. The colonialists negotiated and marked frontiers which remained valid up to the present day. The Karens are humble, hard working, honest and steadfast in their characters. After all, something is better than nothing and they found no difficulty to adjust themselves into the new society. They are obedient, open, and willingly accepted their new master. On the contrary, the Burmese saw the British as their new enemy, to be defied and destroyed at all costs. They bore hatred and animosity towards the colonialists, looked only at the negative impacts while lamenting over their lost pride and power. They looked backward to what had been their past glory. They longed for the days when they cherished and worshipped their traditional heroes whose sacred deeds were to conquer and to subdue. They considered themselves superior to the British and mocked any development brought to the land as “slavish”.

But for the Karens, it was a real change. They had lived in the darkest age, from the onset of the Pagan dynasty, established by king Anawrahta in 1040 A.D to the last king of Kongbaung dynasty, king Thipaw in 1885 A.D. Nearly a thousand years the Karen race ceased to exist as human beings. They were totally subdued and pushed to the farthest margins of extinction by the masters of the land.

It is quite amazing and incredible to see the Karen so quickly revived during a century of British rule. So, what made “the Karens” rise up? Using appropriate Karen metaphor of expression, it sounds like, “Even bared to the teeth, shaved to the skull and stripped to the marrow, Karens remained Karens.”

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