Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership

Title: The Karens of Burma
Author: Harry I Marshall
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0800081.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: January 2008
Date most recently updated: January 2008

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at

To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to


Title: The Karens of Burma
Author: Harry I Marshall

[ Map--Burma ]

THIS SERIES has been specially prepared to give, in an interesting way
and in a few thousand words, the essential facts about Burma. Each
author knows his subject thoroughly and uses his knowledge in such a way
that the Pamphlets can be read equally by those who know nothing of the
country and by those who wish to refresh their memories. Maps and
illustrations bring out the points made in the text.

* * *

_already published_
2. BURMA SETTING by O. H. K. Spate
3. BUDDHISM IN BURMA by G. Appleton
5. THE FORESTS OF BURMA by F. T. Morehead
6. THE HILL PEOPLES OF BURMA by H. N. C. Stevenson
8. THE KARENS OF BURMA by Harry I. Marshall

_in preparation_
and other titles

* * *

No. 8. The Karens of Burma

With 8 illustrations specially drawn by
C. H. G. Moorhouse, and 1 Map

Published for




First published May, 1945

Printed by P. C. Ray at Sri Gouranga Press, 5 Chintamani Das Lane,
Calcutta, on paper made by Titaghur Paper Mills Co. Ltd., and
bound by Moslem Ali & Co. Blocks made by Bengal Autotype Co.

[ Illustration--Karen Woman ]



THE Karen people of Burma are now the second most important tribe in the
country; but one hundred years ago they were called by their more
powerful Burman neighbours the "Wild Cattle of the Hills".

At that time they were unorganized and lived in the dense forests that
covered the country, especially in the ranges of hills that afforded
them protection. They had no written language and were held in bondage
to the fears that made their lives stagnant and prevented their changing
the customs that they had received from their ancestors.

They were not an aggressive people and sought security in withdrawal
from the rivers, which in those days were the only lines of
communication, and they built their small villages high up in the hills
or other places difficult of access. Here they lived in poverty but not
without hope that some day their descendants would have better times.
But now like hunted birds they admonished their children as they
squatted at their rude low tables to eat their rice, "Eat fast, eat
fast. The Burmans may come!"

Their origin is obscure. They have no written records and the
destructive wet climate has obliterated almost all traces of their
ancestry. Probably they originated in China and came into Burma from the
north-east in about the sixth or seventh century of the Christian era.
Their language and personal characteristics would seem to indicate this.

The derivation of the term "Karen" is uncertain. It is the name by which
this people have been called by the Burmese. The name by which they call
themselves is _Pga K' Nyaw_ which may be of Chinese origin and means
"Men". They are the only real men. All other peoples are designated by
their name as "Burman", "English", and so on.


The only part of Burma that can be called Karen country is that lying
eastward from Toungoo. Here in the mountains the villages have never
been dominated by their more powerful Burman neighbours and in several
sections they retain their Karen names. In other sections they are known
by Burmese names and show the influence of their having been overpowered
at some time.

On the eastern slopes of the ranges which are dominated by Mt. Nattaung
(called by the Karens _Thaw Thi_) are the three small independent states
the chiefs of which are Karens. They belong to the Red Karen tribes and
are called in Burmese Karen-ni. These states are Bawlekeh, Kyetpogyi and
Kantarrawaddi and do not comprise a part of Burma politically except
that they owe their security to the British Government with whom they
have treaty relations established by the early Deputy Commissioners of

There are a few Karens in the ranges of hills as far north as a line
running through Thayetmyo and Pyinmana. To the east, Loikaw is a Karen
district and Karens are found farther eastward in Thailand. For the most
part the Karens share their localities with the Burmans and Shans. Their
villages are now found scattered over the plains as well as the hills in
Lower Burma all the way from Pyinmana to Victoria Point and from Arakan
to some indefinite line in Thailand. It has been reported that there are
a few scattered Karen communities even as far east as Cambodia, but they
have been pretty well absorbed by the more aggressive surrounding races.

During the unsettled Burmese times they clung to the hills and the
remote forests for their security and wrested a precarious living there,
but with the more peaceful conditions brought about by the settled
British Government they spilled over into the plains and, clearing
tracts of forests for villages and tracts for paddy fields, they settled
down and became prosperous. Therefore they may now be found in every
district of Lower Burma. In such sections as around Bassein, Pyapon,
Pegu, Thaton, Moulmein, and Tavoy they comprise a very considerable
minority of the population.

In the hills the Karen villages are usually at the top of a ridge. The
houses are close together and in some places they are surrounded by a
stockade of bamboo with sharp pickets pointing outward to reinforce the
fence. There are seldom more than twenty to thirty houses in a village.

When they build on the plains they usually select a site away from the
roads where they will attract least attention and be free from
intrusion. Often in the villages there is little attempt at orderly
arrangement of the houses. One may front against the back of the next.
Here the individuality of the Karens is made manifest.

[ Illustration--Karen Man ]

Originally they were, almost without exception, agriculturists and
therefore kept to the outlying districts. Their villages were small for
they did not have the power to organize a large society. But later, as
they began to grow more prosperous and some of them became well-to-do
landowners, they moved into the towns. With the spread of education they
took up such posts in the cities as teachers, clerks, policeman, and
officers and men in the Burma Army, and in a few instances as traders.
Therefore in the vicinity of each of the larger towns and cities of
Burma there was, at the time of the invasion, a community of Karens
usually living in a section by themselves, for they are gregarious. In
Rangoon, however, many Karens were to be found renting apartments and
living among other peoples in the city, and men and women were to be
found in small numbers everywhere.


In appearance the Karens are not very different from the other Mongoloid
peoples in Burma. Their usual colour is a little lighter than the
Burmans', and is that of coffee with a generous mixture of milk. Their
faces are a little flatter than the Burmans'. Having lived mostly in the
hills they have a more stocky body and thicker thighs and calves than
those of their neighbours. In height they are short, the men averaging a
little over five feet, and the women a little less.

Young people of both sexes are attractive and robust, but hard work,
undernourishment and, in the case of the women, constant child-bearing
often make them appear old when they have only reached what should be
the prime of life.

Family life among the Karens is not unlike that of the ordinary European
family. They do not have the patriarchal family system of the Chinese,
and each married couple usually has its own house in which to live.
Often the woman brings her young husband to live with her parents and he
inherits their lands on their decease. Marriage in the early days was
strictly within the tribe. Even marriage with those of other Karen
tribes was looked down upon. Karen women usually bear as many as ten or
more children, but often raise less than half of them, due to their lack
of knowledge of sanitation. Karen fathers are usually fond of their
children and take as good care of them as they know how. Their love is
generally sentimental and children are allowed to rule the household.
Old people usually receive good care for the Karens always reverence


In the early days the Karens were concerned with wresting a living for
themselves from the ground where they lived. Almost without exception
they were cultivators of the soil and raised rice, their principal food.
They followed the two methods usually found in Burma, the mountain
method in the hills and the paddy-field method on the plains.

In the hills the wasteful way of cultivating rice was that of clearing a
section, called in Burmese, a _taung-ya_, on the mountain side.
Everything but the largest trees would be cut in the cool season of
January or February, and left to dry until just before the rains began
in May. Then it would be set on fire. Precautions were taken to keep the
fires from spreading to the neighbouring dry forest, but these were
often futile and vast areas were frequently ablaze for days until the
rains would put out the fires. In this way large quantities of forest
containing valuable timber would be sacrificed for a small quantity of
rice. The burning would leave a deposit of ash that would act as a
fertilizer for the rice to be planted. It would also kill the seeds of
weeds and trees and give the rice a chance to get a start over the more
vigorous growth of native plants.

[ Illustration--Karen girl carrying bamboo water pots ]

On the plains they used buffaloes and oxen to plough when the rains had
covered the ground with a few inches of water. The flowers of the pyinma
tree that comes out just before the work begins with the coming of the
rains is called _P' Nah Haw_ meaning "the buffalo weeps", for they say
that when the buffalo sees this tree in bloom he weeps because he knows
that he must soon begin ploughing. Almost always they used the small
wooden plough, sometimes tipped with iron. I have seen a herd of six or
eight buffaloes driven around and around over the muddy ground as a
method of preparing it for receiving the seed.

As soon as the rain had softened the ground the rice or, more properly,
the paddy would be planted by hand, being poked into the ground with a
sharp stick. The Karens invented few tools for their work and did not
readily adopt those used by other peoples. They weeded with rude hoes,
or with sticks and fingers. As the crop matured, they had to fight many
varieties of animals and birds. They would construct rude fences of
bamboo to keep out wild pig and deer. To protect themselves from the
birds they strung small ropes made of various fibres around the field
and attached bamboo clappers and later tin cans or anything that would
make a noise. It was the duty of the women or small boys to sit in the
central hut where they lived during the time of cultivation and pull
these strings to drive away the marauding birds which came in large
flocks to get their fill of the succulent, newly-formed rice.

The rice was reaped by hand using a sickle with a long curved handle,
and then the grain was beaten out against a bamboo bar fixed to
standards set up in the ground. The wind was the winnowing machine. The
grain was stored in paddy bins prepared for it until it was needed for
supplying the daily table. Often these bins would be located part way
between the cultivation and the village site and they were not molested
for there is an innate honesty among the Karens that respects that to
which they have become accustomed.

In the early 1900's many Karens who had cleared immense tracts of land
raised large crops of paddy and became well-to-do. It was then that they
employed many Burman and Indian coolies to work for them. They built
substantial houses, often of teak, or in a few instances of brick. Some
of them were able to add field to field and became really wealthy. It
was at this time that money-lenders became very active and going about
the villages imposed loans of easy money on the unsuspecting
cultivators. These loans were then allowed to lie idle for a year or two
until the interest, set at exorbitant rates, mounted to nearly double
the original loans, when a sudden demand for full payment could not be
met; and the results were that the lending sharks foreclosed on the rich
paddy-fields. In this way many a Karen who was once a prosperous
cultivator became a tenant on land that he had previously owned. This
process continued until near the time of the invasion and the property,
land, houses and cattle of the Karens as well as of Burman cultivators,
were largely in the hands of absentee landlords. The Indian Tamil
Chettiars were the most numerous class of money-lenders and most
exacting in demanding their pounds of flesh.

In only a few cases have the Karens proved to be good traders. They are
too soft-hearted and often sell on credit which they feel embarrassed to
collect, and therefore they soon fail. The shops in the Karen villages
in the hills are most often kept by the Shans who are born traders. On
the plains the Chinese have found the Karen villages good places to make
money. They begin in a small way and soon, by lending money, collecting
their debts by foreclosing on the land, and sometimes by selling opium
on the quiet, grow rich at the expense of their neighbours. They usually
come to Burma single but they can easily marry, for their prosperity
attracts the young women, and then they settle down to raise a family of
mixed blood, and make a real contribution to the life of the country.

The Karens are at home in the forests. In many cases they became expert
foresters for the Government and for the timber firms. Where the use of
elephants was needed they were largely employed. There were at the time
of the invasion a number of Karen timber contractors owning elephants
which they understood and knew how to catch and train and use in hauling
logs from the jungles to the river banks where in the rains the swelling
streams carried them down to the markets at Moulmein and Rangoon.

The Karens have established a safe way of training newly-caught
elephants for timber use. Instead of the more cruel methods of jabbing
and brow-beating often used by Indian elephant drivers, they tie the
animals up to the large trees left near the point of the V-shaped corral
that they build along the elephant runs in the jungle, and then they
keep the animals from sleeping by continually feeding and working with
them for five or more days, until they subdue their wild spirit and win
them to obedience to their keepers. Thus in six months they can train a
full-grown animal to follow the directions of its keeper and drag out

From the first contacts with the "Younger White Brother" their desire to
read the Book which he brought them was very keen. In the beginning men
and some women of all ages went to school to be able to read the
precious Book. As soon as one made a little progress he was required to
go out and teach others. In this way schools sprang up all over the
country wherever the people turned to the Christian teaching. Teachers
were much respected. They were addressed as _Thra_. With the increase of
education went an increase in the standards of training. Many of them
were called to go to Upper Burma and teach in schools run by private
agencies, by missions and by the Education Department of Government. In
the spreading of the Christian teaching among many of the outlying
tribes of Upper Burma and the Chin Hills the Karen teachers played a
very important part, often undergoing the same hardships that foreign
teachers had to bear among more primitive tribes.

During recent years the Karens have taken up all occupations. Their more
general education and newly-developed adaptability to take on new ways
have given them openings in offices as clerks, in the police, in the
army where they have played an important part even as they have in the
professions. A number of Karens have taken up medicine, among the most
distinguished of whom was Sir San C Po, of Bassein.

Young Karen women have made a name for themselves as nursemaids. Their
gentle ways and general reliability have made them most popular and many
of them have cared for children of European officers. Several of them
have been to England and America. They have also done very well as
regular registered nurses in the hospitals and there was hardly a
hospital in Burma in which there was not one, or more, Karen nurse.
Their work on the whole has been very satisfactory.

With the coming of machinery the Karens have taken to mechanics. In the
machine shops, foundries and workshops of the big companies, and in the
oil fields they have played their part. They have also done well as
motor-car mechanics and drivers as well as in electrical engineering. In
mining they have done their share, although for very difficult
underground tunnelling I believe they have not been found as daring as
the Gurkhas of Nepal.


Primitive Karens are animists, worshipping the spirits with which their
imaginations people the phenomena of nature, the hills, the streams, and
any unusual happenings which they see around them. The changes of season
are due to conflict between the demons (often called by their Burmese
name _nats_) of the dry weather and the wet. Those are victorious whose
season is prevailing at the time. The banyan is supposed to be the abode
of a very vigorous spirit, probably because the seeds of that tree
spring up in all kinds of unsuspected places.

In addition to the spirits of the wood and mountain there are the family
Penates called the _Bgha_ that, when offended, cause illness by eating
the _Kala_ (psyche) of the person and ultimately cause his death if
allowed to go on. They must be appeased by offerings of chicken or pig.
Every member of the family must be present on the occasion to save one
member from illness. It is hoped that the feast will be so tempting that
the demon will leave the sufferer and take the food instead. The customs
connected with these feasts differ in various localities and among
different tribes. In many of the more civilized sections they are no
longer carefully observed. Christians do not resort to them.

Sex irregularities are believed to be most abhorrent to the _bgha_ and
are reputed to have been the cause of most trouble. Among the Bws they
are considered to cause the drying up of land and the failure of crops,
and are therefore most severely punished by the elders when discovered.
In their primitive state the Karens were unusually free from fornication
and adultery. The recent transition period, with the breaking down of
old customs and before Western ideals have been established, has seen
some relaxation of these conditions.

The old epic song about _Ywa_, the Father God and Creator, and this
belief in the existence of God are found among all the tribes. It does
not, however, play an important part in their daily lives which are
taken up with their struggles with the ever-present _nats_ and demons.

Those Karens who were in closest contact with the Burmans, as for
example the Pwo Karens, took on a thin veneer of Buddhism and went to
the pagodas at the full moon and the quarters, but as a rule it was
largely a social conforming that did not have a deep spiritual content.


Karen is an agglutinated monosyllabic language belonging to the Sinic
family of languages. Like the Chinese it has tones which are important
in learning to speak it, for the same sound may have entirely different
meaning if spoken in different tones. For example, the syllable _Meh_
may mean 'eye', 'sand', 'tail', 'mole' (on the body), or 'tooth',
according to the tone in which it is uttered.

Originally the Karens had a mass of unwritten bard literature, poems and
stories handed down orally and recited around the fireplaces, from
generation to generation. Some of these were epic poems which related
the history of their race, and others folk stories which they told for
amusement and which served to keep alive the traditions of their tribes.
Many of these stories were much like the Negro folk tales told in
America under the title of "Uncle Remus Stories", or like Grimms' Fairy
Tales in Europe. In these Karen folk stories the rabbit figures as the
wily one as it does in the Negro tales, and as the fox appears in the
European stories.

Their epic poems have remarkable accounts of the creation of the world
by _Ywa_, who closely resembles the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. They
tell of the origin of the human race and the expulsion from a garden,
which is similar to the story of Paradise Lost. The poems are in five
stress lines and are in couplet form like Hebrew poetry. In their
earlier days there use to be rhyming contests or "capping rhymes" as an
important part of gatherings such as wedding and funeral feasts. At
present they only survive among the most primitive villages away from
outside influences.

There are many dialects of the Karen language--probably about twenty of
them. They fall into six groups: the Sgaw, Pwo, Bw, Padaung, Karenni,
and Zayein. The Sgaw and Pwo are the two largest groups. These are the
two which have been used in education and in which books have been
printed. Some of the others, especially the Bw, have been reduced to
writing, but the number of those who would use them is so small that it
has not been considered advisable to develop them.

The Sgaw dialect has, as designed by Western scholars, twenty-five
consonants which are written on the main writing line and seven vowels
which are inserted as diacritical marks either above or below the line,
except one which follows the consonant with which it is pronounced.
There are five tonal characters which indicate the required inflection.
The language is perfectly phonetic. Each character has its invariable
pronunciation. For certain guttural letters and the tones (which are not
found in the Burmese language) arbitrary adaptations of Burmese letters
are used. The spelling consists of all the possible variations and
combinations of consonant, vowel, and tone, although not every
combination forms a word in general usage.

There are several compound consonants in which _g_, _y_, _r_, _l_ and
_w_ are combined with other consonants after the manner of _c_ and _l_,
_g_, and _y_, etc. in English. There are no closed syllables in the Sgaw
dialect, every word ending in a vowel as in the Hawaiian language. This
makes it very musical. It has sometimes been called the Italian of the

The Pwo dialect has more nasals and short and sharp syllables than the
Sgaw. It also has some final consonants. In general the construction is
not different from the Sgaw. An early study of the two dialects showed
that thirteen-fourteenths of the words in the Sgaw and Pwo are from the
same roots. It is, however, difficult for one who understands only the
Sgaw dialect to understand Pwo because of the nasal effect on the

The Bw dialects, spoken near Toungoo in the hills about Thandaung, have
many nasal sounds and somewhat resemble the Pwo. Other dialects in the
mountains differ quite widely from each other but the people in the
hills speak several of these dialects for there is now much more
intermingling than there was formerly when feuds kept the people apart
and made it possible for different dialects to grow up even within a few
miles of each other.

The grammar of the various dialects is not difficult. The sentence is
formed after the same model as the English, with subject, verb, and
object. The written and spoken language are very similar and direct.
There are honorifics as in Burmese. There is no sex designation in the
names of individuals, and so the Karens use _Saw_ for all men and _Naw_
for all women or girls.

When Westerners first came into contact with them the Karens had no
written language. But so urgent was the demand of those who accepted the
missionaries as fulfilling the prophesies uttered by their old poets
that some day they would be found by the "Younger White Brother" who
would come across the sea in great ships "with white wings" and bring
them the Book which their ancestors were supposed to have neglected and
lost, that Dr. Wade, in about 1830, reduced the language of the Sgaw
dialect to writing. He used the Burmese alphabet, for at that time any
Karen who knew anything about reading could read in the Burmese language
of the monastery. It was not then foreseen that English and the Roman
letter would occupy such an important place in world affairs as they now

Mr. Brayton a little later did the same for the Pwo dialect. The desire
to read and to have an education arose among the Karens who became
Christians, and as the Sgaw tribe has come into the Christian Church in
much larger numbers than the Pwo it has consequently developed a larger
literature. The greater part of this is of a distinctly Christian
nature, designed to promote the spiritual life as well as to give
general information. The people have not had time to create a modern
literature of their own although a small beginning had been made before
the Japanese invasion. No doubt out of the hardships of these war years
a new literature will be born.


The Karens had a distinctive dress in their primitive state. Not only
was there a national style but each individual village in the hills had
its distinctive variations which marked a man's origin.

The general dress of the Karens was an uncut garment made by sewing
together two breadths of cloth as they came from the rude loom, leaving
a hole in the middle of one end for the head and two small holes at the
upper corners for the arms. It was made of their own home-grown cotton,
which was raised, carded, spun and woven, as well as dyed, by their
women-folk. The ground was usually white as it came unbleached from the
loom. They interwove decorations of red and sometimes of black.

Among the Sgaw Karens the smock (called a _Hsay_) was white with a wide
lower border of red. The garment reached from the shoulders to the
calves and was the only bit of clothing worn. It was large and roomy so
that a man could squat down and pull his knees up inside the garment.
Sometimes it was folded around the loins as its wearer squatted on the
ground or mat. On cold mornings extra warmth was obtained by wrapping a
blanket round the body, either a thick one of the same hand-woven
cotton, or one of wool bought from some bazaar.

In the Toungoo Hills, the Bw and other tribes usually wore a shorter
smock, with all kinds and variations of stripes, which would hardly
reach to their knees. They covered their legs with baggy Shan "bombies"
or pants, usually black in colour.

For a number of years the Karens on the plains and in the towns have
worn the usual Burmese dress consisting of a _longyi_ (skirt) with a
white jacket in the warm weather and dark thick imported clothing in the

The usual dress for the women has been the _longyi_, worn over the lower
part of the body and a shorter _hsay_ or smock over the upper part. The
former was woven by the women themselves but the latter was often of
imported cloth, usually black. Sometimes black velvet was used for the
smock. Among the Sgaws the finest smocks were made of homespun black or
dark blue cloth and were trimmed with rows of Job's Tears, the white
seeds that grow readily in their plantations. Otherwise, bits of blue or
red ribbon or strips of cloth were used for ornaments. Often many
strings of beads were wrapped about the neck, some of which were
supposed to have magical value to ward off evil spirits.

The women of the villages near Thandaung among the Bws, or Mopghas as
they call themselves, wove very elaborate skirts in which a number of
colours were beautifully blended together, but the weaving of these
skirts was almost a lost art at the time of the invasion.

[ Illustration--Karen women's costume ]

Little children were wrapped in blankets or in garments that were cast
off by their elders. When romping boys began to run around they did not
bother with clothes until they were five or six, or even older. Little
girls usually began to wrap a small _longyi_ about their waists at three
or four. Elders often went about with scant loin cloths, but very seldom
did they appear without any clothing.

With the rise of national self-consciousness, the Karens tried an
adaptation of their national dress and, finding the old smock
ill-adapted to modern conditions, they invented a jacket cut after the
style of the ordinary European lounge jacket made of the native cloth
and embroidered with some of the designs of the original smocks. There
were many patterns of these and they became very popular among the
younger men in the cities and towns and among older boys in schools.
They were a sort of blazer such as is worn in schools in Europe or
America. A few Karens adopted the European style of men's dress, but few
women in the cities wore anything except the usual Burmese costume.

Among the Bws and Pakus, another tribe near Toungoo, the women all wore
skirts of an identical pattern. This had a black ground with two or
three narrow horizontal stripes at about the height of the knees. But
among the Sgaws there was a large number of patterns. The most common
was a conventional design of horizontal stripes of various shades of red
and in the middle a "python skin" in clouded pattern. This commemorated
the old myth of the woman who was stolen by the legendary white python
and who was released only by the sacrifice of her husband. On her
release she wove the pattern of the python's skin into her skirt thus
offering him the great insult that she knew. (This incident is related
in the story of "Ku Law Lay and Naw Mu Eh".)

[ Illustration--Karen male costume ]

Bathing is an important item of comfort in a hot country, being not so
much for cleanliness as for coolness. In the hills where the water is
icy cold as it comes from the mountain springs, and where often the
village is located far above the water streams, bathing is not indulged
in to any great extent. Nor do Karens mind dirty clothes, for they know
that much washing wears them out, as they have to depend upon rubbing
and pounding rather than upon soap. In the seclusion of the mountain
forests they often play about in the water without clothes. On the
plains, where bathing is more common either in the open rivers or at the
village well, they bathe in the _longyi_ then draw a dry one over the
wet one which they drop down underneath, thus making the change publicly
but modestly without exposing the person. The wet garment is then soused
in water and the laundry work is done.


The Karens, as was said of the people of Borneo, "are not inferior but
different". In their primitive state they were subject to the slavery of
fear which had retarded their development. To them as to most primitive
races all that is unknown is to be feared. They peopled, with all kinds
of malevolent demons, the hills, the streams and the big trees,
especially the banyan which is held in awe throughout the Orient
probably because of its great fertility and tenacious hold on life. They
were surrounded by fierce wild animals and more numerous and powerful
neighbours. One of their own number aptly described his race as one that
"is capable of being afraid".

This timidity has often militated against them. Because of fear they
dare not speak their mind. They resort to the common "don't know" and
thus hope to escape attention. They are easily thrown into a panic which
disorganizes their thinking and makes them ridiculous when under the
cross fire of examination or in a crisis. School-boys will not assert
themselves and are often adjudged stupid when in reality they have done
better daily work while plodding along than their more vocal fellows.
Women are especially shy and in primitive villages will run from a

The generations through which they have been exploited by their more
powerful neighbours have left a stamp upon them and even educated men
and women often allow themselves to be outdone in office and shop simply
because they dislike to evoke contention. Often the faithful work of an
individual does not bring the proper credit to the one earning it, for
another steps in and takes advantage of his reticence to claim honour
which he does not deserve.

In the old days retaliation for the exploitation they underwent at the
hands of the Burmans would be taken by their striking back whenever they
saw an opportunity. Small parties of Burmans who were caught in the
Karen hills seldom returned alive. It was not because the Karens were
worse than others or more given to atrocities, but simply that to them
it was a way of getting what they thought was justice.

In their original condition they not only made forays against other
races but were continually at feuds among themselves. The theft of a
buffalo or a bronze drum, or the kidnapping of a child or a slave, was
occasion for a foray. These usually went on and continued from bad to
worse until villages were destroyed and many lives were lost. There were
no other courts of justice.

The Karens felt the lack of the Book, as they called the Bible,--a
need that contributed to what we now would call an inferiority complex.
But like all people, either individuals or nations, that have an
inferiority complex they were ready and waiting to be led out into
greater freedom. They hailed the coming of the American Baptist
missionaries as those who could help them to find themselves, to get
their rights and to free themselves from the thraldoms into which they
were conscious that they had fallen. They told a story to illustrate
this, for they spoke in parables in order to explain many of the
situations in which they found themselves.

They said they were like a family which built their little hut for a
shelter while cultivating a hillside. There the children and the old sow
and her piglets were left while the parents went off over the hillside
to cut the jungle and make their clearing. One day a tiger came in and
grabbed the sow and carried her off, much to the distress of the
children. When the parents returned in the evening they were told what
had happened and the father determined to put the children and piglets
up on a high bamboo platform out of reach of the tiger before they went
to their work the next morning.

The tiger returned and finding no prey within reach set up a howl as he
vainly tried to jump to the platform. The children stood it as long as
they could and then threw down a pig to appease the beast. This they did
at intervals while all the time they were longing to hear the twang of
the father's bowstring that would send an arrow quivering through the
heart of the tiger. This, the Karens said, represented their condition
as they waited for the "white brother" to come and free them from the
slavery to evil spirits and give them the Book that would enable them to
hold up their heads among the peoples of Burma.

Under the impulse of Christianity the desire for education was strong
from the beginning of the contact of the Karens with the Westerners.
They wanted to read their own Book and to have a broader education. They
demanded to be taught the English language. The early missionaries
desired only to train them for a more abundant life in their own country
and for a time refused to teach them a language that might denationalize
them. But when they sought outside teachers who would instruct them in
English, the missionaries agreed to carry on schools in that language,
and there grew up the Anglo-Vernacular system (English combined with the
vernaculars, Burmese and Karen) that reached up to the University with
its degrees. Karen students usually are slower to grasp new ideas than
Burmans, but they often retain them better and have been, in proportion
to their numbers, just as good students as any other race in the
country. When they get over their reticence and fears they seem to be
able to succeed in any endeavour for which they have the aptitude.

The Karens are often accused of being clannish. They are, but it is
their natural self-interest which leads them to cling to each other for
protection from their more powerful neighbours. For the same reason they
condemn marriage outside the tribe.

Although physically the Karen seems to an outsider closely to resemble
the Burman, he has many very different racial characteristics which make
it difficult for the two peoples to understand each other. The Burman is
much like his own national emblem, the peacock, given to show and to a
great appreciation of fine feathers. He likes to do things quickly and
not too thoroughly. He watches those whom he desires to please and
caters to their tastes. He uses many honorifics and is diplomatic in his
language and manner. He often wears a silk _longyi_ of dainty colours
over a body that is rough and unwashed.

The Karen wears his dirty clothes over his unwashed person and feels
that the two go together. He cares nothing for personal appearance. He
is abrupt in his language and not much given to servility. Direct in his
speech and with his mind easily upset by panic and timidity, he is often
what we would call impolite and very undiplomatic. He makes no effort to
show himself to his best advantage but has a sort of "take it or leave
it" attitude that often gets him into trouble. This makes him all the
more desirous of shunning those with whom he feels that he cannot
compete. This is another reason why he sought the jungles and the hills.

Many early writers on the Karens have described them as devoid of
humour. This can easily be explained when one understands the fears with
which they surrounded everything. They were struck with terror by
Government officers and other aggressive Europeans, with their strange
appearance and ways. They did not dare to laugh for they did not
understand what was supposed to be a joke. Therefore they preserved
poker faces and seemed dumb and dead. The writer has spent many hours
with them when the flow of humour and the joyous laughter were as
spontaneous and happy as among any people he was ever with. Stories,
practical jokes, wise-cracks came as quickly and merrily as in any
language. But a man must have their confidence and know their language
if he would enjoy himself among them.

There is a naivety among the Karens that is often very refreshing. They
do not seem to be able to plot involved schemes for deceiving their
neighbours. When they do attempt such things their simple plots usually
fail. There is a simplicity among them that makes one feel a genuine
friendliness when with them. One is usually safe in leaving one's
luggage in their houses. Pedlars most often sleep at Karen houses when
they can, for they feel safer there than with any other people in the
country. When Karens are convinced of one's honesty and truthfulness and
genuine friendliness they will prove themselves to be true friends and
they will inconvenience themselves no end to make that friendship good.

In common with some of the other Hill peoples of south-eastern Asia,
they have a great love for music. Their own native music is built on the
pantonic scale. It consists of weird tunes in a minor key that are
plaintive, sad and tremulous. They use the harp, and make crude
instruments resembling the violin out of bamboo, and a kind of xylophone
played with two small mallets. The drum is also used in various forms.

The educated Karens, most of whom are Christians, have almost entirely
abandoned their old plaintive native airs for the happier Western music.
It began with the hymns of the Christian Church of which a fine and
large collection has been translated into both the Sgaw and Pwo
languages, and which they delight to sing. In addition to these, the
young people love picking up the popular airs sung in musicales and in
the cinemas. It is not uncommon to hear these songs even in remote

During the past quarter century there has grown up a new music among the
people, mostly among the Christians. Every Christian village has its
choir. They love to sing together. The leaders of these choirs have
taken Western airs and have combined them with touches of their native
music and composed new songs for them. Hundreds of these have been
published by mimeograph and a few of them have shown real musical
ability on the part of their composers. The Karen have, as a rule, soft
and velvety voices that lend themselves to good music. Trained choirs
have sung in the cities before exacting audiences and have won praise.
Because of their former experiences of being subjected to exploitation,
they have taken to the American Negro spirituals and sing them with a
great deal of expression. Here again they have adapted some of these to
their own life and composed new tunes and songs to fit their own
conditions. Probably the suffering of these war years will further
develop their folk music.

To the Karen the golden age was in the dim past. It was the old men who
were wise. They say: "The generation gone before had wisdom. Now we are
but children. Therefore the customs that have come down to us are sacred
and cannot be broken without great danger."

They are hedged about with taboos many of which they hold so tenaciously
that they are still more or less in the grip of their fears; and while
this lasts progress will be slow if not almost impossible. Those who
made the big break and became Christians have a different attitude and
yet, even with them, the old customs have not entirely lost their hold.

Their fear of change prevents improved methods of living. This is
especially true in the hills where for untold generations they have
followed the _taung-ya_ (mountain cultivation). This involved the
sacrifice of a fresh piece of forest each year for their rice fields.
When urged to adopt a more economic method, such as terracing or
rotation of crops, they would reply that their fathers and grandfathers
grew rice by this method, and being poor ignorant Karens they could not
do any differently.


The Karens never seemed to be able to develop any permanent political
organization beyond that of village life. Once in a while a strong man
would emerge and gain power over a number of villages and combine them
under his own personality. But as a rule the personal independence of
the individual would assert itself and with the death of the organizer
there would be no one to take his place and the several villages would
return to their independence, under each local chief.

In the village the leadership would usually be in the hands of some man
who would assert himself over the others and he would pass on his
position to his children, to a son not necessarily the eldest, or a
nephew, but the one who by his personal ability would be best fitted to
take up the task. Often some rival individual would covet the power in
the hands of the headman and his family, and set himself up as a leader.
He would gather a few who were willing to submit to him and would go off
and build a new village of his own, and a rival dynasty, if such it
could be called, would be set up.

The power that the chief or headman of the village exercised was not
carefully defined. There were usually a few old men who were considered
as having influence because of their connection with the golden past.
The chief governed with the consent of these. As a rule matters were
discussed in open gatherings and the headman followed the general
desires of the elders. In case of marked differences, there would be a
split-off and a new village would be formed: only those remaining loyal
to the chief, often his own relatives, would remain in the village. This
refers to those sections where the Karens were left to themselves.

Under the settled conditions brought about by the British Government
things remained about the same. The headman was recognized as the seat
of authority by the Government, but still the Karens themselves retained
their own independent spirit and followed him only by consent. However,
since it has required the permission of the Government to set up a new
village site there has been less splitting of villages. In some cases
there has been a revival of the old Burmese office of _Taikh-thugyi_ or
Collector of Revenue for a section comprising several villages. In such
cases the local headman has been relieved of the collection of the taxes
in the area.

The exploitation of the Karens by the Burmans in the days of Burmese
rule was chiefly by the forcing of unrequited labour in building walls,
digging canals, etc., and the general rough treatment they received when
they ventured into the towns. They are shown to be un-welcome by having
the dogs set upon them. Such treatment resulted in a great deal of
racial antagonism on the part of the Karens towards their more powerful
neighbours. This prevented closer relations between the villages which
were located in the same section. It made the Karens more exclusive,
keeping them within their own tribe, and causing them to refuse to mix
with the Burmans.

However, under British rule, and with the greater protection that has
come to the Karens from it, the Government has established village
tracts which comprise several hamlets under one headman. In such cases
the Karens have come under the Burman official and formed a single unit
in his jurisdiction, and on the whole have received just treatment. In
some cases, a Karen of standing and influence has been chosen as the
headman and has had Burmese villages under his control. In this way
Karens have risen to power over those who formerly looked down upon

There has usually been a strong national self-consciousness among the
Karens. They long for the freedom which they feel would come if they had
a Karen king and were out from under the rule of the Burmese and even,
in a small degree, of the British. The "prophets" who have led various
revival movements among them have had something of a combined political
and spiritual freedom in mind although the former has been kept more or
less camouflaged. One of those, who seemed to be a sort of Quisling
before the Japanese invasion, was talking about the coming of a Karen
king to take over the country. But those who heeded him were only a
small handful of the more primitive Karens in the Toungoo Hills and
those in some of the more remote parts of the Irrawaddy Delta.

[ Illustration--Pipe ]


Whenever the Karens have had an opportunity they have shown their
loyalty to the British Government. They have a deep sense of gratitude
for the security that has come with a settled and orderly government.
This has allowed them to emerge from their hilly recesses, clear tracts
of land on the more fertile plains, and build villages of more permanent
construction than the flimsy bamboo structures that they built in the
mountains when they had to move every two years. Here they could raise
buffaloes and cattle and have reasonable protection against forays and
marauders. Open exploitation by the Burmese was curbed if not entirely

During the first Burmese War in 1826 they served as guides for the
English expedition against Ava and were commended for their good faith
by Major Snodgrass in his "Narrative of the Burmese War". After the war
they turned to the American missionaries for education, but they were
forbidden to have any contact with the foreigners because the Burmese
king and his Government feared the influence of intruders. They were
prohibited from visiting their teachers even as late as 1851, when the
Burmese Viceroy in Rangoon threatened to shoot instantly the first Karen
he should find capable of reading.

In the Second Burmese War in 1852 they led the attacking forces of the
British through jungle paths up to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which was then
the strongest military citadel near Rangoon, to attack it successfully
from the rear.

The Burmese knew the desire of the Karens for freedom which would come
from a change in Government, and they inflicted cruel vengeance upon
them, burning their villages within a fifty mile radius of Rangoon, and
putting men, women and children to death in barbarous ways. This caused
large migrations from the territory under the Burmese king to Tenasserim
and Arakan which were under British rule. Even here there were frequent
miscarriages of justice, for they had to contend against subordinate
Burmese officers who still tried to prevent them from gaining more

After the Third Burmese War in 1885 Karen levies were raised to assist
the British. They did excellent work in the pacification of the country
where former Burmese soldiers roamed and robbed at will. For assistance
in putting down this terror the Karens received scant reward. In fact,
many Karens, who with Government permission and their own money had
purchased guns for the defence of the country, had them forcibly
confiscated because of the unfounded suspicion of their scheming
neighbours who resented their rising recognition.

During World War I many Karens were enrolled in the armed services and
proved themselves capable and loyal wherever they were called to serve,
whether in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or for guard duty in India and the Malay

During the Burmese Rebellion under "Saya San" in 1930, in the
Tharrawaddy District, the Karens made valuable contributions to the
putting down of the insurrection and many of them received honours for
their good work at the Durbar in Rangoon. When Karens can serve under
officers of their own people they are most happy. They have confidence
in British officers but often find it difficult to serve under Burman or
Indian officers.

During the rise of the nationalistic movements in Burma, the Karens
naturally looked forward to being ruled by their old adversaries without
much enthusiasm. They entered into the new government however and played
their part as well as could be expected considering their limited
opportunity; by so doing they won the respect of their neighbours to a
certain degree and made a contribution to the new regime. In the
Cabinets formed under the constitution in force since 1935 there was
usually a Karen member who held a portfolio.

As a rule the Karens have exhibited true loyalty to the British
Government, but that does not preclude the presence of a few ambitious
men who for personal gain have taken the part of Quislings in the
present war. Although they happened to be in rather important positions
they had only a small following, mostly of ignorant and self-seeking
people, and were entirely in opposition to the general attitude of the
Karens throughout the country.

In World War II the work of the Karens has been most evident. They
occupy important positions in the army and in other services and have
done excellent work. If we can believe rumours that have come from
Burma, they are undergoing a great deal of suffering not only from the
Japanese but from the large numbers of 'bad hats' who even in peaceful
times are always ready to seize an opportunity of easy loot.

The position of minorities has always been difficult. The lot of the
Karens has not been harder than that of many other small groups who have
had different characteristics and lived under more powerful neighbouring
tribes or peoples whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or even America. It
is hoped that better relations may grow out of the common suffering of
this present conflict. This applies to the attitude of the minority as
well as to that of the majority.

[ Illustration--Pipe 2 ]


Very few races or tribes of people have made greater progress in a
century and a quarter than have the Karen in Burma. When we think of
their wild state, their unhealthy ways, their lack of knowledge, their
fear of strangers and their hesitancy in changing their old accepted
ways, their primitive agriculture and crude villages, we can hardly
realize that some of the refined, educated, well-dressed and cultured
people that we have known come from such unlikely ancestry. The "wild
cattle of the hills" have indeed turned out to be what they called
themselves, _Pga K' Nyaw_, which actually means "men".

One of the greatest contributing factors in helping them to throw off
their fears and rid themselves of the fetters of stagnating customs was
their accepting the releasing power of the Christian religion. This
opened their minds and stimulated their smouldering desires for
education so that they could read the Book which had been brought to
them by their "Younger White Brother", the missionary. Schools were
opened and at the beginning were attended by persons of all ages from
young children to ambitious gray-haired men and women.

These schools grew in number and in standard of instruction until,
within fifty years of the baptism of the first Karen into the Christian
Church, a school of collegiate standing was demanded. For many years it
was customary to call the school, which at the time of the invasion was
a part of Rangoon University known as Judson College, the "Karen
College". In fact, the tramway tickets of the Rangoon Electric and
Tramway Company were so printed until after the college was transferred
to Kokine when the University moved to its present site.

So great was the desire for schools among the Christian Karens, who
presented a marked contrast to their non-Christian neighbours of the
same race, that they early met the cost of instruction and, in most
cases, of the buildings in which their children were taught. This was
especially true in Bassein District. Other centres of Karen education
and church activity were Rangoon, where they owned their own extensive
mission compound in the Sanchaung quarter, and Moulmein at Daingwunkwin,
and in Shwegyin, Henzada, Tavoy and Toungoo. Later Nyaunglebin,
Tharrawaddy, Loikaw, Maubin (for Pwos) and Insein became centres of
activity and influence.

The broadening of their mental outlook has brought about many changes in
their lives and in their thinking. A number of indigenous cults have
arisen as a result of this stimulation. The conflict between their
native religious ideas and Buddhism and Christianity has led some to try
to make syntheses of these various teachings. So-called "prophets" have
tried to set themselves up as leaders in these developments. But none of
them has made a very lasting impression on the people as a whole. Of
these the Klibopah and the Ko San Ye movements were probably the most
important. The remnants of the latter group have their centre in a large
village, Padoplaw, near Nyaunglebin. One of the sons of a former leader,
Saw Johnson Po Min, led them into an atheistic movement from which came
some of those who were of uncertain loyalty at the time of the Japanese
invasion. As compared with the large body of Karens who were unitedly
loyal to the government and the religion in which they had found
strength, they were a very small group.

Many Karens who qualified as teachers left their own homes and went as
pioneers to Upper Burma, and to the outlying tribes such as the Chins,
Kachins, Shans, Lahus, and Yawyins and, fired with unselfish zeal, have
given their lives for what is really missionary work in preaching and
teaching these tribes. During the Third Burmese War, when American
missionaries had to leave the Kachin country, these Karen teachers
stayed on and did effective work in laying the foundations for a new
regime among them.

The development of education among the Karens helped to produce books to
take the place of the old oral bard literature. In the beginning many of
these books were written by the missionaries; but as time went on there
grew up Karens who had a desire to contribute to the growth of their
people and these have written a number of very acceptable works. In 1841
a newspaper in Karen, called "The Morning Star", was established by Dr.
Mason in Tavoy. This was the oldest vernacular newspaper in Burma, with
a continuous history up to the time its publication was stopped by the
Japanese occupation. It was cut off when it was about to celebrate its

The Karens were carrying on work of research, medical practice, and
other scientific branches in which they were showing real ability. There
were Karen lecturers in the University.

The churches established by the missionaries had become self-supporting.
No money was being paid from America for regular church work among the
Karens, with the exception of grants for a few schools and for
pioneering work among outlying tribes. They had their own associational
organizations in which the churches of a district were combined and the
stronger made contributions to help the weaker, to support their
Theological Training School at Insein, to maintain town schools which
were conducted with boarding departments for the benefit of the whole
district, and to subsidize evangelistic work in distant places.

The Baptist churches among the Karens combined with the churches of
other peoples in Burma to form the Burma Baptist Convention. Their
annual meetings were often attended by as many as three or four thousand
delegates and were sources of inspiration as well as opportunities to
plan for further work. The Karens shared the honours of president and
officers with Burmans and others. Among other churches such as the
Anglican and Roman Catholic which conducted work among the Karens, they
had their conferences and carried on their work according to the genius
of their own church.

The organization of the Baptist churches has been an important factor in
developing a sense of responsibility among the Karens and an
understanding of the principles of self-government, even though there
may still be much for them to learn.

Even a casual observer will notice the great difference between the
Karens who have become Christians and those who have either remained in
their own animism or even become Buddhists. The difference in the
appearance of their villages may not be so striking but officers have
often remarked to me that the Christian villagers have a different air,
they are a little more cleanly, have their schools and are better
clothed. They also have a much lower crime record. Their young people
branch out into better positions and become more prosperous.

The villages that remain animistic are still held in the slavery of
their taboos and their mentality remains static. The village life
remains unchanged. Custom is their master. Progress is considered
dangerous. Education is not encouraged. If they do go to school it is to
the Buddhist monastery, if there happens to be one. In some cases
however ambitious children demand to go to the Christian schools and
branch out into progressive ways which they learn there.

During the last quarter century there has been a movement among the
animistic Karens who do not become Christian to turn to the Buddhist
culture and religion. This is partly due to the movement to make
Buddhism the national religion of the country and to try to win all the
inhabitants to its practices, and partly due to the fact that the
Buddhist culture is superior to the original Karen way of life. In
turning away from their ancient beliefs and practices they take hold of
that which is nearest to them. But in so doing, it must be acknowledged,
they find themselves still bound by many fears which Buddhism has not
enabled them to throw off. What progress has been made has been very

The release of their minds from the thraldom of superstition and from
the fear of breaking with old customs of which we have spoken, together
with the security from attack afforded them by the British Government
have contributed to help the Karens to become one of the most hopeful
elements in the population of Burma. They can be counted upon to make
good use of the opportunities which it is expected will come to them in
the rehabilitation of the country when the present war is over.

[ Illustration--Torch stand ]


This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia