Karen State, once called Kawthule, included most of the border areas adjacent to Pegu Division and Mon State. East of it was the Thai border, and many Karens lived in Thailand as well, some crossing the border constantly. Historically, the Karens have found safety and semi-independence in the hills, where they have developed their own languages, religion, customs, dress, and political systems. Many migrated to the plains, where they took up rice farming, usually living near other Karens in an enclave. Plains Karens, such as the Sgaw and Pwo Karens, were not located in their state at all but were found in many areas of Lower Burma, where they often adopted Buddhism and lived lives very much like those of their neighbors.
Those in the hills generally lived by the slash-and-burn system of clearing hillside patches of land-burning them and planting crops, such as rice, maize, and vegetables, in the soil and ashes. Although the government of Thailand has officially taken a dim view of this use of land, Burma apparently has not shared that negative view; neither government has had enough manpower to interfere. In Thailand the Karens were officially squatters, but they were definitely not so considered in Burma, and Karen State was no simple tokenism.
The Karens historically did not play a role equivalent to the Mons or the Arakanese; even in their own oral histories, they saw themselves as usually outdone by the Burmans. Seldom organized beyond shifting groups of villages loyal to a charismatic leader, the Karens have nojorious memories or archaeological ruins of past Karen kingdoms, but they have been prone to enthusiastic beliefs in millennial leaders who would bring them the boons of a kingdom to come.
It has been fashionable to call the traditional religion of people like the Karens a form of animism, or "spirit worship." The word never does justice to such beliefs, which may be as complex and lofty as those of the major religions of the world. Traditional Karens, like so many other peoples, believe that both matter and spirit are realities, each possibly inhabiting the same entity at a given time or perhaps later separated but still linked. The natural world of plants and animals is filled with the spiritual components of each thing, just as the spirits of humans must be dealt with, whether still joined to a living body or not. Living very close to both nature and one's living and dead kin involves traditional Karens with obligations to spiritual forces about them.
A common Western bias is that if a people worship gods, they are more civilized than if they worship spirits, but in Southeast Asia the more distant the god, the less important the spiritual influence of that force. There are Karen gods, rituals, and oral religious traditions so impressive that early missionaries toyed with the belief that the Karens were a lost tribe of Israel. Traditional Karen religion has a strong tendency to ascribe a supernatural component to all forms of life and everyday experiences. In that respect they share much with their Buddhist neighbors.
Always alert to ways to strengthen themselves for the perpetual competition with more powerful neighbors, the Karens welcomed the advent of the British in the last century, and many turned to Christianity as a means of establishing links to the Western world. Others eagerly sought education under British and American Baptist missionary guidance. When the British staffed army units with hill tribe peoples and Indians to control the Burmans, who were denied the right to join the colonial armed forces, the Karens joined with eagerness. Understandably, the Burmans did not look kindly on what they considered misplaced loyalty. In all these areas Karens seem to have sought means to avoid assimilation with the Burmans, and separatist movements were endemic among the Karens.
The most impressive Karen insurgency took place after World War II when, in alliance at times with Mon nationalist and communist groups, Karens and others took over parts of Burma, including Bassein and Mandalay. Nothing on that scale has occurred since 1949, but the fighting has never stopped for long, despite numerous amnesty campaigns and many frank talks with insurgent leaders. One of the basic problems not addressed by the creation of Karen State has been that the vast majority of Karens live outside it.
No matter where Karens live, they characteristically have a strong sense of ethnic pride. With a script developed with missionary help, for example, they published their own newspaper as early as 1841 in Tavoy, and Karens continued to publish Christian and secular material in the early 1980s. At Rangoon University and Judson College, they strove hard for upward mobility while competing with Burmans in both studies and sports. Because many Karen leaders have been Christian, they have sought to maintain contact with Westerners almost as a way of obtaining more security, but because outside missionaries have been banned from Burma in recent decades, the opportunities for outside contacts have diminished. The Karens' turn to insurgency may in part represent yet another method of making sure they are not altogether forgotten in a mass of Burman socialists.
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