HomeCommentaryVoices of faith | Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Karen (Thailand)

Voices of faith | Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Karen (Thailand)

Karen (/kəˈrɛn/ ⓘ kə-REN), also known as the Kayin, Kariang, or Kawthoolese, are an ethnolinguistic group of Sino-Tibetan language-speaking peoples. The group as a whole is heterogeneous and disparate as many Karen ethnic groups do not associate or identify with each other culturally or linguistically.

These Karen groups reside primarily in Kayin State, southern and southeastern Myanmar. The Karen account for around seven percent of the Burmese population. Many Karen have migrated to Thailand, having settled mostly on the Myanmar–Thailand border. A few Karen have settled in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, and other Southeast Asian and East Asian countries.

The bonfires serve as powerful conduits for fostering unity, cultural exchange, and emotional connections, transcending linguistic and geographical boundaries through the shared experiences of dance, music, and prayer. Sustaining these gatherings is crucial for perpetuating this invaluable exchange of feelings and traditions.

Aboriginal languages are meant to enrich the church, they create diversity in the church. Since the Church is Universal it must put everyone or accept everyone in the church, all must have a place, and no one must be exempted in the church and it includes all aboriginal peoples for communication and dialogue. 

Since the beginning of the church, it has already adapted to all the languages during Pentecost and that is the beginning of the church. In the History of the Church in the 2nd Vatican Council, there was the decision to translate the Bible from Latin to all Vernaculars. The Mass must be translated into all languages.

The Church must have the capacity to dialogue with the Aboriginal peoples in their Aboriginal languages and to be humble enough to listen, consider, and give value to the Aboriginal peoples in their own culture and traditions. The message of the Church to the aboriginal peoples is that they also are children of God. Then, the Church must invest and put all resources into promoting the aboriginal languages and talking in those languages too. 

The new path that the Church can take is through Welcoming, Listening, Dialogue, and Promoting Aboriginal Peoples, their culture and traditions, and even the pains and hopes that they have. Walking together with aboriginal peoples of different spiritualities.

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These are some issues, pains, problems, and hopes to discuss:

  1. Issues of individual differences in the church ministry. 
  2. Young people’s interest in groups outside of the Church. 
  3. Young people also suffer from broken families which diverts them to satisfaction with alcohol and drug abuse.

The ancestral lands are the place of our origin, culture, and identities and they hold spiritual values. For this reason, it is important to work in the implementation of aboriginal rights, the right to the land, the right to property, to defend and promote their culture, religion, and self-determination. The Aboriginal people are the natural protectors of Mother Nature. For this reason, climate change has a direct impact on the lives of the aboriginal peoples because of their socio-cultural values linked to the land and to nature.

Aboriginal peoples must understand that we have to preserve our ancestral lands and for this reason, we cannot sell them. We should not forget our origins and that our rituals have to do with the praise of Mother Nature. It is also integrated into the current climate crisis and how we can campaign for solutions and it includes the advocacy for the preservation of Aboriginal people’s rights. We propose the running of campaigns from different youth groups, the planning of cultural events in different times, the integration of aboriginal and church practices, and the running of workshops. We can become a part of local, national, and international forums on culture, be a part of the cultural committee in universities and conduct cultural exhibitions. 

When authorities seize ancestral lands, legal strategies can be advised, such as purchasing land. Even without land, communities can still engage in cultural practices, maintaining their heritage and traditions despite the loss of physical territory. Social media campaigns with a wider range of coverage help in raising our voices for injustice and rights.

We must go back and review the indigenous cultural languages of each country and area to see what they are, what meaning they give to the community, and how important they are to life. The spirit of the tribe is very important because it has the power to make decisions and the spiritual leader must practice meditation and have a pure heart, be kind, have morality, and be righteous and upright. Communication and technology should be media that come from the inside, meaning people in the community. The real stories in that local context are explained from the roots of that aboriginal community.

We would like to exchange and share working experiences in each area, whether it be social, cultural, economic, household, educational, or environmental. One important aspect is religion, belief, and spirituality.

Our ancestors did not teach us how much land we have, and what boundaries we have, nor did we say that we are the owners of the land. They said that we were born on earth as mere inhabitants and then left. They taught us that we must take care of the soil and forest water to be as healthy as possible so that our children and grandchildren can come and live there like us.

Use natural resources and keep them in balance such as Producing Products that have the least impact on the environment. Climate change causes the production of products to fluctuate. For example, coffee beans are eaten by more insects, causing the seeds to be of poor quality

Having an annual tradition allows the children and grandchildren who went to study and work in the city to come back home, join their families, and learn traditions together. Creating a group to meet, such as attending church together on Sunday.  Participating in church activities on various occasions

Using the media lets others know what we do. To open space for discussion, share experiences, and find ways to do activities together. The house consists of love, warmth, and a safe area with food waiting. 

Aboriginal languages are the main expressions of our aboriginal identities. Knowing our own language, studying it, and knowing the roots of the words, help us to understand the cultural meanings and how we see the world. The aboriginal language is the first aspect of our identity. When we talk in our language, we can do that with confidence and clarity, so it is a great value in communication. Our challenge is how we can communicate with other people, and how we can break the barriers of languages that can cause situations of misunderstanding. If we protect our language, we are protecting our identities, our ways of life, and our beliefs. We have to always think about how we can protect and promote it. 

We would like to answer that the simplest thing we can do quickly is that start from our family, make our children aware that we have our own culture and if we have our own language and beliefs, how do we explain it to our family? Explain it in a way that is appropriate to the social context, even though it changes. There is a way to find a method to explain to children, grandchildren, and family members to understand. This is something that challenges the abilities of each family, but we believe that the things that can be done are the easiest to find. No matter what, but only for example, in the past, there were rituals and behaviors such as queues for birthday gifts or buying just for birthdays, they arranged it themselves, but today we need the priest who came to bless the piece of cake to make it more sacred. 

In the end, we believe that it is the ancestral language, which still has a role to play. It is very important to the aboriginal peoples. We hope everyone can join in and help for the sake of treatment and care for each other.

The Church can promote the conversation between her traditional spiritual leaders and those from aboriginal communities, looking for ways to live peacefully and to communicate and share our traditions. The problem of national education to our children left little space for aboriginal education, making our children lose interest in their own culture and traditions. 

Written by Indigenous youths from the Karen Indigenous group in Thailand during the 10-day extensive media production training for Asian Indigenous youth in Kep province, Cambodia in March 2024.

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