The Karen are one of the largest ethnic tribes in Southeast Asia. Thought to have migrated south from the mountainous plains of Yunnan more than 500 years ago, the Karen community of approximately six million now predominantly reside within the Eastern regions of Burma and the Northwest of Thailand, with sizeable minorities also living in the USA and Europe following a 20th Century resettlement programme.
The oral traditional history maintained by the Karen and passed down through the generations links the partition in the community between the two Southeast Asian nations to there being two original migration paths from the south of China that were divided by the Salween River. Once thing is for certain, the settlement of the Karen in the mountainous regions where they now live pre-dates the creation of the modern state boundaries of what is now known as Myanmar and Thailand.
For the vast majority of their history, the Karen way of living and surviving as a community has been characterized by patterns of migration. Their traditional villages, which are made up of stilted houses located within the forest, were built, and settled in semi nomadic cycles lasting for around one generation, or 50 years. A community would up and move to a new location to access better sources of food and water, or when there had been a series of deaths which led to bad spirits coming to the village.
The freedom of movement enjoyed by the Karen for most of their history enabled communities to live in harmony with the land. The practice of ‘slash and burn’ farming practices on small plots enabled communities of 200-300 people to live sustainably from the land in cycles, giving the soil the chance to recover. The vital resource of water could be accessed from mountain streams and was free from contamination due to the total absence of modern materials or waste in the villages.
The population of approximately 500,000 Karen who find themselves living in Northern Thailand are more fortunate than the much larger group of 6 million across the border in Myanmar, who have been living through war and government oppression for several decades. The Thai-Karen now experience relative peace, but face daily challenges of adapting their lives to the restrictions of living within the state of Thailand.
Since the 1960’s, for reasons of centralization and designation of national park areas across the mountains settled many hundreds of years ago by their ancestors, the Karen have been required to live in fixed locations for the first time in their history. They were the first of the several ‘hilltribes’ living in Thailand today to accept Thai ID, giving them the right to reside in the country which was now being built around them.
Without the freedom to move from villages there has been much more pressure on the existing water sources available to Karen villages, and most challenging of all has been the need to adapt farming methods from the rotational farming – now illegal – to the cultivation of rice in paddies and plains. There was no textbook for how to adapt in this way, and though Karen could attend Thai schools, they learnt in Thai as a second language and often travelled hours or days by foot to enter formal education.
The Karen Hilltribes Trust was founded in the late 1980’s to assist the Thai-Karen communities to adapt their lives as best possible to these new challenges. The installation of pipelines from the mountain water sources to villages on the lower plains was the first project and continues to this day, now having provided 55,000 Karen people with access to water. The charity was registered in the UK in the late 1990’s and through additional fundraising was able to add new projects in agriculture and education.
Each of these interventions is designed by Karen staff members of the charity in close consultation with the communities in the villages themselves. The organisation has sustained itself over 3 decades in large part due to the involvement of volunteers from UK school and universities, who travel to Northern Thailand and live within the Karen villages, contributing to the ongoing projects while learning about the unique culture of a community which maintains some living methods that date back hundreds of years.
Many of these traditions are changing through the necessary adaption of community life into the centralized institutions of the modern state, and some of which the Karen would like to participate in more fully, such as education, employment, and politics. KHT remains a charity set up by the Karen, for the Karen, and it strives to ensure that its vision is always representative of the communities it supports, namely, to achieve sustainable change and empower Karen communities across Northern Thailand to improve their own lives.