Monday, August 3, 2009


THE Karen, or Yang as they are called by the Northern Thai, or Kariang as they are known to Thais in other parts of the country, are the largest highland group in Thailand. In 1995, Karen population was estimated 321,900 which equalled 46.34 percent of the total hill tribe population of the country. Karen communities are located mainly in the mountainous areas of the western provinces along the Thai-Burmese border (Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchanaburi and Phrachuap Khiri Khan) and are scattered is some provinces in north and central Thailand (Lampang, Lamphun, Sukhothai, Phrae, Kamphaeng Phet, Phetchaburi, Uthai Thani, Suphanburi and Ratchaburi). Over the past 200 years they have tended to move eastward away from Burma into Thailand because of political conflicts with the Burmese.

The Karen belong to the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. They are divided into four major sub groups:
1. The Skaw Karen or White Karen who call themselves and other subgroups Pga-gan-Yaw.
2. The Pwo Karen or Plong who are also known as White Karen but sometimes they are also
3. known as White Karen but sometimes they are wrongly called Red Karen.
4. The Pa-O or Taungthu who are also known as Black Karen.
5. The Bwe or Kayah or Red Karen.

Karen settlements tend to be in areas of lower altitude compared with those of other tribes. Most of them are located in valleys or mountain saddles at an average height of 500 metres above sea level. Karen villages are sedentary and some villages have been established for more than a hundred years. Unlike other tribes, they have clearly recognised garden and village boundaries. Each village maintains its own sense of sovereignty and people from outside are not allowed to cultivate land within its territory unless they have rights over paddy fields gained either through purchase or inheritance

Although many Karen construct terraced fields for wet rice, nearly all are also engaged in swidden cultivation. The shifting cultivation method of the Karen is called land rotation or cyclical bush fallow. Rice and vegetables are their major crops. Today some Karen may grow opium but it is not a traditional crop.

The Karen raise various kinds of domestic animals including pigs, chickens, water buffaloes, cattle and elephants. Some animals, mostly chickens, are killed for ceremonial offerings and feasts, and other are used as beasts of burden. The Karen derive cash income from the sale of cattle, and local produce, from wage labor, and by hiring out their elephants.

Karen kinship and marriage custom are different from those of other highlanders. Kinship is traced through the maternal line and residence is matrilocal. The Karen practice monogamy, and most households are nuclear. In all cases, the family represents the most important basic cooperative unit in all domestic affairs. In Thailand, the Karen mostly practise the Buddhism and Animism. And some follow the Christian faith. Their New Year celebration takes place in January or February.

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