The Karen, living along Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand are notable for being the earliest converts to Christianity in Myanmar and for enduring the longest civil conflict in Myanmar. Their oldest, and most widely used script is Sgaw Karen, devised by American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson in the first half of the 19th Century. A second script was created by Karen Buddhists in the 1930’s who preferred a literature written in their own faith, while a third was promoted in the 1990’s by the DKBA, a splinter group of the Karen National Army.
Depending on who you ask, the Karen Culture and Literature Association either began in the 1950’s as an offshoot of the Karen National Union’s culture department or, more specifically, in 1968 at the Yedagon monastery.
The Abbot of the monastery was traditionally the patron of the KCLA and its rep offices in Karen State and the Delta region, though this position has now shifted to the Abbot of the Taungkalay Monastery. The current patron is U Pin Nya Sa Ma, an ethnic Karen writer himself, known before the transition for his articles, written under a pen name, criticising the then military government’s treatment of the Karen people.
Unlike almost all other ethnic culture and literature associations, the patron of the KCLA has the authority to appoint the chairman and secretary. The KCLA is still unregistered with the government, with fears that should they do so, the Union government would sequester any funds that would be made available to them. Private donations are solicited from the community, religious groups, wealthy businessmen and the KNU.
Thanks to border trade with Thailand, the KCLA is among the better funded ethnic literature associations, though most of their work focusses on dancing, song writing and instrument playing, claiming that as most Karen cannot read the Sgaw script and there are no printing facilities in Karen State there is simply no point.
One of their most successful projects has been the annual summer camps, held between April and May every year for a number of decades. These summer camps have survived despite the presence of the longest running civil conflict in the world where they would often be banned for ‘security reasons’. With up to 30 to 40 camps in remote villages in Karen State and Mon State, and 1000’s of young students learning Karen literature and language, the camps have ensured that, despite the treatment of previous governments, a Karen identity, fostered through literature and history has survived.
To read more about the Karen, their censored literature and my travels with them, take a look at my award-shortlisted political travel book, ‘The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar’.