The plight of tainted souls

A Land without Evil
July 9, 2004

Among the ethnic nationalities that make up Burma, the Karen are the most populous, though the group is not homogeneous but divided into sub-tribes who speak similar yet distinctive dialects. They migrated from Asia Minor thousands of years ago through Mongolia and China, then along the Salween and Irrawaddy Rivers to where they are now settled in southern Burma. When the British took over Burma at the end of the 19th century, the Karen served the colonial power as soldiers and officials, and some became Christians. Since the country gained its independence in 1948, a Karen army has been fighting on the Burmese borders against the central government in Rangoon for an autonomous state.

At first glance, the subject matter of A Land without Evil seems to be solely the sufferings, the resilience and all that is good about the Karen people, set against a litany of atrocities committed by Burma's successive rulers. But unlike some pro-Karen tracts (which are sometimes anti-Burman), the book offers readers a fresh look at the century-long ethnic problems of the country from a slightly different viewpoint with an element of common sense and sympathy.

Although Benedict Rogers is a self-confessed Christian sympathetic to the sufferings of fellow Christians, including those of the Karen, he is clear-headed enough to be able to identify the causes of Karen problems. It would have been easy to follow the sentimental route, but he has refused to do so and has analysed their problems without becoming too emotional.

For example, when describing the simplicity and loyalty of individual Karen people he meets, Rogers reveals some of the reasons why they are unable to be united as a solid political entity. When asked by the author why the Karen were so loyal to the British during the Second World War, an old Karen warrior, Micah Rollings, answers honestly: "Because we were foolish!"

The book consists of short themed chapters that together remind me of Christian sermons or homilies in terms of their narrative technique. Rogers chronicles the development of the self-awareness of the Karen people as a political force by encompassing both historical accounts and the present situation. Then he examines the consequences of Karen support for the British pre-1948.

In many ways, the book reflects a wider struggle for dignity, identity and freedom that all the peoples of Burma are involved in. Geographically, the country is squeezed between two powerful neighbours, India and China, which have influenced it culturally and politically in ways that have at times been inspiring for the people but have often been confusing and even devastating. The problems have been compounded by the country's complex ethnic make-up, which confounds scholars with its rapid shifts and changes that are impossible to account for rationally.

For example, the introduction of Christianity presented many opportunities as well as confusion and conflict among those who embraced it. It also led to the emergence of a new kind of nationalism among ethnic nationalities hitherto content with simple ways of life.

After 1948, things could still have turned out all right for the Karen had it not been for the effects of the Cold War and the "betrayal" of those who should have helped them. Instead, the problems became more complicated and fractured to the point where it was impossible to solve them with conventional negotiation. Rogers reminds those Karen and Burmese who are directly and indirectly responsible for this to come to their senses and end unnecessary suffering by facing the reality of the modern world. Even if he is unable to describe the complexity of the ethnic politics fully, he sheds more light than most writers on the tainted souls of the Karen people and other Burmese tribes diminished through many years in the political and cultural wilderness.

In my view, the book would have been more balanced had more of the views and ways of life of the majority animist and Buddhist Karen been included.

This would have brought a depth to the discussion. For, whatever political or religious denomination the Karen tribes may belong to, they all have a distinct "Karen-ness" to which those who have studied them have paid little attention. Still, the book more or less portrays the hopes and aspirations of a people who are treated like second-class citizens (at best) by the "alien" rulers of Burma.

Pascal Khoo Thwe is the author of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey .

A Land without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People

Author - Benedict Rogers
Publisher - Monarch Books in conjunction with Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Pages - 252
Price - £8.50
ISBN - 1 85424 646 1

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