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Ethnic Karen face livelihood, identity crisis

Misunderstandings lead to unnecessary hardships for Karen born in Thailand

A Karen farmer works in his field A Karen farmer works in his field
  • Sornsak Pornjongmun, Petchaburi
  • Thailand
  • October 5, 2011
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Thailand’s ethnic Karen minority are facing a crisis due to encroaching modernization and misunderstandings about their way of life and livelihood. Their lands have been made National Parks, thus destroying their traditional rotational farming system. Moreover, many do not have citizenship even though they were born in Thailand.

The recent burnings of the homes of some 50 Karen families in Petchaburi province is a case in point. Destruction of Karen homes has also taken place in other parts of the country.

Karen people in Thailand are found along the western border area, from Mae Hong Son province in the north down to Ratchaburi and Petchaburi provinces west of Bangkok. They live in forest and highland areas, mostly doing subsistence rice farming.

The Karen have been accused of causing deforestation due to their rotational farming practice. In fact, they respect the forest as something divine and do not cut down big trees. Their houses are made from bamboo rather than wood. There’s also a traditional practice of tying the umbilical cord of a newly born child to a big tree, so that tree spirit would protect the child as it grows up. It is forbidden to cut down such a tree.

The rotational farming system actually encapsulates the Karen people’s wisdom in protecting the forest and natural resources.

A Karen family typically cultivates between six and seven rai of land with rice for a particular year. The following year, another piece of land of similar area is cultivated, and this is repeated for seven years before coming back to the same piece of land.

This rotation of farming land allows the soil to replenish itself without the use of chemical fertilizers. In this system, seven fixed pieces of land are used by the family on a rotation basis. Thus, there is no invasion of new lands.

The Thai government passed a resolution in August 2010 saying it recognizes the wisdom and way of life of the Karen people, including the rotational farming system. Academic circles have also stated that they accept the wisdom of the Karen’s rotational farming system, and are pushing for it to be recognized as a world heritage.

In spite of this, there have been many problems and conflicts. A major factor is the declaration of several national parks across the country since 1961 by the Forestry Department. Many areas that have been declared national parks are in the traditional lands of the Karen. As they have no land titles to lands that their ancestors have settled on for decades, many Karen have been forced to move out of the forest.

National parks are created because huge parts of the country have suffered serious deforestation, resulting in other calamities such as heavy flooding. It needs to be noted that deforestation is not caused by the Karen people’s traditional lifestyle but by logging activities of investors.

Sometimes Karen people are hired as laborers by logging companies, and so are accused of destroying the forest. Even though logging concessions were stopped in 1989, illegal logging still takes place.

New land provided by the government for the Karen that have been evicted from national parks is insufficient. Moreover, they need to use chemical fertilizers to keep the same piece of land fertile year after year. Needless to say, they cannot practice rotational farming. Some have even been arrested for even collecting bamboo shoots for food in forest areas designated as national parks.

This change in lifestyle has forced many to become daily-wage laborers in towns, which leads to another problem: They do not have Thai ID cards. This opens them to exploitation by employers. They are not protected under Thai law and don’t have access to social welfare programs.

The process of applying for Thai citizenship is complex and takes time. This is because the Thai government is wary that ethnic minorities from across the border in Myanmar might also be trying to apply for Thai citizenship. Often the Karen are accused of being illegal migrants, even though they and their ancestors have always been on the Thai side of the border.

In this context, the local Church has been working to empower the Karen to maintain a livelihood and preserve their culture, and also bring about greater understanding between them and government authorities.

The Diocesan Social Action Center of Ratchaburi diocese, for instance, has been working with Karen communities in 100 villages in Ratchaburi, Petchaburi and Kanchanaburi provinces for some 20 years.

We encourage them to preserve their culture, try to keep them in the forest and help them to be self-sufficient by introducing farming of other crops such as chili and fruits. We also do surveys on their land use and report these to the government. We show the government that their activities are not the major cause of deforestation, and in fact help preserve the forest. We try to build mutual understanding between the government bureaucracy and the Karen people.

We also provide vocational training and set up micro-credit financing, especially in the towns. Recently we started a program to educate them against being trafficked, which they are vulnerable to in the towns.

On the citizenship issue, the Church center is helping the Karen to get ID cards. For example, one needs a birth certificate to get an ID card, but normally they don’t have these because they were born in the forest area far from any district office. We try to find witnesses, such as midwives and elders, to testify that one was born at a certain date at a certain location, in order to get a birth certificate. We try to get school certificates for those who went to school, as added evidence that they grew up here.

The other two Catholic diocese covering the areas where the Karen are, in Chiang Mai and Nakhon Sawan dioceses, have implemented similar programs.

Sornsak Pornjongmun has worked with the Ratchaburi Diocesan Social Action Center since 1994. The ethnic Karen layman now serves as field staff under the center’s ethnic minorities cultural restoration for project
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