Karen youngsters stage a show on the nativity, followed by songs and dances, in the village of Maesopo on Christmas Eve. (Photo: Carol Isoux/EDA)
On the Thai-Myanmar border, Paris Foreign Missions Society priests are based in Karen communities. They are engaged in various tasks including education, farming and microcredit.
Father Alain Bourdery has been working among the communities for the past 20 years. During the Christmas season, which lasts for three weeks among Karens, he travels from village to village to participate in celebrations.
This year, however, he has to deal with the villagers' concerns as an unprecedented number of people are affected by the pandemic in Thailand.
In the village of Maesopo, on this Christmas Day, young and old alike gathered on the fresh straw, spread for the occasion on the esplanade, which is used as a football pitch, to attend the Mass.
Sitting in suits, women on one side, men on the other, most of them wore masks. There is indeed a recently built church, made entirely of wood. But fear of Covid-19 has taken the celebrations outdoors.
Two days earlier, the Thai authorities had detected nearly 1,000 Covid-19 cases in a province near Bangkok, which led to a certain feverishness.
"If Covid-19 enters the villages, it's over for us, especially for our elders," says one resident.
Unlike the Thais, who greet each other with joined hands without physical contact, the Karen communities shake hands and eat from the same dishes. In the event of a health threat, the next hospital is several hours away.
In the afternoon, the villagers laughed heartily as children engaged in games: tug-of-war, races with runners dressed in oversized pants, and a competition to balance trays on heads.
The ritual distribution of Christmas presents from Bangkok's volunteer associations also took place. The adults were given blankets and other necessities.
In the evening, a sound and light show told the story of the birth of Jesus, followed by songs and dances to suit all tastes. Teenagers dressed in banana costumes wiggled on Thai pop, and the village women performed traditional dance steps.
Christmas celebrations in the villages last for more than three weeks at a steady pace, from mid-December to early January.
Smiling but concentrated in the midst of the pandemic, Father Bourdery scrutinizes the minute details and ensures that he delegates everything.
At the end of the year, his schedule is busy. He has a dozen Christmas Masses to celebrate in the villages of his mission. He often has to drive for hours on hazardous mountain tracks at the wheel of his pickup loaded with donations for the villagers, and sometimes he has to cross rivers.
It is a titanic task that he sweeps away with a wave of his hand: "It's nothing compared to the time when Father Joseph Quintard [his predecessor] used to walk the paths for days."
He adds: "When he arrived in the 1960s, Father Quintard did pioneering work to connect these cut-off Karen villages to the modern world. Sometimes, the whole village is Christian like here. But sometimes there are only a few families, so we celebrate Christmas in one house."
But the work of the priest is far from being confined to the spiritual life of the communities. The heart of his mission is in the village of Maetowo, on the road along the border, where he runs a center for teenagers all year round.
About 30 girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 17 from the mountain villages live there and attend the municipal college. The rules of life there are strict: no mobile phones, no individual outings.
These constraints are compensated for "by a rich community life, activities, outings, singing and dancing," says Father Bourdery.
Nevertheless, some teenagers can't stand the cultural shock with their freedom in the village and prefer to go back home. There is also the omnipresent threat of drugs, particularly in the form of methamphetamine (ya ba or "crazy drug"), which is wreaking havoc on the Karen youth.
"The Karen mountains are like a sieve with Myanmar," explains a nearby college teacher. "A lot of drugs pass through here — it's difficult to control.
Health risk, cultural impoverishment
It is also a question of accompanying the villagers in their development strategy. For these isolated villages, located on sloping land, agricultural prospects are limited.
In recent years, the region has specialized in maize to feed livestock. But cultivation, which is demanding in terms of water and space, is tantamount to "the assured death of the forest, and all the social problems that result from it," says Father Bourdery, who is fiercely opposed to it.
Deforestation in the Karen areas, in addition to the environmental problems, means considerable sanitary and cultural impoverishment for people whose identity is based in large part on a thorough knowledge of nature.
But the prospect of profit sometimes encourages some families to sweep aside these objections and try the experiment, to the point of creating tensions in the villages.
Previously, these issues were brought before a council of elders whose decisions were respected. But that practice has been abandoned now.
"Before, we needed others in the villages," says Father Bourdery. "Any decision had to be taken in good understanding with the neighbors. Today, we think that if we have money, we can do without others."
The line not to be crossed is tenuous for the missionary to accompany these debates without imposing a vision.
'Building communities takes time'
The three Catholic missions in the area (where Fathers Alain Bourdery, Antoine Meaudre and Camille Rio work) also have to cope with NGOs' increasing presence.
With budgets far greater than those of the local Church, they resort to their pool of already trained, bilingual Thai-Karen and sometimes even English-speaking staff, offering double or triple salaries, leaving the Christian missions without qualified personnel.
Evangelicals are also on the rise. Well structured and financed, Baptist and Adventist churches are firmly established in the region, relying on Burmese Karen pastors who have crossed the border to operate in refugee camps. Most in these camps are Burmese Karens who have fled the armed conflict with the central government in recent decades.
These churches, particularly through free offers of music and English classes, are popular with the Karen population and represent the majority of new conversions.
"We're not here to put a figure on it," says Father Bourdery. "It takes time to build a community."
Karen country is undergoing a major upheaval in the technological age. For Father Bourdery, the young people who still live in the villages are probably "the last generation" to do so. Life there is too hard, the attraction of the city and the material comfort too powerful.
His efforts do not go unnoticed. In 2019, he managed to take a group of volunteers to Rome to meet Pope Francis. They have fond memories of this historic meeting.
Ignoring the challenges, he continues to criss-cross the mountains, preferring to highlight his volunteers' work and that of the Karen sisters who help him daily.
"Is it my faith that sustains my life or my life that sustains my faith? Sometimes I don't know anymore. But I wouldn't want another life," says Father Bourdery.
This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.