Last weekend, I visited a Karen refugee camp on the western border of Thailand with Myanmar. The invitation was for a graduation at the Kawthoolel Karen Baptist Bible College and Seminary (KKBBCS) in Mae La Refugee camp. The Baptist Church is very important in Mae La Refugee camp, as well as in the larger Karen Community. Many of the Karen speakers in the world are Baptist Christians, an identity that has been important for 200 years, and is in contrast to the vast majority of people in mainland Southeast Asia who are Buddhist.
Mae La is currently the largest refugee camp in Thailand, located just inside Thailand across from the Karen State of Myanmar. The camp has been there since 1984, and today somewhere between 30,000-50,000 refugees who have fled from a long-going civil war (i.e. since 1948), which manifests itself as attacks by the Burmese military on civilian houses, and schools where the literacy is taught in the Karen language. One result is the refugee camp where these people live, as temporary guests of Thailand. Though if you known anything about the mathematics of human demography in this part of the world, it is obvious that most of the refugees have been born in the camp, and may have never seen Karen State itself. Still the emotional tie to Karen State is strong, which is why the graduation I was invited to was scheduled for “10:30 a.m., Karen Standard time.” Karen Standard time is 30 minutes earlier than the rest of Thailand, and on the same time as the Karen homeland which is just a few kilometers away.
The camp itself is something of “standard issue” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) style—I’ve seen similar camps in both Thailand (bamboo and grass) and Tanzania (grass and plastic). The refugee houses at Mae La are made of flattened bamboo, and roofed with leaves. Such material is subject to bugs, fungus, and fire, and normally does not last more than a few years without renewal. But this does not bother the Thai host government, or the UNHCR. After all, the policy is that the refugee camp will close “soon,” so why build permanently, even though there is much evidence that refugee situations (and camps) often last a decade or two, especially if international norms banning forcible deportation of refugees are followed.
There are gardens in the lowlands, but hardly enough land is farmed to grow food for such a large population. The few permanent buildings are for public services—medical facilities, schools, and on our trip today, the Theological Seminary. KKBBCS was actually started in Myanmar in the early 1980s, and moved to Mae La Refugee Camp only about 1990.
At first I thought the ceremony was beginning late—the idea of “Karen Standard Time” had not quite sunk in. But in fact it began a bit early, as the choirs began a very elaborate rendition of Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus” that caught the attention of the 1000 or so people who were both inside the building and outside, their voices filling the tin-roofed building where the ceremony was to take place.
Many of the traditions of graduation ceremonies were there. Because about 20% of the ceremony was in English (the rest was in Karen), I was able to piece together a bit of what was going on. There were the guest speakers—the principal and dean of the school gave their pep talks, there was the awarding of degrees, jokes told about some of the graduates (class clown, shy, etc.), prayers, and hymns (it was after all a seminary graduation!).
It was in this vein that the three valedictory speeches were given, two of which were in English. The women giving the speeches (all three were female) had plenty of kind words for the seminary, their classmates, and of course God. But then the other foot dropped because, after all, this seminary is in a refugee camp. It is the place that these women have lived for decades, but it is not their home. Home, after all is a concept that is in Karen State, across a border where their homes and schools were burnt by the army. It is a place which they have seen little of, but all dream of—a dream that is encouraged by the Thai government which wants them to leave as soon as possible, and of course by the refugees themselves who are acutely aware that they are socially among the least privileged people in the world. Restricted to island of a camp, where the way to insist on some type of identity is to declare “Karen Standard Time,” they were going to let the audience know that something was wrong. Which of course led to interesting applications of Baptist Theology.
In particular the Temptation of Christ was turned into a lecture to the Karen leaders in Myanmar who have been negotiating for a peace agreement in Karen State. Negotiations lead to a strange bedfellows—it is where enemies meet with people who burn down villages, and seek to find a way to work toward peace. But who will give away the most, and why? The valedictorian speakers had an opinion. They thought that the Karen leaders were giving into the temptations proffered by duplicitous government negotiators—the temptations for personal material gain, even as the refugees of Mae La camp remained isolated, homeless, and poor. What did Jesus do when proffered such temptations by the devil? Who turned them down. But would the Karen leaders also turn them down, or would the Karen refugees be sold out yet again?
There was also a comment that it was not possible the refugees who by definition are victims, to “break bread” with enemies.
After the ceremony we had a great meal in one of the large dining rooms—we didn’t have bread, but there was some very tasty rice! I enjoyed this very much—the chance to mix a bit with the refugees, and celebrate their graduates. On the way out, we headed back through a chapel, and some who ended up walking upstream into a wedding party with a ring bearer, six flower girls, and a blushing bride and groom in formal Karen attire. The song being played live at the time? The Wedding March. Music is indeed a gift that the Karen people have, even in the heart of a refugee camp. Weddings are too. So is Karen Standard Time.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.