Most of the Karen refugees living along the Thai-Burma border in Thailand have been forced from their homes in Burma due to the human rights abuses they have faced and the ongoing civil wars between the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) of Burma and numerous ethnic insurgency groups.
In 2005, Cultural Cornerstones began working with Karen refugees who have fled from Burma into refugee camps in Thailand to try to understand the ways forced migration and conflict affect communities' abilities to protect their cultural heritage and cultural rights. Gregory Scarborough's report from this research was published in the Fall issue of Cultural Survival (Read his report here). While in the camps we also worked with youth and elders to record a CD of music in Mae La and Umphiem Mai camps which will hopefully be released in Spring 2007.
Even in the midst of being uprooted from their lands, the Karen in refugee camps in Thailand and those who are internally displaced inside Burma have maintained the protection of their traditions as a primary concern and have developed their own strategies to safeguard their cultural heritage. Local ethnographers are researching their own history and traditions. Masters of traditional arts and crafts have organized spaces to transmit their knowledge to young people. While international organizations focus on providing basic needs, the missions of local organizations embrace the protection of the Karen culture.
The refugees living in Mae La refugee camp, where most of our research and recording sessions were conducted, began pouring into Thailand in large numbers the mid-1980s when the 55 year old struggle by the Karen National Union (KNU) to gain independence intensified dramatically. While families have arrived at different times, many have been displaced over a decade if not two. In addition to the refugees living in the refugee camps in Thailand, hundreds of thousands of Karen remain internally displaced within Burma, and, as fighting continues and Karen villagers continue to be raped, subjected to forced labor and even used as human mine-sweepers the numbers of displaced continues to increase. Elders in the displaced communities miss their lands and fear dying in exile. Many children born in the camp have never known the homeland of Kawthoolei their families dream and fight to return to.