Most people know of the Karen people from television documentaries, magazines and encyclopedias as the "long-neck" or "giraffe" tribe. But the women who wear these brass rings on their neck belong to a sub-group of the Karen known as the Padaung. There are other sub-groups who do not and never have practiced this custom. A further myth is that these rings act to elongate the wearer's neck. Any chiropractor or orthopedic surgeon will tell you that this would lead to paralysis or death. In fact the appearance of a longer neck is a visual illusion. The weight of the rings pushes down the collar bone, as well as the upper ribs, to such an angle that the collar bone actually appears to be a part of the neck!
There are many different accounts of why the Padaung practice this bizzare custom. Their own mythology explains that it is done to prevent tigers from biting them! Others have reported that it is done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders. The most common explanation, though, is the opposite of this — that an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. Adultery, though, is said to be punished by removal of the rings. In this case, since the neck muscles will have been severely weakened by years of not supporting the neck, a woman must spend the rest of her life lying down. According to Paul and Elaine Lewis in Peoples of The Golden Triangle, adultery and divorce among all Karen groups is extremely low.
Whatever the origin of the custom, one of the more common reasons it continues today, particularly in Thailand, is tourism. Although the Padaung have migrated to Thailand in only the last ten years (other Karen groups first settled there about a hundred and fifty years ago), they have become the most popular "attraction" for hill-tribe trekking tourists. Some have written of this as exploitation of the Padaung; many westerners I have spoken to liken the experience of visiting one of these villages to visiting a human zoo. Some tour operators in Thailand now refuse to take tourists into such villages, while some tourists boycott those operators that do.
Perhaps because the neck ring custom is so striking, less attention gets paid to other aspects of Karen culture. Among others, though, large earrings play a dominant role in ornamentation. Although not as visually striking as the apparent neck-stretching, the so-called "big-eared" Karen actually alter their body to a greater extent. As with the wearing of neck rings, the lady on the left will have first had a much smaller earring placed in her earlobe as a young child. As these are replaced over the years by successively larger rings, the earlobes are stretched by a relatively huge amount. Making music also plays an important part in Karen life and women like the one above right can be seen playing the guitar in just about every village. The Karen are also masters when it comes to training elephants.
One Karen tradition that survives very prominently today is the making of their own and their fiance's wedding clothes by young women. Most unmarried Karen women and girls wear a white robe to indicate that they are as yet unmarried. However, as soon as a union is approved (and sometimes even before that in preparation), the girl will begin weaving a different colored dress for her wedding day. In contrast to the Akha, Karen society is matrilineal. The incest taboo is therefore enforced more along the maternal lines of the prospective couple's ancestry. Successive marriages within a matrilineage in particular are discouraged. Marriage itself is considered a very important part of a woman's life; so much so, in fact, that if a woman dies before marriage, she is nonetheless buried (or cremated) in married women's clothing. This, they believe, reduces the chances of malevolent spirits preventing her from entering the afterlife.
Karen life, both in their own mythology and historical reality, is pervaded with persecution. Their folk history speaks of them as orphans who lost their writing system after God handed it down to them, but will have it returned one day by visitors from a far away land. Apparently, when they first came into contact with Christian missionaries, many Karen thought this promise of their history had finally been fulfilled. Marshall (see References and Further Reading), who was among the first missionaries to study the Karen in great depth, says that over two hundred folk stories had been preserved through oral history. Despite that preservation of their history, though, it is still debated as to where and when they originated. Although most writers now claim Burma to be their ancestral home, many have pointed to some of their oral history suggesting that their true origin is China.
The different Karen sub-groups historically have not recognized each other as belonging to the same group until very recently. Their languages/dialects are not spoken or understood by each other and none has a collective term for all the Karen sub-groups. Even their laguages had eluded linguistic classification until they were finally classified as a branch of their own, namely "Karenic." In fact the term "Karen" itself was considered a derogatory term in Burma until Christian missionaries brought respect to it in the late eighteenth century. It has been mainly the S'gaw sub-group that has considered themselves the guardian of Karen culture.
The Karen in Burma have suffered opression at the hands of successive regimes of that country for decades. Forced re-settlement and labor, incarceration, denial of political representation and citizenship status rights among other human rights violations have led thousands of Karen to move into Thailand. While many argue that they have a better life there, their status is yet unsure. Many of them are in Thailand as refugees.
The following quotes are taken from the Human Rights Watch World Report 2002: "Villagers continued to be forcibly relocated, and those suspected of aiding guerrillas were tortured and sometimes killed. In January, government soldiers extrajudicially executed three ethnic minority Palaung men in Ho Ha village in Shan State after a search for weapons turned up an old carbine rifle that villagers used for hunting." "In January, the [Burmese] army reportedly displaced some 30,000 villagers in Karen State when it burned villages in its dry season offensive against the insurgent Karen National Union."
The Karen are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: Southeast Asia. Watch the trailer below.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2020, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
Marshall, H. I., (1922) The Karen of Burma. Bangkok: White Lotus (Reprinted, 1997).