The Pwo Karen are a people who value harmony above all else and strive to maintain peace amongst themselves and minimize conflict with their surroundings. This is reflected in their tightly knit family units and interaction within and without their villages.
Pwo society is matrilineal, a system which ensures that most women, their daughters and grand-daughters live together in the same village. Also important is the matrilineal ancestor guardian spirit. Elderly men and women are much respected in Pwo society, both for their wisdom and their roles as parents and grandparents. During times of decision making, it is the elders who are turned to for advice.
Pwo families are often large, incorporating several children, grandparents and extended kin. Fathers take an eager interest in their children and play an active role in the home and child rearing. Amongst the Pwo, when a man marries he is expected to move to the bride’s village and attach himself to her family. The relationship to his parents-in-law thus becomes very important and it is usual for at least one couple to live permanently with the bride’s family.
Cycle of the Seasons
Traditionally, daily life amongst the Pwo closely follows the cycle of the seasons. During the hot season which stretches from March to May, the forest is cleared and burned to provide land on which to grow crops. Rice is planted shortly after the monsoon arrives in June, leaving the hill farms green when the rains depart in September. During the cool season, from October to February, the rice is harvested and so the cycle begins over again.
During a good year the harvest is sufficient to support a family, but when the harvest is lean, it may become necessary to buy rice. Not all Pwo families, however, have the financial means to do this.
The Karen form the largest of Thailand’s six ethnic minority groups; their population numbering roughly 1.1 million. They divide themselves into two groups; Sgaw Karen and Pwo Karen. Out of the two groups, the Pwo make up only 12% of the entire Karen population.
The Karen live in both Burma and Thailand. Traditionally a nomadic people, it is thought that they may have migrated South-west from Tibet to Burma, only later settling in the highlands of Thailand. The Karen in Thailand live mainly in the north-western provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Tak and Kanchanaburi.
Linguistically, Pwo Karen belongs to the Tibeto-Karen branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. Although Pwo and Sgaw speak different dialects, they can generally understand each other. Sgaw Karen is spoken by the majority of the Karen People.
The Pwo Karen traditionally make a living through slash-and-burn agriculture, growing rice and other vegetables on the steep mountain-slopes. They also raise chickens and pigs to feed their families. While opium is a large cash crop amongst other minority groups in Thailand, its cultivation and use has never been part of Karen culture.
The Karen are traditionally animist, providing them with pragmatic solutions to problems and a world-view that encourages a holistic outlook which acknowledges the inter-connectedness of all life. The most important spirit is the “Lord of Land and Water” who controls the productivity of the land and calls upon the rice spirit to grow.
Out of the two sub-groups, it is the Pwo who have been most reluctant to make contact with Thai and other ethnic groups. The Sgaw Karen have long had dealings with Thai lowlanders, but many Pwo communities have chosen to remain as they have for centuries; staying in their mountain-top villages where kinship ties are strong. While many Sgaw have converted to Christianity, the Pwo remain largely animist, often incorporating aspects of Thai Buddhism as they see fit.