"Have you eaten yet?"
People keep asking me if I've eaten.
It seemed to me they were overly concerned about my personal life. It finally occurred to me that, instead of asking "How are you?" when they meet, the Karen ask if you've eaten. If you haven't, they feed you. They're showing their concern for you and sharing what they have. But Tuc tells me that's changing. The price of food, especially rice, has made the question more perfunctory than authentic. They may offer water or something to drink, but many people are feeling too insecure to offer rice. The word for "rice" is also the word for "yes". Food is central to their understanding of relationship and to their life view. Though farming has been a part of their culture for a while, they aren't far from hunter/gathers. Life in the camp has sent them back to that in some ways. There isn't a lot of land left for raising food.
To understand their situation, we have to understand the idea of "land." Though many of us (myself excluded) own small plots of land on which our homes sit, we aren't tied to that "acre." We could as easily sell it and move elsewhere. We come from elsewhere and move to elsewhere. When someone asks me where I'm from, I have to answer "the Philadelphia area" (though I've really only lived there for 20 years of my life), but my heart answers Vermont. I've never lived in Vermont. My mother has never lived in Vermont. Her parents moved from there before World War I, but that's the home of my heart. For the Karen, it's Kawthooli – Karen State – an area artificially split by a political border. Ideally, Kawthooli embraces the hill country shared by Burma and Thailand. I remember hearing about the Karen in the 1970's, when I worked on the ABC national staff. I was told then that the "Hill Tribes" move back and forth across the border which they feel has been artificially created. Many were still using slash-and-burn agricultural methods. When the land gave out, they just moved the village. They were semi-nomadic; the central social unit was the village (which was usually an extended family), and, like the Native Americans, the land wasn't owned, it just was. It was their place to be. They've been forced by an expanding world to settle; and now their forced to be settled on a small plot of land crowded with people. This prison is a far cry from the recent past when they moved in small groups around their land.
The course to their present dilemma is too complex for me to relate. If you're not familiar with it, I suggest you read "Land without Evil" by Rogers (which I've probably already mentioned and I'm sorry if I'm repeating myself) and these sites: www.karen.org (which will lead you to other sites), www.khrg.org , www.partnersworld.org , www.freeburmarangers.org.