Food … A weapon of War?!?! The Karen peoples of Burma

Picture 4For the most part I believe in clichés.  I mean they are clichés for a reason right? Cleanliness is a state of mind, Live and Learn, What goes around comes around . . . etc.  These are inherent truths to me.  But one cliché that has been standing out as a glaring falsity lately is “All is fair in love and war”.
My mom has been a great supporter of this new food adventure that I am on, she constantly sends me websites, puts me on to radio shows and saves video links for me to look up.  I love learning about food, nutrition and culture so I love it when she sends me these things, but recently she sent me something that truly horrified me.  Mom, being on the eternal quest for knowledge, spent the evening watching a program called Cooking in the Danger Zone: Burma, her brief synopsis went something like this——> The Burmese government is using food as a weapon of war.
I realize there are really bad things that go on in this world but this just made my heart flip, stomach turn and head spin!  This government has been using something that is a basic human right as a tool for warfare! If everything is supposed to be fair in love and war then can anything go?
Below you will find some info about the longest running civil war in the world (at the present time) . . . a war between the Burmese army and the Karen people who live on the border between Burma and Thailand.  While I would love to share with you some traditional food of the Karen people seeing as their food sources are consistently confiscated many of the people sustain themselves on rice and grubs.  Instead you can find some recipes for traditional Burmese dishes .   I wish you well.  Spreading peace through food.

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The echoes of colonialism continue to sound on the border between Burma and Thailand.  Here the Karen hill tribe has been fighting for its independence from the Burmese government since independence in 1949.  This mini-history delves into the past, discusses the present and ponders the future of the Karen people

The Past ———->
Thai_Padaung_Long_NeckThe Karen people are thought to originally be from Mongolia.  Driven south over the centuries by various tribes, the Karen are thought to be one of the first peoples to enter Burma, even before the Burman.  They have a distinct culture, language and religion that is quite different from the Burmese peoples. When the British colonized Burma in the early 18th century they turned to the Karen for support against the Burmese.  Beginning in the 1930’s and continuing through independence the British used Karen troops to help suppress a Burmese resistance, understandably leading to a feud of sorts between the Karen and Burmese.  The Karen peoples supported the British with the understanding that when independence came they would get their own state
Here history repeats itself.  The British left Burma hastily in 1948, taking many Karen with them to fight in WW2.  They left without giving the Karen’s their promised land and predictably upon their the Burmese began to attack Karen villages, burning churches and rice fields. Thus began what we now have as the longest ongoing civil war.  The Karen have been fighting the Burmese for their independence for the last 60 years.
In the 1970’s the Burmese junta implemented a strategy called the 4 cuts.  This tactic aims at eliminating the Karen’s food, supplies, information and recruits.   The army limits access to food by not allowing the Karen people out of their village so that they can farm their land.  They also confiscate produce and farm animals and place land mines in fields in order to make them inoperable.  The intent of these actions is to starve the Karen into submission and assimilate them into Burmese culture. A short interview with a Karen woman documents some of this atrocious practices.

The present ——–>
Picture 8
Today there are approximately 3 million Karen people living on the border of Burma and Thailand with another 100,000 Karen living in refugee camps in Thailand.  The Burmese army, a military junta called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is 400,000 troops strong and continues to use the 4 cuts strategy that begun in the 1970’s, burning fields, villages and livestock as well as using rape warfare against villagers and attacking the remaining 4,000 members of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
On June 6, 2009 the SPDC began shelling the area around the Burma Thai border and started to terrorize Karen villages.  Since that date more than 4,000 Karen have fled to refugee camps in Thailand, running from the shells and the army who would force them into slave labor.

How you can help ——–>
Knowledge is Power . . . read up on the history and current conflict in Burma.  Educate your family and peers.  Spread the word!

Karen Conflict 101

Cuisine within Context and the White Karen hill tribe of Northern Thailand

Behind the Karen Lines

The Current Conflict – June 2009

Burma Issues



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This photo was taken at the Su Htoo Pan Parahita Monastery in Burma by Jennifer Trejo circa 2007This photo was taken at the Su Htoo Pan Parahita Monastery in Burma by Jennifer Trejo circa 2007

When I first began to do research for this post I thought it would be great to share some traditional Karen recipes. The more I delved into the world of the Karen peoples the more I realized that this is a community that historically has much more to worry about than the development of a cuisine.  The Burmese junta continually places land mines in fields in order to make them inoperable. They limit the freedom of villagers so that they cannot till the land and they confiscate produce and farm animals in an effort to starve the Karen into assimilation. These people have through the ages been pushed from one land to another, always on the go they are forced to live off of what they can find in the forest.  Food_Not_Bombs logoHard to find sources of protein such as grubs are a delicacy for the Karen.  Rice is a staple as it is regularly delivered by aid organizations.  Their food is that of oppressed peoples, food is a necessity for survival, not an art.  Below I share with you some Burmese recipes with the hopes that one day the Karen will have a land of their own and a cuisine as deep as their history.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Food … A weapon of War?!?! The Karen peoples of Burma

  1. Jodi

    Hello, I was wondering if you have a Karen recipe. My family has “adopted” a Karen refuge family that has been in the States for 2 months now. We have had hardships with language, but one thing that we do together is eat and play music. I would love to make them a traditional Karen meal, but I am having a hard time finding anything. I did however find you and I’m hoping that you might be able to help out. I would love to make them something that they are familiar with since everything is so new and different here. Thank you!

  2. Eh ku soe

    Wow! I’ve been tried to find this kind of story about Karen for a long time and I finally found it. I’m doing my English research paper about Karen. I’m 15 years old and I learned a lot from this article. Thank you!

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