Schooling, Identity, and Nationhood: Karen Mother-Tongue-Based Education in the Thai–Burmese Border Region

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Modern Karen education began in the early 1800s when introduced by British and American missionaries at roughly the time the British colonial powers arrived from India. After independence from Great Britain in 1948, Burma faced revolt from ethnic groups including the Karen, in large part, over issues of language and cultural self-rule. This led to the forcible closing of Karen-language schools by the military junta beginning in the 1960s and the re-establishment of Karen schooling by the Karen National Union (KNU) in independent self-rule territories, often near the Thai border. In this context, beginning in the 1980s, Karen-medium language spread into the highlands of Burma and into Thai refugee camps where Karen had been living for nearly four decades. Karen medium education is an important element establishing what Benedict Anderson called the “imagined community”. With mass Karen literacy, a national consciousness emerged, particularly in areas where schools were sustained. This separate consciousness is at the heart of the Karen of Kawthoolei. The Karen Education and Culture Department (KECD) was established in 1947 by the KNU. Karen schools provide mother-tongue-based education. Much of the development of the Karen medium curricula was undertaken by the KECD, and it is significantly different from that of the Burmese government’s curriculum, particularly in terms of language medium, literature, and history. Karen schooling reflects the Karen political consciousness, which will be at the heart of any peace agreements negotiated in the still-ongoing Burmese Civil War.
Original languageEnglish
Article number163
JournalSocial Sciences
Issue number3
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 09.03.2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
BMWEC is the only body managing the migrant schools, and its main work is focused only on funding, teacher trainings, and teacher recruitment supported by non-governmental organizations and the Burmese Migrant Teacher Association (BMTA). During recent years, migrant schools began codifying their curriculum in order to seek recognition by the Thai Ministry of Education. For specifically Karen Migrant Schools run by the Karen, the curriculum is as similar as possible to that of the KECD in the Karen State of Burma and KRCEE in Thai refugee camps. However, other ethnic learning centers prefer to teach their own syllabi using Burmese or other languages.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 by the authors.

    Research areas

  • Sociology - schooling, Identity, Nationhood, Karen ethnicity, Burma, Myanmar, mother-tongue-based education, Thai-Burmese border, imagined communities, School administration