The Karen Tribe Of Burma And Thailand And Their Beautiful Crafts

Published: 21st November 2011
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I'm fascinated with ancient ethnic peoples that can still be found around the world today. One of them, the Karen tribe of Burma and Thailand, produce such beautiful fabrics, jewelry and basketry that they are catching the attention of fair trade groups in the U.S. and UK.

The Karen tribe is not a homogenous group. They are actually a collection of tribes that live in the hilly areas of Thailand and Burma that are known for their unique traditions as well as their struggle for freedom from colonial rule and resistance to the oppressive populations in Burma that have pushed the Karen into poverty and isolated lives.

A lot of the Karen villages are in remote areas beyond the reach of basic amenities such as water, power, health care and education. Illnesses such as tuberculosis are still prevalent and, the most vulnerable, women and children who are not able to attend school. Many Karen men join the resistance, leaving their families to fend for themselves.Still, the tribes are generally simple and peaceful people who have been forced into a bad situation.

Amidst their poverty, the tribal people traditionally live with very little. They were originally animists but many have converted to Christianity. They are easily forgiving and cooperative by nature. When you meet them, you will notice how happy and prayerful they are. But the people do have very few possessions, sleeping on floor mats, cooking on open fires and drawing water from nearby rivers.

But precisely because of their isolation and simplicity, the Karen have been able to sustain traditional practices that make their lifestyles culturally rich and appealing. Houses are still made the old way - of teak and bamboo and usually constructed on stilts, the spaces underneath set aside for livestock. The tribes' people wear colorful clothing and headdresses decorated with bells, beads and fringes. The tribes are partial to brass and silver jewelry that are more than signs of wealth, but are worn by women to signify beauty and their status as single or married.

The most famous of these are the practices of the Long Neck and Long Ears tribes. The Red Karen tribe is famous for the rings that women wear around their necks, stretching their necks for life; while the Long Ears have their women wear carved elephant tusks in their ears.

These groups are some of the oldest tribes in this part of the world.The tribes people are naturally skilled artisans. They work with silver and brass to make intricate and unique jewelry. They create lush fabrics out of cotton, wool and hemp with complex patterns that have been handed down for generations. Their basketry, made out of bamboo and wicker, are attractive and functional.

Unfortunately, these crafts could have easily been lost. The tribal people's attention was being drawn to other concerns like armed resistance and joining the modern world through other means of income.

However, groups such as Gaiam Life are tapping the skills of Karen tribes to create handicrafts that will appeal to wide markets. Linking up with groups such as local hero's Hser Hay Paw's weaving and sewing cooperative, they make sure that people from as far away as the United States help make a difference for this hillside people.

Traditional weaving and sewing skills are now being tapped to make attractive hand-made bags, scarves and shawls. Jewelry-making talents are being updated to produce necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings with a rustic feel but traditional designs. Hill tribe baskets are now made for different functions and are making their way to homes halfway around the world.

Most of all, it is these skills that are giving tribes people additional sources of income and that are opening up for them opportunities for education, health care and sustainable livelihood they can pass down to the next generations. Fair trade policies ensure that artisans receive fair wages, are able to work from home, and that they practice their arts and crafts without harming the environment.

On our end, changing the way we buy things, becoming more selective of how and where the products we buy come to be means that we are helping in our own small way make the world a better place.


1. Craig Garrison. "Hser Gay Paw: A Hero for Karen Hill Tribe Women." Gaiam Life. Article online at

2. Saw Spenzen. "Who are the Karen people of Burma?" Friends of the Karen People of Burma. Article online at


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