Emslie Horniman Award: Dominique Dillabough-Lefebvre

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Award Holder: Dominique Dillabough-Lefebvre
University: London School of Economics and Political Science
Title of Research: Development as insurgency: Ethnonationalism and the politics of land contestation in Karen State, Myanmar

My fieldwork took place between late 2018 and early 2022 in Southeast Myanmar’s Karen (Kayin) State, the “liberated areas” of Kawthoolei along the Thai/Burma Border, and in Northern Thailand. This space is extremely ethnically and politically diverse. It covers two internationally recognised nation states (Thailand and Myanmar), while for my interlocutors its centre lies the State of Kawthoolei, a non contiguous zone administered by the Karen National Union (KNU) and its military wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). My research has been focused on the ways in which subsistence farmers of the Mutraw (Hpapun) hills have come to form an insurgent state in Southeastern Myanmar, and the transformations of associational life which have occurred through this process. In doing so it interrogates several critical questions: the relationship between kinship, war and state-building in Southeast Asian Uplands, the role of displacement in religious transformation, and the value of land and labour in these upland hills, in particular through examination of local cosmologies and their (dis)continuities.

The first part of this research has been drawn from my interactions with a wide group of Karen Environmentalists, members of Civil Society Organisations, Aid Workers, NGO & Development practitioners/consultants, members of Ethnic Armed Organisations and the connections which underlie these networks. During these first 8 months of my ethnographic study I worked amongst a group of such people, tracing a network which stretches from the highlands of Northern Thailand to Burma’s Yangon. My ethnographic interactions in this period were disjointed, with bonds of trust building often over distance and shared labour rather than through the spacial proximity implied in ‘traditional’ ethnographic field-site. The mobility, flexibility and networks of affinity which have formed over the Thai/Burmese Borderlands is for my interlocutors both a manifestation and extension of the Karen Nation and thus a site of vitality for those who advocate and fight for its continued survival. Alongside Kawthoolei – itself a politically fractured and rapidly territorially decreasing area of land – are areas both wholly and partially controlled by a variety of different armed groups, alongside the hegemony of the two nation States’ militaries: the Tatmadaw (Burmese Military) and Thai Military. The latter part of my research was amongst Karen smallholder farming communities, environmental activists as well as soldiers and administrators from the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU/KNLA) in the Mutraw (Papun hill). This organization has been engaged in armed conflict with the Burmese State military since 1949, and is one of the largest non-state armed groups active in Myanmar.

Empirically, this project contributes to the emerging ethnography of the Karen in Myanmar, in a context of rapid ‘development’ and ongoing conflict. Here we will learn of grass-roots political processes within an understudied part of Highland Burma, but also of Karen cosmology, land-use and militarism. Theoretically, the intended contribution is to bring political economy debates on resource extraction, land grabs and dispossession into dialogue with approaches highlighting the co-constitutive reality and value of nature/human relationships. Thirdly, such a juxtaposition explores the tensions between egalitarianism and nascent military hierarchies in this upland area; the contested role of animistic spirits and powers and those of an all powerful Christian God; and lastly, the way in which these various forces and hierarchies interplay with the persistent military induced displacement faced by most living in this region.

To begin, I aim to examine how previously more autonomous forms of social organisation in these uplands, characterised in several ethnographies as broadly egalitarian & fitting with idealised visions of the commons (in terms of land governance and more equitable sharing of resources) have radically shifted in wartime. Here the mobilisation of people through an armed movement, the Karen National Union, has led to a radical shift of living in common. Yet rather than a binary movement from autonomy to higher stratification – this has highlight highlights how intra-village kinship ties facilitated supra-village forms of organisation, in which care and family came to be extended through a militarised structure.

Secondly, with the majority of Mutraw’s inhabitants having converted to Christianity over the past hundred and fifty years, this research highlights the interplay between agrarian traditions drawn from animism and the practices of Christians in the region, predominantly as they are oriented towards land and belonging. Karen peoples living in Mutraw district have faced repeated waves of conflict and displacement, with many unable to return to their homes and/or birthplace due to military advances by The Tatmadaw (Burmese military) or newly established proximal military bases. These military advancements, beyond ethnic strife, can also be directly linked to infrastructure projects and their associated facilities’ such as roads. Thus, movement and the inability to return to one’s place of birth has drastically altered the life of the people in Mutraw, with strong signs that mobility is directly correlated with increased rates of conversion from Animism to Christianity. In such a way the imagined tension or oscillation between hierarchy and egalitarianism and that of Christianity and Animism are brought into conversation. In doing so, this will also contribute to a growing body of literature on animism in Southeast Asia.

Kaw (Land) in a time of transformation

Characterised by scholars such as James C. Scott as exemplary uplanders employing strategies of refusal and escape and attempting to avoid state legibility and predation, the Karen have long lived on the interstices of several politics. Their territory, known as Kaw La (Green Land) or Kawthoolei has found itself between northern Thai polities and Burmese, Mon and Shan rulers, seeking incorporation within these polities to varying degrees. Kaw, itself meaning land or territory also specifically refers to a bounded territorial entity usually centred around one or several villages. As structures of exclusion, the boundaries of the Kaw separated land between family/village groups, with the Ti Hpo Kaw K’sa (master of land) officiating these boundaries. For the Karen, the storytelling of the bardic Kaw K’sa represented a form of sacral knowledge, of prowess and simply of power. That not retold was a minor thing, unimportant, and not worth committing to memory. As the synthesis of pan Karen military Christian nationalism spread, the role of the Kaw K’sa faded, and the communal male social spaces – called Blaw – which hosted passing guests, wedding ceremonies – were widely replaced by Christian churches, schools and military barracks. New forms of power arose in these hills, yet they did not replace those perhaps most embodied by the Kaw K’sa. Thus through my documentation of animist rituals and land in a process of transformation, I became increasingly interested in the interplay of Christianity and Animism as they relate to land and local authority.


Throughout this research, I documented Animist ritual practice known locally as MoLuPaLa (or Pghra Thu Koh). This is a form of animist practice, grounded in part by seasonal rituals marking various points in the cycle of Swidden cultivation, as well as by cycles of procreation which tie both animal birth and death to human rituals of creation/reproduction and thus linking humans with non-human tutelary spirits of domains as well as other non-human entities. One of its core ritual centres is the household, where the most important ritual, the Ta Au Brah/Ta Au takes place. From my observations the rituals are as much celebrations of collective labour, both past and future, being celebrations of the labour of those who came before, the ongoing labouring processes (tied to seasonality and the cultivation calendar) and the spirits associated with the sources of life these labours are aimed at cultivating on and alongside (spirits of water, land, rice, etc). It is not yet entirely clear if ‘founders’ are entirely separated from the Kaw K’Sah, Htee K’Sah, who are the Lords (or owners) of the Land and Water, the most important spirits who preside over the animate world, and are especially important in relation to in relation to a successful harvest. This cosmology includes spirits of place, as well as ghosts and spirits of the dead (K’la) who may also roam the landscape and interact with each other and humans in a variety of ways. For most non-animist Karen, this term would also encompass a variety of other rituals and beliefs/practices, which may include witchcraft (Tamugha), divination, and belief in various spirits or spectres populating the landscape. These observations have become central to my understanding of questions of displacement and land contestation.

The physical act of movement forms a focal point through which I aim to understand agrarian change, and the reconfigurations of cosmologies of land use through religious conversion and animist revitalisation which central to understanding such processes. Cast in such a way, mobility acts as a counterpoint to the place centred cosmology of Molupala/Thuko (Karen animism), whose most important ritual practice, the Ta Au Brah, requires regular return to one’s location of birth. Failing to practice this ritual entails disastrous consequences, yet religious conversion (primarily to Christianity) appears to cast aside such extreme consequences. With the majority of Mutraw’s inhabitants having converted to Christianity over the past hundred and fifty years, I am interested in the dynamic between agrarian traditions drawn from animism and the practices of Christians in the region. Alongside this, one can grasp the importance of the declining practice of animist rituals centring around a matrilocal monogamous family, as well as sacrifices offered to a variety of non-human beings and powers of place. This is politically important due to the shift away from an economy where subsistence agriculture defined terms of exchange and ritual to one where the mobilisation of people for war under the KNU and christianity has increasingly played a more significant role.

A Lu A La (tradition) and Ta Bu Ta Ba (religion) – cultural revivalism

I have become interested in taking up the local conception of A Lu A La (tradition – Lu as to Feed and thus connected to sacrifice to spirits vs. Ta Bu Ta Ba (religion – Bu as derivative of Pon – Mon word derived from Pali word for Merit making). This contrast is interesting for several reasons – because the revival of ‘tradition’ for purposes of cultural survival, claims of sovereignty and state building are also revealing the tensions between ‘animism’ and ‘Christianity’… But also it is quite explicit that Christians feel they have themselves become estranged from ‘culture’, which would be implicit as they have given up the feeding of the spirits, often being quite violently cast away and abandoned. But also because people identifying as Christians still held on to much of what was considered to be A Lu A La, such as common sense assertions that ‘of course K’la exist’. Here the tensions between tradition and religion underpin the tensions at the heart of Karen identity and means of asserting territorial self-determination – what is tradition vs. religion.


Through this research I aimed to question how it is that the asymmetrical patron-client relationships archetypal of descriptions of Southeast Asian Political Formations can be found in seemingly contrasting “symmetrical and egalitarian” (Cole) village structures of the Karen Hills, as described by several other ethnographers. Here, I show how forms of patronage overlapped with what I call insurgent kinship. Through the gradual militarisation of the Papun hills, kinship ties themselves also became militarised – a solidarity through common suffering and common cause in battle created bonds, which allowed for both care and coercion to be mobilised on a scale far greater then seen before. Yet these bonds were are significantly literally those of kinship. The power of the new commanders to provide hospitality and care, often including soldiers into their daily household activities or forming new kinds of households centring around their military units helped foster a different ethic of hospitality, which has in turn reshaped communal life. Insurgent kinship has thus been essential to the state building project of the Karen National Union in these hills. The power of such kinship bonds lies precisely in their ambiguity; they contribute both to forms of care in common alongside aspects of care traditionally cast as more coercive.