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									                                                                                                 culture in exilefeature

‘Traditional’ culture and refugee
welfare in north-west Thailand
                                                                                           by Sandra Dudley

The effects of displacement on culture can have                                            people who all originate in Karenni State
                                                                                           but differ markedly from each other.
significant impacts on the psychological and                                               ‘Karenni’ itself is an umbrella term
                                                                                           under which a number of different
physical welfare of individual refugees and on                                             ethno-linguistically self-defined groups
                                                                                           gather. Most originate in Karenni State
the social dynamics within a refugee population.                                           but otherwise show great diversity in

                                                                                           ethnicity and language, socio-economic
       et refugees and relief agencies        conducted in 1996-7 and 1998 with
                                                                                           and educational backgrounds, religion,
       alike often underestimate or feel      Karenni refugees living in camps on the
                                                                                           political awareness, and the experience
       too overworked to incorporate the      Burmese border, in Thailand’s north-
                                                                                           of displacement itself. Displacement has
importance of cultural factors in assis-      western province of Mae Hong Son.
                                                                                           not only brought greater contact with
tance programmes. Potential cultural          Karenni people have been fleeing from
                                                                                           non-Karenni outsiders and the wider
conflicts between refugee communities,        Karenni (Kayah) State in eastern Burma
                                                                                           world but has also thrown together
host communities and relief agencies are      and seeking refuge on the Thai side of
                                                                                           diverse groups who previously had less
of course important. Less often recog-        the border for some years, the first sig-
                                                                                           contact with, and influence upon, each
nised, however, is the importance of          nificant numbers arriving in 1989. The
cultural variation and tension within the     main NGO working with the Karenni is a       other. Consequently, the effects of some
refugee community.                            medical agency, responsible among            Karenni groups upon others are some-
                                              other things for the training of staff for   times greater than the effects of any
This article argues that if relief agencies   camp clinics.                                single outside force.
develop a greater awareness of cultural
patterns and potential cultural conflict      In early 1996, the total Karenni refugee     The recent, post-1996 arrivals are ethni-
within as well as between communities,        population was about 5,500. By the end       cally Kayah, the majority Karenni ethnic
their assistance programmes may be            of 1997, it had doubled to 11,000. It now    group. The majority of the pre-existing
more effectively and appropriately            stands at over 16,500.1 The dramatic         refugee populations in two of the three
designed and implemented. The case-           increase between 1996 and 1997 result-       main Karenni refugee camps are also
study discussed here focuses on the           ed from the arrival of new refugees in       ethnically Kayah. There are, however,
perspective of one group within a             one of the Karenni camps in and after        some important differences between
refugee population. There is not space        June 1996, because of ‘village reloca-       these groups.
to explore fully the perspectives of other    tions’ inside Karenni State, enforced by
members of that refugee population or         the Burmese army from 31 May 1996            Unlike many of the pre-existing refugee
of the relief agency, except where they       onwards. Conditions in this camp deteri-     population, most recent arrivals cannot
impact upon the refugees concerned. My        orated rapidly and great demands were        speak Burmese and in their villages had
aim, however, is not primarily to criticise   placed upon space, on existing residents     no access to health clinics or schools.
the NGO but rather to highlight the           and the Camp Committee, on NGO staff         Before crossing the border, most had
experience of one group of refugees.          and on Karenni medics. New refugees          apparently rarely, if ever, seen motor
This is not an evaluation of one situa-       were arriving in poor physical states, as    vehicles or foreigners. Their villages are
tion but a description of a process. It is    a result of which dysentery and malaria      remote, permanent hill settlements, sus-
partly a case-study of the significance of    morbidity and mortality rates within the     tained by subsistence agriculture. Most
cultural factors in the refugee experi-       camp markedly increased. By late 1996,       have not converted to Christianity and
ence, and partly an attempt to address        conditions had stabilised but to date        instead follow traditional Kayah religion
an inequality in the extent to which dif-     smaller numbers of people, some of           and curative practices. Village-based
ferent perspectives (those of different       whom have been in hiding in the jungle       spheres of activity and contact are small,
sectors within a refugee population, and      for over two years, have continued to        and travel to local towns and markets is
those of relief agencies) get aired.          arrive.                                      infrequent. Travel farther afield is rare
                                                                                           indeed. Unlike the longer-staying
Background                                    Diversity within the refugee                 refugees, they also (with the exception
                                              community                                    of some men) have little conception of
This article is based on anthropological
                                                                                           the pan-Karenni nationalism behind the
field research conducted by the author
                                              Experiences at the hands of the Burmese      ongoing conflict between the Karenni
at the request of the NGO concerned
                                              army and subsequent displacement to          and Burmese armies. Furthermore, many
during the course of wider field research
                                              refugee camps have thrown together           women in particular had not previously

FORCED MIGRATION review                                                                                 December 1999, 6         5
                        culture in exile

                        seen other Kayah women, such as those         various ornaments, including silver ear-        These anxieties were real enough but
                        among the longer-staying refugees, who        plugs, and many rings around the knees.         they were also due to dress becoming a
                        do not dress as traditionally as they do.     The skirt- and head-cloths are always           focus for wider stresses resulting from
                                                                      home-made, using home-grown, natural-           displacement. In part, this was because
                        The importance of culture:                    ly dyed, home-spun cotton.                      the production of traditional textiles is
                        traditional Kayah female dress                                                                as important as the textiles themselves:
                                                                      A traditional Kayah woman sees this             the process of weaving, like the process
                        In their own eyes as well as in those of      dress as an extension of herself, marking       of farming, is as important to the
                        the mostly Christian, pre-existing            her not only as Kayah but also as a             integrity of Kayah culture as are its end-
                        refugees, these recent arrivals are ‘tradi-   woman of certain age and marital status.        products. Suddenly being unable either
                        tional’ Kayah who ‘continue to do as our      It is also a source of pride and marker of      to weave or farm, was a stressful experi-
                        grandmothers and grandfathers did’            identity for all traditional Kayah, male        ence that exacerbated the trauma of
                        while their ethnic cousins apparently do      and female. However, the circumstances          violent displacement itself.
                        not. For insiders and outsiders alike, the    in which they had to leave home meant
                        most obvious emblem of this ‘tradition-       that few women could bring with them            Inter-community dynamics:
                        al’ identity is women’s clothing.             spare clothes and/or cotton with which          impacts of host communities
                                                                      to make more. They had only the clothes
                                                                                                                      and relief agencies
                        Almost all pre-existing Karenni refugee       they wore and, if those clothes became
                        women, ethnically Kayah or otherwise,         too worn or dirty, once in the camp the
                                                                                                                      The majority still wear traditional dress
                        wear a sarong (reaching to mid-calf) and      only alternative was to start wearing the
                                                                                                                      but there have been numerous cases of
                        T-shirt or traditional tunic. It is consid-   ubiquitous sarong and T-shirt.
                                                                                                                      women abandoning it and since 1996 the
                        ered improper and unfeminine to show                                                          rate of change has increased. Women
                        any leg above mid-calf, or to show the        To change dress in this way, however, is
                                                                                                                      concerned feel they had no real choice in
                        chest area (except when breast-feeding).      distressing. Both male and female recent
                                                                                                                      the matter and invariably are unhappy in
                        By contrast, all recently arrived Kayah       arrivals think traditionally dressed
                                                                                                                      their new sarong and T-shirt. Others’
                        women wear, or wore on arrival, a short       women very beautiful. Most importantly,
                                                                                                                      attitudes also play an important part.
                        skirt-cloth exposing knees and lower          immediately on arrival traditional dress,
                                                                                                                      For example, some women changed after
                        thighs, a breast-cloth exposing the back      an obvious marker of difference in a sit-
                                                                                                                      illness and subsequent referral to Mae
                        and often one breast, a head-cloth and        uation of sudden exposure to people
                                                                                                                      Hong Son hospital. Sometimes there
                                                                                                  who do not
                                                                                                                      were practical reasons, such as illness
                                                                                                  look or act
                                                                                                                      causing weight loss and leg-rings conse-
                                                                                                  similarly, was
                                                                                                                      quently falling off (if a part of traditional
                                                                                                  the only visible
                                                                                                                      dress is removed - even unintentionally,
                                                                                                  evidence of
                                                                                                                      as here - the rest is also removed); but
                                                                                                  what and who
                                                                                                                      more disturbing were claims that ‘doc-
                                                                                                  they were and
                                                                                                                      tors in the hospital don’t like our
                                                                                                  had been. All
                                                                                                                      clothes’. Certainly, the lack of adequate
                                                                                                  new arrivals,
                                                                                                                      breast coverage offended Thai cultural
                                                                                                  of either sex
                                                                                                                      norms and contributed to ill feeling.
                                                                                                  and whatever
                                                                                                  age, hoped
                                                                                                  women would         Such attitudes were difficult for new
                                                                                                  be able to con-     arrivals to comprehend. Women felt con-
                                                                                                  tinue wearing       fused and unhappy, uncertain of what
                                                                                                  traditional         was wrong. The medical NGO, while it
                                                                                                  clothes but         certainly did not actively perpetuate neg-
                                                                                                  were worried        ative attitudes, neither fully realised
                                                                                                  this would          their impact nor actively sought to con-
                                                                                                  become impos-       tradict them.
                                                                                                  sible in the
                                                                                                  camp, without       Indeed, in trying to address the conflict
                                                                                                  cotton and          between traditional Kayah and Thai
                                                                                                  without money       ideas of decency, the NGO inadvertently
                                                                                                  to buy it. In       exacerbated the women’s confusion.
                                                                                                  1996 especial-      Rather than trying to discuss the matter
                                                                                                  ly, the inability   with the women and with Thai hospital
                                                                                                  of women to         staff, they were complicit in a process
                                                                                                  continue pro-       whereby it was suggested to women
                                                                                                  ducing textile      being referred to hospital that, for their
                                                                                                  items in the        own sake, it would be easier if they were
                                                                                                                      to change their dress before leaving the
Sandra Dudley/Richard

                                                                                                  camp directly
                                                                                                  caused much         camp. This process was initiated by
                                                                                                  group and per-      camp clinic staff, themselves members
                                                                                                  sonal distress.     of the longer-staying, less traditional

                          6    December 1999, 6                                                                                    FORCED MIGRATION review
                                                                                                 culture in exilefeature
refugee population; that is, NGO staff       tures. It appeared to the new arrivals that   Conclusions
did not personally suggest changing          the NGO did not fully appreciate either
clothes but nevertheless did not engage      the cultural significance of traditional      Relief agencies play a significant part in
with the clinic staff’s suggestions.         dress and weaving, or the significance of     such situations. It is to the credit of the
                                             new arrivals’ reliance on their own dis-      agency concerned here that they
At that time, the NGO was visiting the       tinct community structures. While the         requested the assistance of an anthro-
camp daily and driving sick women (and       NGO did not conduct an evaluation of          pologist in understanding more about
others) to hospital. Most of those women     this project-versus-no-project situation,     the new arrivals. Furthermore, subse-
were in distressed states, not only          informally they later appeared to share       quent to my research, the NGO did
because of their illnesses and recent        this conclusion.2                             attempt to address clinic staff’s atti-
experiences of violence and displace-                                                      tudes. Nonetheless, while the agency was
ment, but also because for the first time    Intra-community dynamics:                     certainly not to blame for all the clothing-
they found themselves in both a motor        attitudes of other refugees                   associated tensions, some of its actions
vehicle and a new sort of dress (the                                                       exacerbated the situation. It could also
sarong of which they found difficult to      Impacts on culture equal to or greater        have engaged more extensively with the
keep up). Furthermore, parents reported      than those of the relief agency and the       new arrivals than it did. The situation at
that when children were ill enough to        host community were also generated            the local hospital, for example, and the
require hospital referral, both NGO staff    within the refugee population itself.         attitudes of refugee clinic staff might
and refugee clinic workers advised that      The pre-existing, less traditional refugee    have been significantly altered by a
it would be easier for the father to         community’s attitudes to the new              strategy of discussing issues of cultural
accompany them. Such advice was geared       arrivals were continually reinforced by       difference and perhaps by facilitating an
towards minimising offence to the host       traditional female dress. Most had seen       awareness-building programme of dis-
                                             traditionally-dressed Kayah women             cursive contact between new and old
community. This was understandable and
                                             before but not in such large numbers.         refugees.
expedient but it had less impact in easing
the situation of newly arrived refugees.     For less traditional refugees,
                                             this dress smacked of back-
Also problematic was a later weaving         wardness, lack of education        cultural differences within a
project. In 1996, given the cultural         and an un-Christian immod-
importance of traditional female dress       esty. Longer-stayers’ talk         refugee population can
and the anxiety caused by women’s            about the new arrivals
inability to continue producing it, I        focused on the impropriety of      cause distress
recommended that the relief agency con-      traditional dress, and on what
sider facilitating a refugee-run weaving     they supposed was the new
                                             refugees’ ignorance of basic hygiene.         In essence, there was insufficient
project among the recent Kayah arrivals.
                                             Such talk became problematic as it fil-       allowance for (i) the significance of cul-
The NGO subsequently did indeed facili-
                                             tered through to interactions between the     tural differences within the refugee
tate a weaving project but among
                                             two groups.                                   community and (ii) the importance of
members of the longer-staying commu-
                                                                                           culture not only in the pre-displacement
nity in another camp.
                                             Interactions with refugee clinic staff        past but also in the new refugees’ expe-
                                             (members of the longer-staying commu-         riences of arrival in a refugee camp and
While this was not necessarily a deliber-
                                             nity, relatively well-educated and almost     associated contacts with non-traditional
ate decision directly to substitute a
                                             all Christian) were particularly influen-     Karenni, Thais and expatriate relief
project among longer-stayers for one
                                             tial. Even the smallest remark or             workers. There was (and is) slowness to
among new arrivals (and from the NGO’s
                                             unintentional hint of disapproval from        explore social structures within the new
perspective there may have seemed no
                                             these individuals could be picked up by       refugee community or at least to engage
connection), it was nonetheless thus
                                             new refugees (already in a fragile state)     with them to the same degree as the pre-
interpreted by and distressing for recent
                                             and cause distress. The power of these        existing population in the design and
arrivals, particularly as they had dis-
                                             individuals inadvertently to cause dis-       implementation of relief programmes.
cussed a possible weaving project of their
                                             tress was not surprising, given their         The effect of this was exacerbated by its
own with NGO staff and myself. While no
                                             elevated role as teachers and specialists     contrast with (i) the relief agency’s long-
promises had been made to new arrivals,
                                             within the community.                         standing, good understanding of and
they felt they had been passed over and
                                                                                           engagement with longer-staying refugees
let down. The project that did get set up
                                             Most significantly from the perspective       and (ii) an understandable concern not
was certainly uncomplicated to design
                                             of relief agencies, these negative refugee-   to offend the host community and thus
and implement, as NGO staff already had
                                             refugee interactions also demonstrated        compromise working relationships
reasonable knowledge of and contacts
                                             one way in which approaches to cultural       developed over a long period.
within longer-staying refugee community
structures. It would have been more          factors can affect the success of welfare
                                             programmes. The young woman whose             Among the longer-staying refugee com-
problematic for the NGO to design a
                                             baby was acutely ill with dysentery but       munity, the agency works closely with
weaving project in conjunction with
                                             who tearfully refused to return to the        those in key positions; such individuals
recent arrivals given insufficient knowl-
                                             clinic, because its refugee staff had told    are always, in the context of their com-
edge of the new refugees’ community,
                                             her it was her own fault for being dirty,     munity, highly respected, relatively
structures and consequent difficulties in
                                             was a particularly poignant example of        well-educated, and usually Christian.
developing good working relationships
                                             the negative impact of insensitivity.         Their influence would in any event have
with key individuals within those struc-

FORCED MIGRATION review                                                                                  December 1999, 6          7
culture in exilefeature

                                                                                                                                                           UNHCR/26018/01.1996/HJ Davies
been significant but it was further
strengthened and perpetuated by the
agency’s reliance on them to act as
go-betweens, and by the agency not
fully acknowledging the potential
impact of longer-stayers’ negative
attitudes towards the new arrivals.
Here, as in the agency’s concern that
the Thai host community should not
be offended, the agency and its part-
ners were effectively sensitive to each
other at the expense – albeit uninten-
tional - of the less well understood
new arrivals.

Certainly, agencies have to take into
account political and practical consid-
erations as well as cultural ones but
they are also often in a position to
facilitate mutual understanding, both
between members of the refugee and
host communities with whom they
work closely, and within complex
refugee populations. Furthermore, in
examples such as the one presented
here, for new arivals and other rela-
tively vulnerable sectors of the
refugee population ‘culture’ is often
of more immediate concern than
political aspects of refugee-agency-
host relationships. Refugee
populations are not necessarily
homogenous in either culture or
needs, and cultural differences within
a refugee population can cause dis-
tress as much as can differences
between it and the host community
and relief workers. In complex popu-
lations, especially – as here - where
power, influence and mutual refugee-
NGO understanding are not equally
distributed, it is not sufficient to rely
on good working relationships with
representatives of only some sectors
of the population.

In sum, cultural elements such as
women’s clothing may seem, on the
surface, tangential to the stark reality
of being a refugee but in fact they are       Sandra Dudley is completing her                       Parts of this paper first appeared in S Dudley 1997
integral to it and to associated welfare                                                            ‘Recent arrivals in Karenni Camp 2: an ethnographic
                                              DPhil in Social Anthropology at                       report’, an unpublished report prepared for
issues. As such, they should have signifi-    Oxford University.                                    International Rescue Committee in Thailand, and in
cant influence on the design and              Email:                         S Dudley 1998, ‘Aspects of research with Karenni
                                                                                                    refugees in Thailand’, Bulletin of the International
implementation of relief programmes.
                                                                                                    Committee on Urgent Anthropological and
Equally, increased cultural knowledge         1 Source: local NGO.                                  Ethnological Research (UNESCO), 39: 165-84.
and sensitivity on the part of relief agen-
                                              2 Agency area coordinator, personal communication,    For further information on Burma, Burmese refugees
cies can go some way towards min-             1998.                                                 and human rights abuses, visit:
imising further distress (and its negative                                                
impacts on physical and psycholo- gical       Thanks to Edith Bowles; Kerry Demusz; Helen Dalton;     myanmar.htm
                                              the Emslie Horniman Fund of the Royal       
health) caused by cultural conflict, be it    Anthropological Institute; Old Member’s Scholarship
between refugees and outsiders, or with-      and further grants from Jesus College at Oxford
                                              University; the Cha and Peter Lienhardt Funds at
in the refugee population itself.
                                              Oxford University; and the Evans Fund, Cambridge

  8    December 1999, 6                                                                                             FORCED MIGRATION review

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