Trends and the future
Ethnic and religious minorities Not all of the residents of these four countries are followers of Theravada Buddhism. While Theravada Buddhism is often thought of as a religion that tolerates diversity and its adherents can coexist peacefully alongside followers of other faiths, conflicts between the ethnic majority populations and ethnic minority populations continue to plague the region. This situation is illustrated by the Islamic insurgency in southern Thailand, as well as the long running civil war between the Theravada Buddhist-dominated government of Myanmar/Burma and the Christian-dominated Karen National Union (KNU). Ethnic division and ethnic identity in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, rarely remain unchanged throughout time, and boundaries separating one group of people from another are not always absolute. Therefore, it is acknowledged that commonly used classifications of ethnic groups have limitations. All of these four countries have traditions of ethnic diversity. The first ethnic group in the region in which its members became followers of Theravada Buddhism was the Mon, and from this ethnic group Theravada Buddhism spread to the Tai, Burmans, and Khmer. Today there are approximately 3 million ethnic Mons living in Thailand and Myanmar/Burma who are in danger of having their culture lost through assimilation (Weng 2008). While in Thailand and Cambodia the dominant ethnic group represents an overwhelming majority, this is not the case in Laos PDR where only approximately 40 to 50 percent of the population belong to the Lao ethnic classification, most others are classified as members of “hill-tribes” (Evans 2002: 134), which is a generic classification used to lump together various diverse minority ethnic groups, who usually live in higher elevations throughout the region and use different agricultural practices than those living in the lowlands. Myanmar/Burma is also much less ethnically homogeneous than Cambodia and Thailand. One of the largest ethnic minority groups in the region is referred to as the Karen. Although it is difficult to estimate the actual population of Karen people, Petry (1993: 14) estimated the number as 5 million with, at that time, approximately 90 percent living in Myanmar/Burma and most of the rest living in Thailand. The term Karen is a modern construction in which a number of
loosely affiliated groups of people were lumped together by foreigners, and this classification has assisted in the creation of a Karen identity (South 2007). Rajah (2008: 13) found the Karens living in northern Thailand saw themselves as having a separate cultural identity from the Thai-speaking residents of the area; they did not think of themselves as Thai whether or not they held Thai citizenship. Adoniram Judson, an American Baptist missionary, is the individual most credited with bringing Christianity to the Karen people. After spending an unsuccessful decade attempting to convert the Burmese to Christianity, Adoniram Judson turned his efforts toward the Karen people. Most of those who converted to Christianity were members of the Sgaw Karen community and this Christian segment of society, with their access to writing and financial support from Western Christian organizations, have come to dominate the leadership of the Karen people (Petry 1993). After independence, some segments, primarily Christians, of the Karen community have been engaged in an armed struggle for independence, although recently the official objective has been lessened to being allowed some form of autonomy within a union controlled by the military government of Myanmar/Burma. Out of sight of most of the world, armed conflicts have had a devastating effect on ethnic minority communities inside of Myanmar/Burma. Brees (2008: 4) claimed, “close to half a million people have been displaced internally over the last decade on the eastern border alone.” The strategy of the military government includes the cutting of food, funds, recruits, and information which is often carried out by destroying villages believed to be sources of these four valuable resources (Shukla 2008). This strategy has resulted in significant numbers of individuals fleeing toward Thailand where they are forced to live in refugee camps (Alexander 2008). As this is a protracted situation with no political solution in sight, many of the refugees are being resettled to countries outside the region (Banki and Lang 2008). There are a number of other ethnic groups living in areas that span the borders of Thailand and Myanmar/Burma. The Shan are an ethnic group whose language and culture are closely related to the Thais and Laotians. The Shan call themselves “Tai,” practice Theravada Buddhism, are physically indistinguishable from the northern Thais, and speak a related but recognizably different language to the Thais; it is estimated there are between 4 and 5 million Shan currently living in the Shan State in northeastern Myanmar/Burma and approximately another half million living in Thailand (Montlake 2008). The Shan may be best known for the myths and stories surrounding the ethnic group’s most famous, or infamous, member, the legendary Shan warlord Khun Sa. Khun Sa was a major player in the opium trade in Southeast Asia during and after the Vietnam War. Although recently attempts have been made to curtail opium production by the Shan, it appears due to the weak control of the government and lack of economic development in the region, opium production is making a major comeback in the Shan State (Jagan 2009). Other ethnic minorities living in Myanmar/Burma include the Wa, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Arkanese, Naga, and Karenni (Walton 2008).