Here is something a little different. I have asked Rev. Dr. Jerry B. Cain, retired President of Judson University in Elgin Illinois, to provide a guest essay announcing the appearance of an important new book on the history of Christianity in Myanmar: by Angelene Naw, The History of the Karen People of Burma (ed. Jerry Cain; King of Prussia, PA: Judson Press, 2023).* What follows is Jerry’s review of the book for the curious reader.
Charles W. Hedrick
The History of the Karen People of Burma recounts the interactions of the three m’s that historians of the nineteenth century colonial period always have to negotiate—merchants, missionaries, militaries. The Karens (CAH-ren) were an animistic minority in Burma who took to the message of American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) while the majority Buddhist Burmese ignored or even persecuted him. Primed by a legend that a white man with a book would arrive on a ship from the west and show them their destiny, the Karens responded positively when Ann and Adoniram Judson disembarked from the Georgiana in the summer of 1813 with a Bible. Prophecy fulfilled!
This first generation of missionaries codified the language of the Karens (and the Burmese) setting up schools to teach them how to read and write their own language as well as English. When the British colonizers needed local bureaucrats, the Karens were skilled to fill these administrative positions often at the expense of the less-trained majority Burmese Buddhists. And the tensions grew as the British took more and more of Burma through three wars (1824-26, 1852-53, 1885) and animosity grew between the majority Burmese and the minority Karens.
Then came the twentieth century and the independence movements in India and southeast Asia. WWII stalled those independence efforts and in Burma the Karens sided with the British while the Burmese sided with the Japanese creating more hatred. Then the players changed, the war ended and independence was experienced, sort of. The story continues into the twenty-first century as both groups, Burmese and Karens, remember their sectarian and ethic struggles of the past 200 years.
Dr. Angelene Naw is uniquely qualified to describe the history of the Karen people, which is most often retold as oral history. She was born during the insurgencies of post-WWII Burma and lived her first six years in the jungles where her father was an officer for the Karen army in rebellion against the new government of Burma. Dr. Naw finished two degrees from the University of Rangoon before completing her PhD at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. I am honored that she came to the US to teach Asian history and culture at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, where I served as president.
The first Burmese I ever met was John Shandy, a former Buddhist monk, who was employed on the plant operations staff by Judson University. The arrival of Dr. Naw made number two from Myanmar. Soon another refugee couple came to town and the only place the Baptist church could find them a job was at the local casino. Under the leadership of Dr. Naw, who was a rock star in the diaspora Karen-American community, we gathered about 50 families and started the Karen Baptist Church of Western Chicago. (When I retired and moved to Kansas City, I affiliated with the Grace Baptist Church that hosts a Karen congregation every Sunday afternoon.)
My role in creating the book was to make Dr. Naw’s book readable for the western reading public. We had two audiences in mind for this publication, the student studying Southeast Asian history and the Karen diaspora spread around the world who will never return to Burma nor experience their desired independent nation, which they named Kawthoolei. Persecuted in Myanmar, the Karens have been emigrating to the US, Australia, Norway, Singapore, and other places from four major refugee camps in Thailand where they were settled by the United Nations. The History of the Karen People of Burma is now being translated into the Karen language to better reach these two audiences.
The History of the Karen People of Burma describes pre-colonial Burma before 1824 when the British military moved in and the impact of the American missionaries in establishing Karendom. The educational thirst of the Karen people was addressed by the missionaries creating tension between the minority Karens and the majority Burmese. The political and military intrigues of WWII between the Japanese, British, Burmese, and the Karens are described in detail because Dr. Naw and her family were intimately involved. The post-WWII political and military struggles by the Karen people take this story into the 21st century.
Since the last military coup of February 1, 2021, the Karens have again been given the “dirty end of the stick,” as they would say. Public focus has been on the Muslim Rohingya on the western side of Myanmar but forced labor, targeted bombing, and discrimination against Christian Karens on the eastern side continues as it has for the past 200 years. Their plight has been captured in major motion pictures including a 2008 Rambo movie starring Sylvester Stallone. The story of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been told and retold with great appreciation, but there has been little political movement from the outside world. She has been sentenced to 33 years imprisonment since the 2-1-21 junta took over.
The History of the Karen People of Burma is important for anyone who wants to understand the recurring discord and dysfunction of cultural and political systems in modern Myanmar. It provides a 30,000-foot overview of the recycling military rule and futile attempts at democracy, and the recurring religious turmoil involving Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians from one who has lived it and continues to love her country with all its problems.
*For details on how to purchase the book see https://www.judsonpress.com/Products/J306/the-history-of-the-karen-people-of-burma.aspx