13November2018

Andaman Chronicle

The Daily Diary of the Islands

The Karen Tribe Of The Andaman Islands-Lest We Forget!

                   

In the year 1924, Dr. H.I. Marshall, Principal of the Theological  Seminary Hill, Insein, Burma(Myanmar)visited U.S.A and on his return in 1925 to Burma he visited Andaman islands. His cousin Mr. Ferrar was the Chief Commissioner of Andaman and Nicobar islands. It was then that they discussed and planned of bringing some laborers to the islands for clearing up the forest for settlements and for that they wanted hardworking, honest and efficient people capable of doing hard core job. He asked Rev. Dr .H.I. Marshall who knew the Karens well to bring down some families to the islands under the settlement scheme. Mr. Ferrar placed some conditions for the people to be brought down i.e. they must be faithfull, landless and good cultivators. This good tidings was carried back to Burma (Myanmar) by Rev. Dr.  H. I. Marshall and was published in the Karen newspaper called “Hsah- Tu- Gaw” meaning “Morning Star’’. Mr. Ferrar also promised to give free ration for one year and free land for settlement and cultivation purpose. The land of course was covered with forest and for settlement they had to clear it. This good tidings spread out like a wild fire among the Karens in Burma (Myanmar). Responding to the news  Rev. Lugyi , Rev. Pan Bu and Rev. Samba decided to bring some families to the Andaman Islands to see the possibilities and the opportunities of settlement. In April 1925, the Karens landed at the Andaman Islands by a ship called Maharaja. The 12 families who agreed to come to the Andaman Islands were mostly landless and poverty stricken families. They are: 1) Saw U San Bwe and his family. 2)            Saw U Theh To Noe…’’. 3)                Saw U Po Tau…. “. 4) Saw U Tain Bout….”5).             Saw U Pho Byaw…”. 6) Saw U Mya Lain…”. 7) Saw U Gwa Doe….”. 8) Saw U Pho Tha….”. 9)       Saw U Pyaji….”. 10) Saw U Paan…”. 11) Saw U pho U….”. 12) Saw u ko ...”

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The 12 families initially were put up at Carlo Island which the Karens called it as “Kalolo”, a few distance away from the present Mayabunder, North Andaman. They stayed there only for 10 days and later they were shifted to a place in the interior of Mayabunder and they called it “Webi village” meaning “the hidden city” because they believed that the thick jungles will always protect and keep them hidden from enemies and they could work peacefully. The Karens were given free rations for a year and they even got lands for settlement and cultivation purpose. Mr. Ferrar was pretty cordial and kind towards the Karens and provided their need accordingly. After having settled in their new found land, Mr. M.R. Smith, a forest officer (Divisional forest officer) gave them the opportunities to work in the forest as lumber man. Women and children were asked to stay and work within the vicinity of their home.

In 1926-27 again few more families were brought down to the Andaman Islands and were obliged with the same opportunities and facilities and they witnessed the Japanese invasion as well. Recounting their associations with the Japanese this is what they had to say:

Saw Jawsein (Joseph)

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Music is a food to the soul and this man and his entire family are blessed with a talent to sing melodiously and they are known for their musical talents. At 94, he still holds good memories of his association with the British and the Japanese during the pre independence era… Joseph is pretty old and hardly able to walk, but his former days with the Japanese in the Andaman Islands are still fresh in his memory. He had a cordial relation with the Japanese and they even made him their interpreters, he even spoke their language and was asked to sing a Japanese song on New Year. Although he could not remember the meaning of the song anymore he is still able to sing in Japanese language. Ask him about the treatment towards Karens by the Japanese, he would smile and say “The Japanese were not rude with the Karens and no one was killed by the Japanese, may be because we look alike”. He supported the Japanese during the war between Japanese and the English, after the Japanese retrieval from the islands he worked as a spy for the British Government. Whenever the ship from Rangoon (Yangon) docked at Mayabunder, he would go up and inspect if the ship is carrying any dangerous goods.

“I would go up to the ship and tell the others if I scratch my ear it means there is something and they would come and inspect, most of the time it use to be drugs and they were seized”. After the British left the islands he worked as forest labourer for a year with a pay of Rs.25.

According to those who witnessed the Japanese invasion in the Andaman Islands, they were never ill-treated by the Japanese but had to oblige to the orders of the Japanese. There was a particular time during the Japanese invasion, the Karens had shortage of food and had to survive barely with a morsel of food that too boiling a handful of rice with leaves and stalks of colocasia. They used to get itching in the throat and they were starving, but the quality of a Karen is to have patience to endure any misfortune or challenges in any form. They witnessed the bombings and firings between the two parties and they would hide under the shades of the thick green forest while tending to the needs of the Japanese. Their villages were not attacked as the English knew their settlement and did not wish to harm them. Even the Japanese had told them to remain neutral and neither support any of the party. They told them to go and hide in their own village.

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The word “Karen” was coined by the British. Burmese called them as “Kayin” meaning “polite and good hearted”, whereas the Karen called them “pwa- kanyaw”, which would literally mean “easy convincible people” hence they can put up with anything. Every week the Karen women had to take bags of rice and thatched leaves and hand it over to the Japanese. Since the Karens were minority and they were in a foreign land, they could not do anything but silently endure whatever came their way.

Thus the Karen settlement began to grow in numbers and spread out into 8 villages namely:

1) Webi village (hidden city) originally named by the Karens

2) Lataw village (in Karen leh Toh, meaning “Go Up”

3) Lucknow village (formerly called “Burmadera”- Burmese settlement area)

4) Deopur village (formerly called “Base-Camp”)

5)  Karmatang 9 village

6)  Karmatang 10 village

7)  Borang village

8) Chipo village

The last village i.e. ‘Chipo Village’ was founded by two brave women Machi and Popo, who on their quest for livelihood with a small dinghy rowing against the tide and storm reached this shore. They found it so adaptable that they decided to stay back. Later on they came back to the village and took some more families with them and thus “Chipo” was born and became another abode for the Karens. Honouring their bravery and quest the place was named after them. Sadly they are no more today but their great saga goes on.

With the Karens settlement in the Andaman Islands today their population has grown to 3000 plus. The present generation Karens are very much indebted to those who took the initiative in bringing down their forefathers to the islands and today the karens of Andaman islands are free from torture. They do not have to run helter and skelter from enemies and it is because of the wise decision taken by their forefathers.

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The Karens call the Andaman Islands as “A land of paradise” because of the peaceful environment and peaceful co-existence, unlike their counterparts in Burma who are under constant threat and torture from the Burmese military junta. The Karens of Andaman Islands can peacefully go to bed and wake with a happy heart, whereas the Karens in Burma (Myanmar) are living a life of slave under the tyrant rule of the Burmese.

Although they are a minority in India yet they have not forgotten their culture and traditions. Karens in the Andaman Islands are mostly protestant Christian.  At present there are intermarriages with other communities in the Islands and some have converted to other religions too. Karens are by nature very artistic, they love music, dance and singing, they are experts at diving, trekking and fishing. They are also very good at sports and they love football.

Karens are also known for their beauty; Susan Ahluwalia (married to a Sikh- Naval officer) became the cover girl of the Femina magazine published in the year July 24th 1970 by ‘The Times Of India’ publication. She was born on 16th August 1947 in the Andaman Islands to a Karen mother and an Anglo-Jewish father (ex-serviceman of British India Army).

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There are many young talented musicians, singers and artist in the community but the only thing that lacks is support sharpen and utilize the skills they posses. If given an opportunity these young talents could make the Islands proud and the nation at large.

Karens have adapted to the Islands with ease and they are contributing to the Islands development in some way or the other. Majority of the Karens are agriculturist and they earn their livelihood by fishing, and hunting. Very few of them are into the government services like Educational Department, Forest Department, Electricity Department, Police Department, Health Department and other private business and entrepreneurship.

Karens are socially and economically backward. Very few are well educated and are in a better position. For those who can afford education expenses manage to put their children in good schools. The rest are forced to attend government school and in the process many drop out half way. There are some who are brilliant in studies but because due to poverty cannot afford higher studies.

Karens are by nature peace loving, if you wrong a Karen once, twice or thrice he will forgive you but if you accuse him of something he has not done then the outcome is definitely a bad blow. Karens are close knit family and they stay together even after marriages. Both men and women are equally treated and there is no difference in status unlike other communities. They work together in field and household chores and carry with them their beautiful culture, tradition, customs and beliefs which they wish to pass on to their future generations. Among them are their colorful bamboo dance, ethnic dressing style, beautiful songs, mouth watering cuisines, folk dance, folk songs and stories.

Given that the Karens have been considered as Other Backward Classes (O.B.C) but holding an O.B.C certificate alone would not do any good to them unless some special reservations are made. As competitions get tougher; with the kind of poor background it becomes next to impossible for this community to stay abreast in the race. If left and ignored they might become silent sufferers and will not be able to come at par with the rest and gradually would be lost in their own promised land.

The Karens are already dominated by the fears of them losing their identity in the midst of this advancing world. They may be too naïve and shy to claim for their rights, but still in their hearts they wish for a change in their community.

Like every Indian, Karens too have a desire to be treated equally like the rest. They too wish to be heard and not ignored. Time has come to ask ourselves whether we are being fair towards the Karens?

Now that they are officially Indian citizens, isn’t it the responsibility of the Indian Government to take care of them and see them grow?