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Towards a Moral Understanding of Karen State's Paradoxical Buddhist Strongmen.

A long-running ethno-nationalist conflict has deeply affected life in Karen State, Myanmar. Soon after the country achieved independence from the British in 1948, Karen nationalists commenced an armed struggle against the state for the independent homeland of Kawthoolei (Smith 1999 and 2003; South 2011; Thawnghmung 2008 and 2012). The civilian population of Karen State faced decades of instability and egregious human rights violations under brutal military campaigns, which resulted in mass displacement and large flows of refugees to Thailand and further afield (Decha Tangseefa 2006 and 2007; Delang 2000; Lang 2002). International attention and scholarship has focused on the role of the military and the suffering this war has inflicted on people living in Karen State (Fink 2001; Lang 2002; Rogers 2004). The long-running conflict has also produced a strong normative narrative around the legitimacy of the ethno-nationalist organization the Karen National Union (KNU) and its struggle for ethnic political and economic autonomy (Brenner 2017; Decobert 2016; Gravers 1996; Harriden 2002; Rajah 2002; Thawnghmung 2008). In contrast, an offshoot of the KNU, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which signed a ceasefire with Myanmar's military government in December 1994, has been positioned as an extractive and violent organization that betrayed the Karen cause (Smith 2003; South 2007 and 2011). However, as a result of limited access for research in DKBA-controlled areas, there has been insignificant attention paid to how this rebel group and its armed commanders are understood and perceived by Karen people themselves.

In an effort to reach a deeper understanding of the DKBA as an institution and its commanders, this article explores the life of one powerful Plong (Pwo) Karen ex-combatant and the various sociocultural understandings of morality connected to his status within one community in Hpa-an district, Karen State. (1) This is based on eighteen months of fieldwork in Hpa-an district in 2015-18, where I conducted ethnographic research exploring Buddhist Plong Karen people's understandings of morality and ethics (see Chambers 2018). As a result of the DKBA's (now part of the Border Guard Force, BGF) power in Hpa-an district, I also examined its armed commanders and how they are configured according to Plong Karen social ethics. (2) Throughout my research I used a combination of conversational Burmese, eastern Plong Karen and English, and sometimes a mixture of all three. Hpa-an is a dynamic multilingual space and I followed suit throughout my fieldwork, changing the lingua franca I used depending on the people I was speaking to and their own preferred language for conversation at the time. Language learning is an iterative and ongoing process, made even more complicated in multilingual settings like Karen State; however, I endeavoured to learn both Burmese and Plong Karen. Throughout my fieldwork, I also had three Plong Karen--speaking students who assisted me with my research in Hpa-an and provided translation help during formal interviews with authorities such as monks, ritual elders, armed leaders or government staff.

In this article, I take the perspectives of my Buddhist Plong Karen informants on morality and ethics as a starting point to critique the prevailing view of the DKBA and its armed strongmen in scholarship on the Karen as coercive and extractive alone. I draw from the recent 'ethical turn' in anthropology and the observation that in understanding social and political life, we must return to an emphasis on the moral or ethical and the inherently evaluative nature of human-social relations (Keane 2015; Laidlaw 2014; Lambek 2015). By focusing on the moral frameworks which people use to evaluate these powerful figures, I add to literature on Southeast Asia's strongman tradition that calls attention to elaborate and sometimes contradictory value norms when studying the enactment of power (Bultmann 2018; Nishizaki 2011; Sidel 1999; Thawnghmung 2004; Trocki 1998). Social relations within Plong Karen Buddhist communities carry highly charged and divergent moral evaluations of people and the way they choose to live their lives. (3) In this article, I discuss how the ability to act as a moral authority is embedded in elaborate social notions of interdependency related to the specific formation of Plong Karen personhood and the importance of being 'faithful' (in Plong Karen, thout kyar) to each other. (4) Further to this, I show how a core feature of Plong Karen understandings of power and authority are interwoven in elaborate social notions of moral leadership according to a Buddhist cosmological emphasis on the importance of merit-making activities.

Before turning to the historical and ethnographic context of Karen State, I lay out some of the scholarship on strongmen in Southeast Asia and how a focus on morality can help to draw out the multifarious ways people understand them. In the following section, I provide a background to the post-conflict economy of Hpa-an district, and to the DKBA and its armed strongmen. Concentrating on one powerful Plong Karen Buddhist strongman, in the next two sections I examine the complex regimes of value embedded in Plong Karen understandings of moral authority. In describing the ways one of these powerful figures is positioned in his home community through Plong Karen frameworks of 'moral reasoning' (Sykes 2009), I reveal how the strongman tradition is interwoven in elaborate and sometimes contradictory value norms. I show how the performance of a moral self through large-scale donation ceremonies and proximity to powerful abbots helps to mitigate the paradoxes inherent to Plong Karen understandings of DKBA strongmen and their associated 'unclean' economic activities.

Strongmen in Southeast Asia

A burgeoning literature establishes the pervasiveness of strongmen in contemporary Southeast Asian electoral politics and the widespread practice of clientelism (Aspinall and Sukmajati 2016; Mietzner 2013; Sidel 1999; Trocki 1998). Beginning with James Scott's (1972 and 1976) work on patron-client relations, scholars have long argued that a network of dyadic relationships permeates both local and national political institutions in the region. Built on the historical and cultural predilections of power and authority at the local level, much of the contemporary literature engages with democratic theory, demonstrating the way that local bosses have emerged and entrenched themselves as power brokers within democratic political institutions (for example, Bultmann 2018; Sidel 1999; Trocki 1998). John Sidel (1999), for example, highlights the 'coercive pressures' exerted by 'local bosses' in the Philippines, as they seek to monopolize both political and economic power in the areas they control. Where local-level cronies have long run politics, he argues that local bosses obstruct democracy through widespread electoral fraud, vote buying and violence, factors that effectively negate the power of constituents to influence electoral results. James Ockey (2000 and 2017) also shows the way that Thai political arrangements have empowered corrupt regional thugs and their business interests. However, others like Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung (2004) demonstrate that from the perspective of the grass roots, perceptions of armed strongmen are often much more nuanced. In an attempt to complicate one-dimensional narratives of state-society relations in military-dictated Myanmar, Thawnghmung (2004) explores how the universally condemned leaders of the military junta enjoyed some forms of legitimacy amongst paddy farmers. She also shows that a focus on national level politics does not do justice to the complexities of strongman relations and the way that everyday people situate themselves in relation to them.

Anthropological research in Southeast Asia complicates the narrative of the strongman tradition, emphasizing the dyadic nature of social relations. Research amongst Theravadin communities demonstrates that Buddhist moral norms tend to structure economic relations between elites and non-elites. These relate to the importance of generosity, redistribution and other forms of appropriate behaviour within a local social context (Bowie 1998; Keyes 1990; Kirsch 1973 and 1977; Reynolds 1989). Yoshinori Nishizaki's (2011) detailed study of the powerful member of parliament (MP) Banharn Silpa-archa in Thailand, in particular, demonstrates the various forms of social and moral capital necessary to the formation of some of the most powerful strongmen. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Banharn's home province in Suphanburi, Nishizaki examines the popular support and legitimacy of a strongman widely regarded as corrupt and violent. Rather than dismissing the views of Banharn's electoral support in Suphanburi on the basis of coercion, violence, electoral fraud or private patronage, Nishizaki instead privileges the views of Banharn's constituents and the way he was able to strike a chord with the aspirations, dreams and hopes of the electorate. Ethnographically thick accounts like Nishizaki's are illustrative for understanding the way that strongmen such as Banharn can be seen and experienced as moral authorities in people's lives. Such work also helps to foreground how people assert their own positive configurations of strongmen, in spite of their experiences of what may be perceived from outsiders as coercive or violent. As Nishizaki demonstrates, even the most corrupt and nefarious of so-called strongmen can be experienced as a moral authority at the local level.

This article adds to this field of research through an ethnographic focus on the armed Buddhist Plong Karen strongmen of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army near Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State in Myanmar. Rather than treating their authority within Plong Karen Buddhist communities as a consequence of coercion and violence alone, I show how people who interact daily with these men view them through moral lenses. Inspired by the recent turn towards morality and ethics in anthropology (for example, Keane 2015; Laidlaw 2002 and 2014; Lambek 2015 and 2010; Robbins 2004 and 2007), I build on the argument that humans are inherently evaluative and that "fundamentally human beings live in worlds in which it is impossible not to evaluate action with respect to the good" (Lambek 2015, p. xvii). Further to this, my methodological approach reflects the view of leading anthropologists that power relations are often intensely experienced and negotiated in morally imbued routine everyday encounters. Cumulatively these encounters serve to shape individual and communal notions of moral ideals and collective identity. The ethical, in this sense, should always be located in the realm of everyday life, shaped by the exigencies of social interaction.

Buddhist strongmen play an important role in Karen society, as benefactors and religious patrons. Major General Chit Thu, for instance, the former commander of DKBA's Brigade 999, is a household name across Karen State as a result of the wealth and power he has accrued over the last two decades. For many commentators on Karen affairs, Chit Thu is the personification of the rural 'boss' (in Plong Karen, thae hti), known for using dirty money transactions to build up his wealth. (5) Like the archetypal strongman tradition, Chit Thu has become renowned for both violence and corruption, partly based on his reputation as a fearless and brutish soldier of the DKBA. However, for many people, he also enjoys a significant degree of 'moral authority' as a result of the role he plays in the reproduction of Karen cultural, religious and social life (see Chambers and Cheesman this issue).

Part of Chit Thu's moral authority is based on his careful cultivation of Karen pride and cultural identity in the wide range of civic activities and Karen festivals he sponsors. In addition to establishing himself as a patron of the Karen community, Chit Thu has used his clientelist connections with regional Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) commanders in Karen State to foster development projects in areas he controls, including roads, schools and medical clinics. Moreover, he also builds his legitimacy by working through local moral frameworks of Karen personhood, including paying homage every year to elders in his natal village as well as sponsoring numerous social welfare initiatives. In addition to this, he acquires moral authority by patronizing Buddhist social and religious works in areas he controls. In sum, the power and authority of armed strongmen like Chit Thu cannot be explained without considering localized understandings of morality among Plong Karen Buddhists.

Before turning to morality and authority, in the next section I give an overview of the history of Karen State and the rise of the DKBA and its armed strongmen in the 1990s. I then discuss the multiple ways that the home community of a former commander of the DKBA perceives him, so as to articulate a conception of Plong Karen Buddhist moral authority.

A Political History of Karen State and the Emergence of Armed Buddhist Strongmen

Soon after Myanmar achieved independence from Britain in 1948, the competing claims for loyalty from the KNU and the Tatmadaw came to define life for many Karen people in Myanmar's southeast over the next fifty years, in what scholars have described as a landscape of "horror and despair" (Horstmann 2015, p. 2; see also Decha Tangseefa 2006; Lang 2002; Rogers 2004). Alongside the ethno-national conflict, Karen people also suffered as a result of the Myanmar military government's implementation of autarkic state policies which nationalized all sectors of the economy, including public utilities, foreign trade and the commercial, agricultural and industrial sectors (Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2003; Steinberg 2006; Taylor 1987). Despite seeking to transform Myanmar into a "prosperous and modern socialist society" (Mya Than 1987, p. 55), under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) (1962-88), Myanmar's economy deteriorated rapidly and saw high inflation, economic stagnation and unprecedented levels of unemployment (Jones 2014b, p. 148; Steinberg 1981). After widespread civil unrest in 1988, a new set of military leaders under the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took over, prompting a substantial shift in the political economy of state-society relations, its social structure and government administration (Callahan 2000 and 2004; Fujita, Mieno, and Okamoto 2009; McCarthy 2018; Steinberg 2001). In the early 1990s, the SLORC military government began implementing a programme of modernization and urbanization in an attempt to strengthen the politically and economically weak state, including increased openness to foreign investment and the privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and properties (Ford, Gillan, and Htwe Htwe Thein 2016, p. 16; Fujita, Mieno, and Okamoto 2009; Jones 2014a; Mya Maung 1998). The SLORC regime also set out to "restore peace and stability, law and order" in Myanmar, focusing their efforts on the frontier borderland regions where natural resources and the black-market economy were concentrated (secretary 1 Khin Nyunt cited in Cohen 1999, p. 2). Alongside changing geopolitical conditions, the new political and economic arrangements significantly strengthened the junta's power against armed groups in borderland regions, forcing many of them to concede to tentative ceasefire arrangements (Callahan 2004; Smith 1999 and 2007).

Although the Myanmar military had secured control over many areas of southeastern Myanmar in the decades prior, in December 1994 the KNU faced a significant blow after an armed rebellion of Buddhist Karen soldiers joined forces with the Tatmadaw in exchange for autonomy (Gravers 1999, pp. 91-95; South 2008, p. 58). (6) As with many of Myanmar's other armed groups, the arrangement between the Tatmadaw and the DKBA resulted in lucrative business concessions for DKBA commanders, securing both state and armed group elites' access to highly profitable systems of resource extraction (see also Buchanan 2016; Callahan 2007, p. 28; Meehan 2011; Woods 2011). The Tatmadaw's arrangements with armed groups and militias allowed for the establishment not only of profitable business contracts and commercial agricultural projects in the areas they controlled but also illicit enterprises as revenue generating activities (Buchanan 2016; Meehan 2011).

During the late 1990s and 2000s, wealth in Karen State soon became concentrated in the hands of a few well-connected powerful DKBA strongmen. In many parts of Karen State, the DKBA enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, having the right to carry arms and pursue economic trade in areas they controlled. They levied tolls on users of key arteries through Karen State, issued car import permits, and taxed goods crossing through border checkpoints they controlled. During this time, the DKBA gained a reputation for an active willingness to engage in lethal forms of violence (Human Rights Watch 2016; Karen Human Rights Group 1997 and 2002; Lang 2002; South 2008 and 2011). Labelled by political analyst Ashley South as "conflict entrepreneurs" (2011, p. 19), they also became known as predatory and profit-seeking, relying on extortion, taxation, gambling and the increasingly profitable sale of methamphetamines. And yet, despite their formidable reputation as extractive and coercive strongmen, there was widespread support for some of the DKBA military commanders who emerged during this time.

Among Plong Karen Buddhists I encountered in Hpa-an during my research in 2015-18, many people suggested that the DKBA brought a semblance of peace and order in the mid-1990s following decades of political and economic turmoil. Central to their contingent legitimacy at the time was the patronage role of the charismatic Buddhist abbot U Thuzana, also known as the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, (7) who sought to 'rejuvenate' the Buddhist Karen polity (see also Gravers 2012a and 2018). (8) U Thuzana was a particularly charismatic Buddhist abbot, exemplifying what Guillaume Rozenberg (2010) refers to as a 'Burmese saint' in many Plong Karen people's minds. His charismatic leadership appealed to many disgruntled Buddhist Plong Karen people and soldiers who believed that peace could come to Karen State through a Buddhist revivalism. In addition to the moral authority the DKBA gained with U Thuzana's patronage, some of these armed strongmen also brought funds for roads, schools and other social services in communities where they were based.

One of the most powerful men that I encountered regularly during my fieldwork, Saw Eh Klein, at first appeared to fit the type of a predatory and profit-seeking strongman. (9) However, the longer I spent time with him and members of his community, the more I came to understand the complexity of Plong Karen Buddhist understandings of morality. Rather than concentrating on his coercive capacity in his home community, in this next section I focus on the life of Saw Eh Klein and how he came to be regarded as a community leader and religious patron in ways which cohere with localized understandings of moral authority.

Introducing Saw Eh Klein

In April 2015 I met Saw Eh Klein through his daughter, Nan Eh Hti Paw, a precocious nineteen-year-old university student whom I had met through youth education networks in Hpa-an. Like many other young people I spent time with in Hpa-an, Nan Eh Hti Paw explained to me that her family had faced many difficulties when she was a child. She had vivid memories of going to the market with her mother as a three-year-old to sell cooked chicken eggs, fruits and other snacks. "Many days we didn't come home with enough money to buy meat or vegetables, so we just ate rice and fish paste", she told me. (10) She recalled how other families looked down on them because of their poverty. However, in the mid-2000s, after her father moved back from the border where he was an officer with the DKBA, she told me that life began to get "easier":
After that time, nobody pitied us anymore. My father was a DKBA soldier
and after he returned from the border everyone respected us. After he
came home, I never had to go to the market to sell snacks again. (11)

Nan Eh Hti Paw's father was widely known for his immense wealth and many Plong Karen people I encountered referred to him as a boss or 'wealthy boss' (in Plong Karen, thae hti). Unlike most of the students I met who drove a motorbike or caught a lift with someone else into Hpa-an, Nan Eh Hti Paw drove to university every day in her own car. Her house was also grand compared to most other homes I spent time in during my time in Hpa-an, including air conditioning in the central bedrooms of the house--a luxury most other families I knew could not afford. Compared to some of the other students who often came to class dressed casually in loose cotton pants and a t-shirt, Nan Eh Hti Paw was always dressed immaculately in a matching 'one set' skirt and shirt, freshly ironed and tailored to her figure. Most of the young Karen women I met in Hpa-an only had a few matching sets of clothes which they saved for special occasions. Yet, Nan Eh Hti Paw always seemed to be wearing something new with a corresponding pair of velvet slippers, studded with brightly coloured diamantes. She also went to the hairdressers regularly to have her hair coloured and was always up-to-date with the latest diet fads and beauty products coming to Hpa-an from Bangkok, including herbal teas for weight loss and skin lotions for a fairer complexion.

Saw Eh Klein's wealth was intimately related to his former status as a DKBA officer and the resultant illicit economic networks that he commanded. Even though he was retired from active duty, a 1.5-metre vinyl photograph of him in his fatigues greeted me and other visitors at the entrance to his house, to the left of the household Buddhist shrine. This image reminded visitors of his many years spent in the eastern hills fighting for both Karen autonomy and later bringing peace, but also his coercive capacity for violence as a result of the battles he survived. As a child born in the 1970s, Saw Eh Klein described to me his very humble beginnings and how he was exposed to conflict from a young age as a result of the application of the Tatmadaw's 'Four Cuts' counter-insurgency operations. (12) He grew up in a small, rural Buddhist Plong Karen village near Myaing Gyi Ngu on the Thanlwin River in an area controlled by the Karen National Union. It did not take much to persuade him to join the KNU and he soon found himself serving as a teenage soldier in battles concentrated on the eastern border with Thailand. After years fighting against the Tatmadaw, during which tensions between Christians and Buddhists in the KNU intensified, Saw Eh Klein was drawn into the 1994 Buddhist-led revolt against the KNU leadership.

Saw Eh Klein and his family occupy important places in a complex web of deleterious social relations with people in his neighbourhood. The majority of families I met in the neighbourhood faced high levels of indebtedness and many were constantly looking for new sources of income. This permanent demand for cash left many families from his community connected to Saw Eh Klein either through debt, addiction to gambling or the purchase of drugs. A number of people connected to him claimed he handled around twenty million kyat every week (USS15,000), 400 times more than the average monthly income in the area. In contrast, the average household income in his community was between 100,000 and 150,000 kyat (US$80-120) per month and was largely drawn from the bi-monthly remittances that family members working in Thailand sent. Not only was Saw Eh Klein involved in the trade of methamphetamines locally, but he was also the main lottery dealer in his town, in control of the popular two-digit and three-digit schemes. (13) Saw Eh Klein was also one of the most powerful moneylenders in his community, cementing his status as a 'wealthy boss' in the town. As one middle-aged Plong Karen woman from a house nearby to his home explained to me, "If you spend time with Saw Eh Klein and his wife, it is like quicksand. You will sink deeper and lose everything." (14)

Despite the socially pernicious activities in which he brokered and engaged, dynamics of moral obligation were central to how Saw Eh Klein engaged with people in his home community. He and his family were deeply embedded in the social and community life of their home village. Although they lived in quite a large and busy trading town, Plong Karen I spoke to in urban areas often referred to smaller areas as their 'village' (in Plong Karen, da woun). The demarcations of a village within an urban context are not based on formal government divisions, but rather on deep and enduring social ties of interdependency and 'gift' exchange (c.f. Mauss 1970). Amongst the Plong Karen in Hpa-an, interpersonal relationships are constantly made and reinforced through daily performances of labour exchange, borrowing and lending of goods, community rituals, merit-making and through activities such as sharing meals and tea (Chambers 2018). Much of life in Saw Eh Klein's village was spent in proximity to their neighbours, eating together, laughing together, telling stories and jokes. During Karen ritual festivals or Buddhist ceremonies, people from each of the households came together to cook and prepare food. They attended the same monasteries and meditated together. At the more quotidian experience of everyday life, Saw Eh Klein, his wife and his daughter also came together with other members of the community at multiple times during the day to share time, sit, eat and talk together. Young men and women referred to them respectfully as aunt and uncle in Karen, gha u and moung kyaw, and their two children were popular among their peers. When I asked if they were good people, many people also spoke about their morality in reference to a shared ethos of community and the importance of the Karen ethic of maintaining thout kyar. "Even though they have a lot of money, they always look after people from our village", one Plong Karen woman explained. "Because they are Plong, they have thout kyar." (15)

Thout kyar is an adjective directly translated into English as 'faithful'. As used by Plong Karen, however, it is a much more encompassing term. It refers to a particular Karen ethic which people describe as fundamental to living a morally coterminous life. Thout kyar was often described to me as the most essential moral trait for Karen personhood and is seen by both young and old people alike as the key to people's understandings of each other as good or ethically coterminous beings. To be faithful--according to how people explained it to me--is to live simply and honestly, without pride and greed, and to value harmonious relations over and above individual gain. It is also used to refer to Karen people's self-ascribed ethic of care, hospitality and kindness to others. Rather than living as an autonomous individual, to have thout kyar is to live as a relational being embedded in the concerns of the family and community--what anthropologist Marilyn Strathern (1988) terms a 'dividual', someone who is a composite of the larger social whole.

As other anthropological research on strongmen in Southeast Asia shows, the deleterious debt relationship Saw Eh Klein had with local friends and neighbours came with a high degree of social responsibility (Bowie 1998; Keyes 1990; Scott 1976). Indeed, when I probed people from this community about Saw Eh Klein and his family, they would often emphasize the various projects he was engaged with, which cemented him in their eyes as having thout kyar. Many of the people I spoke to also had a story about how Saw Eh Klein and his wife had helped support them in one situation, thus producing him as a community elder (in Plong Karen, thar shar). Amongst the Plong Karen, thar shar play an important role in people's lives and the term is used in a similar way to the Burmese lu gyi, 'big man'. It is a term that is used to refer to a wide spectrum of respected authorities, including community elders, knowledge bearers and village patrons. Many residents in Saw Eh Klein's community had stories about how he had helped support them in one situation or another. For example, one woman explained to me how grateful she was, after her husband died, to have Saw Eh Klein's support and help to pay for funeral costs. Another woman told me that Saw Eh Klein had helped support her husband's medical costs when he had had a motorcycle accident. Yet another family told me that Saw Eh Klein and his wife had donated substantial sums for building roads and other amenities in various parts of their community. He was also widely known for giving sizable donations to Karen cultural organizations and festivals, including the traditional wrist tying ceremony, as well as a Karen traditional done dance troupe (see Prasert Rangkla 2014). As one Plong Karen woman extolled one afternoon: "Saw Eh Klein does so many good and meritorious things. He always gives generously. He has a lot of goodwill (in Burmese, sedana shi deh)." (16) However, this did not prevent social and moral critique. Despite his "goodwill", there was a great deal of moral scepticism directed towards his economic activities.

Patron-client relationships are not necessarily imbued with moral authority. People who occupy patronage positions need to work towards that quality. Amongst the Plong Karen, a series of moral tales and discourses serve as the basis upon which people evaluate authorities. Saw Eh Klein's moral and social status was often quietly critiqued as a result of his daily economic practices, which were positioned as incommensurate with broader Plong Karen moral ideals. This ambivalence was evident in many interactions and stories that critiqued the 'Karen-ness' of Saw Eh Klein and his family and his accumulation of what many described to me as 'unclean' wealth. This was not simply because of the coercive power embedded in his business interactions, but because of the way extractive debt relations are figured within Plong Karen social ethics.

One day in the late summer of 2016, I spoke to a Plong Karen grandmother, Hpi Ha Mya, on a bamboo mat under her wooden house. As we whiled away the hours plaiting cotton threads she would give to her friends who made Karen clothing, I began to feel a little faint. Hpi Ha Mya immediately offered me water and a mat on which to rest and began to enquire about my health. I told her that I thought I might still be getting used to the heat of Hpa-an as I had been sleeping badly recently and had a few strange dreams. She moved closer to me and quietly warned that I needed to be careful spending time with Saw Eh Klein and his daughter. Through a full mouth of deep red juice from the betel nut she had been chewing she remarked, "If you make 'dirty money' (in Burmese, ma than shin te paik san), bad things can happen to you and your family." (17) In line with this, if I ate from bad money, then bad things could also happen to me. "Ma than shin te paik san, unclean money--it is not Plong Karen culture." (18)

Referring to the traditional practice of paddy cultivation that is at the core of the local lowland Plong Karen cosmology, Hpi Ha Mya explained to me that keeping faithful, thout kyar, and reciprocity defined what it was to be Plong. In the past, Hpi Ha Mya recounted, each household was considered an independent productive unit that produced and consumed its own rice. However, there was also a lot of inter-household cooperation in labour exchange during the planting and harvest seasons. "We believe that only the rice we get from the sweat of our own brow by working together with thout kyar tastes delicious. When we plant and cut the fields together we have to have thout kyar", she explained. (19) For Hpi Ha Mya, Saw Eh Klein's economic practices were not consistent with the Plong Karen moral logic of keeping thout kyar. Indeed, she told me, "Many Plong have lost thout kyar." (20) She and others explained that engaging in morally questionable activities such as moneylending and profiting from the addiction of others was an economic practice brought by outsiders--namely Burmese--and embedded in values that were not consonant with Karen social customs and beliefs.

Anthropologists for many years have stressed that in all societies, social relationships govern proper and improper modes of exchange and their "corresponding moralities" (Osburg 2013, p. 27; see also Sahlins 2000). On the one hand, people are connected to strongmen like Saw Eh Klein through short-term cycles of exchange infused with immorality, impersonality, violence and ultimately a lack of reciprocity. On the other hand, they are also embedded in long-term exchange relations based on reciprocal relations that generate socially binding long-term relations of trust, sentiment and mutuality between people, and which define the ideals and ethical parameters of moral personhood. These contrasting moral frameworks cannot be empirically examined as separate systems that sit in contradiction to each other. Rather, they are two interconnected sides of the same Plong Karen socio-moral universe which simultaneously produces risk and mitigates personhood.

As I came to understand them, the logics of Plong Karen everyday understandings of morality are multifarious and do not simply map on to a pregiven set of "rules of conduct" or "moral facts" that regulate society (Durkheim [1906] 1974, p. 35). Rather, moral paradoxes are at the heart of social life and the very constitution of how Plong Karen Buddhists evaluate those in positions of power or authority. Indeed, as other work within anthropology shows, humans are inherently evaluative, and plural ethical modalities inform how they pursue and enact morally meaningful lives (see Laidlaw 2014; Lambek 2015; Sykes 2009). In conjunction with this, multiple moral logics orient the way strongmen like Saw Eh Klein are perceived and experienced by Plong people. In the final section, I consider how Saw Eh Klein's role as a religious benefactor was one of the ways he sought to perform his moral authority to the community and mitigate these paradoxes.

Karen Strongmen as Religious Benefactors

Saw Eh Klein's generosity to the local community reinforced his role as a moral authority, but so too did his lavish donations to monks and monasteries, for which he had become renowned. In his town, Saw Eh Klein was the major lay benefactor, daga, of several powerful Karen abbots. At many Buddhist celebrations I went to near Hpa-an, he was invited as a distinguished guest and brought up on a raised platform in front of others to receive a special blessing. Special occasions in his household were also marked by offering a donation to a powerful monk or by inviting a group of monks to his home for a meal, publicized and shared widely through word of mouth and, increasingly, on Facebook.

In Hpa-an district, Buddhist social practice is a key feature of the sociocultural landscape and of how people understand what it means to be a 'good' or moral person (Chambers 2018). Identifying as Buddhist is rooted in what Matthew Walton (2016) calls the Buddhist 'moral universe', governed by a set of moral laws and notions of truth laid out by the dhamma, the laws and teachings of the Buddha. For many Buddhists in Hpa-an, acts of generosity, dana, contribute to the reproduction and flourishing of the sasana, the dissemination of the teachings of the Buddha. The importance of dana is embedded in the teachings of the Tipitaka, the Theravada Pali Canon, which highlights the importance of the 'Middle Way'--that monks and laity alike should avoid the extremes of self-mortification and self-gratification through acts of dana (Braun 2013). Articulated through the stories of exemplary figures such as Prince Vessantara and Anathapindika, it is believed that to give freely through dana is a necessary condition for the arising of a higher consciousness leading to purification and nirvana (see Jordt 2007, p. 102). Acts of dana are also an expression of one's 'loving kindness' (in Burmese, myitta; in Pali, metta) and compassion (in Pali, karuna), and they are viewed as efficacious for the acquisition of merit, especially in the form of religious donations. (21)

Participation in donation rituals in Plong Karen Buddhist communities affirms one's place as both a person and member of the social and moral community. For many Plong Karen in Hpa-an, the flourishing of Buddhism is also central to how they imagine a more peaceful and stable society. This cosmological imaginary coheres with the view that the strength of Buddhism within a polity determines the extent of social, economic and political hardship (see Nash 1965; Obeyesekere, Reynolds, and Smith 1972; Spiro 1970; Tambiah 1976). In line with this belief, making donations to monks and to projects of Buddhist revival are widely seen as highly meritorious acts that contribute to attaining parami, moral virtue, and ultimately nirvana. (22)

Nan Eh Hti Paw explained to me that regular acts of generosity or charity (in Burmese, dana) are one of the foundational and basic tenets of being a good person in her community. "If we are Buddhist then we should always do dana." (23) She explained that by giving generously with 'clean and pure' intentions (in Burmese, seddna; in Pali, cetana), (24) the donor cultivates a mental state characterized by a lessening attachment to material objects, and thus moves closer to attaining nirvana. (25) Saw Eh Klein further reiterated this to me: "We should always give dana. If we don't, we can build pride and greed and demerit (in Burmese, a-kutho)." (26) And yet, as numerous scholars have remarked, power and authority are deeply embedded in what Juliane Schober (1989) refers to as the 'merit-power nexus' and an established hierarchy of merit-making related to one's wealth and status in society (Jordt 2007; Mendelson 1960 and 1975; Nash 1965; Schober 1989 and 2011; Spiro 1966 and 1970).

The importance of giving dana and its intersection with Saw Eh Klein's moral authority was demonstrated most visibly to me when he and his wife invited me to join them in paying respects to U Thuzana, the charismatic patron of the DKBA. When we arrived at the monastic hall near their house, Saw Eh Klein, who had gone ahead of us, was kneeling beside U Thuzana, fanning his body and massaging his arms and legs, reminding others in the room of moral status and merit. Nan Eh Hti Paw, her mother and I knelt in front of U Thuzana, keeping our heads bowed low, our legs carefully folded behind us and our hands together in supplication, while others from the town and surrounding villages came in to pay their respects, shuffling forward one by one on their knees to offer a donation. Bedecked in beautifully woven Karen clothes and a thick gold chain with an amulet that hung around her neck, Nan Eh Hti Paw's mother stood out among the other devotees who wore clothes with the simple brown and white aesthetic of lay meditation. She and Nan Eh Hti Paw were greeted affectionately by U Thuzana, who applauded them for promoting Karen culture. After she handed over a thick wad of 10,000 kyat notes (approximately US$8 each), he also praised them for their good works and benevolent minds.

After receiving donations, U Thuzana was brought down to the main audience hall to give a sermon. Saw Eh Klein remained beside him, like a personal bodyguard--reinforcing both his proximity to the venerable monk and his role as the primary daga, religious benefactor, in the community. Using a combination of Plong Karen interspersed with Pali, U Thuzana spoke at length about how meritorious works can help each and every individual end suffering in this and their next lives, urging the Karen devotees not to lead easy and corrupt lives and to maintain their unique cultural customs. He also spoke about his life mission to build Karen State into a Buddhist polity and emphasized that to give generously through acts of dana is the highest form of merit-making and moral personhood.

As the most prominent benefactor of U Thuzana in this community, Saw Eh Klein's moral authority was reinforced by his physical proximity to the great monk. Known for making very large donations to both U Thuzana and other Buddhist abbots, his role in aiding the mission of 'building Buddhism' (in Burmese, thathana pyu) in Karen State was also confirmed to other lay members of the community assembled in the monastic hall. While it is important not to view Saw Eh Klein's moral authority purely through the 'merit-power nexus' (Schober 1989), these public performances of morality played a powerful role in mitigating the ways in which his economic activities were regarded as incommensurate with Plong Karen social ethics and the extractive debt relations he held with many people in his home community. Furthermore, for many people, his large and constant donations to both U Thuzana and other powerful monks was a way of washing clean what was widely regarded as 'unclean wealth'.


In this article I have used morality as a lens through which to examine Karen State's armed DKBA strongmen and their performance of moral authority in their home communities. Through my description of Saw Eh Klein and his relationships with people in his home community, we can see laid bare some of the careful deliberations of 'moral reasoning' people apply to strongmen in what is at times a morally paradoxical world (Sykes 2009). To restrict our view of DKBA commanders and other Plong Karen strongmen to their extractive roles obscures the ways they also help to co-produce social life. A focus on morality helps to bring forward the many ways that people know and understand those in positions of power and authority.

Amongst Plong Karen Buddhists, highly charged and changing understandings of moral obligation shape everyday power relations and their accompanying social relationships. Despite his extractive debt relations, Saw Eh Klein was primarily known through elaborate social bonds which were created at an everyday level and through a shared understanding of what it means to live as a good person and member of a social group. However, like the other forms of exchange within the village, his accumulation of 'unclean' wealth came with a high degree of moral ambiguity. One of the primary ways that Saw Eh Klein sought to perform his moral authority and mitigate the questions associated with the accumulation of 'unclean' wealth was based on a Buddhist cosmological imaginary of moral leadership, including through regular acts of generosity to Buddhist abbots and their religious works. His relationship with the charismatic and powerful abbot U Thuzana was also key to his power and moral authority within his home community.

Taking the inherently evaluative nature of human social relations as a starting point, we can more comprehensively understand the way that people know and understand seemingly corrupt or nefarious individuals as moral authorities. In drawing out the moral virtues that people use to evaluate Saw Eh Klein as both a 'wealthy boss' and 'community leader', I add to literature on strongmen in Southeast Asia and build on the argument that the performance of a moral self is a core feature of the way people know and understand those in positions of power or authority (Nishizaki 2011). In Hpa-an, some of the most powerful benefactors of Buddhism are implicated in a post-conflict economy of illicit wealth making, and their highly public and performative acts of generosity to the sangha and their proximity to abbots only serves to reinforce their power and embed them as moral authorities. Despite the fact that they are involved in and have a history related to coercion and violence, many people know and understand them primarily as moral authorities in their lives. Moral authority, in this sense, cannot be reduced to a strict definition, but is deeply embedded in the complex and sometimes contradictory dynamics of everyday social ethics.


Thank you to Nick Cheesman, Philip Taylor, Matthew Walton and two anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier versions of this article. The Australian Government Research Training Program and the Endeavour Awards funded research for the article.


(1.) Whilst Plong people are commonly referred to as 'Pwo' in studies of the Karen, I prefer to use the term 'Plong', as the people refer to themselves and their language in this way. I also use 'Karen' rather than 'Kayin' (in the Burmese language) to reflect common terminology in English-language scholarship on the Karen and in those published by Karen civil society networks.

(2.) The government demanded the disbanding of DKBA forces and incorporated them into Tatmadaw-aligned Border Guard Force (BGF) units in August 2010. Whilst the majority of DKBA soldiers became BGF units, a small faction refused to do so and re-aligned themselves with the KNU. They later signed a preliminary ceasefire agreement with the Thein Sein government in 2011, and in 2015 signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

(3.) For a more detailed examination of Plong Karen Buddhist understandings of morality, see Chambers (2018).

(4.) The three languages transliterated in this article are eastern Plong Karen, Burmese and Pali. In using locally relevant terms in this article, it is important to note the fluidity and complexity of language in this region of Myanmar. Hpa-an is a highly dynamic linguistic space and people often switch rapidly between Burmese, eastern Plong and sometimes S'gaw Karen.

(5.) Thae hti is a Plong Karen adaption of the Burmese term tha htae, which is also used to refer to a 'wealthy boss'.

(6.) Internal divisions within the KNU spawned two additional non-state armed groups, the Karen Peace Force (KPF) in 1997 (Brigade 6) and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council (KPC) in 2007 (Brigade 7). Members of KNU Brigades 6 and 7, respectively, who defected and signed ceasefires with the Myanmar military, formed these groups. In exchange they received lucrative economic deals, such as mining licences and approval to plant rubber plantations.

(7.) U Thuzana passed away in November 2018 after being unwell for many years.

(8.) U Thuzana is renowned in scholarship on the Karen for having facilitated the split of Buddhist Karen soldiers from the KNU in 1994 (Gravers 2001, 2012b and 2018; Smith 1999; South 2011). From a cursory analysis, the division between the KNU and DKBA took place along religious and linguistic lines and the "genuine grievances" of Buddhist Plong Karen soldiers against their S'gaw Karen superiors (Gravers 1999, pp. 91-97; South 2008, p. 58; Thawnghmung 2008, p. 30). The KNU was governed by an executive committee that was dominated by urban, better-educated S'gaw Karen Christians, whereas the rank and file soldiers were largely made up of Buddhist, Plong soldiers from rural areas (see Gravers 2007, p. 252; South 2008, pp. 57-59).

(9.) In this article, I employ pseudonyms for the names of people in order to protect their identities. I have also deliberately chosen not to include specific information regarding Saw Eh Klein's rank, status or battalion so as to ensure his anonymity.

(10.) Field notes, 12 May 2015, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) The Myanmar military's 'Four Cuts' counter-insurgency strategy--aimed at cutting rebel groups off from access to food, funds, intelligence and recruitment--targeted communities in resource-rich regions or on strategically important trade routes (Lang 2002; Smith 1999). For a more detailed discussion of the 'Four Cuts' policy and its application throughout Myanmar's borderland regions, see Maung Aung Myoe (2009, p. 26), Smith (1999, pp. 258-62), Selth (2002, pp. 91-92) and South (2008, pp. 86-87).

(13.) Addiction to the two-digit (in Burmese, hnit lone) and three-digit (in Burmese, thone lone) lotteries is endemic in Hpa-an, as it is across Myanmar. The hnit lone draw takes place twice a day (12.30 p.m. and 4.30 p.m.) and the results are based on the closing indexes of the Thai stock exchange. Thone lone is based on the last three digits of the bimonthly Thai state lottery. For more information on the Thai lottery and its popularity in Myanmar, see Rozenberg (2005) and Thawnghmung (2011).

(14.) Field notes, 15 September 2015, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(15.) Field notes, 4 February 2016, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(16.) Field notes, 8 March 2016, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(17.) Field notes, 20 April 2015, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) The moral identity of Plong Karen Buddhists in Hpa-an draws many symbolic resources from the geography of the lowland riverine plain and floodwater paddy production. While the idyllic representation of a past time embedded in paddy production and subsistence living is far removed from the reality of most people's lives in contemporary Hpa-an, Plong Karen elders and young people alike still mention subsistence production when speaking morally.

(20.) Field notes, 20 April 2015, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(21.) In Myanmar, dana is generally concerned with gifts to the Buddhist sangha, but it can refer to a wide range of good deeds, which includes charity for the poor, giving food and hospitality (see Kumada 2004; Nash 1965, p. 116; Tamura 1981 and 1983).

(22.) Parami (in Pali, parami) is a Burmese word used commonly among Plong Karen Buddhists to refer to one's virtue or aptitude towards reaching enlightenment. Matthew Walton (2016, p. 50) notes, "Burmese use the word parami in an everyday sense to refer to talent or ability, but it carries a specifically Buddhist meaning of 'acquired virtue'. The ten principle virtues are charity, morality, renunciation, knowledge, effort, honesty, forbearance, loving-kindness, equanimity, and resolution.... While one's present circumstances are always to some degree the result of past actions, development of parami is explicitly connected to one's circumstances with regard to progress towards nibbana."

(23.) Field notes, 5 April 2016, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(24.) In Myanmar, sedana refers to the pure intention of the donor in wanting to give to others freely. If the donor does not have sedana, then it is thought that you do not acquire merit from the act of giving.

(25.) Field notes, 5 April 2016, Hpa-an district, Kayin State.

(26.) Ibid.


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Justine Chambers is Research Scholar in the School of Culture, History and Languages, and Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Centre, Australian National University, 130 Garran Road, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia; email:

DOI: 10.1355/sj34-2b
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Title Annotation:Democratic Karen Buddhist Army
Author:Chambers, Justine
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9MYAN
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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