Confinement and mobility: transnational ties and religious networking among Baptist Karen at the Thailand-Burma border

by Alexander Horstmann

Working Papers WP 10-16
November 2010
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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As the refugee crisis unfolds, tens of thousands Karen refugees roam in the jungle, make their way to the refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border or self-settle in the border town or in the countryside. In this paper, I explore the nexus of the Karen becoming stateless and empowered in Christian networks. I engage with Castells’ social theory of network society to show the reliance of refugees on support networks. I argue that Christians are able to counter their confinement to the refugee camp by claiming spaces in the borderland. Far from being passive recipients of humanitarian aid, Karen refugees emerge as senior evangelists who use cross-border church networks to proselytize in the borderland. I show that the Karen use these dense support networks for reconstruction in the Thai borderland and for re-entering the war-zone in eastern Burma as part of a collective project and spiritual passage. I argue that the development of an indigenous Karen Christian tradition is intertwined and developed in tandem with the nationalist project of a Karen state. The Karen “struggle” is thus interpreted in religious language of Christian prophecy. This discourse is also reinforced by the identification of Western humanitarian aid agencies with the fate of the Karen.

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