"Letters of Contestation: Leke Religious Cult among the Karens in Myanmarand Thailand"

16:00 -, March 23 (Fri), 2007
Room 207 on the 2nd Floor, East Building, CSEAS, Kyoto University
Dr. Kwanchewan Buadaeng (CSEAS Visiting Research Fellow and Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, Thailand)

Leke is one among many religious cults of the Karen peoples in Myanmar and Thailand. Data on Leke has been collected from Leke communities in a refugee camp at Thai-Myanmar border and in various places in Pa-an city of the Karen State in Myanmar. Similar to other religious cults, Leke has its own belief system and religious practices although some of its elements can be identified with those of the world religions. The salient feature of the Leke, however, is the upholding of li chaw wae, literally the chicken-scratch letters and the li chaw wae sacred scripts. Many studies found that oral tradition-based ethnic peoples, such as the Karen, have yearned for their own literacy. This has led to their conversion to Christianity as they have got their ‘own’ letters which were invented by missionaries. For the Leke, however, they choose to have their own letters, treat them as sacred scripts and relate them to the survival of the Karen community and identity. My argument here is that religious symbols, discourses and structure around the sacred letters of Leke have created specific Karen ethno-religious identity to contest with others, unite Karen people and resist the integration into the dominant society. To illustrate this, the paper describes the myth of origin of li chaw wae letters against the background of the emergence of other Karen letters during the colonization period in Myanmar. Then description is continued on Leke religious structure, discourses and practices which are constructed according to li chaw wae scripts. The paper will also comment on constraints and opportunities to maintain Leke community amidst the pressure from modernization and nationalization.

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