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

Justine Chambers

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    This article considers the role that armed Plong (Pwo) Karen Buddhist strongmen play as moral authorities in their home communities, rather than their coercive and extractive qualities. Based on eighteen months of fieldwork in Hpa-an district, Karen State, it demonstrates that their ability to act as moral authorities in their home communities is embedded in elaborate social notions of interdependency. These are related to the specific formation of Karen personhood and the importance of being 'faithful' (in Plong Karen, thout kyar) to each other. In describing how one strongman and his extractive debt relations are configured according to Plong Karen social ethics, the article demonstrates that a core feature of their moral authority is interwoven in a Buddhist cosmological understanding of moral leadership and the public performance of merit-making activities. It argues that the use of public performances of morality through donation ceremonies play a powerful role in mitigating the ways in which illicit economic activities and extractive debt relations are regarded as incommensurate with Plong Karen values.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)258-289
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


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