Kayah Li

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Kayah Li is an example of what might be called a defiant alphabet. Like Hanifi Rohingya, it is also, to a considerable degree, a refugee alphabet.

Refugees live in harsher and more demeaning conditions than most non-refugees know, or can imagine — virtual prisons, in many cases. And as in prisons, anything that shores up identity, individual and collective, is vital.

The original Kayah Li script was created to write the Karen languages by Htae Bu Phae in March 1962, in part in response to the appearance of Latin-based orthographies which had appeared after 1950. Little can he or any other Karen people have known that the cultural imperialism of Latin-based scripts would be the least of their troubles.

According to the Thailand-based Border Consortium, the vast majority — perhaps 90% — of the refugees in the Thai refugee camps are Karen or Karenni from eastern Myanmar, who have fled armed conflicts and/or human rights abuse and persecution by the Burmese military.

In the early 1980s, the Burmese government policy of Four Cuts resulted in the widespread destruction of communities and the decline of traditional cultures. Thousands of villages, especially in the Karen and Karenni States, were burned to the ground, including houses, religious buildings, schools, belongings, and sometimes even domestic animals. In many areas, it became the norm for the villagers to live in constant fear of the Burmese military coming to their village, terrorising the villagers, stealing their food, forcing them to become porters and mine sweepers, raping ethnic women, and torturing and killing anyone suspected of having a connection with the ethnic armed opposition. Whilst some villagers endured the abuse by developing warning systems and repeatedly fleeing to the jungle, others, who had heard about Thailand, decided to leave their village for good. Others still had no choice as their village was already in ashes on the ground.

When the first refugees arrived in 1984, no one could have predicted that many of them would still be there 30 years later: by the end of 2104 nearly 100,000 had been resettled to third countries, but more than 110,000 were still in the camps.

Due to the refugees in the camps being forced to be nearly completely dependent on outside help for food, shelter, protection and other basic needs, their coping mechanisms have been severely eroded. Travel and work restrictions have had adverse psychological and social effects on the refugees, decreasing their self-sufficiency, camp morale and mental health.

“Living in the camp is similar to living in prison because I can’t go outside or make my own decision[s],” Christine, 22, a Karen refugee, told Burma Link in the Mae La refugee camp in May 2014. “I can commute only in the camp. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire. If we go outside of the camp, Thai police will arrest us. In the long run, it affects not only my physical but also my mental health.”

A 2006 study cited by Human Rights Watch found that 50% of adult camp residents suffer from mental health problems and anti-depressants constituted one of the most common drug prescriptions for refugees.

Considering the often traumatic backgrounds as well as the challenging circumstances that refugees face in Thailand, many people who visit the camps are impressed by the significant effort refugees make in order to maintain dignity and hope in the camp communities. Despite severe restrictions and depressive realities, refugees strive to remain active and to maintain their cultural traditions through practices such as teaching ethnic nationality languages and dances.

Under these ghastly circumstances, the determination of the Karen people to maintain, teach and learn their own language, spoken and written, is little short of extraordinary.

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