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Textiles in Exile: Textiles made in refugee camps on the Thailand/Myanmar border

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The World Art collection at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery includes a small group of textiles made by women living in refugee camps near the Thailand/Myanmar border, in the Mae Hong Son area.

Most of these women identified with the Karenni ethnic identity, having been displaced by conflict from Karenni (Kayah) State in Myanmar. The textiles were collected in 1997 by a British anthropologist, Sandra Dudley. Tragically, no-one could have imagined then that, two decades later, 99,946 individuals (as at December 2017, figure published by The Border Consortium) would still be living in these camps, unable to return to Myanmar but prevented from integrating into Thai society.

Karenni-style skirt-cloth made on a non-automated frame loom in a weaving centre in Camp 3, Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand and collected by Sandra Dudley in 1997. [Museum number: WA508065]

Karenni State (known by the Myanmar government as Kayah State) is the smallest state in Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia which borders India to the west, China to the northeast and Thailand to the southeast. It is also one of the least developed states, with extremely limited infrastructure to meet the needs of its resident population, in terms of health, education and employment.

Since its independence from British rule in 1948, Myanmar has experienced near-constant political turbulence and conflict. Much of this has been fuelled by disagreements between political representatives of the majority ethnic group – Burmans – who have held long periods of influence, and the country’s many ethnic minorities. Many minorities are based in the border areas and consider themselves to have distinctive cultural traditions including language. While most Burmans are Buddhist, many of the ethnic minorities are Christian, having had contact with European missionaries. Many minorities believe that the Myanmar government is engaged in a long-term campaign to ‘Burmanize’ the country, and report widespread discrimination.

The Karenni – a term which covers a wide and shifting number of sub-groups – form part of the wider Karen ethno-linguistic family. This family is divided into three main Karen groups: Pwo, Sgaw and Karen. Karenni political interests have been served by the Karenni National Progressive Party which has been involved in long periods of conflict with the Myanmar government and its armed forces. From the late 1980s this conflict has been a ‘push’ factor, driving refugees across the border into refugee camps in Thailand. Thailand is not a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol. As such asylum-seekers are considered illegal migrants and are not able to access government health care or education or to work legally within Thailand.

The camps are run by the Karenni community, with the support of international non-governmental organisations. There is some health and educational provision but it is limited. Camps are overcrowded and the Thai government restricts camp residents’ movement. With the installation of a nominally civilian Myanmar government in 2011 and the promise of reform has come a decrease in humanitarian aid and conditions in the camps are growing increasingly precarious.

Crocheted torch-cover/carrier made of pre-dyed wool-synthetic mix yarn. Made in Camp 5, Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand and collected by Sandra Dudley in 1997. [Museum number: WA508116]

The group of 25 textiles include skirt-cloths, tunics and bags. Most were handwoven, some on a backstrap loom (the collection includes an example of a back-strap loom, which uses a strip of rice sack for the back-strap in place of the usual strip of hide) and some on a non-automated frame loom. The textiles were collected in Karenni-majority camps but also reflect garments usually associated with other Karen groups including the Sgaw Karen and Paku Karen. In reflecting the development of new forms of material culture, the collection also includes a crocheted torch cover, a necessary piece of equipment for those living in camps without access to mains electricity.

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art