The Journal of Asian Studies

Research Article

Pagodas and Prophets: Contesting Sacred Space and Power among Buddhist Karen in Karen State

Yoko Hayami


This paper analyzes multi-layered religious practices among local Buddhist Karen on the plains of Karen State in Burma, within the context of the larger socio-political dynamics of Burmese Buddhism. The purpose is threefold: first, to give ethnographic details of the hybrid nature of religious practices among Buddhist Pwo Karen, thereby demonstrating how sacred space and power are contested, despite the strong hand of the state; second, to challenge the assumed equation between non-Buddhist minorities on the one hand, and Buddhists as a lowland majority aligned to the state on the other; and third, to raise an alternative understanding to predominantly state-centered perspectives on Theravada Buddhism. Field-based observations on the young charismatic Phu Taki and his community, as well as on the practice of pagoda worship called Duwae that has hitherto been undocumented are presented. These are examined in relation to the changing religious policies of the regime, especially since the policies of “Myanmafication” of Buddhism by the reformist council began in 1980.

Yoko Hayami (, Professor, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.