Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Research Article

Waiting for a righteous ruler: The Karen royal imaginary in Thailand and Burma

Mikael Gravers


Karen believe they are like orphans without a king and leader; royalty often appear in their myths, legends and prophecies. Buddhist Karen await the next Buddha, Ariya Metteya — preceded by a righteous Karen leader — who shall cleanse the world. This paper explores the Karen imaginary and notions of royalty as preconditions for a new era governed by Buddhist ethics that will bring peace and prosperity. This imaginary combines religion and politics in a millenarian model of the world as seen from the margins of traditional kingdoms and modern nation-states — what James Scott has termed ‘non-state spaces’. The Karen oscillate between defensive and offensive strategies, as shown in several examples. Is this imaginary a premodern phenomenon typical of marginalised minorities or perhaps also part of a modern, global imaginary of a better future? The concept of morally enchanted leadership is discussed in relation to states, nations and globalisation.


Mikael Gravers is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Ethnography, Aarhus University, Denmark. Correspondence regarding this paper should be addressed to: A version of this paper was presented at a workshop, ‘Royal charisma, military power and the future of democracy in Thailand’, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen, 23–24 Nov. 2007. I am grateful for comments and suggestions by both anonymous referees, Maurizio Peleggi for valuable editorial suggestions and James C. Scott for stimulating theoretical discussions on the art of avoiding states while engaging in their making. Research among the Karen since 1970 has been generously supported by HRH Crown Prince Frederik's Fund, the Danish Research Council for Humanities and the Carlsberg Fund. I dedicate this article to the numerous Pwo and Sgaw Karen in Uthaithani, Kanchanaburi, Lamphun and Chiang Mai provinces who shared with me their knowledge and aspirations. In particular, Tongchai Kranae (Preo Pa Dai'), his family and relatives have generously helped me. Knowledge was shared with my two colleagues Kirsten Ewers Andersen and Anders Baltzer Jørgensen. I am grateful for the knowledge and support from Theisa Say (Charoen Pacha), who helped to translate Karen myths. Last, but not least, Vinai Boonlue SJ and Prasert Trakansuphakon have also generously shared their knowledge with me during my fieldwork and in subsequent discussions of Karen strategies.