Over 9,000 people gathered in Washington DC on Monday for two purposes: to promote their culture and show the world who the Karen are, and to support the U.S. government in continuing economic sanctions against the Burmese military regime. Over 1,000 gathered in Nebraska’s capital city, Lincoln, for the same purposes. The Karen, an ethnic group from Burma (Myanmar), have immigrated and thrived within the United States. Many have been forced from their homes in Karen State, Burma, as the conflicts there have targeted them in the past, the way the government is currently targeting the Rohingya. There are over 64,000 Karen in the U.S., many in Nebraska. Karen immigrants from Norway and Canada were also in attendance on Monday.

Htoo Aye

It seems like every day there’s some kind of protest or another and multiple media outlets were called to the scene, asking them what they were protesting or marching against. I recently spoke to Htoo Aye, one of the key 20 members of the gathering, and he was adamant: “I want to be very clear, this is not a protest or a march. This is a gathering to show and share our culture and to support the United States government. We are very thankful to be here.”

Karen culture is quite fascinating. I spent a month deep in the Karen jungles, and the people there were some of the most interesting, inspiring and simply happy people I’ve ever come across. There are facets of American culture that would do well to take some cues from the Karen, like their general balance between strength of character and tenderness of heart, and these values are often directly reflected in their culture. For example, the way they value their children: instead of naming the child after the father, the father renames himself to “Father of ___.” I go through some of these interesting facets in my previous series.

Some Karen, wearing traditional dress, waiting next to some U.S. soldiers to cross the street.

The Karen are not only supporting the U.S.’s sanctions against the Burmese regime solely for their own people. Their concerns reach all the way over to the Rohingya, and even the Burmese people themselves. “We are not against the Burmese people,” Htoo Aye said, “even the Burmese people suffer under the regime. They suffer terribly too, and it’s happening to every tribe (like the Karen) and every ethnic nationality.”

In my limited experience with the Karen, this gathering was well received but it was not a surprise. Leave it to the Karen to gather in a politically tumultuous time in the United States to promote peace, show their fascinating culture and just support the roof under which they live. Perhaps that’s one of the cues we could take from them.

All images courtesy of Htoo Aye.