On June 24-25, 2023, the Karenni people celebrated the 148th Karenni National Day, hosted by the Karenni Community of Indiana in Indianapolis, Indiana. With approximately 3,000 participants traveling from all corners of the country, the celebration served as a testament to the resilience and unity of the Karenni community living in the United States.
The Karenni, also known as Kayah or Red Karen, are originally from the Kayah State in eastern Myanmar (Burma). Faced with ongoing political instability and armed conflicts, many Karenni people sought refuge in the United States, where they have successfully built a tight-knit and resilient community. They continue to uphold their rich cultural traditions while advocating for the rights and well-being of their community back in Myanmar (Burma).
The Karenni National Day, typically observed annually on June 21st, commemorates the day in 1875 when the Karenni State achieved recognition as a sovereign entity by the British colonial government. The day has since transformed into an annual celebration of the Karenni people's enduring cultural heritage, resilience, and unity.
Oo R. Sor, President of the Karenni American Association, in conversation with East-West Center in Washington Young Professional Lian Thawng Hnin said, "Our cultural roots are our strength and our identity. Even as we adapt to our new homeland, it is paramount that we hold onto our traditions and values." "We are here today, not just to celebrate but to reaffirm our commitment to our heritage and to each other," emphasizing the day's significance.
Ms. Evalyn, a political activist, and a keynote speaker at the event in Indianapolis, also added to the importance of educating younger generations about their unique history and traditions. "It is our collective duty to ensure that our rich cultural heritage continues to flourish. Our children should be aware of the resilience and courage that form the cornerstone of our community."
The celebration was filled with various events. The sports competitions, marked by friendly rivalry and team spirit, demonstrated the importance of unity and camaraderie within the community. The Miss Pageant was another highlight, showcasing the elegance, intelligence, and cultural pride of young Karenni women, and signifying a beautiful amalgamation of traditional and modern values.
Pageant contestants at 148th Karenni National Day 2023 [Image: Courtesy of Ah Pay Photography, Indianapolis]
Moreover, the music concert featuring traditional Karenni songs brought the crowd to their feet, while a series of cultural dances offered a captivating display of Karenni folklore and traditions. These performances, steeped in cultural significance, allowed the audience to reconnect with their roots and celebrate their identity.
A particularly inspiring moment was the fundraising initiative for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Karenni State in Myanmar (Burma), which demonstrated the Karenni community's ongoing commitment to supporting those in need back home. The success of the initiative underscored the community's spirit of giving and solidarity.
Another participant at the celebrations shared their perspective on the importance of the event: "This celebration is a reminder of where we come from, our struggle for freedom, and our hopes for a better future. It's an affirmation of my Karenni identity."
The 148th Karenni National Day was more than just a celebration; it was a symbol of the enduring spirit of the Karenni Community, keeping the flame of Karenni culture alive, and serving as a beacon of hope for the community in the United States and beyond.
Lian Thawng Hnin is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, focusing on international security and trade relations with a regional focus on Southeast Asia.