Coming of Age in Hpa-an: Morality as a Process of Navigation and Conjuncture

After decades of ethno-national conflict, military rule and economic stagnation, Karen people in south-eastern Myanmar are experiencing momentous social and cultural change. Some of the most significant of these changes affect young people. Based on long-term ethnographic research in Hpa-an, the capital of eastern Karen State and former site of one of the most enduring civil conflicts in the world, this paper offers an introduction to the lives of young Plong Karen people and the multiple moral worlds they attempt to navigate as they come of age. In this seminar, I explore individual experiences of being a rural Karen youth in Hpa-an, and examine the different moral spaces young Karen people traverse in the constitution of selfhood and moral subjectivity.

Coming of age in a historical moment mediated by increasingly sophisticated media, economic change, and also deepening social inequalities, young people in Hpa-an are subject to a number of competing visions. On the one hand their identity is intertwined in strong rural social norms, customs and a celebration of ‘traditional’ notions of Karen identity. On the other hand, they are drawn into urban, transnational and mediatised global spheres where value aspirations that emphasize individuality and personal transformation are tinged with an aura of possibility and danger. In Hpa-an, as in Myanmar more broadly, a Buddhist religious cosmological imaginary also heavily frames local culture and subject formation, colouring most aspects of quotidian social life.

In documenting the life choices, actions, and socio-moral evaluations of one Karen university student, I draw on the burgeoning literature from the anthropology of moralities (eg Laidlaw 2002, Robbins 2004, Heintz 2009) to demonstrate how young people are embracing new practices and tropes of identity formation, in a way that recognizes the “plurality and creativity of moral discourses” (Heintz 2009: 2). By exploring these questions, I seek an insight into the complex moral terrain contemporary Karen navigate in south-eastern Myanmar and the everyday moral paradoxes young Karen people confront as they come of age. I show how youth serves as an arena in which the contradictions between conflicting visions of moral selfhood may be engaged, ideally promising reconciliation and transcendence but also inviting experiences of internal conflict and contradiction.

Event details



Justine Chambers

Date & time

Friday 28 October 2016



Hedley Bull Building, Fellows Road, Acton ACT 2601


Justine Chambers

Updated:  7 October 2016/Responsible Officer:  Director, Myanmar Research Centre/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team