The Pa-O are called Taungthu by the Burmese, which means "hill people." The British colonialists called them Black Karen because most Pa-O women wear black or dark blue dresses. The Pa-O language shows that they are part of the large collection of Karen groups in Myanmar and Thailand, which together number as many as five million people with 20 language groups. Many Pa-O do not even know of this connection to the Karen and consider themselves a unique people group.
The Pa-O believe that their ancestors fled north to Shan State from southern Burma, after the overthrow of the Mon King Manuha in the eleventh century by King Anawrahta of Pagan. Today the Pa-O are the second most numerous people in Shan State after the Shan.
The large majority of the Pa-O reside the southwestern part of Shan State in Myanmar near the Thai border. The geographical center of the Pa-O is the mountains around the towns of Taunggyi and Kalaw.
Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948. Much of modern Burmese history has been one of civil wars between the Burmese majority and the nation's minority groups that includes the Shan, Karen, Lahu, and Rohingya. The military launched another coup in 2021 and is currently ruling the country.
The New Testament and the JESUS Film are available in the Pa-O language.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The lives of the Pa-O vary depending upon whether they live in urban or rural areas. In the countryside the Pa-O live much like their ancestors cultivating rice, vegetables, tropical fruits, and coconuts. Most Pa-O villages raise chickens, goats and pigs to supplement their diets. Some men fish and work in the logging industry. Most Pa-O villages have an elementary school. Children often quit school after a few years in order to help their family make a living.
The Pa-O who live in cities work in construction, manufacturing, administration, and retail. Educational opportunities are much better for Pa-O children who live in cities. Many young people are moving to cities in hope of a better life. Within a few years of living in the cities, the Pa-O young people begin to speak Burmese are their primary language and start to lose the distinctive aspects of Pa-O culture.
The people, however, still hold onto some animistic beliefs, and spirit shrines and magnificent wooden temples dot the outskirts of villages.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Pa-O have been a strong Buddhist group for many centuries. Buddhism dominates every area of the lives and communities of the Pa-O. In Myanmar, most Pa-O villages can be identified by the magnificent wooden Buddhist temples that located on the outskirts of their villages.
Missionaries first translated Scripture portions into Pa-O in 1912. The majority of the Pa-O consider themselves to be Buddhists. Their brand of Buddhism is heavily influenced by animism, the belief that spirits inhabit the objects of nature such as trees, animals, mountains, and rivers.
Buddhism is the major world religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha, who lived in the 6th and 5th century BC in ancient India. The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths by which one can gain spiritual knowledge and escape the endless cycles of reincarnation. Theravada, one of the two major branches of Buddhism, declares that by following the Noble Eightfold Path of right intentions and right actions that a Buddhist can achieve nirvana or a state of freedom and salvation.
To most Buddhists, however, these things have far less meaning than their traditional beliefs, which are usually animistic. In animism, evil spirits must be appeased through prayers, sacrifices and rituals. Buddhism allows people to mix Buddhist teachings with traditional religion.
Two of the important Buddhist yearly holidays are Vesak, the Buddha's birthday celebrated in May or June and Bodhi Day, the holiday which commemorates the day that the historical Buddha experienced enlightenment under a Bodhi tree.
A tiny fraction of Pa-O claims to be followers of Jesus Christ.
What Are Their Needs?
The Pa-O would greatly benefit by access to modern medicine. Some of their isolated villages do not have electricity. Solar panels brought by teams of believers would help them. Most of all, the Pa-O need to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. He alone can forgive their sins and free them from their fear of evil spirits.
Ask the Lord to send workers to the Pa-O people of Myanmar.
Pray for the authority of Christ to bind hindering spiritual forces to lead the Pa-O from darkness to light of Christ.
Pray for signs and wonders among the Pa-O and for great breakthroughs with a rapid multiplication of disciples and house churches.
Pray for an unstoppable movement to Christ among Pa-O of Myanmar in this decade.
Joshua Project data is drawn from many sources and of varying accuracy depending on source and editorial decisions. Populations are scaled to the current year. Other data may have varying ages. We welcome updates.
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