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(cover picture) Gumnit, Ruth
2004 Don't Fence Me In. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 30 minutes, col.
Reviewed 20 Mar 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Karen (Southeast Asian people) - Burma
Refugees - Burma
Refugees - Thailand
Burma - Politics and government - 1988
Burma - Social conditions
Burma - Ethnic relations

ABSTRACT:    The film focuses on a senior woman named Major Mary who has been fighting for Karen rights for years. While the film depicts the struggles and suffering of the Karens at the hands of the Burmese military government, it fails to deliver the emotional or intellectual punch that it might have.

According to The Karen Website (, the Karen Community of Bakersfield, California is one of the oldest communities, and at one point was the largest community, of Karens in the U.S. The majority of the world’s Karens, an indigenous society of Southeast Asia, still live Burma, or Myanmar as the leaders now calls that country. Why are so many, then, in the United States—or in Myanmar’s neighbor Thailand?

As the film “Don’t Fence Me In” explains at the outset, Burma/Myanmar today is “ruled by a brutal military regime. In a violent campaign to Burmanize society, the military subject the Karen to forced labor, relocation, rape and murder. The Karen wage an armed resistance to Burmese rule.” The Karens then are among the many peoples of the world who are under siege by ‘their own’ government, although the Burmese Karens would hardly call the dictatorship of Myanmar their own government.

After a couple of minutes of text on the screen, the presentation opens with scenes of villages on fire and under attack from the army. We learn that “Over 100,000 Karen have sought refuge in precarious camps in Thailand,” while others hide in jungle camps inside Burma. The Karens have no citizenship in Burma and lack legal status in Thailand.

The woman who oversees the Karen camps, the focus of the film who is herself a veteran of the armed struggle against the junta, is Major Mary On. We are introduced to Major Mary as she talks with displaced villagers. The government, she says, wants to “wipe the Karens away…. The Burmese army does not want the Karens to be Karens.” Rather—and, tragically, as in many other parts of the world—the dominant ethnic group in these post-Geertzian states (post-Geertzian because Geertz foresaw an ‘integrative revolution’ which has either never come or has come with murderous exclusivity and intolerance) want everyone to be identify with and as the dominant group, even if the cost of this outcome is ethnocide and genocide.

The film depicts camp life for the displaced Karens. It presents a very brief synopsis of Mary’s life and of colonial history, with black-and-white footage to accompany the discussion. Mary became a soldier and revolutionary early in her life, and we travel to Karen-controlled territory where the Karen militia is shown making or repairing weapons. We also see injuries from mines and the obligatory prosthetic devices of embattled peoples. For the Karens, as for so many ethnic movements, the goals are an ethnic state and cultural sovereignty. Mary sings “Don’t Fence Me In” while strumming a guitar.

In her military uniform, Major Mary continues the disquisition on her people and history. Others also tell stories of being chased from villages, and we see a camp being destroyed by the army. An unseen male filmmaker tries to get an emotional woman to tell her personal story. Mary speaks to a militia organizational meeting, and it must have been awfully brave of them to allow a film crew to find them and record them. A relocation camp where the Karens were ordered to settle is shown. Mary and other senior women are filmed as they dance and sing. The closing scenes portrays children flying kite, perhaps intended as a symbol of the aspirations for Karen freedom.

“Don’t Fence Me In” is a pleasant film but somehow seemed to lack the punch for me that it could have, and should have, delivered. There is not enough historical context provided, and even the sufferings of the Karen are curiously not powerfully communicated. Admittedly, the project is more about Mary than about the Karen situation in general, and to be sure the film does convey an important and strong message. But even in a 30-minute presentation, the impact could have been greater. Some of the scenes are a bit disconnected, and honestly life in the camps is not portrayed as all that uncomfortable. “Don’t Fence Me In” is certainly worth the time, but it might have been much more than it is. The Karens, I think, deserve more. Perhaps if it is a first stop for viewers and students in the journey to understand the postcolonial oppression of indigenous peoples, it will be worth it. As the Karen website calls out, “Karens Around the World Unite,” and may the world unite with them.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, postcolonial studies, threatened or vanishing cultures, and Southeast Asian studies, as well as general audiences.