An Introduction to the Karen

18 February 2021


Given recent events in Burma/Myanmar, the complexity of the country’s ethnic make-up, and the fact that our partners in Burma/Myanmar all operate in minority ethnic community areas, HART is pleased to offer a brief introduction to some of the main ethnic groups within the country. Here we continue with the Karen people.


The Karen

The ‘Karen’ are part of a Tibeto-Burman group of people with Tibetan-Central Asian origins. About 85% of Karen belong either to the S’ghaw language branch, who are mostly Christian and animist living in the hills, or the Pwo section, who are mostly Buddhists. Over two-thirds of Karen are Buddhists, although large numbers converted to Christianity during British rule and are thought to constitute about 30% today. The group encompasses a great variety of ethnic groups, such as the Karenni, Padaung (also known by some as ‘long-necks’ because of the brass coils worn by women that appear to result in the elongation of their necks), Bghai, Brek, and many more.

There are no reliable population figures available regarding their total numbers in Burma/Myanmar. It is believed that there are about seven million Karen people living in Burma/Myanmar, about half a million Thai-Karen whose ancestral villages are in Thailand, and smaller groups of Karen living in India and other South-East Asian countries. There are about 140,000 Karen refugees living in camps in Thailand, and about 50,000 Karen refugees have been resettled in America, Canada, Australia, and some European countries. The Karen live mostly in the eastern border region of Burma/Myanmar, especially in Karen and Mon States.


Historical context

It is thought that the Karen migrated to the area after the arrival of the Mon – who are said to have established themselves in the region before the start of the first millennium BCE. Some Karen refer to the arrival of their people as far back as 2,500 years ago, after migrating to Tibet and China from their original homeland somewhere in Central Asia.

Whatever their origins, by the 18th century they were well established in the hills of central and eastern Burma/Myanmar. For much of their history, they were subject to the rule of the Mon, Shan or Burman kingdoms, but some tribes, such as the Red Karen, or Kayah, maintained a form of autonomous existence until the early 19th century. The arrival of the British and incorporation into existing political entities of the region as part of the British Empire by 1886 led to greater autonomy for many Karen groups. British colonial authorities allowed the continued existence of local rulers, who were seen as less of a threat than members of the Burman majority.

Christian missionary efforts from the 19th century resulted in the conversion of many Karen, and their inclusion in the fields of education and colonial institutions increased their influence prior to the 2nd World War. In addition, Karen were highly prominent in British military service (unlike ethnic Burmans) and were active guides for the British during the Anglo-Burmese Wars. Karen troops played a significant role in buttressing British authority and suppressing rebellions in Lower Burma in 1886 and 1930–32.

Burman opposition to British rule led to the emergence of national liberation movements, such as the Thakin movement, of which Aung San was a leader. These also cooperated with the Japanese after their invasion of Burma/Myanmar in 1941 and were involved in attacks on minority populations, particularly the Karen.

Some Karen retreated to India with British forces, returning to Burma/Myanmar to help in the resistance against Japanese occupation. While Karen units, among others, were instrumental in 1944–45 in helping the Allies recapture Burma/Myanmar, by that time Aung San and the BIA had already switched sides and were also fighting the retreating Japanese. While many Karen had hoped they would be rewarded for their loyalty to the British after the war, even the ensuing political arrangement under the Panglong Agreement – promising an eventual federal Burma – was concluded without Karen approval.

After independence in January 1948, it is thought that Karen and other non-Burman units in the former colonial army remained largely loyal to newly elected Prime Minister U Nu, who faced a Communist rebellion. However, mistrust on both the Karen and Burman sides apparently led Prime Minister U Nu to use elements from the BIA to raise a more ethnically Burmese army which, some claim, turned against the Karen. By 1949, Karen units openly went into armed rebellion, as their demands for independence, or at least federalism, from organizations such as the Karen National Union (the KNU) and its armed branch, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), appeared increasingly futile.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, more ethnic groups joined the Karen and others in armed opposition to the Burmese government until almost a third of the country was controlled by about a dozen rebel groups by the 1970s. The tide turned, however, after the 1988 popular uprisings and the subsequent takeover by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which responded with a massive build-up of the armed forces (Tatmadaw) and the gradual whittling away of the territorial gains of the KNLA. By 1994, the KNA saw its main headquarters in Manerplaw, near the Thai border, fall to the Tatmadaw. It was also in that year that a group of Buddhist soldiers in the KNLA (now known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, or DKBA) went over to the side of the Burmese regime, alleging among other things Christian domination and anti-Buddhist discrimination in the KNU. Since then, while the KNU and KNLA are still involved in armed resistance against the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, the successor to SLORC), they have mainly conducted low-level guerrilla activities from temporary jungle camps on the Thai–Burma border. It appears clear, however, that since 1988 the KNU has lost control of its once extensive ‘liberated zones’ in Burma/Myanmar.

After 1988 the KNU, along with other ethnic organizations, entered into a coalition with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, supporting a federal, democratic state. A tentative ceasefire reached in December 2003, disintegrated as the Burmese army continued to attack Karen bases and to commit gross violations of human rights against Karen. Nevertheless, a number of Karen civil society networks have sought to promote Karen community development in government-controlled areas.

The Karen continued to suffer the brunt of forced labour, forced relocation and confiscation of land, the burning of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as discrimination by state authorities in areas such as language use and education. Karen armed opposition to the SPDC contributed to an ever-increasing number of Karen internally displaced people and refugees to Thailand. Increased Burmese army troop deployment in offensives against the Karen in 2006 led to the continued use of forced labour by thousands of Karen civilians as well as by thousands of prisoners used for portering and – according to some reports – subsequently executed by the army. Forced relocation in some cases appeared to be taking the form of ethnic cleansing: with the Tatmadaw replacing Karen villagers with ethnic Burmans, though in some cases ethnic Karen were forced to relocate to areas controlled by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

The right to property and use of their own land by the Karen was also regularly disregarded by Burmese authorities in its efforts to quash armed opposition or through a number of development projects. One of these was the Hat Gyi hydroelectric dam. Since its construction began in 2007 it was reported to have displaced thousands of people – mainly Karen – to Thailand because of the settlement of Burmese troops near the site of the proposed reservoir. Karen forced labour was reportedly used to clear the area near the dam and to build access roads to military and other government camps nearby.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma/Myanmar in May 2008, there were reports that the government was systematically excluding the Karen from all forms of assistance. Karen make up perhaps half of the population of the hardest-hit region, the Irrawaddy Delta. Tens of thousands in the region were reported dead, with many more survivors in urgent need of aid in order to stave off death.


Current issues

The government signed a preliminary ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU) and its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), in 2012. But abuses continued to be reported by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), either at the hands of the Burmese Army or the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), a splinter faction of former KNLA fighters. More than 2,000 civilians were forced from their homes in 2015 following clashes near the Salween River between the army and the DKBA. A report by Karen Rivers Watch accused the army of conducting a coordinated campaign to gain control of territory near the Salween River, where a controversial hydropower dam is being developed.

In 2015, Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), KNU/KNLA-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA Benevolent) signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The KHRG reported that while freedom of movement had increased in the period since the preliminary ceasefire, there was continuing militarization in Karen State, which can lead to forced labour, forced recruitment, sexual assault, torture, killing and an increased risk of being injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance. They also reported that although human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings by armed actors had decreased since the NCA was signed, villagers still live in fear of such incidents. Land confiscation by armed actors had continued, while former land confiscation cases remained unaddressed.

The transition from military regime to military-controlled “discipline-flourishing democracy” has made little difference in the life of villagers in Karen State or elsewhere in Burma/Myanmar. Since 2013 there has been little fighting in Karen State, and there have been on and off ceasefire negotiations between the Burmese government and several Karen armed groups. There is still occasional fighting and extortion and forced labour by the Burmese Army continues. And Karen State now has a landmine problem matched only by Afghanistan.

More than 150,000 Karen people have fled to refugee camps in Thailand.

While there has been little fighting in Karen State, since 2012 the Burmese Army has launched a massive offensive against the Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang (Palaung) peoples in northern Burma/Myanmar and led the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in western and central Burma/Myanmar.

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