Karen people

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
A Karen woman.jpg
A Karen woman in traditional dress
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Burma 6,000,000
 Thailand 400,000
 USA 70,000+
 Sweden 1,500
Karen languages, including S'gaw Karen, Pwo Karen, Karenni and Pa'O
Theravada Buddhism, Christianity, Animism
Karen state in Burma
Karen National Union Flag.png

The Karen, Kayin, Kariang or Yang people (Per Ploan Poe or Ploan in Poe Karen and Pwa Ka Nyaw or Kanyaw in Sgaw Karen; ကညီကလုာ္, pronounced: [kəjɪ̀ɴ lù mjó]; Thai: กะเหรี่ยง or ยาง) refer to a number of Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups which reside primarily in Karen State, southern and southeastern Burma (Myanmar). The Karen make up approximately 7 percent of the total Burmese population of approximately 5 million people.[1] A large number of Karen have migrated to Thailand, having settled mostly on the Thai–Karen border.

The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribe of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

Some of the Karen, led primarily by the Karen National Union (KNU), have waged a war against the central Burmese government since early 1949. The aim of the KNU at first was independence. Since 1976 the armed group has called for a federal system rather than an independent Karen State.

Karen boy with traditional costume for Karen New Year


Karen legends refer to a 'river of running sand' which ancestors reputedly crossed. Many Karen think this refers to the Gobi Desert, although they have lived in Burma for centuries. The Karen constitute the third biggest ethnic population in Burma, after the Bamars and Shans.[2]

The term "Karen" is an umbrella term that refers to a heterogeneous lot of ethnic groups that do not share a common language, culture, religion or material characteristics.[3] A pan-Karen ethnic identity is a relatively modern creation, established in the 1800s with the conversion of some Karens to Christianity and shaped by various British colonial policies and practices and the introduction of Christianity.[4][5]

"Karen" is an Anglicisation of the Burmese word "Kayin" (ကရင်), whose etymology is unclear.[3] The word, which was originally a derogatory term referring to non-Buddhist ethnic groups, may have come from the Mon language, or is a corruption of Kanyan, the name of a vanished civilization.[3]

In pre-colonial times, the low-lying Burmese and Mon-speaking kingdoms recognized two general categories of Karen, the Talaing Kayin (တလိုင်းကရင်), generally lowlanders who were recognized as the "original settlers" and essential to Mon court life, and the Karen (ဗမာကရင်), highlanders who were subordinated or assimilated by the Bamar.[6]


Karen girl at village nearby Ayutthaya city in Thailand.
Entrance of a Karen house in Northern Thailand
Densely populated Karen village in Northern Thailand
Karen terrace fields in Northern Thailand

The Karen people live mostly in the hills bordering the eastern mountainous region and Irrawaddy delta of Burma,[7] primarily in Karen State, with some in Kayah State, southern Shan State, Ayeyarwady Region, Tanintharyi Region, Bago Division and in western Thailand.

The total number of Karen is difficult to estimate. The last reliable census of Burma was conducted in 1931. A 2006 VOA article cites an estimate of seven million in Burma. There are another 400,000[8] Karen in Thailand, where they are by far the largest of the hill tribes. Some Karen have left the refugee camps in Thailand to resettle elsewhere, including in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Scandinavian countries. In 2011, the Karen diaspora population was estimated to be approximately 67,000.[9]

Political history[edit]

Further information: Internal conflict in Burma
A Karen village in Thailand.

British period[edit]

Following British victories in the three Anglo-Burmese wars, Burma was annexed as a province of British India in 1886. Baptist missionaries introduced Christianity to Burma beginning in 1830, and they were successful in converting many Karen.[10] Christian Karens were favoured by the British colonial authorities and were given opportunities not available to the Burmese ethnic majority, including military recruitment and seats in the legislature.[11] Some Christian Karens began asserting an identity apart from their non-Christian counterparts, and many became leaders of Karen ethno-nationalist organizations, including the Karen National Union.[5]

In 1881 the Karen National Associations (KNA) was founded by western-educated Christian Karens to represent Karen interests with the British. Despite its Christian leadership, the KNA sought to unite all Karens of different regional and religious backgrounds into one organization.[12] They argued at the 1917 Montagu–Chelmsford hearings in India that Burma was not "yet in a fit state for self-government". Three years later, after submitting a criticism of the 1920 Craddock Reforms, they won 5 (and later 12) seats in the Legislative Council of 130 (expanded to 132) members. The majority Buddhist Karens were not organized until 1939 with the formation of a Buddhist KNA.[13]

In 1938 the British colonial administration recognized Karen New Year as a public holiday.[13][14]

World War II[edit]

During World War II, when the Japanese occupied the region, long-term tensions between the Karen and Burma turned into open fighting. As a consequence, many villages were destroyed and massacres committed by both the Japanese and the Burma Independence Army (BIA) troops who helped the Japanese invade the country. Among the victims were a pre-war Cabinet minister, Saw Pe Tha, and his family. A government report later claimed the 'excesses of the BIA' and 'the loyalty of the Karens towards the British' as the reasons for these attacks. The intervention by Colonel Suzuki Keiji, the Japanese commander of the BIA, after meeting a Karen delegation led by Saw Tha Din, appears to have prevented further atrocities.[13]


The Karen people aspired to have the regions where they formed the majority turned into a subdivision or "state" within Burma similar to what the Shan, Kachin and Chin peoples had been given. A goodwill mission led by Saw Tha Din and Saw Ba U Gyi to London in August 1946 failed to receive any encouragement from the British government for any separatist demands. When a delegation of representatives of the Governor's Executive Council headed by Aung San was invited to London to negotiate for the Aung San-Attlee Treaty in January 1947, none of the ethnic minority groups were included by the British government. The following month at the Panglong Conference, when an agreement was signed between Aung San as head of the interim Burmese government and the Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders, the Karen were present only as observers; the Mon and Arakanese were also absent.

The British promised to consider the case of the Karen after the war. While the situation of the Karen was discussed, nothing practical was done before the British left Burma. The 1947 Constitution, drawn without Karen participation due to their boycott of the elections to the Constituent Assembly, also failed to address the Karen question specifically and clearly, leaving it to be discussed only after independence. The Shan and Karenni states were given the right to secession after 10 years, the Kachin their own state, and the Chin a special division. The Mon and Arakanese of Ministerial Burma were not given any consideration.[13]

Karen National Union[edit]

In early February 1947, the Karen National Union (KNU) was formed at a Karen Congress attended by 700 delegates from the Karen National Associations, both Baptist and Buddhist (KNA - founded 1881), the Karen Central Organisation (KCO) and its youth wing, the Karen Youth Organisation (KYO), at Vinton Memorial Hall in Yangon. The meeting called for a Karen state with a seaboard, an increased number of seats (25%) in the Constituent Assembly, a new ethnic census, and a continuance of Karen units in the armed forces. The deadline of March 3 passed without a reply from the British government, and Saw Ba U Gyi, the president of the KNU, resigned from the Governor's Executive Council the next day.[13]

Judson Memorial Baptist Church is the main place of worship for the Karen community in Mandalay, Myanmar

After the war ended, Burma was granted independence in January 1948, and the Karen, led by the KNU, attempted to co-exist peacefully with the Burman ethnic majority. Karen people held leading positions in both the government and the army. In the fall of 1948, the Burmese government, led by U Nu, began raising and arming irregular political militias known as Sitwundan. These militias were under the command of Major Gen. Ne Win and outside the control of the regular army. In January 1949, some of these militias went on a rampage through Karen communities.

The Karen National Union has maintained its structure and purpose from the 1950s onward. The KNU acts a governmental presence for the Karen people, offering basic social services for those affected by the insurgency, such as Karen refugees or internally displaced Karen. These services include building school systems, providing medical services, regulating trade and commerce, and providing security through the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the KNU's army.[15]


In late January 1949, the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Smith Dun, a Karen, was removed from office and imprisoned. He was replaced by the Burmese nationalist Ne Win.[13] These events happened at exactly the same time that a commission looking into the Karen problem was due to make its report to the government. The events effectively killed the report. The Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), formed in July 1947, then rose up in an insurgency against the government.[13] They were helped by the defections of the Karen Rifles and the Union Military Police (UMP) units which had been successfully deployed in suppressing the earlier Burmese Communist rebellions, and came close to capturing Yangon itself. The most notable was the Battle of Insein, nine miles from Yangon, where they held out in a 112-day siege till late May 1949.[13]

Years later, the Karen had become the largest of 20 minority groups participating in an insurgency against the military dictatorship in Yangon. During the 1980s, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) fighting force numbered approximately 20,000. After an uprising of the people of Burma in 1988, known as the 8888 Uprising, the KNLA had accepted those demonstrators in their bases along the border. The dictatorship expanded the army and launched a series of major offensives against the KNLA. By 2006, the KNLA's strength had shrunk to less than 4,000, opposing what is now a 400,000-man Burmese army. However, the political arm of the KNLA - the KNU - continued efforts to resolve the conflict through political means.

The conflict continues as of 2006, with a new KNU headquarters in Mu Aye Pu, on the BurmeseThai border. In 2004, the BBC, citing aid agencies, estimates that up to 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes during decades of war, with 160,000 more refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. The largest camp is the one in Mae La, Tak province, Thailand, where about 50,000 Karen refugees are hosted.[16]

Reports as recently as February, 2010, state that the Burmese army continues to burn Karen villages, displacing thousands of people.[17] Many Karen, including people such as former KNU secretary Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan and his daughter, Zoya Phan, have accused the military government of Burma of ethnic cleansing.[18][19][20][21][22] The U.S. State Department has also cited the Burmese government for suppression of religious freedom.[23] This is a source of particular trouble to the Karen, as an estimated 15% of them are Christians.[24][25]

A 2005 New York Times article on a report by Guy Horton into depredations by the Burma Army against the Karen and other groups in eastern Burma stated:

Using victims' statements, photographs, maps and film, and advised by legal counsel to the UN tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, he purports to have documented slave labor, systematic rape, the conscription of child soldiers, massacres and the deliberate destruction of villages, food sources and medical services.[26]

The Refugee Crisis[edit]

Throughout the insurgency, hundreds of thousands of Karen fled to refugee camps while many others (numbers unknown) were internally displaced persons within the Karen state. The refugees were concentrated in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. According to refugee accounts, the camps suffered from overcrowding, disease, and periodic attacks by the Myanmar army.[27]

Democratic Karen Buddhist Army[edit]

During 1994 and 1995, dissenters from the Buddhist minority in the KNLA formed a splinter group of the KNU called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and went over to the side of the military junta. As a note, the DKBA split themselves from the KNU due to the KNLA's weak central power. Additionally, the mostly Pwo-speaking Buddhist Karen of the DKBA felt a tension with the KNU, whose leadership consisted for the most part of Sgaw-speaking Christians.[28] The split is believed to have led to the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw in January 1995.[29]


The Karen languages, members of the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family, consist of three mutually unintelligible branches: Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa'o.[30][31] Karenni (Red Karen) and Kayan belong to the Sgaw branch. The Karen languages are almost unique among the Tibeto-Burman languages in having a subject–verb–object word order; other than Karen and Bai, Tibeto-Burman languages feature a subject–object–verb order. This anomaly is likely due to the influence of neighboring Mon and Tai languages.[32]


Buddhist Karen pilgrims at Ngahtatgyi Pagoda in Yangon

The majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists who also practice animism, while approximately 25% are Christian.[33][34] Lowland Pwo-speaking Karens tend to be more orthodox Buddhists, whereas highland Sgaw-speaking Karens tend to be heterodox Buddhists who profess strong animist beliefs.


Karen animism is defined by a belief in klar (soul), 37 spirits that embody every individual.[33] Misfortune and sickness are believed to be caused by klar that wander away, and death occurs when all 37 klar leave the body.[33]


Karen Buddhists are the most numerous of the Karens and account for around 65–75% of the total Karen population.[35] The Buddhist influence came from the Mon who were dominant in Lower Burma until the middle of the 18th century. Buddhist Karen are found mainly in Kayin and Mon States and in Yangon, Bago and Tanintharyi Regions. There are Buddhist monasteries in most Karen villages, and the monastery is the centre of community life. Merit-making activities, such as almsgiving, are central to Karen Buddhist life.[36]

Buddhism was brought to Pwo-speaking Karens in the late 1700s, and the Yedagon Monastery atop Mount Zwegabin became the foremost center of Karen language Buddhist literature.[35] Many millennial sects were founded throughout the 1800s, led by Karen Buddhist minlaung rebels.[37] Two sects, Telakhon (or Telaku) and Leke, were founded in the 1860s.[35] The Tekalu sect, founded in Kyaing and considered a Buddhist sect, is a mixture of spirit worship, Karen customs and worship of the future Buddha Metteyya.[35] The Leke sect was founded on the western banks of the Thanlwin River, and is no longer associated with Buddhism (as followers do not venerate Buddhist monks).[35] Followers believe that the future Buddha will return to Earth if they maintain their moral practices (following the Dhamma and precepts), and they practice vegetarianism, hold Saturday services and construct distinct pagodas.[35] Several Buddhist socioreligious movements, both orthodox and heterodox, have arisen in the past century.[35] Duwae, a type of pagoda worship, with animistic origins, is also practiced.[35]

There are several prominent Karen Buddhist monks, including Thuzana (S'gaw) and Zagara, who was conferred the "Agga Maha Saddammajotika" title by the Burmese government in 2004.[35] The Karen of Thailand [38] have their own religion.


Tha Byu, the first convert to Christianity in 1828, was baptised by Rev George Boardman, an associate of Adoniram Judson, founder of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. Today there are Christians belonging to the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations. Some of the largest Protestant denominations are Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists.[39][40] Alongside 'orthodox' Christianity, some of those who identify themselves as Christian also have syncretised elements of animism with Christianity. The Karen of the Irrawaddy delta are mostly Christians, whereas Buddhists tend to be found mainly in Kayin state and surrounding regions. 25% of Karen identify themselves as Christian.[41] Persecution of Christians by the Burmese authorities continues to this day.

The Karen Baptist Convention (KBC) was established in 1913 and the headquarters is located in Yangon with 20 member associations throughout Burma. The KBC operates the K.B.C. Charity Clinic in Insein, Yangon. The KBC also operates the Karen Baptist Theological Seminary in Insein. The seminary runs a theology program as well as a secular degree program to fulfill young Karens' intellectual and vocational needs. The Pwo Karen Baptist Convention is located in Ahlone, Yangon and also operates the Pwo Karen Theological Seminary.[42] There are other schools for Karen people in Myanmar, such as Paku Divinity School in Taungoo, Kothabyu Bible School in Pathein, and Yangon Home Mission School. The Thailand Karen Baptist Convention is located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Seventh-day Adventists have built several schools in the Karen refugee camps in Thailand to Christianize the Karen people. Eden Valley Academy in Tak and Karen Adventist Academy in Mae Hong Son are the two largest Seventh-day Adventist Karen schools.


Kawthoolei is the Karen name for the state that the Karen people of Burma have been trying to establish since the late 1940s. The precise meaning of the name is disputed even by the Karen themselves; possible interpretations include Flowerland and Land without evil, although, according to Martin Smith in Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, it has a double meaning, and can also be rendered as the Land Burnt Black; hence the land that must be fought for. Kawthoolei roughly approximates to present-day Kayin State, some parts of Pegu and Tanintharyi Division, although parts of the Burmese Ayeyarwady River delta with Karen populations have sometimes also been claimed. Kawthoolei as a name is a relatively recent invention, penned during the time of former Karen leader Ba U Gyi, who was assassinated around the time of Burma's independence from Britain.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Radnofsky, Louise (2008-02-14). "Burmese rebel leader shot dead". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2008-03-08. 
  2. ^ "Kayin". Myanmar.com. May 2006. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c Cheesman, Nick (2 September 2002). "Seeing ‘Karen’ in the Union of Myanmar". Asian Ethnicity (Carfax Publishing) 3 (2). 
  4. ^ Guo, Rongxing; Carla Freeman (2010). Managing Fragile Regions: Method and Application. Springer. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-4419-6435-9. 
  5. ^ a b Keyes, Charles F. Living at The Edge of Thai Society: The Karen in The Highlands of Northern Thailand. Routledge. pp. 210–212. ISBN 978-1-134-35907-3. 
  6. ^ Harriden, Jessica (2002). ""Making a Name for Themselves:" Karen Identity and Politicization of Ethnicity in Burma". Journal of Burma Studies 7. 
  7. ^ This area is generally referred to as the Karen Hills in colonial literature, especially natural history texts such as Evans (1932).
  8. ^ Delang, Claudio O. (Ed.) (2003). Living at the Edge of Thai Society: The Karen in the Highlands of Northern Thailand. London: Routledge. 
  9. ^ Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, The "Other" Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms (UK: Lexington Books, 2012), 84.
  10. ^ Mikael Gravers, "Conversion and Identity: Religion and the Formation of Karen Ethnic Identity in Burma," Exploring Ethnic Identity in Burma, ed. by Mikael Gravers (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2007), 228.
  11. ^ Josef Silverstein, Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977), 16.
  12. ^ Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, The "Other" Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms (UK: Lexington Books, 2012), 29.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Smith, Martin (1991). Burma - Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. pp. 50–51,62–63,72–73,78–79,82–84,114–118,86,119. 
  14. ^ "The First Karen New Year Message, 1938". Karen Heritage: Volume 1 - Issue 1. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  15. ^ Phan, Zoya and Damien Lewis. Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma. New York: Free Press, 2010.
  16. ^ Fratticcioli, Alessio (2011). "Karen Refugees in Thailand (abridged)". Asian Research Center for Migration - Institute of Asian studies (IAS), Chulalongkorn University. 
  17. ^ Burma army burns more than 70 houses of Karen people
  18. ^ BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Burma Karen families 'on the run'
  19. ^ "Countries of Focus: Burma". Christian Solidarity Network. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  20. ^ Refugeesinternational.org[dead link]
  21. ^ U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs
  22. ^ Jacques, Adam (2009-05-10). "Credo: Zoya Phan". The Independent (London). 
  23. ^ Burma
  24. ^ Karenlinks
  25. ^ Christian Monitor: Prayers
  26. ^ A witness's plea to end Myanmar abuse', by John Macgregor, New York Times, May 19, 2005.
  27. ^ Phan, Zoya and Damien Lewis. Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma. New York: Free Press, 2010.
  28. ^ Ashley South, "Karen Nationalist Communities: the 'Problem' of Diversity," Contemporary Southeast Asia 29.1 (2007): 61.
  29. ^ Ba Saw Khin (1998 - revised 2005). "Fifty Years of Struggle: A Review of the Fight for the Karen People's Autonomy (abridged)". kwekalu.net. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  30. ^ STEDT: The Sino-Tibetan Family
  31. ^ Lewis(1984)
  32. ^ Matisoff 1991
  33. ^ a b c The Karen people: culture, faith and history. Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation. pp. 6, 24–28. 
  34. ^ Keenan, Paul. "Faith at a Crossroads". Karen Heritage: Volume 1 - Issue 1, Beliefs. 
  35. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hayami, Yoko (2011). "Pagodas and Prophets: Contesting Sacred Space and Power among Buddhist Karen in Karen State". The Journal of Asian Studies, 70 (Association for Asian Studies) 70 (4): 1083–1105. doi:10.1017/S0021911811001574. 
  36. ^ Andersen, Kirsten Ewers (1978). "Elements of Pwo Karen Buddhism" (in Copenhagen). The Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies. Retrieved 14 April 2012. 
  37. ^ Thawnghmung, Ardeth Maung (2011). The "Other" Karen in Myanmar. Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-7391-6852-3. 
  38. ^ http://www.chiangmai1.com/chiang_mai/karen.shtml
  39. ^ "Karen Seventh-day Adventist Church Website". 
  40. ^ "Adventist Southeast Asia Project". 
  41. ^ "Karen people". 
  42. ^ http://www.pkts.org



  • Marshall, Harry Ignatius (1997) [1922]. The Karen People of Burma. A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology. Wihte Lotus Press. 
  • Anderson, Jon Lee (2004) [1992]. Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. Penguin Books. 
  • Delang, Claudio O. (Ed.) (2003). Living at the Edge of Thai Society: The Karen in the Highlands of Northern Thailand. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-32331-4. 
  • Evans, W.H. (1932). The Identification of Indian Butterflies (2nd ed). Mumbai, India: Bombay Natural History Society. 
  • Falla, Jonathan (1991). True Love and Bartholomew: Rebels of the Burmese Border. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-39019-4. 
  • Forbes, Andrew, and Henley, David, 'Chiang Mai's Hill Peoples' in: Ancient Chiang Mai Volume 3. Chiang Mai, Cognoscenti Books, 2012. ASIN: B006IN1RNW
  • Lewis, Paul; Elaine Lewis (1984). Peoples of the Golden Triangle. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. ISBN 978-0-500-97472-8. 
  • Gravers, Mikael (2007). Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. ISBN 978-87-91114-96-0. 
  • Matisoff, James A. (1991). "Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Present State and Future Prospects". Annual Review of Anthropology (Annual Reviews Inc.) 20 (1): 469–504. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.20.100191.002345. 
  • Phan, Zoya (2009). Little Daughter: a Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West. Simon & Schuster. 
  • Scott, James C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-15228-9. 
  • Silverstein, Josef (1977). Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University press. ISBN 0-8014-0911-X. 
  • Smith, Martin (1991). Burma - Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. ISBN 0-86232-868-3. ISBN 0-86232-869-1 pbk. 
  • Thawngmung, Ardeth Maung (2012). The 'Other' Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle Without Arms. Lanham, UK: Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-7391-6852-3. 


External links[edit]