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Karen people


Karen people

A Karen woman in traditional dress
Total population
9 million[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Myanmar 7,000,000[2]
 Thailand 1,000,000[1]
 USA 70,000+
 Australia 11,000+[3]
 Canada 5,000[4]
 Sweden 1,500
All other countries 100,000+
Karen languages, including S'gaw Karen, Pwo Karen, Karenni and Pa'O
Theravada Buddhism, Christianity, Animism
Karen state in Myanmar

The Karen, Kayin, Kariang or Yang people (Per Ploan Poe or Ploan in Poe Karen and Pwa Ka Nyaw or Kanyaw in Sgaw Karen; ကညီကလုာ်, pronounced: ; Thai: กะเหรี่ยง or ยาง) refer to a number of Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups which reside primarily in Karen State, southern and southeastern Myanmar. The Karen make up approximately 7 percent of the total Burmese population with approximately 5 million people.[5] 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 tribes of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. One 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 resides at the border region of Myanmar 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


  • Origins 1
  • Distribution 2
  • Population 3
  • Political history 4
    • British period 4.1
    • World War II 4.2
    • Post-war 4.3
    • Karen National Union 4.4
    • Insurgency 4.5
      • Refugee crisis 4.5.1
    • Democratic Karen Buddhist Army 4.6
  • Language 5
  • Religion 6
    • Animism 6.1
    • Buddhism 6.2
    • Christianity 6.3
  • Karen Flag 7
  • Kawthoolei 8
  • See also 9
  • Footnotes 10
  • References 11
    • Print 11.1
    • Online 11.2
  • External links 12


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 Myanmar for centuries. The Karen constitute the third biggest ethnic population in Myanmar, after the Bamars and Shans.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8][9]

"Karen" is an Anglicisation of the Burmese word "Kayin" (ကရင်), whose etymology is unclear.[7] 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.[7]

In pre-colonial times, the low-lying Burmese and Mon-speaking kingdoms recognised two general categories of Karen, the Talaing Kayin (တလိုင်းကရင်), generally lowlanders who were recognised as the "original settlers" and essential to Mon court life, and the Karen (ဗမာကရင်), highlanders who were subordinated or assimilated by the Bamar.[10]


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 Myanmar,[11] 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 Myanmar was conducted in 1931. A 2006 VOA article cites an estimate of seven million in Myanmar. There are another 400,000[12] 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.[13]


No one really knows how many Karen people there are. There has never been an accurate census in Myanmar. When Myanma was a British colony only Christian and Animist Karen were recorded as Karen: Buddhist Karens were recorded as being ethnic Myanma.

More recent estimates of the size of the Karen are distorted by politics. In 1997 Burmese Army General Maung Aye walked on a Karen flag and announced that “in twenty years you will only be able to find Karen people in a museum”. The Burmese military regime claims there are less than a million Karen people, but this is clearly politically motivated and a gross underestimate. Some Karen leaders claim that there are twenty million Karen people in Myanma – or about forty per cent of the population. This is also obviously politically motivated and a gross overestimate.

More realistic estimates state there are between six and seven million Karen people in Myanma. There are about 300,000 “Thai-Karen” people living in Thailand. There are probably even more Karen living in Thailand as illegal migrants, but it is impossible to know how many.

Political history

A Karen village in Thailand.

British period

Following British victories in the three Karen National Union.[9]

In 1881 the Karen National Associations (KNA) was founded by western-educated

  • the Karen people of Burma
  • S'gaw Karen Grammar
  • S'gaw Karen Dictionary
  • S'gaw Karen Bible
  •, shares the information of Karen interacting in the world from the past, struggling in Burma in the present and transiting in the world again in the future
  • Karens Around the World Unite.
  • Karen Human Rights Group, a new website documenting the human rights situation of Karen villagers in rural Burma
  • Kawthoolei meaning "a land without evil", is the Karen name of the land of Karen people. An independent and impartial media outlet aimed to provide contemporary information of all kinds — social, cultural, educational and political
  • Free Burma Rangers, website of NGO that provides humanitarian assistance to Internally Displaced People
  • Index of IRF reports on Burma 2001-5
  • Kwekalu literally "Karen Traditional Horn", the only online Karen language news outlet based in Mergui/Tavoy District of Kawthoolei
  • Karen Women's Organization
  • Karen Audio Bible

External links

  • Karen Baptist Convention in Thailand
  • Burma and the KarensSan C. Po, (London 1928)
  • Adventist World Radio Karen
  • "Burma:International Religious Freedom Report 2005".  
  • "Karen Weblinks". Retrieved 2006-07-18. 
  • Kendal, Elizabeth (2006-03-09). "Day of Prayer for Burma". Christian Monitor. Retrieved 2006-07-18. 
  • "Description of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family". Retrieved 2006-07-18. 
  • "Recent humanitarian efforts serving the Karen people". Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  • Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation. "The Karen People: culture, faith and history" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-02-12. 


  • Marshall, Harry Ignatius (1997) [1922]. The Karen People of Burma. A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology.  
  • Anderson, Jon Lee (2004) [1992]. Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World.  
  • Delang, Claudio O. (Ed.) (2003). Living at the Edge of Thai Society: The Karen in the Highlands of Northern Thailand. London:  
  • Evans, W.H. (1932). The Identification of Indian Butterflies (2nd ed). Mumbai, India:  
  • Falla, Jonathan (1991). True Love and Bartholomew: Rebels of the Burmese Border. Cambridge:  
  • 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.  
  • Gravers, Mikael (2007). Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.  
  • Matisoff, James A. (1991). "Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Present State and Future Prospects". Annual Review of Anthropology ( 
  • Phan, Zoya (2009). Little Daughter: a Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West.  
  • Scott, James C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven:  
  • Silverstein, Josef (1977). Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University press.  
  • Smith, Martin (1991). Burma - Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.  
  • Thawngmung, Ardeth Maung (2012). The 'Other' Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle Without Arms. Lanham, UK: Lexington Books.  



  1. ^ a b
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Radnofsky, Louise (2008-02-14). "Burmese rebel leader shot dead".  
  6. ^ "Kayin". May 2006. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c Cheesman, Nick (2 September 2002). "Seeing ‘Karen’ in the Union of Myanmar". Asian Ethnicity (Carfax Publishing) 3 (2). 
  8. ^ Guo, Rongxing; Carla Freeman (2010). Managing Fragile Regions: Method and Application. Springer. p. 19.  
  9. ^ a b Keyes, Charles F. Living at The Edge of Thai Society: The Karen in The Highlands of Northern Thailand. Routledge. pp. 210–212.  
  10. ^ Harriden, Jessica (2002). Making a Name for Themselves:" Karen Identity and Politicization of Ethnicity in Burma""" (PDF). Journal of Burma Studies 7. 
  11. ^ This area is generally referred to as the Karen Hills in colonial literature, especially natural history texts such as Evans (1932).
  12. ^ Delang, Claudio O. (Ed.) (2003). Living at the Edge of Thai Society: The Karen in the Highlands of Northern Thailand. London: Routledge. 
  13. ^ Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, The "Other" Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms (UK: Lexington Books, 2012), 84.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Josef Silverstein, Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977), 16.
  16. ^ Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, The "Other" Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms (UK: Lexington Books, 2012), 29.
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ "The First Karen New Year Message, 1938" (PDF). Karen Heritage: Volume 1 - Issue 1. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  19. ^ Clive, Christie J., Anatomy of a Betrayal: The Karens of Burma. In: A Modern History of Southeast Asia. Decolonization, Nationalism and Separatism. (I.B. Tauris, 2000): 72.
  20. ^ Phan, Zoya and Damien Lewis. Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma. New York: Free Press, 2010.
  21. ^ Fratticcioli, Alessio (2011). "Karen Refugees in Thailand (abridged)" (PDF). Asian Research Center for Migration - Institute of Asian studies (IAS), Chulalongkorn University. 
  22. ^ Burma army burns more than 70 houses of Karen people
  23. ^ BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Burma Karen families 'on the run'
  24. ^ "Countries of Focus: Burma". Christian Solidarity Network. Retrieved 28 February 2011. 
  25. ^
  26. ^ U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs
  27. ^ Jacques, Adam (2009-05-10). "Credo: Zoya Phan". The Independent (London). 
  28. ^ Burma
  29. ^ A witness's plea to end Myanmar abuse', by John Macgregor, New York Times, May 19, 2005.
  30. ^ Phan, Zoya and Damien Lewis. Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma. New York: Free Press, 2010.
  31. ^ Ashley South, "Karen Nationalist Communities: the 'Problem' of Diversity," Contemporary Southeast Asia 29.1 (2007): 61.
  32. ^ Ashley South, "Burma's longest War. Anatomy of the Karen conflict." Transnational Institute and Burma Center Netherlands (PrimaveraQuint, Amsterdam 2009):2-4.
  33. ^ Ba Saw Khin (2005) [Originally published 1998]. "Fifty Years of Struggle: A Review of the Fight for the Karen People's Autonomy (abridged)". Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  34. ^ STEDT: The Sino-Tibetan Family
  35. ^ Lewis(1984)
  36. ^ Matisoff 1991
  37. ^ a b c "The Karen people: culture, faith and history". Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dutta Foundation. pp. 6, 24–28. 
  38. ^ Keenan, Paul. "Faith at a Crossroads" (PDF). Karen Heritage: Volume 1 - Issue 1, Beliefs. 
  39. ^ 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.  
  40. ^ Andersen, Kirsten Ewers (1978). "Elements of Pwo Karen Buddhism" (in Copenhagen). The Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies. Retrieved 14 April 2012. 
  41. ^ Thawnghmung, Ardeth Maung (2011). The "Other" Karen in Myanmar. Lexington Books.  
  42. ^
  43. ^ "Karen Seventh-day Adventist Church Website". 
  44. ^ "Adventist Southeast Asia Project". 
  45. ^ "Karen people". 
  46. ^


See also

Kawthoolei is the Karen name for the state that the Karen people of Myanmar 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 Myanmar's independence from the United Kingdom.


In the different regions of Myanmar where Karen live, and even abroad, Buddhist and Christian Karen people have used the Karen national flag during Wrist Tying ceremonies, cultural, public meetings and especially during Karen New Year.

When the Karen armed revolution occurred on January 31, 1949, some people from the AFPLF government argued the Karen national flag was the flag of the rebels. After that, the government did not allow the flag to be used. However, some Karen leaders, who would not join the armed revolution, named Sayar Thar Hto and Sayar James Htun Aung and Saw Bel Lay bravely used the Karen National flag during Karen New Year celebrations in Rangoon.

Before Myanmar gained independence in 1937, Karen people held a Karen New Year celebration in Rangoon. At the celebration, the Karen flag was successfully hoisted in the flag pole and Karen people bowed to it in unity.

The frog drum symbolises unity in traditional Karen culture. In 1936, Karen army leaders added two Dohs (rounded seeds) under the frog drum in the Karen flag.

In the final design, the colour red was used on the fabric to speak of heroism and perseverance, white for purity and clarity and blue for honesty and peace. Karen youth bow in unity to honour their national flag. Nine rays of light streaming from the rising sun indicated the nine regions from which the Karen people traced their origins.

Mann Ba Khin, the secretary of the Karen National Association, led a group to incorporate all three elements into the final design, which he sent to the Karen National Association.

The third winner, Dr. Ba Saw Dwe incorporated the image of a white elephant image in the Karen flag. There was an elephant image on the frog drum. According to his definition, the white elephant is a precious treasure.

The second winner, Sayar Moe from Taung Oo incorporated a rising sun symbol. He noted the rising sun gave the bright light to all Karen people in the world; and sunlight could erase fear. For instance, if a person in a particular family was sick, other family members were worried, being fearful at night especially. When the daylight came, it could erase the fear. As well, sunlight gives life to all living things. All human beings need sunlight and doctors have even cured patients by exposing them to sunlight, as a medical treatment.

Among the three designs selected, Mann Ba Khin, (BA), won the first prize. He was also a writer in the Karen organisation. In his flag design, there was a frog drum (called that because it is covered with frog skin). He said ancient Karen people used the frog drum during war and venerated it. Karen people believed that it's a living thing.

That request was not ignored. It was discussed in parliament and voted upon in 1935. The public was invited to participate in a competition to design the new flag. The Karen National Flag played a predominant role during recent new year celebrations. The Karen National Flag played a predominant role during recent new year celebrations. More than one hundred designs were received. Eventually, three were selected for consideration.

Dr. Tee Than Pyar founded The Karen National Association in 1881, becoming its first chairman. Afterwards, Dr. Tee Than Pyar, Sayar San Baw from Thararwaddy served as a chairman between 1930 and 1940. During this period, he and other Karen leaders petitioned parliament for the creation of a Karen flag and national anthem.

Karen Flag

The Seventh-day Adventists have built several schools in the Karen refugee camps in Thailand to Christianise 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.

The Karen Baptist Convention (KBC) was established in 1913 and the headquarters is located in Yangon with 20 member associations throughout Myanmar. 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.[46] 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.

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.[43][44] 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. Over 35% of Karen identify themselves as Christian today and about 90% of Karen people in USA are Christians.[45] Persecution of Christians by the Burmese authorities continues to this day.


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.[39] The Karen of Thailand [42] have their own religion.

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.[39] Many millennial sects were founded throughout the 1800s, led by Karen Buddhist minlaung rebels.[41] Two sects, Telakhon (or Telaku) and Leke, were founded in the 1860s.[39] 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.[39] 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).[39] 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.[39] Several Buddhist socioreligious movements, both orthodox and heterodox, have arisen in the past century.[39] Duwae, a type of pagoda worship, with animistic origins, is also practiced.[39]

Karen Buddhists are the most numerous of the Karens and account for around 65% of the total Karen population.[39] 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.[40]


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


The majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists who also practice animism, while approximately 35% are Christian.[37][38] 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.

Buddhist Karen pilgrims at Ngahtatgyi Pagoda in Yangon


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.[34][35] 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.[36]


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.[31][32] The split is believed to have led to the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw in January 1995.[33]

Democratic Karen Buddhist Army

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.[30]

Refugee crisis

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 labour, systematic rape, the conscription of child soldiers, massacres and the deliberate destruction of villages, food sources and medical services.[29]

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

Reports as recently as February, 2010, state that the Burmese army continues to burn Karen villages, displacing thousands of people.[22] 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 Myanmar of ethnic cleansing.[23][24][25][26][27] The U.S. State Department has also cited the Burmese government for suppression of religious freedom.[28]

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 Myanmar, 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.[21]

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 Myanmar 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.

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.[17] Simultaneously a commission was looking into the Karen problem and this commission was about to report their findings to the Burmese government. The findings of the report were overshadowed by this political shift at the top of the Burmese government. The Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), formed in July 1947, then rose up in an insurgency against the government.[17] 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.[17]


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.[20]

After the war ended, Myanmar 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.

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

In early February 1947, the 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.[17]

Karen National Union

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 Myanmar. 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 Myanmar were not given any consideration.[17]

In January 1947 a delegation of representatives of the Governor's Executive Council headed by Aung San was invited to London to negotiate for the Aung SanAttlee Treaty, none of the ethnic minority groups was 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.[19]

The Karen people aspired to have the regions where they formed the majority turned into a subdivision or "state" within Myanmar 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.


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.[17]

World War II

[18][17].public holiday recognised Karen New Year as a British colonial administration In 1938 the [17]

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