A Karen woman in traditional Karen clothing
|c. 7.5 million|
|Regions with significant populations|
|India (Andaman and Nicobar)||2,500|
|Other countries combined||100,000+|
|Karen languages, including S'gaw Karen, Pwo Karen, Karenni and Pa'O|
|Theravada Buddhism, Christianity, Animism, Karen Folk Religion|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Other Sino-Tibetan peoples|
The Karen, Kayin, Kariang or Yang people (S'gaw Karen: pronounced [kkl?], Burmese: , pronounced [k?j lù mjó]; Per Ploan Poe or Ploan in Pwo Karen and Pwa Ka Nyaw or Kanyaw in Sgaw Karen; Thai: ) refer to a number of individual Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups, many of which do not share a common language or culture. These Karen groups 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. A large number of Karen have migrated to Thailand, having settled mostly on the Thailand-Myanmar border.
The Karen groups as a whole are often confused with the Padaung tribe, best known for the neck rings worn by their women, but they are just one sub-group of Red Karens (Karenni), one of the tribes of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar.
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. In Thailand, they are usually known as Karen, while in Myanmar, there are known as Kayin.
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 largest ethnic population in Myanmar, after the Bamars and Shans.
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. A pan-Karen ethnic identity is a relatively modern creation, established in the 19th century with the conversion of some Karens to Christianity and shaped by various British colonial policies and practices and the introduction of Christianity.
"Karen" is an Anglicisation of the Burmese word "Kayin" (?), whose etymology is unclear. 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.
In pre-colonial times, the low-lying Burmese and Mon-speaking kingdoms recognised two general categories of Karen, the Talaing Kayin (), generally lowlanders who were recognised as the "original settlers" and essential to Mon court life, and the Karen (?), highlanders who were subordinated or assimilated by the Bamar.
The Karen people live mostly in the hills bordering the eastern mountainous region and Irrawaddy delta of Myanmar, primarily in Kayin State (formerly 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 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.
Following British victories in the three Anglo-Burmese wars, Myanmar was annexed as a province of British India in 1886. Baptist missionaries introduced Christianity to Myanmar beginning in 1830, and they were successful in converting many Karen. 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. Some Christian Karens began asserting an identity apart from their non-Christian counterparts, and many became leaders of Karen ethno-nationalist organisations, including the Karen National Union.
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 organisation. They argued at the 1917 Montagu-Chelmsford hearings in India that Myanmar 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 organised until 1939 with the formation of a Buddhist KNA. In 1938 the British colonial administration recognised Karen New Year as a public holiday.
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.
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.
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 San-Attlee 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.
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.
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 3 March 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.
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.
The Karen National Union has maintained its structure and purpose from the 1950s onward. The KNU acts as 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
The conflict continues as of 2006Mu Aye Pu, on the Burmese-Thai 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., with a new KNU headquarters in
Reports as recently as February 2010, state that the Burmese army continues to burn Karen villages, displacing thousands of people. 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. The U.S. State Department has also cited the Burmese government for suppression of religious freedom.
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:
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.
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.
Around 400,000 Karen people are without housing, and 128,000 are living in camps on the Thailand-Burma border. According to BMC, "79% of refugees living in these camps are Karen ethnicity." Their lives are restricted in the camps because they usually cannot go out, and the Thai police might arrest them if they do. Employment for the Karen refugees is scarce and risky. Former refugee, Hla Wah, said, "No jobs..So if adults wanted to work, they had to leave quietly without getting caught by Thai police." Wah is one of the Karen refugees who lived in a camp where she went to school and helped her family because her parents sought to go out to work, but they earned little money. Wah suffered from malnutrition because her parents did not have money to buy food for her 9 siblings.
Beginning in 2000, the Karen started resettling in Canada, but because they did not know English, and because they were refugees, many were bullied, especially in school. Many Karen have problems fitting in and adjusting to the new country. "90% of the Karen refugees reported no knowledge of English or French on arrival." Moreover, the Karen have also resettled in the U.S. In 2011-2012, the population was growing fast in Nebraska. The Karen have also resettled in Southern California and central New York.
Mu Aye is a young Karen woman who has resettled in San Diego, CA. Aye said, "After growing up in a place like I did, I wanted to become a nurse. I wanted to help sick people..travel to refugee camps in Thailand and care for people who cannot afford medication." Additionally, Eh De Gray, who graduated from San Diego's Crawford High School, wants to go back to the camps and share his knowledge with the school children. Gray said, "I want to share my knowledge and experiences with them."
In 2014, Ler Htoo was sworn in after graduating from the St. Paul Police Academy in Minnesota, a state in which an estimated 8,500 Karen live, as the first Karen police officer in the United States.
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. The split is believed to have led to the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw in January 1995.
There is a population of 2500 Karen in India, mostly restricted to Mayabunder Tehsil of North Andaman in Andaman and Nicobar union Territory of India. Almost all majority of them are Baptist Protestant Christians. They retain their language to intercommunicate within community, but use Hindi as a second language to communicate with non-Karen neighbours.
The Karen languages, members of the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family, consist of three mutually unintelligible branches: Sgaw, Eastern Pwo, and Western Pwo. 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.
The majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists who also practice animism, while approximately 15% are Christian. 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 "" k'lar (soul), thirty-seven spirits that embody every individual. Misfortune and sickness are believed to be caused by k'lar that wander away, and death occurs when all thirty-seven klar leave the body.
Karen Buddhists are the most numerous of the Karens and account for around 65% of the total Karen population. 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 Karen State, Mon State, Yangon, Bago and Tanintharyi Region. 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.
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. Many millennial sects were founded throughout the 1800s, led by Karen Buddhist minlaung rebels. Two sects, Telakhon (or Telaku) and Leke, were founded in the 1860s. 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. 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). 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. Several Buddhist socioreligious movements, both orthodox and heterodox, have arisen in the past century.Duwae, a type of pagoda worship, with animistic origins, is also practiced.
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. The Karen of Thailand 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. 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. An estimated 15-20% of Karen identify themselves as Christian today and about 90% of Karen people in USA are Christians.
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 Hospital 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 (Liberal Arts Programme) 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. 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 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.
An estimated 15-20 per cent of Pwo and Sgaw Karen are Christian ... historical confrontation of Buddhism and Christianity which was a crucial part of the colonial conquest of Burma. This confrontation, which began with Christian conversion in 1830, created an internal opposition among the Karen.