About the Karen People
The Karen people are an ethnic group living in South-East Asia. The
Karen people are culturally and linguistically diverse. While most Karen
people are Skaw Karen, there are other Karen cultural and language
groups such as Pwo Karen and Bwe Karen.
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.
Most Karen people are subsistence farmers, living in small mountain
villages, and growing rice and vegetables and raising animals.
Some Karen people live in the Irrawaddy Delta in central Burma, and
thousands of Karen were killed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Traditionally Karen people practised Animism (spirit worship). There are
cave shrines at Kawgun in Karen State that are almost one thousand years
old, and most Karen people have also practised Buddhism since this time.
Buddhism is a very open religion and Buddhism and Animism coexist
There are Buddhist monasteries in most Karen villages, and the monastery
is the centre of community life. Karen monks are religious leaders but
they are often also community leaders, school teachers, human rights
activists, counsellors, herbal doctors, and care for orphans and
About one hundred and fifty years ago Christian missionaries started
working with the Karen and now about 15% of Karen people are Christians.
Most Karen Christians are Baptist but some are Anglican, Catholic, or
Seventh Day Adventist. Many Karen people who become Christians believe
they must give up their traditional customs that missionaries declared
“un-Christian”. This makes Karen Buddhists and Animists the custodians
of traditional Karen culture.
In the 19th century Britain colonised Burma and destroyed the Burmese
Burma regained its independence in 1948. Civil war soon broke out
between the government, the Karen and other ethnic minority groups.
In 1962 the Burmese Army took power. While the military regime has
changed names several times since, Burma continues to be a military
The Burmese Army held elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power
to the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The military held new elections in 2011 for “discipline-flourishing
democracy”. A quarter of the seats in the new parliament have been
reserved for military officers, international observers and media were
barred, and the outcome was widely regarded as rigged.
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.
In 2013 there has been little fighting in Karen State, but 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, in 2012 the Burmese
Army has launched a massive offensive against the Kachin in northern
Burma, and led the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in western and central
An excellent website with more information about the Karen people is
Karen Human Rights Group
(Please note that Karen Human Rights Groups is completely separate from