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The Karen People

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 happily.

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 homeless children.

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 monarchy.

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 dictatorship.

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.

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, and led the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in western and central Burma.

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 us)

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