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Karen National Union (KNU)
Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO)
Democratic Karen Burmese Army (DKBA)

Kawthoolei is a name for the state the Karens want to establish. Karen state has the distinction of being home to the longest ongoing armed conflict on the planet. The Karen are the second largest ethnic group in Burma. Estimates of the Karen population as of 2007 vary widely, from 3 to 7 million. The Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) has 2000 fighters, 90% Karen (2% Shan, 2% Mon, 6% others). At first, the Karen were fighting for independence and later, in 1976, they began pursuing semi-autonomy within a federal union. Karen political leaders had gone to the negotiating table at least five times seeking a cease-fire without success.

To many a visitor to Burma, who viewed the country from the deck of an Irrawaddy River steamer or from the window of a railway carriage, there appeared to be little difference between the Karen and the Burman. This is not strange, for many individuals of the non-Burman tribes wear the Burmese costume and speak the Burmese language; and they present no markedly different characteristics in feature or color of skin. Though the Karen have lived for generations in the closest proximity to the Burmese, they preserve their own traits, which are quite distinct from those of their more volatile neighbors with whom they have had little in common.

The Karen are a group of Indo-Chinese tribes living principally in Burma, in the Indo-Chinese peninsula, and in the adjoining country of Thailand to the east. They are found between the tenth and twenty-first degrees of north latitude and between the ninety-fourth and one hundredth degrees of east longitude. Karen persons are ethnically distinct from other groups living in Burma and Thailand, and rather than being a single ethnic group, are comprised of at least 20 sub-groups. The name "Karen" is an imperfect transliteration of the Burmese word "Kayin," the derivation of which has puzzled students of that language. An anglicized form of Kayin – their name for themselves – the term “Karen” is used only by people outside the community and refers to those who live in rural communities (Karen State) along the Burmese-Thai border.

Karen communities are indigenous to the hills and plains of southeastern Burma and western Thailand. In Burma, Karen people inhabit the hill forests, valleys and plains as well as cities and towns along the border, while in Thailand, they live on the lower-altitude hills, valleys and lowlands among the provinces of Mae Hong Son, Tak, and the western part of Chaing Mai.

Geographically and linguistically, the Karen can be divided into Southern, Central, and Northern groups. There are several subgroups of Karen, each with their own language and group name. These subgroups have also been distinguished by the dominant color of their clothing, including: the Sgaw (pronounced Skaw) and Pwo from the Northern Karen state who are sometimes referred to as the white Karen; the Karenni from the Central Karen state, also known as the red Karen; and thePa-o from the Southern Karen state who are also referred to as the black Karen.

Although the earliest Karen settlement in Burma was 739 BC, it is unclear whether they began settling in Thailand prior to the eighteenth century. The traditions of the Karen clearly indicate that they have not always lived in their present home. The most striking story is that of "Htaw Meh Pa," the mythical founder of the Karen race, who lived with his numerous family in some unknown land to the North. According to some, the Karen are descendents of the Mongols .

During the colonial period, the British government practiced a policy of “divide and rule” in Burma by drawing clear lines that established the modern ethnic states, between the Burmans in the plains and the other ethnic minorities in the hills, a practice that exacerbated the historical ethnic rivalries. British colonial authorities allowed the continued existence of local rulers, such as the Karenni sawbwa, seen as less of a threat than members of the Burman majority. Eventually, the ethnic minorities, including Karen persons, became semi-autonomous in their villages with the help of Aung Sang, a Burman, who unified the modern country of Burma and helped to forge the path to independence.

Some Karen retreated to India with British forces, later returning to Burma to help in the resistance against Japanese occupation. While Karen units, among others, were seen as instrumental in 1944–45 in helping the Allies recapture Burma, by that time Aung San and the BIA had already switched sides and were also fighting the retreating Japanese. While many Karen had hoped they would be rewarded for their loyalty to the British after the war, even the ensuing political arrangement under the Panglong Agreement – promising an eventual federal Burma – was concluded without Karen approval.

While accounts differ as to what exactly occurred after independence in January 1948, by 1949, Karen units openly went into armed rebellion, as their demands for independence, or at least federalism, from organizations such as the Karen National Union (the KNU) and its armed branch, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), appeared increasingly futile. During the weak constitutional period from 1948 to 1962, Burma suffered widespread political and ethnic conflict and internal struggle. In 1962, the democratic government of Burma was overthrown by the army and became entrenched in civil conflict and political unrest. The military led a coup abolishing the constitution and took control of the government. Ethnic minority insurgent and political groups, such as the Karen National Union and the Karen National Liberation Army, were formed which fought to regain democratic participation for ethnic minorities in Burma.

Thousands of Karen civilians have died since the rebellion began a year after Burma's independence. Hundreds of thousands more Karen peasants have been made homeless during one of the world's longest running insurgencies. The two sides have tried to open ceasefire negotiations but these efforts stalled over the government's demand that the rebels first lay down their arms.

Karen leaders say years of government aggression have subjected their people to human rights abuses that include forced labor, looting, extortion and destruction of property. Thousands of villagers have been forced to flee to escape the fighting, with many of them currently living in refugee encampments just across the Thai border.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, more ethnic groups joined the Karen and others in armed opposition to the Burmese government until almost a third of the country was controlled by about a dozen rebel groups by the 1970s. The tide turned, however, after the 1988 popular uprisings and the subsequent takeover by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which responded with a massive build-up of the armed forces (tatmadaw) and the gradual whittling away of the territorial gains of the KNLA.

In 1997 Myanmar's State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC (formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC) crushed the Karen National Union (KNU), the mainstream rebel movement, which has been fighting for autonomy from the Myanmar government for some 50 years. The Karen National Union, with an estimated 4,000-6,000 fighters, mostly carries out hit-and-run attacks.

In March 1998 soldiers, probably Democratic Karen Burmese Army (DKBA) forces, shelled the Wang Ka camp for displaced Burmese Karen located in Thailand. They killed two persons and wounded dozens more. The troops set fire to nearly all the huts in the camp, leaving thousands of persons homeless before the soldiers returned to Burma.

On 21 January 2004 the Karen National Union wrapped up a week of unprecedented talks with government officials in Rangoon. Rebel leaders said progress had been made toward a formal ceasefire after decades of insurgency. The Burmese government was tight-lipped about the talks, but a leader of the rebel Karen National Union, Lieutenant Colonel Nerdah Mya, said KNU delegates told him they went well. Colonel Mya, who spoke from Thailand, is the son of KNU Vice Chairman Bo Mya, the senior military commander who headed the delegation to Rangoon. During the visit, the delegation met with Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt.

After 60 years of military rule, Burma peacefully transitioned in 2010 to a quasi-civilian government. But active or retired army officers continue to wield great authority. Since coming to power in 2010, the government unveiled for the first time new peace proposals to rebel groups that call for cease-fires followed by development assistance and a national conference to discuss political grievances.

The political wing of the Karen resistance said in 2011 that attacks by the army have led to the displacement of nearly half a million people, and driven more than 140,000 refugees to nine camps along the Thai-Burma border. Despite the hardships, many remained committed to the cause.

By March 2011 more than 10,000 refugees from eastern Burma had crossed into Thailand since fighting erupted between government troops and the opposition Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in November 2010 after the country’s first national elections in two decades. Thailand considered them to be illegal migrants, so they are not allowed in the refugee camps, and have little access to humanitarian aid. Instead, they seek shelter in the jungle or in squatter camps. The conflict escalated after the election, as the Burmese army tries to gain control over more Karen territory.

On January 11, 2012 the Burmese government signed a cease-fire with the ethnic Karen rebel group, in an apparent move toward ending one of the world's longest-running insurgencies and meeting a key condition for improved ties with the West. The two sides signed the deal after a series of meetings in Pa-an, the capital of Karen state in southeast Burma. The agreement marked the first declared break in fighting between the government and the rebel force since just after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Burma's information minister said 21 March 2011 that neighboring Thailand could do more to help curb a decades-old insurgency in Burma's east. Burma's state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said Information Minister Kyaw Hsan told a parliamentary session that if Thailand stood as a friendly nation, the problems in Burma's Karen State would soon be solved. He said the insurgents remain active with the assistance of certain super powers, international non-governmental organizations and Thailand. The insurgents use refugee camps in Thailand as their base to launch attacks on the Burmese army.

Despite Burma’s political opening, by 2013 most of the Burmese refugees in Thailand were not expecting to return any time soon. A first-of-its kind U.N. survey of refugees indicated that many remained wary of heading back across the border. About 130,000 refugees are residing in nine border camps in Thailand. Many of those were born in exile. Eighty percent of the camps' residents were ethnic Karen.

Along the Thai-Burma border, by mid-2014 more than 120,000 refugees remain in nine camps, including at Mae Sot, the largest settlement, established 30 years earlier. In July 2014 Thailand’s military government said it had reached an agreement with Myanmar for the return of refugees. The agreement called for as many as 130,000 people to be sent back to Myanmar. Rights activists opposed the move. They say refugees should not be returned until security and Myanmar’s economy have improved.

Ethnic Karen rebels signed a truce in January 2012, halting their fight for more autonomy. The Karen National Union, suspended its membership in the coalition group that had been working with the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, on a nationwide cease-fire agreement. The move came 01 September 2014 after the union’s representatives walked out of a four-day conference of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

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Page last modified: 03-09-2014 19:50:28 ZULU