Background of Karen People

Karen Traditional Wrist Tying Ceremony

The Karen people are one of Burma’s major ethnic groups, living mostly in the mountainous eastern border region and central delta area. The Karen population is estimated at between 6.5 and 8 million individuals. The Karen people have their own unique language, culture and traditions.

Since Burma was granted independence from Britain in 1948, the Karen people have sought political recognition and autonomy from a centralized, Burman-dominated government. Burma has been under the rule of successive military regimes since 1962. The current regime, the SPDC, originally known as “State Law and Order Restoration Council” (SLORC), took power in a coup in September 1988, refusing to hand over power to the democratically elected government in 1990. On November 7, 2010, the SPDC held an election that was seen by the international community and the free media as entirely fraudulent, with reports of vote rigging, threats and intimidation. The SPDC was returned to power under a sham notion of democratic choice.

For over 60 years, the Karen people have faced brutal political restrictions, economic exploitation, and cultural suppression at the hands of Burma’s military regimes. The Burma Army’s policies, which aim to defeat armed ethnic opposition groups by eliminating sources of food, finance, recruits and intelligence, has seen military aggression and widespread economic abuses in Karen State. The Burma Army relies on exploiting the local civilian population for labour, food and money, and has forcibly relocated thousands of civilians in order to control and exploit them.

The population in Karen State also faces systematic human rights violations. Men, women and children face arbitrary arrest and execution, torture, murder, forced displacement and appropriation of land, and conscription of child soldiers and civilians into army support roles. Women and children are raped and sexually abused. Systematic attacks by the Burmese army are designed to terrorize and subjugate Karen civilians. Administrative policies (only offering education to Karen children in the Burmese language, for example) ignore and are slowly destroying the unique culture of the Karen people

The Karen resistance movement started in 1949. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) remains active today, defending and fighting for self-determination for the Karen people.  Following the November 2010 elections, the SPDC has tightened its grip on the State, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, resisting assimilation into the Border Guard Forces, and the SPDC have been engaged in fighting and the KNLA has also been drawn into the conflict. The fighting creates a very volatile situation for the civilian populations living in Karen State, who face threats to their physical security and to their livelihoods, and are at risk from direct attacks by the SPDC.

Karen Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s)

Karen people fleeing conflict and systematic human rights violations at the hands of the Burmese military regime have left their homes for the safety of Thailand for over 35 years. Today, more than 120,000 Karen refugees and asylum seekers live in refugee camps in Thailand. Refugees have no freedom to leave the camps. Inside the camps, people face overcrowding, widespread unemployment, a restricted diet, limited health care services, and lack opportunities for study and development. They live in fear of repatriation to Burma while the political climate is still insecure, and of attacks from the Burmese army and affiliated groups.

Another 200,000 people in Karen areas inside Burma have become internally displaced, hiding in the jungle in fear of the Burmese army. These IDPs struggle to survive, unable to work safely on their farms or go into the local villages, they are cut off from their daily livelihoods and lack basic services including education and health care.

KWO Distrubing Emergency Assistance

The elections in November 2010 and the conflict in Karen State sent thousands more villagers fleeing across the border into Thailand.