Background of the Karen People

Photo Credit Saw Mort

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 regime officially until 2011, 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 (the National League for Democracy) 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 70 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 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 and the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army).

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 70,000 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.

Photo Credit Saw Mort

Situation since 2010

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

In 2012, there were by-elections in Burma, and following reforms which had taken place since 2010 due to pressure on the military regime this by-election was overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi). Despite this the Burmese Army continues to weild a power of veto in several important areas, including spending and thus retains a significant portion of power in Burma.

Unfortunately, the International Community believed that this election marked a democratic shift for Burma and since this ‘opening up’ of Burma, development projects have proliferated.  Instead of being of benefit to the people, these have become a huge problem in Burma, and particularly in Karen State. This explosion of development projects is premature. There are not yet adequate democratic and political processes in place in Burma to protect the best interests of the people and to safeguard the environment. In Karen State, for example, we are seeing excessive road construction, new towns and housing, planning for several large scale dams, and all of it done by force, not peacefully. There is no permission granted by local communities, no benefit for local people, their land is confiscated, people are hurt and killed, and the environment is being destroyed. All this creates and maintains a context for more fighting and conflict, not for peace.

The Peace Process between the Burmese Army and multiple Ethnic Organization signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (signed in 2015) as well as the bilateral agreement signed by the KNU and the Army in 2012 are currently ineffective and side-lined by the Burmese Army.

There is also continued militarization of the Burmese Army in all ethnic areas, they persist with clearance operations and artillery attacks.  In the Karen areas, the Burma Army are constantly increasing their presence and strengthening their military camps, they are building more and more roads through Karen land and villages primarily to transport soldiers and equipment.  This involves land confiscations, and inflames tensions which results in fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups as the ethnic groups attempt to protect their areas and people.  The Burmese Army’s entry in to these restricted ethnic areas expressly breaks the conditions agreed in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement that they created.  The Burmese Government and the International Community are largely silent on the issue of these land incursions and the Burma Army hostilities.

To compound this further, the Burmese government together with the Burma Army, under their Border Affairs Department, continue to actively expand their Administrations into ethnic areas without local agreement or acceptance. For us, the ethnic people of Burma, we see this forceful taking over of the governance and administrative work in our lands, as a type of “colonization” by the Burmans, called “Burmanization”. For the ethnic people this is considered the core issue, and is at the centre of the decades old political and military conflict in Burma. The International community, including governments and donors, continue to give support directly and indirectly only to the Burmese government by providing funding only through the government.  The aim of the Burmese government and Army is to wipe out the ethnic people’s structures and services.  Respecting and supporting the existing ethnic structures and service is key to achieving lasting peace in Burma.

In 2018 the Burmese Government passed a set of new “Land Laws”, which legitimizes the whole process of stealing land from the ethnic people. In 2019, the government even announced that any group, apart from their own military-controlled department, who issues any kind of land title will face legal prosecution from them. The Indigenous people of Burma all have our customary land laws and ownership, so once we are seeing more evidence that our existing systems will not be respected and are completely ignored. 

UN Action on Burma:

The recent independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Burma reported serious violations of international humanitarian law in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States. Recommendations included calls for Burma/Myanmar’s top military generals to be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Burma/ Myanmar’s civilian administration and the international community were also criticized for being complicit in allowing the atrocities to continue with impunity. The UN Human Rights Council subsequently resolved to create a new mechanism to collect and preserve evidence, and to prepare case files on perpetrators of mass atrocities for use in future criminal proceedings.


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