The Karen

By: Amanda Phillips & Kristin Harko


Due to war, persecution, or violence many people are forced to flee their own country.  Everyday these people fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, group membership, or political standing.  More often than not, these people cannot return to their home countries and seek refuge in a second or third country permanently.  These people seeking refuge are known as refugees.  An expanding group of refugees found in Salt Lake City, Utah is the Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand.

The Karen are an indigenous tribe of southeastern Myanmar and western Thailand.  The Karen people are thought to descend from the Mongolian people.  They settled in what is now Karen State of Myanmar around 739 B.C. and named this land Kaw Thoo Lei.  They farmed the land peacefully for only a short time before the Mon and Burmese entered their land and forced the Karen into the mountainous jungle.  Many were forced into slavery.  This went on for hundreds of years until the British came to occupy Burma.  During this time the Karen, as well as other ethnic groups, were able to seek an education and earn a living (“A Karen History”).

In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma with the help of the Burmese Independence Army (BIA).  The Karen people were arrested, tortured, and killed.  Their villages were burned and their lives destroyed.  The Burmese wanted to eliminate the Karen people and committed terrible acts of genocide.  On January 4, 1948, Burma gained its independence from Great Britain.  The Karen’s requested an independent Karen State from the Burmese, but this requested was denied.  On February 11, 1948, the Karen staged a peaceful demonstration carrying banners that read (“A Karen History”):

Give the Karen State at once.

We do not want communal strife.

We do not want civil war.

Since Burma gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948, the Karen and other ethnic minorities have civically fought for political, cultural, and social freedom from the Myanmar government and military (“Karen Refugees”).  The totalitarian Burmese government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has stated that the Karen and other ethnic groups are a threat to their rule over Myanmar (“Karen Refugees”).  Through physical domination and torture, SPDC has been able to keep the Karen and other minority groups in poverty.  The SPDC has gone as fair as to limit the access of shelter, food, education, and health care.  It is estimated that 500,000 to 1 million Karen are in hiding within Burma (“Karen Konnection”).  With over 350,000 Karen having fled the country of Myanmar to Thailand (“Karen Refugees”).


Karen National Liberation Army flag,

The Karen are mostly from rural areas.  They have been forced from their homelands into have sought refuge in refugee camps along the Burma-Thailand.  They are not allowed to leave these refugee camps and are not allowed to work and earn money in Thailand (Neiman).  Even though they are unable to work and earn a living, refugees create their own governance system within the refugee camps.  They coordinate the everyday aspects of the camp with the assistance of NGOs, the Thai government, etc.  But this is not a home to them. There is no home to go back to and no place to really look forward to.

As refugees are unable to return to their home country, as well as unable to gain citizenship in the new country, such as the Karen, there is a lottery process to go to a third party country.  It is estimated that over 50,000 Karen refugees have been resettled in the United States, Australia, Canada, and some countries in Europe (“About the Karens”).  While the Karen are able to escape the atrocities they’ve faced in Burma, there is no end to the difficulties these people endure.  Once resettled in these other countries they face a whole new set of hardships.  They must adjust to a new way of living and new ways of communicating, while trying to keep their traditions alive.


Karen refugee camp.


About the karens (n.d.). In karen refugees. Retrieved April 24, 2013, from
Karen konnection. (2013). The story in a nutshell. Retrieved April 20, 2013, from
Karen national union. (n.d.). A karen history. Retrieved April 20, 2013, from
Karen refugees (n.d.). In karen refugee-convio. Retrieved April 24, 2013, from
Neiman, A., Soh, E., Sutan, P. (2008). Karen cultural profile. Retrieved from





One response to “The Karen”

  1. Tom Haywood Avatar

    Great article, thank you for sharing it. In America many Karen refugees continue their hope for a better life but face many challenges. Nickel City Smiler tells a story of a Karen family and community living in Buffalo, New York. See more at: Thanks again, Tom


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