The Karen People

 By Zoe, Emily, and McCall

When people think of the Karen people they are typically familiar with films, documentaries about them or have heard of the term “long neck” tribe. People hear of the term “long neck tribe” due to the brass rings that women wear around their neck. An interesting myth about the rings is that it is said to elongate the wearer’s neck but is rather just a visual illusion. What most people don’t know that there are only certain subgroups within the Karen people practice this custom and is most common in the Padaung subgroup. The different subgroups had not historically recognized themselves as belonging to the same group until recently. Other than the gold neck rings the traditional clothing of the Karen consists of men wearing a sarong (a wrap like piece of clothing) and a sleeveless shirt. Unmarried Karen women sometimes wear a long white dress, and married Karen women wear a sarong and sleeveless shirt. Men and women wear different patterned and colored sarongs and wear them in different ways.

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The Karen peoples have suffered from oppression from continuous government authorities, forced resettlement and denial of political representation which have caused many karen to move into Thailand from various places around Asia.

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The Karens are a vast ethnic group throughout Southeast Asia. An alternative name for the Karen is Padaung, they speak Their origins range from the Gobi Desert, Mongolia to Tibet. They settled in southern and eastern Burma (Myanmar) in the seventeenth century. The British colonized this area in Burma in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and after World War II the British granted Burma independence. The population of the Karen people in Myanmar has never come to a definite census but the estimate is about five million Karen people in Myanmar itself and around 300,000 Karen-ethnic peoples throughout Thailand. The largest Karen population is found in the Irrawaddy Delta, the other most densely populated of the Karen peoples is along the eastern border of Thailand.  

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The festivities that Karen people partake in range from a variety of festivals from things that are not so custom, like wrist tying, to something that is more common for us Americans; Christmas. The holidays celebrated are; wrist tying ceremonies that consist of singing dancing and eating, Martyrs day that is taken to remember the Karen who died in the civil war, and Waso and Kathin, which is a festivity that lasts three months during the rainy season where Buddhist monks and nuns present robes to each other. Lastly the Karen who are Christian celebrate Christmas. Christmas is celebrated by going to houses and singing carols on the first of December and inviting friends over for noodles and sticky rice on the 25th of December.

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Family is very important to the Karens. There is an importance in the Karen culture for closeness that is not seen as much in western cultures, where not only is the immediate family very important but the extend family is also a very important part of the Karens culture. Many marriages that happen between the Karen are arranged and they believe in the ideals of romantic love, faithfulness and life-long partnership.

The Karens love food and eating together is one of their ways of expressing hospitality. A Karen meal usually consists of white rice, curry, and some vegetables with fish paste. Most Karen people eat a meal only twice a day which is much different from the eating customs in the U.S.

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The occupations that the Karen carry are very traditional. The people are usually farmers, teachers, healers, traders or buddhist monks. Often times a Karen will take on multiple occupations of those listed above.

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Most of the Karen people are Buddhist with “85% of the population being Buddhist” (Neiman, Soh and Sutan). However, the Karen also belong to Christian, Animist, Islam, Lehkai, and Telahkon denominations. The reason that the majority of Karen people are Buddhist is because of where the Karen people live – Thailand and Burma. Even though the Karen may identify as one particular religion it is quite common for all of the religions to cross over into each other and help to create Karen culture. The only main difference between each of the religions is the way that they practice their religions (Neiman, Soh and Sutan). Religion affects the culture through what names Karen children are given, – Christian, Buddhist, etc. – what holidays they celebrate, and how they perceive education. It is important to know that to the Karen “religion is not just a matter of belief; religion may determine, or be determined by, who somebody marries, the school they go to, or whether they are resettled or whether they remain in a refugee camp” (Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation).

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The Karen have many festivals that are political and/or religious – Christian, Animism, and Buddhist. Some of the most important festivals are the Karen New Year, Revolution Day, Martyr’s Day, and various religious holidays, (i.e. Christmas, Buddhist New Year, Wrist Tying, and Waso and Kathin). Karen New Year is always celebrated on the first day of either December or January (it’s based on the lunar cycles). The purpose of the Karen New Year is “the end of the harvest of one rice crop, the beginning of the next rice crop, and the time when new houses are built” (Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation). Revolution Day is the celebration of the Karen uprising on January 31, 1949. Martyr’s Day is on August 12. It originally commemorated the death of Saw Ba U Gyi, however, it now celebrates all of those who have died in the civil war (Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation).


Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation. “The Karen people: culture, faith and history.” n.d. Book.         3 March 2015.

Neiman, Amy, Eunice Soh and Parisa Sutan. Karen Cultural Profile. 1 July 2008. Website. 27 March 2015.

“The Peoples of the World Foundation.” Indigenous Peoples of the World- The Karen. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.

“Countries and Their Cultures.” Karens. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.

Published By The Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundatio. The Karen People: Culture, Faith and History (n.d.): n. pag. Web.







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