Karen Girls

The Karens are the largest “tribal” minority in both Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand (the Shan are the largest in Myanmar alone). They have a reputation for fierceness, independence and being militant and politically active. Karens live in both the lowlands and the mountains. Most of the research on Karens has been done on Thai Karens even though many more Karens live in Myanmar. [Source: Peter Kundstadter, National Geographic, February 1972]

Karen refers to a diverse group that does not share a common language, culture, religion, or material characteristics. A pan-Karen ethnic identity is a relatively modern creation, established in the 19th century with the conversion of some Karen to Christianity and shaped by various British colonial policies and practices. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Karen speak a separate language from most Burmese, use their own ancient writing system and calendar and have traditionally opposed the military junta. Many are Christians. The Karens have a reputation of unfriendliness and hostility. Karen villages in Thailand are usually not very welcoming to tourists. Tourists have been assaulted in Karen-occupied territory. Much of the land now occupied by the Karen in Thailand was once occupied by other tribes. The Lua use to warn each other of Karen raids by beating a drum.

Karen tend to have fairer skin and a stockier build than the Burmese. The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribes of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

The Karen are referred to as the Kayin by the Myanmar government. They are also known as the Kareang, Kariang, Kayin, Pwo, Sagaw and Yang. "Karen" is an Anglicisation of the Burmese word Kayi, whose etymology is unclear. The word may have originally been a derogatory term referring to non-Buddhist ethnic groups, or it may derive from Kanyan, a possibly Mon name of a vanished civilisation. Historically, "Kayin," referred to a particular group of peoples in eastern Myanmar and western Thailand who spoke closely related but different Sino-Tibetan languages. The Central Thai or Siamese word for Karen is "Kariang," presumably borrowed from the Mon term "Kareang." The Northern Thai or Yuan word "Yang," the origins of which may be Shan or from the root word nyang (person) in many Karen languages, is applied to the Karen by Shans and Thais. The word "Karen" was probably brought to Thailand from Burma by Christian missionaries. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Karen Population

The total population of Karen in around 6 million (although some it could be as high as 9 million according to some sources) with 4 million to 5 million in Myanmar, over 1 million in Thailand, 215,000 in the United States(2018), more than 11,000 in Australia, 4,500 to 5,000 in Canada and 2,500 in India in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and 2,500 in Sweden, [Source: Wikipedia]

The Karen make up about 4 million (Myanmar government figure) to 7 million (Karen rights group estimate) of Burma's 55 million people.
Approximately one-third of the Karen population in Myanmar lives in Kayin (Karen) State. They comprise about 50 to 60 percent of the highland minority people of Thailand. Some of the population discrepancies in Myanmar are due to whether or not you count groups like the Kayah or Paduang as Karen or separate groups.

Although recent census figures for Myanmar are unavailable, their population there, projected from 1,350,000 in the 1931 census, was estimated at more than 3 million in the 1990s and is probably between 4million and 5 million today. Karen in Thailand in the 1990s numbered approximately 185,000, with about 150,000 Sgaw, 25,000 Pwo Karen, and much smaller populations of B'ghwe or Bwe (about 1,500) and Pa-O or Taungthu; together these groups. For information on the groups see below.

Where the Karen Live

Most Karen in Myanmar live in eastern and in south-central Myanmar around the Irrawaddy Delta and in the mountains along the Thai border in the Karen, Kayah and Shan States, semi-autonomous regions which are largely independent of the Myanmar government. The Karen region in Myanmar was once covered by tropical rain forests. Forests still exist but much of the land has been deforested for agriculture. There are about 200,000 Karens in Thailand. The live mostly in western and northwest Thailand along the Myanmar border. Some of the Karen in Thailand are refugees that escaped from Myanmar. There is also a sizable Karen community in Bakersfield, California. They can be found elsewhere around the globe.

Karen reside in Myanmar and Thailand, within the area between 10° and 21° N and between 94° and 101° E. Until the mid-18th century the Karen lived mainly in the forested mountainous regions of eastern Myanmar, where the hills are divided by long narrow valleys running north to south from the Bilauktaung and Dawna ranges along the Salween River system to the broad high plateau of the Shan uplands. The Salween is a mighty river that originates in Tibet and runs through China where it is know as Nu before arriving in Myanmar. The Salween flows about 3,289 kilometers (2,044 miles) and forms a short section Myanmar- Thailand border before emptying into the Andaman Sea. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Karen in Myanmar inhabit both lowland rice-growing plains and hill regions. There are large numbers in the central Irrawaddy Delta, in the Irrawaddy and Sittang deltas, the coast of Tenasserim and the northern part of Tenasserim, a mountains range that effectively serves as the border between Myanmar and Thailand. They can also be found in the Pegu Yoma, a hilly range between the Irrawaddy and the Sittang; and the Shan upland, which varies geographically from a rolling high plateau (1,000 meters in elevation on average) in the Shan State to the north-south hills and narrow valleys of the Kayah and Karen states and interior Tenasserim to the south. Karen settlements are found in the hills along the length of Tenasserim into the Shan plateau from 10° N as far as 21 ° N. In Thailand most of the Karen settlements are along the hilly western border and range northward and eastward to the Mekong from approximately 12° 00 N to 20°30. |~|

Karen Subgroups

Karen and Karenni Groups

The Karen are best viewed as a group of minorities rather than a single minority. There are several different subgroups. They often speak languages that are unintelligible to other Karen groups. The two largest subgroups — the Sgaw and Pwo — have dialects within their languages. The Sgaw or Skaw refer to themselves as "Pwakenyaw." The Pwo call themselves "Phlong" or "Kêphlong." The Burmese identify the Sgaw as "Bama Kayin" (Burmese Karen) and the Pwo as "Talaing Kayin" (Mon Karen). Thais sometimes use "Yang" to refer to the Sgaw and "Kariang" to refer to the Pwo, who live mainly south of the Sgaw. The term "White Karen" has been used to identify Christian Karen of the hill Sgaw. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

The Karens speak several languages that linguists have had difficulty classifying. Karen groups often speak different languages, some of which are not mutually intelligible. Hence, the Karen peoples are an exception to the basic assumption that an ethnic group can be defined by the fact that all its members can converse in a single tongue. There are at least three major cultural and linguistic divisions among the Karen: the Karenni or the Red Karen, who cast the bronze drums, the Pwo Karen, and the Sgaw Karen, as well as a number of other splinter groups who have scattered into the mountains below the Shan Plateau.

There are about 1 million Sgaw. They live primarily in mountainous Karen State, the Shan uplands and to a lesser extent in the Irrawaddy and Sittang deltas. There are about 750,000 Pwo. They live primarily around the Irrawaddy and Sittang Deltas. The largest group in northern Thailand is the White Karen. This term is used to describe Christian Karens in the Sgaw group.

Other important subgroups include Kayah (sometimes called the Red Karen), which has about 75,000 members that live almost entirely in the Kayah State, the smallest state in Myanmar, and the Pa-O, who live mainly in southwestern Shan State in Myanmar. A few Kayah live in Thailand in villages near Mae Hong Song. The Padaung tribe of Myanmar, famous for its long-necked women, is a subgroup of the Kayah tribe. Prior to Burmese independence the Burmese term for the Kayah was "Kayin-ni," from which the English "Karen-ni" or "Red Karen", Luce's classification of minor Karen languages listed in the 1931 census includes Paku; Western Bwe, consisting of Blimaw or Bre(k), and Geba; Padaung; Gek'o or Gheko; and Yinbaw (Yimbaw, Lakü Phu, or Lesser Padaung). Additional groups listed in the 1931 census are Monnepwa, Zayein, Taleing-Kalasi, Wewaw, and Mopwa. Scott's Gazetteer of 1900 lists the following: "Kekawngdu," the Padaung name for themselves; "Lakü," the self-name of the Bre; "Yintale" in Burmese, "Yangtalai" in Shan, for a branch of Eastern Karenni; the Sawng-tüng Karen, also known as "Gaung-to," "Zayein," or "Zalein"; Kawn-sawng; Mepu; Pa-hlaing; Loilong; Sinsin; Salon; Karathi; Lamung; Baw-han; and the Banyang or Banyok. |~|

The subgroups are generally defined by language. The color names refer to clothing and headgear worn by some groups. Some anthropologists have criticized the subgroup classification system for its incompleteness and failing to addresses the fluid Karen identity system which also incorporates religious, political, social and economic unions that often are more important than language bonds. In many ways the two most defining groups of Karens are the traditional hill Karens and the educated Christian delta Karens.


The Kayah are a Karen people native to the Kayah State of Myanmar. They are also known as the Karenni (Burmese for 'red Karen') and Kayah Li. According to a 1983 census, the Karenni identification included the Kayah, Geko (Kayan Ka Khaung, Gekho, Gaykho), Geba (Kayan Gebar, Gaybar), Padaung (Kayan Lahwi), Bre, Manu-Manau (Manumanao), Yintale, Yinbaw, Bwe and Pa'O. Several of the groups (Geko, Geba, Padaung, Yinbaw) belong to Kayan, a subgroup of Karenni. The groups Bre and Manu-Manau belong to the Kayaw subgroup. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to to the Myanmar government the Kayah are comprised nine different ethnic groups: 1) Kayah; 2) Zayein, 3) Ka-Yun (Padaung), 4) Gheko, 5) Kebar, 6) Bre (Ka-Yaw), 7) Manu Manaw, 8) Yin Talai, 9) Yin Baw. The famous long-necked women of the Paduang tribe are regarded as members of the Kayah ethnic group. The Karen are often confused with the Red Karen (Karenni), which is one of the tribe of Kayah in Kayah State, Myanmar. The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand.

The Karen are often confused with the Karenni (Red Karen), the alternative name of the Kayah in Kayah State, The subgroup of the Karenni, the Padaung tribe, are best known for the neck rings worn by the women of this group of people. This tribe reside at the border region of Burma and Thailand. Kayah State is inhabited by Kayah, Kayan (Padaung) Mono, Kayaw, Yintalei, Gekho, Hheba, Shan, Intha, Bamar, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Pao.

The 1983 census conducted by United Nations and the Burmese government reported that Kayah made up 56.1 percent of Kayah State. According to 2014, figures, there are 286,627 people in Kayah State. This means there are about 160,000 Kayah in Kayah State.

Origin of the Karen

The Karens are distinct and unrelated to other ethnic minorities and hill tribes in Thailand and Burma. They arrived in what is now Thailand centuries before the Thais, when the country was part of the Mon-Khmer Empire. They appear to have originated in the north, possibly in the high plains of Central Asia, and migrated in stages across China to Southeast Asia.

Nancy Pollock Khin wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The early history of the Karen remains problematic, and there are various theories regarding their migrations. It appears that Karen peoples originated in the north, possibly in the high plains of Central Asia, and emigrated in stages through China into Southeast Asia, probably after the Mon but before the Burmese, Thai, and Shan reached what is now Myanmar and Thailand. Their slash-and-burn agricultural economy is an indication of their original adaptation to hill life.[Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Inscriptions from the A.D. 8th century in central Burma mention the Cakraw, a group that has been linked with the Sgaw, a Karen group. There is a 13th-century inscription near Pagan bearing the word "Karyan," which may refer to Karen. Seventeenth-Century Thai sources mention the Kariang, but their identity is unclear. Overall, there was little mention of the Karens until the mid 18th century when they were described as a people that lived mainly in the forested mountainous regions of eastern Burma and were subjugated to varying degrees by the Thais, Burmese and Shan and had little success in efforts to win autonomy. Large numbers of Karens started migrating 150 years ago into northern Thailand. [Source: Wikipedia+]

Karen legends refer to a "river of running sand" which Karen ancestors reputedly crossed. Many Karen believe this refers to the Gobi Desert, although they have lived in Myanmar for centuries. Most scholars dismiss the idea of a Gobi desert crossing, but rather translate the legend as describing "rivers of water flowing with sand". This could refer to the sediment-laden Yellow River of China, the upper reaches of which is considered to be the Urheimat of Sino-Tibetan languages. According to the legends, the Karen took a long time to cook shellfish at the river of flowing sand, until the Chinese taught them how to open the shells to acquire the meat. +

Early History of the Karen

It is estimated by linguists Luce and Lehman that the Tibeto-Burman peoples such as the Karen migrated into present-day Myanmar between A.D. 300 and 800. In pre-colonial times, the low-lying Burmese and Mon-speaking kingdoms recognised two general categories of Karen, the Talaing Kayin, generally lowlanders who were recognised as the "original settlers" and essential to Mon court life, and the Karen, highlanders who were subordinated or assimilated by the Bamar. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Many Karen lived in the Shan States. The Shans, who came down with the Mongols when they invaded Bagan in the 13th century, stayed and quickly came to dominate much of northern to eastern Burma, The Shan States were the princely states that ruled large areas of today's Burma (Myanmar), Yunnan Province in China, Laos and Thailand from the late 13th century until mid-20th century. Prior to British intervention, intervillage clashes and Karen slave raids into Shan territory were common . Weapons included spears, swords, guns, and shields.

By the eighteenth century, Karen-speaking people were living primarily in the hills of the southern Shan states and in eastern Burma. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: They developed a system of relations with the neighboring Buddhist civilizations of the Shan, Burmese, and Mon, all of whom subjugated the Karen. European missionaries and travelers wrote of contact with Karen in the eighteenth century. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

“During the turmoil among the Burman, Yuan, and Siamese kingdoms in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Karen, whose villages lay along the armies' routes, emerged as a significant group. Many Karen settled in the lowlands, and their increased contact with the dominant Burman and Siamese led to a sense of oppression at the hands of these powerful rulers. Groups of Karen made numerous mostly unsuccessful attempts to gain autonomy, either through millennarian syncretic religious movements or politically. The Red Karen, or Kayah, established three chieftainships that survived from the early nineteenth century to the end of British rule. In Thailand Karen lords ruled three small semifeudal domains from the mid-nineteenth century until about 1910. |~|

Karen During the British Period (1826-1947)

British and American Christian missionaries began arriving in Karen territories after Burma was annexed by the British in 1826. They converted many Karens to Christianity and opened schools, which turned out to be a breeding ground for Karen nationalism. Educated Karens rose to high positions in the British colonial government. The Karens fought for the British against the Japanese in World War II and their loyalty almost won them an independent state But these plan were dashed when Aung San was assassinated in 1947.

In 1852, the British unilaterally and easily seized the Pegu province in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. .In 1875, King Mindon ceding the Karenni States to the British. After the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, most of the rest of Burma, including Karen-speaking areas came under British control.

The British civil service was largely staffed by Anglo-Burmese and Indians. The Burmese were excluded almost entirely from military service, which was staffed primarily with Indians, Anglo-Burmese, Karens and other Burmese minority groups. Divisions of British Burma that included Karens were: 1) Ministerial Burma (Burma proper); 2) Tenasserim Division (Toungoo, Thaton, Amherst, Salween, Tavoy, and Mergui Districts); 3) Irrawaddy Division (Bassein, Henzada, Thayetmyo, Maubin, Myaungmya and Pyapon Districts); 4) Scheduled Areas (Frontier Areas); and 5) Shan States; The "Frontier Areas", also known as the "Excluded Areas" or the "Scheduled Areas", compose the majority of states within Burma today. They were administered separately by the British, and were united with Burma proper to form Myanmar's geographic composition today. The Frontier Areas were inhabited by ethnic minorities such as the Chin, the Shan, the Kachin and the Karenni. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Karen, many of whom had converted to Christianity, had a distinctive though ambiguous relationship with the British, based on shared religious and political interests. Before World War II they were given special representation in the Burmese Legislative Assembly. Christian missionary activity was an important factor — if not the most important factor — in the emergence of Karen nationalism. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

The development of schools and a Karen literate tradition produced an educated Karen elite, whose members rose in the British colonial service and led the Karen nationalist movements. In 1928 the Karen leader, Dr. Sir San C. Po, argued for an autonomous Karen state within a federation. During World War II, the Karen remained loyal to the British after the Japanese occupation. There was increased fraction and distrust between the Karen and Burmans, who were backed by the Japanese.

Karen After Burma’s Independence

After World War II, the British prepared for Burma's independence. The Karen National Union (KNU) promoted Karen autonomy, but after Aung San's assassination in 1947 hopes for an independent Karen state were shattered. Towards the end of the British colonial era (1945-1948), Karen leaders insisted on a separate state covering today's Karen State and much of Mon State and Taninthayi Region, within the British Empire. They refused to sign the Panglong Agreement of February 1947, which was the basis for the 1947 Constitution of Burma, and boycotted the pre-independence elections of April 1947. Nonetheless, the constitution granted the Karen a state, though with an area less than what the Karen leadership had asked for from the British. [Source: Wikipedia]

Kayin (Karen) State

Upon attaining independence, Burma was plagued by ethnic unrest and separatist movements, particularly from the Karens. and Communist groups..The constitution guaranteed states with the right to secede from the Union after a period of 10 years. The Karen National Union (KNU), which dominated the Karen leadership, was not satisfied, and wanted outright independence. In 1949, the KNU started a rebellion that continues to this day. The KNU celebrates January 31 as 'revolution day', marking the day they went underground at the battle of Insein, which took place in 1949 and is named after a Yangoon suburb seized by Karen fighters. The Karens were eventually defeated but they did well enough to encourage the fighters to continue their struggle. Much of Karen state has been a battlefield since then, with civilians suffering the most. The KNU is now recognized as the world's longest-running resistance.

The Kayah State was established when Burma became independent in 1948. The Karen State was founded in 1952. During the 1964 peace negotiations, the name was changed to the traditional Kawthoolei, but under the 1974 constitution the official name reverted to Karen State. Many lowland Karens have assimilated with Burmese Buddhist culture. Those in the mountains have resisted, with many giving at least tacit support to Karen fighters. In Thailand many Karen have assimilated into Thai society through education, economic necessity and the grouping of highland Karen into a "hill tribe" visited by foreign tourists.

Karen and Kachin Army personnel supported Aung San. But after was assassinated they no longer supported the Burmese government. The first years of Burmese independence were marked by successive insurgencies by the Red Flag Communists, the Yèbaw Hpyu (White-band PVO), the Revolutionary Burma Army (RBA) and the Karen National Union (KNU). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Karen Languages

Karens speak Sino-Tibetan languages. Some linguists say the Karen language are related to Thai. Others insist they are unique enough to be given their own Sino-Tibetan branch, Karenic. Most agree they fall into the Tibetan-Burman branch of Sino-Tibetan languages. The most generally accepted view is that the Karen languages are a divergent subfamily of the Tibeto-Burman Language Family.There is similarity in phonology and basic vocabulary between Karen dialects and Lolo-Burmese and major Tibeto-Burman Language Subgroup in Thailand with similar tone systems. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Karen languages have not been extensively studied. They have tones like Thai, a rich variety of vowels and few consonant endings. They differ from other Tibetan-Burman branch languages in that object is after the verb. Among the Tibeto-Burman languages Karen and Bai have a subject–verb–object word order whereas the vast majority of Tibeto-Burman languages have a subject–object–verb order. This difference has been explained as being due to the influence of neighbouring Mon and Tai languages. |~|

Karen Langauges

Karen languages, consist of three mutually unintelligible branches: Sgaw, Eastern Pwo (Pwo) and Western Pwo Pa'O. Karenni (also known as Kayah or Red Karen) and Kayan (also known as Padaung) are a branch of Karen languages. A common geographical classification distinguishes three groups: 1) Northern; 2) Pa’o and 3) Central (The area of greatest diversity, including Kayah (Red Karen or Karenni), Kayaw (Brek), Bwe (Bghai), Geba and many more); 4) Southern (Pwo and Sgaw). Kayan (Padaung) is transitional between the northern and central groups.[6] The languages with the most speakers are Sgaw, Pwo and Pa’o. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Karen have traditionally not had a written language. The Burmese, Thais and missionaries developed Roman-based, Thai-based and Burmese-based scripts for the Karen language. In schools Karen use Karen, English and either Thai or Burmese. Karens don't have surnames. Some have adopted for them for use in the outside world. In the old days, some Karens gave their children names like "Bitter Shit" as a ploy to keep bad spirits away.

Karen Religion

The majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists who also practice animism, while approximately 15 percent are Christian. Lowland Pwo-speaking Karens tend to be more orthodox Buddhists, whereas highland Sgaw-speaking Karens tend to be Buddhists with strong animist beliefs. Many of the Karen in Myanmar who identify themselves as Buddhists are more animist than Buddhist. The Karen of Thailand have religious traditions that differ from those in Myanmar. [Source: Wikipedia]

Many Sgaw are Christians, mostly Baptists, and most Kayah are Catholic. Most Pwo and Pa-O Karen are Buddhists. The Christians are mostly descendants of people who were converted through the work of missionaries. The Buddhists are generally Karen that have assimilated into Burmese and Thai society. In Thailand, based on data from the 1970s, 37.2 percent of Pwo Karen are animist, 61.1 percent Buddhist, and 1.7 percent Christian. Among of Sgaw Karen, 42.9 percent are animist, 38.4 percent Buddhist, and 18.3 percent Christian. In some areas Karen religion mixed traditional beliefs with Buddhism and/or Christianity, and sometimes cults were formed often with a powerful leader and with elements of Karen nationalism envisioning a new order on Earth in which the Karen would be powerful. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Many Karen are mostly Christian but they retain many traditional beliefs about animism, ancestor worship, supernatural powers (“pgho”) and the belief that humans, creatures and some inanimate objects possess “kala” (“life principal”). Important deities and powers include Y’wa, the divine creator force and "Lord of Land and Water" or "Spirit of the Area" (Thi Kho Chae Kang Kho Chae), who protects villages. There are also a large number of local and household deities and spirits associated with nature such as trees and rivers, or with agriculture such as the the rice goddess. The main religious leaders are the village headman and the eldest women in the main matrilineage line. There are also shaman, teachers and prophets who possess “pgho” and witches and false prophets that claim they do. |~|

Nancy Pollock Khin wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““The Karen cosmogonic myth tells of Y'wa, a divine power who created nature, including the first man and woman, and of Mü Kaw li, the basically feminine deity, who in serpent form teaches them their culture, including rice production, the identity of the ancestral spirit (bgha; ther myng khwae in Pwo), rites of propitiation of various spirits, and methods for securing k'la. Y'wa gives the Karen a book, the gift of literacy, which they lose; they await its future return in the hands of younger white brothers. The American Baptist missionaries interpreted the myth as referring to the biblical Garden of Eden. They saw Y'wa as the Hebrew Yahweh and Mii Kaw li as Satan, and offered the Christian Bible as the lost book. Bgha, associated mainly with a particular matrilineal ancestor cult, is perhaps the most important supernatural power.” |~|

Karen Buddhists

Karen Buddhists

Around 65 percent of all Karens are Buddhists. In the plains of Myanmar and in the highlands of Thailand Karen have embraced Buddhism through contact with traditionally-Buddhist people such as Burman, Mon, Shan, and Thai. Buddhist Karen are found mainly in Kayin State, Mon State, Yangon, Bago and Tanintharyi Region. Most Karen villages have Buddhist monasteries, which serve as centers of community life. Merit-making activities and giving alms to Buddhist monks are important parts of Karen Buddhist life. [Source: Wikipedia]

Most Pwo and Pa-O Karen are Buddhists. Buddhists are generally Karen that have assimilated into Burmese and Thai society. The Buddhist influence initially came from the Mon who dominated in Lower Burma until the middle of the 18th century. Buddhism was brought to Pwo-speaking Karens in the late-1700s, and the Yedagon Monastery atop Mount Zwegabin became the leading center of Karen language Buddhist literature. Prominent Karen Buddhist monks have included Thuzana (S'gaw) and Zagara.

Many cult-like sects were founded the 1800s, some of them led by Karen Buddhist minlaung rebels. Among these were Telakhon (or Telaku) and Leke, founded in the 1860s. Tekalu, founded in Kyaing, combines spirit worship, Karen customs and worship of the future Buddha Metteyya. It is regarded as a Buddhist sect. The Leke sect, founded on the western banks of the Thanlwin River, is no longer associated with Buddhism as followers do not venerate Buddhist monks. Leke followers believe that the future Buddha will return to Earth if they strictly follow the Dhamma and Buddhist precepts. They practice vegetarianism, hold Saturday services and construct distinct pagodas. Several Buddhist socioreligious movement sprung up in the 20th century. Among these is Duwae, a type of pagoda worship, with animistic origins.

Karen Christians

Christian missionaries began working in Karen areas in the 19th century (See History Above). The Karen adopted Christianity quickly and willingly. Some say this occurred because traditional Karen religion and Christianity have striking similarities — including a myth about a “Golden Book” which is said to be the source of wisdom — and the Karen have a tradition of Messianic cults. Some biblical stories are remarkably similar to Karen myths. Missionaries exploited traditional Karen beliefs by giving out gilded Bibles and making the stories of Jesus Christ compatible with traditional stories. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

An estimated 15 to 20 percent of Karen identify themselves as Christian today and about 90 percent of Karen people in the U.S. are Christians. Many Sgaw are Christians, mostly Baptists, and most Kayah are Catholic. Christians are mostly descendants of people who were converted through the work of missionaries. Some of the largest Protestant denominations are Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists. Alongside orthodox Christianity are many Karen Christians who identify themselves as Christian but also retain traditional animist beliefs. [Source: Wikipedia]

Karen church

In 1828 Ko Tha Byu was baptised by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, becoming the first Karen to be converted by Christian missionaries, beginning conversions on a scale unprecedented in Southeast Asia. By 1919, 335,000, or 17 percent of Karen in Burma, had become Christian. The Karen Baptist Convention (KBC), established in 1913 with its headquarters is in Yangon, operates the KBC Charity Hospital and Karen Baptist Theological Seminary in Insein, Yangoon. The Seventh-day Adventists have built several schools in the Karen refugee camps in Thailand to convert the Karen people. Eden Valley Academy in Tak and Karen Adventist Academy in Mae Hong Son are the two largest Seventh-day Adventist Karen schools.

Karen Ceremonies and Funerals

Karen headman presides over ceremonies and sacrifices that honor the Lord of the Land and Water. The eldest women in the main matrilineage line presides over annual sacrificial feast designed to keep bgha from consuming the kala of her lineage members. It has been suggested this collective ritual expresses the essence of traditional Karen identity In addition, local spirits are placated with offerings. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

The Karen believe that a soul of a dead person leaves the body at death and is reincarnated in the form a ghost that can inhabit the body of another person. Karen have two categories of death: "natural" death resulting from old age and certain diseases, and "violent" death resulting from accidents, magic, attacks by spirits, childbirth, and murder. Those who have died in violent deaths or accidents are given special rites to prevent the release of malevolent spirits. Some non-Christian Karen believe in an afterlife in a place of the dead, which has higher and lower realms ruled over by Lord Khu See-du. |~|

Funerals feature singing or taped music intended to send off the soul to a netherworld where it can’t bother or influence the living. After death the deceased is washed, dressed in fine clothes and buried in a coffin. His possessions are removed from the village. On returning home participants in the funeral erect obstacles so kala of the deceased can’t follow them. Animist and Buddhist funerals may be extensive rites involving the slaughter of many animals, whereas Christian funerals are much simpler.

Karen Holidays, Festivals and New Year

The most significant traditional ceremony is probably the propitiation of the bgha by the matrilineally related kin described above. In addition, agricultural and lifecycle rituals are conducted, local spirits are supplicated with offerings or minor ceremonies. When the child is one month old there is a naming ceremony. In Buddhist communities Buddhist holidays and an initiation for boys becoming monks. Christians observe Christian holidays. [Source: Nancy Pollock Khin, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Karen New Year is a the major holidays that the Karen people celebrate. The date of the Karen New Year is set according to a lunar calendar used by the Karen and usually falls in December or January on the Western calendar. Karen Wrist Tying is another important Karen holiday. It is celebrated in August. Karen Martyrs' Day (Ma Tu Ra) commemorates the Karen soldiers who died fighting for Karen self-determination. It is observed August 12 , the anniversary of the death of Saw Ba U Gyi, the first President of the Karen National Union. The Karen National Union, a political party and insurgency group, celebrates January 31 as 'revolution day', See History above. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Karen New Year is a relatively recent celebration. First celebrated in 1938, it is held on the first day of the month of Pyathoe, in the Karen calendar. The month of Pyathoe is special for Karen cultural solidarity, for the following reasons: 1) Although Karens have different names for Pyathoe (Skaw Karens call it Th'lay and Pwo Karens call it Htike Kauk Po) the first of each of these months falls on exactly the same date; 2) the rice harvest is completed in the period leading to Pyathoe; and 3) according to Karen traditional religious practice, there must be a celebration for consumption of the new crop. It is also the time to divine the date for commencement of the next crop. Typically, this is also when new houses are constructed, and the completion of these must be celebrated.

The first day of Pyathoe is not a distinct festival for any religious group, so it is a day that is acceptable to Karen people of all religions. Karen New Year is celebrated throughout Burma, in refugee camps and Karen villages in Thailand, and Karen refugee communities around the world. In Karen State in Burma Karen New Year celebrations are some times harassed by the military government, or disrupted by fighting. Karen New Year celebrations typically include Don dances and bamboo dances, singing, speeches, and the consumption of lots of food and alcohol.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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