Karen Refugees

Featured image: KNLA medic treating Karen refugees.

The Karen people are an ethnic minority in Myanmar residing primarily in Kayin State, located in southern and south-eastern Myanmar. Since the start of the country’s civil war in 1948, which makes it widely regarded as the world’s longest ongoing conflict, they have faced ethnic persecution from the Burmese government.

Ethnolinguistic map of Myanmar. Areas highlighted red are primarily ethnically Karen. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_Myanmar


The conflict originated when Myanmar gained independence from Great Britain in January 1948. At this time, the Karen National Union, representing of the Karen people, attempted to co-exist peacefully with the Burman ethnic majority, though arming themselves for a potential struggle.

In the autumn of that year, the Burmese government, led by U Nu, raised political militias, known as Sitwundan, that targeted and pillaged Karen communities. These atrocities have continued throughout the mid-20th century, although the Karen National Union maintained its structure, offering basic social services to those affected by the military’s actions. The BBC estimated in 2006 that 200,000 Karens have been driven from their homes during this war, with roughly 160,000 of these refugees living in camps in Thailand.

Eventually, in 1980, the Karen National Union, in conjunction with 20 other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, formed the Karen National Liberation Army, created to lead an insurgency against the military junta (dictatorship), the capital of Myanmar. However, what was once a substantial army has now been reduced to a mere 4000 men. This is in stark contrast to Myanmar’s army, which is ten times the size.

In 2010, Myanmar’s military leaders wanted to end sanctions and their international pariah status. Therefore, a series of ‘democratic’ elections were held in November – unsurprisingly, they were rigged, with Thein Sein, a former senior general, elected as President. Thus, the election did little to reduce the human rights abuses that the Karen were suffering. Nevertheless, this removed much of the international stigma associated with being a dictatorship.

2015 also heralded no gains for the Karen people, when the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, were elected. Though on the surface they were more dedicated to democracy, the NLD still had to share power with the military, per the constitution, and so the government was still effectively beholden to them. The military used their guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats to veto efforts to make the constitution more democratic. Even so, the military’s political power was gradually slipping away. In order to prevent this, in 2021, led by Min Aung Hlaing, the military staged a coup, arresting multiple NLD politicians and reasserting their former dictatorship.

In all this time, the persecution and abuse of the Karen people has not ceased.

Potential Solutions

First, it should be emphasised that the Burmese people are not responsible for the persecution of the Karen people. A plethora of protests have been held, each criticising the military’s actions. The sole cause of these human rights abuses is the military holding rigged elections and staging coups.

Therefore, it seems apparent that if a democratic political system were to be implemented, a party that prevented Karen ethnic persecution would be elected. As much as this solution would be ideal, it is unlikely to happen in the near future.

More practical, immediate solutions should focus not on systemic change but on assisting the Karen people in Myanmar to flee. One organistain undertaking such action is the Sermpanya foundation, which works in Mae La, a refugee camp in Thailand, home to several Karen refugees. It provides those living on the Thai-Myanmar border with accessible education and information, as well as employment opportunities. It achieves this by employing local refugees to act, direct and produce educational films around sanitisation and safety. This not only creates a collegial spirit in the community and a sense of purpose for the refugees involved in the films, but also educates on topics such as mining risks, fire safety, and civil documentation.  

However, the needs of these refugees are not met by simply escaping physical danger. Many Karen refugees require help in emigrating to HICs willing to accept refugees, such as the USA, Sweden, Australia, Canada etc., and integrating into these societies once they get there. One such migrant, Kawlahay Zan, who moved to America in 1995, has commented on the struggle of fully immersing themselves into their new societies and the difficulty of finding job prospects. More than 90% of Karen refugees report no knowledge of English or French on arrival in countries where these are the primary languages. Thus, support systems are vital in improving each of these refugees’ transition away from their home country.

Background of the Karen People – Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO)

Cuddy, A. (2021) BBC News. Myanmar military coup: ‘Our world turned upside down overnight’.

Karen Human Rights Group

Karen Refugees – RefugeeNet

Phan, Z., with Lewis, D., 2009. Little Daughter. Simon and Schuster UK.

Thornton, P., 2006. Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burmese Border. Asia Books.