Burma Facts
Area:    676,552 sq. km.
Capital:    Rangoon
Total Population:    47,305,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Karen have four of the six factors that increase the chances of future rebellion: current rebellion; territorial concentration; recent government repression; and a history of lost autonomy. However, given the major counterinsurgency campaign that has been underway in Karen state in recent years, it is not clear if the Karen National Union can still pose a significant threat. It is likely that the KNU will be reduced to low to moderate-level rebellion along the Thai-Burmese border.

Analytic Summary

Group members are concentrated in Karen state in eastern Burma, especially in the hilly areas that border Thailand where there are also segments of the group. Some Karen who reside in the Irrawaddy delta region and in the capital city, Rangoon, have largely assimilated into the dominant Burman culture. The Karen are ethnically related to the Karenni (also referred to as the Red Karen or Kayah) who reside in Burma's Kayah state and to the Pa-O who live in southern Shan state.

The Karen are a heterogeneous group. They speak multiple languages; and they follow Buddhist, Christian, and animist beliefs (LANG = 2; BELIEF = 2). Burma's official language is Burmese which is spoken by the Burmans who make up 68% of the country's population. The official language is used for instruction in all state schools, even in areas where ethnic groups are a majority of the population. Although Buddhism is not the official state religion, in recent decades the military junta has sought to elevate its status to the detriment of Burma's religious minorities.

It appears that the Karen originated in Central Asia and migrated to the region prior to the 1800s. Burman domination of the Karen was disrupted during colonial rule (1886-1947) when group members were recruited by the British to help administer the territory. The formation of the Karen National Association dates back to this period as does the conversion of some group members to Christianity. When the Japanese occupied Burma during the Second World War, the Karen continued to support the British. They hoped that their allegiance would lead to British support for their claims for broad autonomy or independence. Britain rejected the Karen aspirations and group areas were incorporated into Burma when independence was achieved in 1948.

The following year the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma's oldest rebel group, launched its armed campaign for independence (REB45X = 7). Over the next five decades, large-scale violent conflict occurred as successive governments, especially under the military since 1962, sought to extend their control over Karen-majority areas while the rebels attempted to fulfill their separatist goals (SEPX = 3). Until the mid-1990s, the Karen effectively maintained their own political and economic systems in parts of Karen state. By controlling border trade between Thailand and Burma, the KNU was able to raise the resources required to sustain the movement. Unlike some other ethnic groups in Burma, the Karen did not rely on the heroin trade.

In 1994, divisions with the Karen emerged as some 500 Buddhist Karen broke away from the KNU, alleging that the organization's leadership was dominated by Christians (COHESX9 = 3). The dissident faction formed the Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization (DKBO), and it joined forces with the junta against the KNU. The KNU's two main headquarters at Manerplaw and Kawmoora were captured by the DKBO and the military in late 1995.

In the past decade, the military has reached ceasefire agreements with 15 of the country's ethnic groups. Four rounds of negotiations between the government and the Karen National Union were held from 1995-97; however, little progress was made as the military preconditioned progress on Karen disarmament while the KNU demanded a comprehensive political settlement rather than just a ceasefire.

Since the failure of the talks, the military, in cooperation with the DKBO, has ratcheted up the pressure by launching a massive counterinsurgency campaign in Karen state. More than 30% of the population in the east has been forcibly relocated in order to ethnically cleanse rebel areas and more than 100,000 fled the country to join their kin who are residing in UNHCR-supported refugee camps in Thailand. Group members are subject to arbitrary and widespread arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions, destruction of their property, massacres of alleged rebel supporters, restrictions on movement, and a pervasive security presence in group-majority areas. As with the country's other ethnic groups, the Karen are forced to provide unpaid labor. Severe repression significantly restricts the group's political and economic opportunities (POLDIS00 = 4; ECDIS00 = 3).

The Karen are represented by militant organizations that include the KNU, the DKBO, and the God's Army, which was formed in 1999 and was led by two twin teenagers, until their surrender to Thai authorities in 2001. The God's Army attracted international attention in recent years when it temporarily seized the Burmese embassy and a hospital in Thailand. Most group members support the KNU; the DKBO has limited support due to its attacks on Karen refugee camps in Thailand along with its involvement in forcing group members to reside in DKBO-controlled areas. The God's Army appears to be a fringe faction.

Since the late 1980s, the Burmese armed forces have more than doubled in size, now numbering 400,000. Chinese military assistance to the junta, in the forms of arms and training, has been critical. The Karen National Union has been significantly weakened as a result of the counterinsurgency campaign. However, it still engages in hit-and-run attacks within Burma while being largely confined to the areas that border Thailand (REB98-01 = 4, REB02-03 = 5). Protest levels have been low (PROT01 = 2, PROT02-03 = 1).


The Europa Yearbook, Far East and Australasia 1994.

Far Eastern Economic Review, 1990-95.

Keesings Record of World Events, 1990-95.

Minorities at Risk, Phase I, overview compiled by Monty G. Marshall, 06/89.

Lexis-Nexis news reports, 1990-2003

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Burma. 2001-2003.


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