MAHARASHTRA, India — In recent years, the name Karen has become a popular meme that references a particular type of woman who is white, middle-class and exhibits behaviors that stem from privilege and supremacy. Karens are very different from the Sgaw Karen people living in Myanmar. They are an ethnic minority that have been subjected to genocide for decades.
With the military usurping power in the country, this minority that has been in the throes of armed conflict with the government for years is now gearing up with the rest of the Myanmar population to overthrow the current military dictatorship, restore democracy and gain sovereignty.
Who Are the Karens?
Myanmar was once a former British colony previously referred to as Burma. The country currently has more than 135 ethnic groups with the Burman ethnic group being the majority. Of that group, the Karens make up an estimated 4 million people. Having migrated from Tibetan-Central Asia to Myanmar more than 2,500 years ago, the Karens are predominantly a Christian ethnic group who were converted by missionaries under British rule.
History of Conflict With the Government
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Bi She, a Karen rights activist, said that the conflict with the government began after the British left Burma. Prior to that, the converted Karens learned English from the British missionaries. And, the Americans educated them on their history and traditions. This resulted in the Karens becoming more nationalistic contributing to their allyship with the British colonial rule.
In World War II, Japan invaded Myanmar with the support of the Burman ethnic group who hoped that allying with the Japanese would aid in expelling the British from the country. The Karens fought alongside the British against the Burman ethnic group. However, the British retreated to India when the capital city was captured by the Japanese. Then, the Karens experienced systematic killings by both the Japanese and the Burmans. The Karens played an instrumental role in fighting against the Japanese invasion. They even helped the Burmans, who later switched sides, and fought the Japanese to gain independence.
When Myanmar finally became free, the Karens asked for an independent state but were denied by the newly formed, predominantly Burman government. The Karens have since faced ethnic cleansing and human rights violations.
Ethnic Cleansing and Human Rights Violations
This conflict with the government is the longest-running civil war in the world; more than 1 million Karens being displaced as a result. Aside from being hunted down and murdered, the Karens have experienced atrocities such as sexual assault, forced labor, gun violence, torture, destruction of property, land mines, bombs, airstrikes and deliberately manufactured food shortages.
Use of Arms
According to Human Rights Watch, the ethnic-based armed groups include the Karens. They have used arms for decades with the focus on defending their home regions and seeking regional autonomy. Arms are used to combat, guard and in some cases exact revenge against those forces responsible for ethnic cleansing and human rights violations. Bi claims that the purpose of arms is to “protect their families from [the]military regime.”
Working With the Myanmar Population
More than 700 people have been killed by the military dictatorship in Myanmar since the coup that took place on February 1, 2021. In the initial weeks of the coup, the citizens resorted to peaceful demonstrations. Two months later, many civilians took up arms and worked with armed ethnic groups to fight the military dictatorship and restore democracy.
Bi claimed that the Karens “fully support the Myanmar citizens” and their fight for democracy. Moreover, Bi stated that the Karens will help the citizens fight back against the military regime. They will allow the citizens to enter Karen territory and provide support and aid.
From procuring arms and making homemade weapons to receiving combat training, the rest of the population, the other ethnic groups and the Karens have joined forces to fight for independence.
The Solution to Conflict
Bi insisted that the only thing that the Karens want is to “live in peace and have freedom.” For this to become a reality, many hope that the solution is for the people of the country to learn from their history rather than repeat it, with different ethnic groups learning to respect and care for each other in their shared struggle against the military dictatorship.
– Iris Anne Lobo