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Human Rights Issues Facing The Ethnic Karen Hill Tribe People Of Burma

Updated on February 23, 2012

Karen People
The Karen are the second largest ethnic group in Burma, with a population of approximately 7 million. Most of the people are located in Eastern Lower Burma, along the Thai border. This land in the past, has been an area of land that Burma and Thailand has fought over. Over the years the Karen were forced to fight on both sides of this conflict. Today there are Karen people living in Thailand and Burma, with the majority in Burma. The Karen can trace their background to what is now present day Tibet, and China's Gobi Desert. It is said that during the 18th century the Karen began to move south, across the Salveen River from Burma (Myanmar) as far as Northern Thailand. Karen legend states that the ancestors crossed a "river of running sand", this is though to be a metaphor for the Gobi Desert.

World War II
During the Second World War, the Karen people fought against the Japanese alongside the British. Under colonial rule, some Burmese saw the British as imperialist oppressors of the people, but that was not how the Karen viewed them. British soldiers preparing for the battle with the Japanese during the invasion of Burma enlisted the services of Karen tribesmen, loyal to The Crown. For their part in the war, the British promised the Karen they would be granted Independence. At the end of the war the British failed to live up to their promise, and the Karen were left the fend for themselves. They have been fighting for their freedom ever since.

The KNU (Karen National Union)
In February 1947, the Karen National Union (KNU) was established. They are more than just an organization of freedom fighters. They have a judicial, health and education system that provides an infrastructure and stability for the Karen people. The KNU is the largest of all the armed ethnic opposition groups in Burma. The political leaders of the KNU are predominantly Christian, and some Buddhist members broke away and formed their own rebel organization, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).

The Burmese Government
Since the 1970s the Burmese government began to execute the "Four cuts" program which has been an attempt to cut off food, information, recruits and financial support for the armed ethnic opposition groups. This has had a devastating effect on the Karen people, even those who are unarmed and not participating in opposition to the government. This policy is still in effect today, mostly affecting Karen villagers, as a deterrent for supporting insurgent groups. Villagers continue to have human rights violations perpetrated against them, such as forced relocation, killings without legal process, unlawful detention, rape, village destruction, and forced labor by Burmese military.

Aid Programs
The Karen people rely on a variety of support systems and humanitarian aid groups. Support comes in the form of food and clothing, and donations. The majority of funds go towards medical and education supplies and target childhood and maternal mortality and combating infectious diseases. Without this support system the plight of the Karen would be much worse than it already is. Volunteers and aid workers are not welcomed by the Burmese government, so providing support can be quite challenging. For information on how you can help, see The Friends Of The Karen People.


Karen Artisans Making Handmade Jewelry


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