One of Burma's major ethnic groups, considered the third largest after the Burmans (Bamars) and Shans (Tai). In the last official census, taken in 1983, they numbered 2,122,825-6.2 percent of Burma's total population at the time (35.3 million). According to U.S. government statistics, they comprised 7 percent of a population of 42.5 million in 2003, or about 3 million (CIA World Factbook, 2003). The Karen National Union claims that the "Karen nation" has a population of seven million. Given the long interval since the 1983 census, the dispersed nature of the Karen population, and the difficulty in some cases of defining ethnic boundaries between them and other groups, only an estimate of the Karen population is possible; between three and four million is likely. A smaller number of Karens, about 200,000, live in neighboring Thailand.
   The Karens speak closely related languages belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group. According to their own folklore, they entered Burma after crossing a "river of running sands," which some observers have identified with the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Some Christian missionaries claimed they were part of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, citing their belief in a Creator God, Ywa, resembling the Old Testament Yahweh. But linguistic and other evidence suggests that the original Karens entered Burma from southwestern China at around the same time as the Pyus and Burmans (Bamars), in the early centuries CE. The Karen bronze drum, called a "frog drum" because of the ornamentation on its outer edge, resembles the Dong Son drum of northern Vietnam, dated to the fourth century BCE. Frog drums are precious possessions of Karen communities, and one appears in the Karen national flag.
   Today, Karen populations are widely distributed. They inhabit a belt of upland and mountainous territory forming the border between Burma and Thailand, including southern Shan State, Kayah (Karenni) State, Karen (Kayin) State, Mon State, and Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) Division, as well as parts of Pegu (Bago) Division, especially around Toungoo (Taungoo). In upland areas, they have traditionally practiced swidden or slash-andburn agriculture, similar to other "hill tribes." Large numbers of Karens also live in the delta of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, where they practice the cultivation of wetland rice and have largely assimilated with adjacent Burman or Mon populations. Karen communities are found in and around Bassein (Pathein), Pyapon, and Henzada (Hinthada), in Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) Division. There is also a substantial population of Karens in Rangoon (Yangon), especially Insein Township.
   Anthropologists generally divide the Karens into four major subgroups: Sgaw, Pwo, Pa-O, and Karenni (Kayah). According to Karen mytho-history, the Sgaw and Pwo were rival groups, and the former were generally identified as highlanders, while the latter were plains dwellers. They speak different languages (or dialects), and the Christian leadership of the Karen National Union has recognized Sgaw as the basis for the standard Karen language, used in administration, publications, and their education system. However, the SgawPwo distinction does not appear to be especially significant within the Karen community today. The Karenni and Pa-O are generally considered, and consider themselves, to be separate ethnic groups. Because the most prominent members of the Karen community have been Christians, it is often assumed that most Karens are adherents. In fact, Christians (mostly Baptists, but also including Seventh Day Adventists and other denominations) are usually estimated at around 25 percent of the total Karen population. Before World War II, the British colonial government estimated that two-thirds of all Sgaw Karens and 93 percent of Pwo Karens were Buddhist. A substantial number of Karens are animists, especially in the highlands. Cults founded by charismatic individuals who pose as saviors, promising to deliver the Karens into a Promised Land, have been quite common, for example, the tragic-comic God's Army, led by twin boys Luther and Johnny Htoo, which operated along the Thai-Burma border in the late 1990s.
   Before modern times, the Karens, unlike the Mons, Arakanese (Rakhines), and Shans (Tai), did not have a state of their own. However, unlike the Chins and the Kachins, they were not so remote from lowland power centers that they enjoyed the freedom guaranteed by isolation. Thus, they have suffered a long history of oppression at the hands of the Mons, Shans, and especially Burmans, particularly during the Konbaung Dynasty. Karen spokesmen claim that the name of the town of Meiktila in central Burma actually comes from the Sgaw Karen meh ti lawn, meaning "falling tears" because of the Burmans forced Karen slaves to dig an artificial lake there. Because they were not (at the time) Buddhists or participants in Indo-Buddhist civilization like the Shans, Mons, or Arakanese, the Burmans tended to look down on the Karens as the "cattle of the hills."
   During the British colonial period, the once-oppressed Karens enjoyed the benefits of being regarded by the colonizers as trustworthy allies. Missionaries provided them with a written language (based on Burmese script) and a Western-style education at mission schools, including Judson College (nicknamed "Karen College"), which after 1920 was part of Rangoon (Yangon) University. Many Karens became missionary teachers and preachers, serving not only their own community but also other groups (such as the Kachins and Chins). The British favored them with entry into the police, civil service, and army. Many Karen women worked in the nursing profession. In the British-operated forest reserves, Karen ouzis (elephant trainers and tenders) and foresters were indispensable for the extraction of teak.
   Often, Karen loyalty to the British made them objects of resentment in the eyes of the Burmans because they fought alongside the colonizers in the Anglo-Burmese Wars and also helped suppress the Saya San (Hsaya San) Rebellion of 1930-1932. During World War II, elements of the Burma Independence Army massacred hundreds of Karen villagers at Myaungmya (Myoungmya) and other localities in the Irrawaddy Delta, incidents that made the Karens deeply suspicious of any Burman-dominated government. Remaining loyal to the British, Karen guerrillas working with Force 136 played an important role in the Allied liberation of Burma from the Japanese in 1944-1945.
   Karen nationalism was fostered by community leaders with the active encouragement of missionaries and colonial officials. Missionaries founded Burma's first newspaper, The Morning Star (Sah Muh Taw), published in Karen at Tavoy (Dawei), in 1843; it continued operating up until World War II. In 1881, the Karen National Association was established, considered by some historians to be the first genuine political organization in British India. Before the outbreak of war in 1941, Karen and Burman/Burmese nationalism evolved in fundamentally different directions: The former wanted continued close association with Britain, while the latter, by the late 1930s, demanded full independence. Few Karens participated in the student strikes at Rangoon University that attracted so many Burmans/ Burmese in 1920 and the late 1930s. After the war, the most important Karen group was the Karen National Union (KNU), established in 1947, which commenced an armed struggle against the central government in early 1949 with the goal of creating a Karen country independent of the Union of Burma. At the beginning of the 21st century, the KNU is the only major ethnic minority armed group that has not signed a cease-fire with the State Peace and Development Council, although negotiations between the armed group and the military regime have commenced.
   See also Ba U Gyi, Saw; Bo Mya; Human Rights in Burma; Judson, Adoniram; Myaungmya Massacres; Seagrim, Hugh; Smith Dun, General.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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