The Karen Conflict


The Karen independence movement in Burma can be dated to the late 19th century, with the formation in 1881 of the Karen National Association.

Early Karen nationalists were influenced in particular by the American Baptist Mission. Through provision of Christian education, a pan-Karen national identity emerged and was developed during the first half of the 20th century. Burman nationalists regarded elites within the Karen minority as favored by the colonial administration, laying the seeds for conflict during the 2nd World War and the post-independence period.

The Karen National Union (KNU) was established one year before Burma gained their independence from United Kingdom, in February 1947.

Having failed to reach a political agreement with the newly independent government, the KNU went underground on January 31st 1949 at the battle of Insein; this date has since been celebrated by the KNU as ‘Revolution Day’. The revolutionary feelings were sparked by the grievances felt by Karen communities as a result of massive abuses perpetrated by predominantly Burman militias during World War II and afterwards, and the strongly-held nature of Karen aspirations for national self-determination.

By supporting the Allies during the 2nd World War, the Karen where promised their independence in the aftermath of the war. But the collapse of the British Empire did not bring the promised independence.

For much of the next half century, the KNU operated as a de facto government, controlling large swathes of territory across Karen State, and adjacent parts of the Bago, Yoma highlands and Irrawaddy Delta, where many Karens live. After some early successes however, from the early 1950s the KNU was fighting a protracted rearguard operation. By the 1990s, it had lost control of most of its once-extensive ‘liberated zones’, although the organization still exerted varying degrees of influence over areas contested with government forces and proxy militias. The decline of the KNU was exacerbated by the defection in late 1994 of several hundred battle-hardened soldiers, who established the government-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and shortly afterwards overran the KNU’s long-standing headquarters at Manerplaw. This was a huge setback to both the KNU and the loose alliances of pro-democracy organizations it sheltered along the Thailand border.


Over the decades of fighting, severe violations of crimes of war, and crimes against humanity have been widely documented.

Many Karen still live in a climate of fear, and despite recent changes, the Burmese government has failed to seriously address the human rights situation and to take action to prosecute those responsible for the abuse.

The Burmese army has been responsible for numerous serious war crimes, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, summary executions of civilians, sexual violence against women and girls, torture, use of child soldiers, attacks on populations’ livelihood and food supplies, forced displacement, and use of anti-personnel landmines. In fact, almost all the acts enumerated under Article 7 of the Rome Statute have been repeatedly documented by various independent sources, including both NGOs and human rights organizations as well as the United Nations.

Burmese military has employed counter-insurgency strategies that deliberately target the civilian population in attempts to demobilise support for armed opposition groups. A number of organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have characterized these strategies as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As a result of the systematic attacks on ethnic minority civilians, around three million people are thought to have fled their home country. Due to the close proximity, hundreds of thousands have fled conflict and persecution in eastern Burma to neighboring Thailand. Approximately 120.000 refugees live in the 9 camps scattered along the border. Countless others live in small refugee villages by the border. Noh Bo is one of these refugee villages.

The refugees have the option to stay within the registered camps, without the freedom to neither move nor work, or do as many of them do; live as illegal aliens, without any sort of legal status, risking harassment, arrests and deportation to live and work outside the camps.

Steps towards democracy

In November 2010, Burma held its first election since 1990 when the military refused to hand over power to the democratically elected government. The international community assessed the 2010 election as neither being free nor fair due to an array of flaws. Nevertheless, the military-backed USDP officially won over 75% of the vote and a nominally civilian government, mainly made up of former generals, took office in March 2011. A former general Thein Sein was elected as the President.

The April 2012 by-elections in Burma received an unusual amount of attention from international media, mostly due to the fact that only a few years ago it was considered almost impossible that Aung San Suu Kyi would not only be released from house arrest,  but also be allowed to contest for a seat in the Parliament. Suu Kyi`s party National League for Democracy (NLD) contested, and won 42 of the 43 open seats in the by-election, with Suu Kyi taking one of the seats.

Nevertheless, NLD only won about 6% of the seats in Parliament and no real change in power occurred. One should remember that the 2008 Constitution secures 25% of the Parliamentary seats to the military, whilst the Constitution can only be changed with a 75% majority.

The election in November 2015 resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, despite the generals and current administration doing their best to limit NLDs political platform. 60 % of the registered votes was won by NLD, while 35 %  of the votes went to different ethnic minority parties. The current government only received  5 % of the votes. The result is yet another crystal clear indication of what we have all know for a long time: The current regime ha no legitimacy in the public opinion.

On March 15 2016, Htin Kyaw from NLD was chosen as the county`s first civilian president in 53 years.


For updates on the situation in Burma, and for the Karen in particular:

Bertil Lintner

Burma Link

The Irrawaddy

Karen News

Democratic Voice of Burma

Asia Times

Myanmar Times