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The Karen People: Culture & History

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  • 0:04 The Karen People
  • 0:49 The Karen People's History
  • 2:46 The Karen People's Culture
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Have you heard of the Karen people? If not, this lesson will give you an important primer about their interesting history as well as amazing culture. You'll learn what language they speak, what they call themselves, and the struggles they've faced.

The Karen People

Let's say that, very recently, you traveled to Thailand, where you met and worked with a man at an elephant nature preserve. One night, he proudly told you about his culture, heritage, and people. They are the Karen people. The Karen people, or Kayin as they call themselves, are an ethnic group that lives in Southeast Asia, and one that has their own special language and culture. They're the second largest ethnic group in Burma, comprising around six to seven million people in that nation alone.

While his family and home were in Burma, the name he uses for the modern country of Myanmar, he and many Burmese Karen refugees have fled across the world, including to Thailand, in order to escape war and human rights abuses.

Let's briefly learn about this people's amazing history and incredible culture.

The Karen People's History

Over two thousand years ago, the Karen were one of two main groups that settled into what is now Burma, while ethnic Burmese immigrated to Burma around a thousand years ago. Over the last thousand years, all sorts of different ethnic groups have controlled what is now Burma. In 1824, the British began their conquest of Burma, which was completed by 1886. Burma was then incorporated into their Indian Empire. The conquest of Burma by the British led to many things, including:

  • Freedom for its minority ethnic groups from the oppressive rule of the Burmese monarchy
  • The division of Burma into clear ethnic states that worsened ethnic rivalries

During World War II, the Japanese forces occupied Burma, and with the help of the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), committed many atrocities against minority groups, including the Karen, such as massacres and the systematic rape of women. The Karen people fought in small guerilla units in support of the British and against the BIA and Japanese in World War II.

After the war, the British gave independence to Burma. However, unlike under British rule where all ethnic groups were held equal, the Burmese leaders established their dominance over the country and massacred Karen villagers via militias. As a result, the Karen, as well as other ethnic groups, revolted against Burmese oppression. This led to a period of instability in the 1950s, as democracy faltered in the country.

In 1962, any hope for a stable democracy disappeared as the Burmese Army staged a coup and took power of the country. Because of this government's oppression, the Karen people formed political and insurgent groups, like the Karen National Union and Karen National Liberation Army, in order to regain a democratic voice for ethnic minorities within Burma. Since then, continued armed struggle, oppressive Burmese government policies, and internal strife within the Karen community has led many Karen to flee the country and seek sanctuary and safety within other nations, such as Thailand, the U.S., and Australia.

The Karen People's Culture

Depending on whom you ask, the Karen are considered to be descendants of the Mongols and are composed of at least 20 subgroups. They speak Karen, a kind of Sino-Tibetan language that has four distinct dialects. They are mainly Buddhists, but there are Christians as well as animists, which are those that believe natural objects have souls. Some Karen practice a mix of animism and Buddhism.

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