LOCATION: Southern and eastern Myanmar (Burma); Thailand

POPULATION: 5 million (estimate)

LANGUAGE: Pwo and Sgaw dialects of Karen; Burmese

RELIGION: Buddhism; animism; Christianity (Baptist, Catholicism)


The Karens are a large ethnic group spread throughout Southeast Asia. They trace their origins to the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, or Tibet. Karens settled in southern and eastern Myanmar as far back as the seventh century. (Myanmar was known as Burma until 1990, when the military government changed the country name.) In the 1700s, Karens also began living in neighboring Siam (now called Thailand).

There are numerous Karen subgroups. These varied people lived mainly in tribal societies, governed by chiefs or princes. They sometimes came into conflict with the Burmese (Burman) dynastic rulers, or with other ethnic groups inclined to wage war.

The advent of British colonization in the mid-to-late nineteenth century brought a new sense of security to the Karens. Contact with American and European Christian missionaries, who brought literacy and education, was welcomed. The British administrators recruited many Karens into their police and armed forces. When World War II (1939–45) came to Burma, those Karens became loyal guerrilla fighters for the Allies against Japanese occupiers.

As Britain granted Burma independence after the war, Karen politicians hoped for their own nation. The Karen people, who had never recognized Burmese authority, had enjoyed "protectorate" status with the British Empire, and also expected their nationhood to be recognized. Instead Karens, along with other ethnic populations, were absorbed into the new Union of Burma. Problems began almost immediately, when troops of the predominantly Burmese (Burman) government killed Karen villagers. A Karen insurgency sprang up and rapidly gained momentum until it threatened to seize control of the Burmese capital, Rangoon. The Karen rebels were driven back by the government troops, and the military came to dominate the country, eventually taking over power in 1962. The military government pledged to quell rebellion and unify the country by force.

Government forces sent to subdue the rebellion actually drove more Karens into joining the rebels. A consistent pattern of deliberate human rights violations by the government against ethnic minority civilians has continued to this day, driving tens of thousands of Karens to Thailand as refugees and making the Karen conflict the world's longest running rebellion.


Estimates of the Karen population of Myanmar vary greatly, as there has been no census in decades. Perhaps 5 million Karen tribal members live in Myanmar. Another 300,000 Karen-ethnic peoples have roots in Thailand, and thousands of others live there as refugees.

Karen people live in several parts of southern and eastern Myanmar. The largest Karen population is in the Irrawaddy Delta area, a vast agricultural lowland whose main city is Bassein. Another important region for the Karens is the eastern border with Thailand.


The language of the Karens is generally considered to be of the Tibeto-Burman family, and the main dialects of Karen are Pwo and Sgaw. Many Karen people in isolated hill areas remain illiterate, and those in the Delta region often can speak only Burmese. Their language does, however remain a feature of Karen cultural pride. Baptist missionaries developed scripts based on Burmese for Pwo Karen (with twenty-five letters) and for other Karen languages. An old Pwo script known as "chicken scratch," because of the shapes of its letters, was devised by Karen Buddhists as well.

In Sgaw Karen, an informal greeting (How's it going?) is Madee leh? and a farewell is Leh mu mu (Go pleasantly). "Thank you" in Sgaw Karen is Dah bluet.


Karen folklore impressed early Christian missionaries with its similarity to the book of Genesis in the Bible. The tribal mythology also told of the Karen language being kept in a book, which was lost in the mass migration south from "the river of sand." There is a sense in their old stories of being exploited by other ethnic groups, and of wishing to regain some past glories through miracles or supernaturally gifted leaders. Sometimes Karens have become cult followers of messianic leaders who assure them that special clothing or tattoos will make them impervious to harm. In traditional animist, spirit-worshipping belief systems, the Karens must make offerings to natural forces such as "the lord of land and water." Even Christian Karens still have their skin adorned with tattoos as a form of magical protection. Buddhist Karens often wear amulets (small metal, stone, or clay Buddha images) around their necks.

A Karen subgroup, the Kayan, are known for the neck rings made of brass worn by girls and women. Over time, more and more coils are added to the rings, pushing the collarbone down, giving the appearance of an elongated neck (hence their Burmese name, Padaung, meaning "longneck"). The Kayan subgroup of Karen is traditionally a matriarchy. The rings around necks, arms, and knees are sometimes explained as a traditional protection against tiger bites. Many Kayans have become refugees in recent years, and women with neck rings have been exploited as "freak show" tourist attractions in Thailand and Myanmar.


Most Karens are Buddhists or animists (believers in spirits in nature). There are also significant populations of Christians, mainly Baptists and Catholics.

There is considerable interplay between animist rituals and Buddhist practices among the Karens. Animists believe in helpful female guardian spirits called ther myng khae, the "lord of land and water," and local spirits, as well as beneficial and malicious ghosts. The Christians emphasize Bible study and prayer services with hymn singing. Villages tend to be predominantly one of the three religions, even though there is a variety of houses of worship in the towns. Christian Karens have tried to convert the Buddhists and animists, and in recent years Myanmar's military government has encouraged conflict between Buddhist Karens and the Christian Karens.


The Karen New Year in January is celebrated as a national holiday in Myanmar and is often the occasion for traditional dances and music. Christian Karens celebrate Christmas with parties and caroling trips from village to village. Buddhist Karens hold festivals to mark their religious New Year (mid-spring) and the end of Lent (post-monsoon). Animists hold crop-protection festivals during the monsoon season and after the harvest.


Traditional Karen society has various taboos for pregnant women, such as not drinking liquor and not going to funerals. Births usually take place at home, assisted by family members or a village "midwife" (often a man). After the birth, the mother eats a special diet of rice and chicken, and strings are tied around the baby's wrists to protect it from evil spirits. Deaths in childhood are very common among the Karens. In rural areas there is little understanding of hygiene and nutrition, but Karen medical practitioners are working to spread information that can save lives.

Among Buddhist Karens, young boys often become novice monks for a short period of time. Teenaged Karen boys sometimes get tattooed with magical symbols to show their bravery and protect them from harm. Kayan girls may begin to wear coils of brass around their necks as young as six years old, and keep adding to the coils during their teenage years until the neck piece stretches as long as 10 inches (25 centimeters).

Karens have a variety of funeral customs, according to their religions. The animist Karens believe in an afterlife and dress the corpse to be accepted in the land of Khu See-du, the lord of the dead. The body may be cremated or buried. Buddhist Karens hold cremation ceremonies with prayers to ease the deceased person into the next incarnation. Christian Karens hold a funeral prayer service and bury the body. Usually a wooden cross marks the grave.


For a polite greeting, a Karen holds his or her right elbow in their left hand, and shakes hands with the right hand. They use the same gesture to give or offer objects to other people. Introductions will include the titles Karens use with their names, usually Saw for men and Naw for women.

Karens are very hospitable and will expect any guests to eat with them and, if possible, stay overnight or longer. In traditional Karen bamboo houses, sleeping quarters for guests are on the veranda.

Boys and girls usually meet in school, at Buddhist festivals, or in Christian youth groups. In traditional animist villages, funerals have been the scene of boy-girl socializing. When a young couple gets involved, love letters and secret messages are often exchanged. Sometimes a game is played between groups of boys and girls, with the boys asking poetic questions and the girls replying with rhyming answers. The questions and answers are about romance, but are subtle and symbolic.


Warfare and forced relocation campaigns by the Burmese government have displaced much of Myanmar's Karen population. Many villagers have had to leave their family homes and move to resettlement camps near government army bases (where they are forced into labor). Other villagers have fled to forest areas or across the border to Thailand in order to escape Burmese oppression. When the Karens come into contact with other environments and societies, they often become infected with diseases. Many Karens, especially children, die from such infectious illnesses. Little health care is available, although in Karen rebel strongholds some clinics have been set up by teams of traveling medics. A few foreign aid agencies had been operating in Thailand's Karen refugee camps, but then the entire camps were burned in cross-border raids.

Malnutrition is widespread among the Karens, many of whom subsist on rice with chili pepper, and perhaps some fish sauce and greens gathered from the forests. Anemia and vitamin deficiency are common. In addition to forced relocation, the widespread capture of farmers by the government military for forced labor has made it hard for the Karens to grow their own crops. Rampant deforestation as the Burmese government sells off forests to Thai logging firms has decreased the Karens' sources of wild game and edible plants, as well as causing climate changes and landslides.

For many generations, the Karen people have lived in harmony with the forest. Only if teak trees reached a certain size could they be harvested. They were replanted and the logs were transported by elephants and river rafts. Forest-dwelling Karens build their houses of bamboo with some wood, perched on stilts and with thatched roofs. The stilts are especially high if the house belongs to an elephant-owning family, since the veranda can be used for loading and unloading the animal. In bamboo houses, the family will sit and sleep on woven mats on the floor. In larger houses, which are made of teak or other wood, the family members sit on benches at tables and sleep on raised wooden beds with mosquito netting.

Baths are taken, wearing sarongs, in a river or by pouring water from a village pump or an urn of rainwater. Sections of bamboo or plastic buckets are used to carry water from nearby streams for cooking and washing. Toilets are usually small pit latrines with a bamboo shelter.

The ox-cart is the usual means of transport for goods and people, along with elephants and motorized river long-boats. The Karens are well known for their work with elephants, which they capture, train, and use for hauling and transport. Some Karen tribes often raise ponies or mules for transportation as well.


In Karen societies, other than the Kayan subgroup, women have traditionally been considered inferior or subservient to men. They did a great deal of difficult farm work, but had little status or decision-making power. This has been changing as more Karen women have become educated and have taken noteworthy roles in fields such as teaching and health. Dr. Cynthia Maung, a Karen physician, is admired for her brave work in bringing medical care to remote, war-torn regions. Many older women have become village leaders when men have been taken away for forced labor. Underground political and social women's groups have begun, emphasizing self-help programs and economic empowerment.

Traditionally, either a boy or girl can propose marriage, and the whole village is allowed a say whether their marriage would be appropriate and not offensive to any spirits. Weddings are festive occasions when both the bride's and groom's villages come together. The bride changes from her unmarried woman's long dress to a married woman's two-part outfit. Marriage is considered to be for life, and among Karens of all faiths, adultery is considered taboo—an unnatural act that can bring catastrophe on the whole village. Karens have an average of four or five children, but infant and child mortality rates are very high.

Karen families keep dogs for hunting and as pets. Sometimes families keep birds or baby forest animals such as squirrels or gibbons. Karen elephant tamers "adopt" one elephant, train it, and take care of it for life.


While many Karens now wear mass-produced shirts, T-shirts, trousers, and sarongs of factory-woven batik cloth, traditional dress is still popular, especially in mountain areas and for special occasions. Traditionally, Karens wear tunics and sarongs of homespun cotton, dyed red, blue, and black. Men and married women wear a loose tunic over a wrapped sarong. The women's tunics are often elaborately embroidered with colored thread and seed-beads. The men's tunics are plain, having only fringed hems. Unmarried girls wear simple, long white dresses called hsay mo htoo in Sgaw Karen. Men and women often wear turbans, and Pwo men sometimes have very long hair-worn loose or in sideswept ponytails. Women wear masses of bead necklaces and a great many silver bracelets on their wrists and upper arms.

Among subgoups, Kayans are often known as Karennis ("red Karens") because of their predominantly red homespun clothing. The women wear short sarongs wrapped over one shoulder with a belt or sash and cords of thin black rattan wrapped around their legs.

12 • FOOD

Karens are known for eating a huge variety of foods, including jungle products such as snake, bat, monkey, grubs, bee larvae, ants, palm sugar, wild honey, forest herbs, frog, and lizard. Many types of birds and fish are consumed, and Karens raise chickens, ducks, pigs, cattle, corn, and pumpkins for food. A favorite dish for Karens in the forest is takataw, made by adding a handful of rice and some shreds of dried meat (often venison or wild boar) to boiling water, letting it cook until the meat and rice are soft like porridge, and then adding some chopped vegetables.

Due to deforestation, crop confiscation, and rural dislocation, nowadays many Karens have trouble obtaining enough food for their families. Karen refugees and poor villagers typically live on rice, chili peppers, some fish paste, and whatever greens they can gather. The Karens normally eat several helpings of rice at meals and for snacks. They eat mostly white rice now, which is less nutritious than red or brown rice. For flavoring, many people use monosodium glutamate powder, which comes from Thailand.

Karens often chew betel nut, which comes from a species of palm and is combined with leaves and lime paste; it is a mild stimulant and stains the mouth bright red.


During the British colonial period (1885–1947), missionaries helped the Karens start Christian-staffed village schools, which were supported by Buddhist and animist parents as well. The Burmese military government took over those schools in the 1960s, changing them to a national rather than a Karen curriculum. In rebel-held areas, a series of schools up to the secondary level was established, but most of these schools are gone now, as the Karen rebels have lost more and more territory to the government. Even in refugee camps, the Karens try to have formal education for their children, but makeshift schools, like the refugee health clinics, have mostly been destroyed in cross-border raids. Textbooks, often decades old, and school materials are in very short supply, and what schools there are tend to be understaffed. Educators also are faced with schoolchildren who are traumatized by their experience of human rights abuse, who are malnourished, and who are beset by malaria and other diseases.


Karen music includes traditional songs (many of which are love songs) and Western-influenced Christian hymns. In the rebel areas there are also political songs and military marching music played by drum and flute corps. Music that uses the repetitive beat of metal gongs accompanies such dances as the rice-planting dance and the bamboo dance, as well as wedding processions. In the bamboo dance, sets of eight to twelve long bamboo poles are placed in a grid. Participants kneel on the ground and bang the poles together in time to the music, while dancers step in and out of the openings in the grid.

The Karens have several musical instruments of importance. The Karen drum is a symbol of the culture. It is round and made of cast bronze, often decorated with figures of frogs and elephants. The Karens play a harp called the t'na , which has five or six strings and is tuned with pegs along the neck of the instrument. Another stringed instrument is the large, wooden guitar-like haw tu . The pa ku is a bamboo xylophone played with hammers, and there are bamboo panpipes and mouth-harps of various sizes. Karens also use imported instruments such as guitars and electric keyboards, especially for Christian church music.

The Karen literary tradition is mostly in oral form. Folktales abound, often about a poor orphan boy who falls in love with a girl of a wealthy family. Books by Karens written since World War II (1939–45) include Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel by Smith Dun, a high ranking officer in the British Army, and The Golden Book , a Christian interpretation of ancient Karen prophetic poems.


The Karens have long been rice farmers in wet, irrigated fields in the Delta or in hill fields in the mountains. In the past, to grow rice in the highlands, villagers would selectively burn small plots of forest. This system, called "swidden cultivation," worked well when Karen populations were small and stable. At that time, the Myanmar forests were hardly touched by logging. Now, large timber companies are drastically reducing the size of the forest, and adding "swidden cultivation" to indiscriminate logging contributes to erosion and loss of wild-life habitat. Karen rebels have established wildlife sanctuaries where no hunting or farming is allowed, but even these species-rich preserves are now under threat from the Burmese government's petroleum transport projects and government deals with foreign timber firms.

Karens also make their living by fishing in coastal areas, working in tin or wolfram mines, and gathering forest products like rattan and honey. There are some educated professionals among the Karens, but many of them live overseas as exiles or serve in the Karen National Union.


Soccer, volleyball, and a type of kickball called chinlone are popular with Karen young people. Even in mountainous areas, Karen villages often have one flat open space where such sports can be played. Karens sometimes play a game they call mahket in which the large seeds are rolled to knock over other seeds.


In their free time, Karens enjoy musical activities, movies and video shows, and taking walks around their town or village in the evening when the air cools. People rise at or before dawn and often take an afternoon nap.


Karen women are known for their fine cotton weaving of clothing, blankets, and shoulderbags. The weaving is usually done on a small loom set up with a strap that wraps around the waist at one end, but in some areas there are large wooden frame looms as well. The thread is dyed with natural or artificial colors, sometimes with a pattern produced by tie-dying. Some woven items are now produced for overseas sale as a means for refugee women to support their families. The Karens also produce etched silver jewelry, baskets, and embroidery.


The Karens feel particularly persecuted after several decades of widespread abuse by military forces of the Burmese government. The consistent pattern of human rights violations includes forced labor as army equipment porters, human minesweepers, human shields, and road and railway builders; destruction of entire villages; torture of civilians suspected of rebel sympathies; and massacres and executions without trial. Government military abuse of Karen women, particularly rape of village girls by troops, is especially common. These events have transformed the usually stable Karens into terrified nomads and have turned many into stubborn rebel fighters. Some Karens today are third-generation guerrilla soldiers who have grown up knowing nothing but war.


Dun, Smith. Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1972.

Falla, Jonathan. Truelove and Bartholomew: Rebels on the Burmese Border. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Herbert, Patricia M. Burma. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1991.

Mirante, Edith T. Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

Silverstein, Josef. The Political Legacy of Aung San. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1993.

Smith, Martin. Ethnic Groups in Burma. London: Anti-Slavery International, 1994.

Wright, D. Burma . Chicago: Children's Press, 1991.


Interknowledge Corp. Myanmar. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/myanmar/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Myanmar. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/mm/gen.html , 1998.

User Contributions:

Report this comment as inappropriate
Dec 7, 2010 @ 12:12 pm
this is a very interesting atricle . ! i was doing a research paper on this and it gave me everything that i needed . good job
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jan 16, 2013 @ 7:19 pm
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 3, 2013 @ 9:21 pm
Thank you for tihs article. I'm researching this cultural group and your article has provided information I've been unable to find elsewhere. Such a persecuted group of people who are having their homeland destroyed. Soo soo sad.
Report this comment as inappropriate
May 17, 2013 @ 3:15 pm
I greatly appreciated reading this and finally learning something about my Karen students' culture. My 4th grade Sgaw Karen student has learned enough English in 16 months to attempt to write a Powerpoint about his culture- but we had trouble finding kid-friendly material...this helps me to steer him in the directions he might want to go - I did not want to press him too much and at times we have been reduced to drawing pictures back and forth as I tried to understand what he was trying to tell me about his food and customs. THANK YOU!
Report this comment as inappropriate
Sep 25, 2013 @ 3:15 pm
I just would like to say thank you for this wonderful article.
I am so ecstatic that I stumbled upon it!
I am researching this culture, and your article is so far the only one that talks about the culture as a WHOLE instead of just focusing on the wearing of the rings.
Wonderful job! Thanks again!
Cyntha Shaver
Report this comment as inappropriate
Dec 29, 2013 @ 5:17 pm
I am an appraiser of Asian Art, expertise with textiles, with American Society of Appraisers, and try to learn about the culture from where the material came. I, TOO, WANT to say thank you for the information. Often understanding a culture, the recreation, the sports, the religions, the food, and more , help understand the type and style and material of clothing. It appears well organized and succinct. I was glad to hear of Dr, Cynthia Maung and hope she inspires many girls to follow her footsteps.
Hi there my friends
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jun 14, 2015 @ 10:22 pm
This is really good info and nice to read I love it
Hi there my friends
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jun 15, 2015 @ 8:20 pm
This is really good info and nice to read I love it
bu ma
Report this comment as inappropriate
Dec 28, 2018 @ 12:00 am
Correction, the practice girls wearing coils early in their life belongs to another group, the Kayan, a member of the Karenni ethnic group.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: