New American Series: Karen and Karenni from Burma

Continuing a series on the five largest ethnic groups resettled by the RIC in Sioux Falls in the last five years.  Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories.  Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

New American Series: The Karen and Karenni (of Burma)

Conflict History:

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is the largest country in Southeast Asia.  Positioned at the crossroad of the historic powers of China, India, and Thailand, its geographic location is one reason for its incredible ethnic diversity today.  “Within the eight main ethnic groups inhabiting the country, anthropologists have counted more than 130 distinctive subgroups.”[1]  The Burmans, or Bamar, make up the majority population.  The other ethnic groups include the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, and Wa.  “Burma is divided into seven states and seven divisions.  The states are ethnically based…the seven states are Arakhan (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin, Karen (Kayin), Karenni (Kayah), Mon, and Shan.”1

Since 2009, LSS Refugee and Immigration Center of Sioux Falls and neighboring Huron have resettled around 1,200 Karen and Karenni refugee families and individuals from refugee camps in Thailand.  

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons: Karen State is highlighted in red.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons: Karen State is highlighted in red.

 Geographically and linguistically, the Karen can be divided into three broad groups: Southern, Central, and Northern…Of these, the largest and best known are the Sgaw and Pwo (Southern), Karenni (Central), and Pa-o (Northern)…Karenni call themselves Kayah-lii…Outsiders generally refer to the subgroups of the Karen, other than the Karenni, simply as Karen.”[2]

 The geopolitical struggle existing in Burma between the majority Burmans and minority ethnic groups is the longest running civil war in history.  Under British colonial rule from 1885 until World War II ethnic differences between Burmans and ethnic minorities were exacerbated.   During WWII many pro-independence Burmans supported the Japanese, while the Karen and Kachin people remained loyal to British forces.  Upon independence in 1948 “civil war broke out immediately around the country.” [3]  Different political factions ruled the central government from 1948 to 1962, each attempting to gain control of opposition groups and ethnic minorities.

Many ethnic groups rose up in military opposition to the central Burmese government and its socialist policies starting in 1948.  The largest of these groups is the Karen.    “The Karen insurgency, which is still ongoing today, began in 1949, with armed struggles rapidly spreading to other ethnic groups, including the Karenni, Mon, Pa-o, and Rakhine.”[4]  The Karen seek greater autonomy and a democratic and federal system in military-ruled Burma.

In 1962 Ne Win came to power through a coup d’état and “imposed iron-fisted military rule. Gradually, the

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons: Ne Win ruled Burma for 26 years.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons: Ne Win ruled Burma for 26 years.

Burmese army regained control of opposition-controlled areas…Villages were razed to the ground, and villagers were used as living shields between the Burmese army and nationalistic ethnic forces.”[5]  Since this time Burma has been a one-party, military-led state with all opposition and dissent violently repressed.  “Since 1988, the army has more than doubled in size and now has a staggering troop-force of almost half a million soldiers, around the same number as the U.S. army. It is estimated that 40% of the national budget is spent on building the army’s strength, while education reportedly receives as little as 1% to 2%.”[6]

Burma’s military government has been accused of appalling human rights violations.

 In November [2005] the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, began its largest offensive in the western and northern parts of Karen state since 1997. Burmese troops have looted and burned homes and planted anti-personnel landmines in civilian areas to terrorize the local population. In some cases, villagers have reportedly been ordered by battalion commanders to leave their homes or face summary execution. Fleeing villagers have reported witnessing soldiers commit extrajudicial killings and torture. They have also reported that men, women and children have been forcibly conscripted to work either as army porters or as unpaid laborers.

 The Burmese government continues to commit systematic, widespread and well-documented abuses in ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority rebel groups, including extrajudicial executions, rape, torture, forced relocation of entire villages and forced labor. Independent estimates suggest that, as of late 2004, as many as 650,000 people were internally displaced in eastern Burma alone. According to a recent survey, 157,000 civilians have been displaced in eastern Burma since the end of 2002, and at least 240 villages have been destroyed, relocated or abandoned. Many internally displaced persons live in hiding in war zones.

The Burmese army is responsible for horrific abuses not only against the Karen, but also against other ethnic minority groups.[7]

In more recent years, Burma has experienced a loosening of the military’s hold on the government and people. Small steps towards greater democracy in the country have occurred with federal elections taking place and a largely civilian population serving in governmental positions. Most recently in July 2013, current President Thein Sein said all political prisoners would be released “by the end of the year.” Refugees from Burma living in South Dakota have personally experienced the repercussions of this long conflict and continue looking for the advancement of democracy in their homeland.


[1] Barron, Sandy et al., “Refugees from Burma: Their Background and Refugee Experiences.” Center for Applied Linguistics (2007).

[2] Barron, Sandy et al., “Refugees from Burma: Their Background and Refugee Experiences.” Center for Applied Linguistics (2007).

[3] Barron, Sandy et al., “Refugees from Burma: Their Background and Refugee Experiences.” Center for Applied Linguistics (2007).

[4] Barron, Sandy et al., “Refugees from Burma: Their Background and Refugee Experiences.” Center for Applied Linguistics (2007).

[5] Barron, Sandy et al., “Refugees from Burma: Their Background and Refugee Experiences.” Center for Applied Linguistics (2007).

[6] Barron, Sandy et al., “Refugees from Burma: Their Background and Refugee Experiences.” Center for Applied Linguistics (2007).

[7] “Burma: U.N. Must Act to End Attacks on Karen.” Human Rights Watch. 4 May 2006, accessed 13 November 2013. http://www.hrw.org/news/2006/05/03/burma-un-must-act-end-attacks-karen

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