Who Are the Karen?

Karen People in Thailand

The Karen are one of the more 70 ethnic minorities in Thailand. The Karen, Kayin, Kariang or Yang people refer to a number of individual Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups, many of which do not share a common language or culture.

These Karen groups reside primarily in Karen State, southern and southeastern Myanmar. The Karen make up approximately 7 percent of the total Burmese population with approximately 5 million people. A large number of Karen have migrated to Thailand to escape the war. The fighting began in 1949 and is one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. Like most indigenous people in most of the world, they do not have land rights.

Karen Language

The Karen languages are tonal languages spoken by some seven million Karen people. They are of unclear affiliation within the Sino-Tibetan languages. The Karen languages are written using the Burmese script. The Karen languages are also considered unusual for not having any Chinese influence. Would you like learn some useful phrases? Check out Noon’s online Karen language lessons.

Karen hill tribe woman and elephant

Noon teaches Karen, Thai, and English at Chai Lai.


Karen legends refer to a ‘river of running sand’ which ancestors reputedly crossed. Many Karen think this refers to the Gobi Desert. There are few written records of the Karen origin story. The Karen people began to inhabit what eventually became Burma about two thousand years ago. They traveled from Tibet and China and settled largely in the hills bordering the eastern mountainous region of Burma. Ethnic groups around this region included the Mon, Shan, Thai, Burmese and Karen. When the British colonized Burma in 1886, these groups all became part of Burma.

Hundreds of thousands of Karen fled to refugee camps while many others are internally displaced persons (IDPS) within the Karen state. The refugees were concentrated in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. The camps have suffered from overcrowding, disease, and periodic attacks by the Myanmar army. Many Karen are stateless and do not have access to basic human rights. Thailand does not recognize them as refugees but as illegal immigrants. Life in the refugee camps is difficult and uncertain. Refugees are not allowed to venture outside the camps, and can be arrested if caught. They apply for resettlement to a 3rd country, which can take many years or never materialize at all. The Burmese army has planted landmines in Karen state making it unsafe to go back.

Karen IDPs in a temporary shelter

The majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists who also practice animism, while approximately 15% are Christian. Karen animism is defined by a belief in klar (soul), thirty-seven spirits that embody every individual. Misfortune and sickness are believed to be caused by klar that wander away, and death occurs when all thirty-seven klar leave the body.

Rotational farming is a type of forest management used by the Karen which has been a part of their culture for at least several hundred years. Sacred forests are often seen as reservoirs of local biodiversity that preserve a unique fauna and flora including their medicinal plants. Depending on location and management, sacred forest provide a number of other ecosystem services such as cultural amenities but many of these aspects remain poorly explored. Ecosystem services in the form of medicinal plants from sacred forest can be important for indigenous people in remote areas, since many rural communities depend on wild plants for their diet and livelihood.

Karen hill tribe woman weaving


Karen clothing is handwoven with a loom. Our clothing has meaning. Not all Karen people wear the same clothing, they have identity with age. When they are young and have not already married, they used to wear a long white dress. Once they marry they have to wear colorful shirt with skirt that is wrapped around at their waist. In their own culture if they didn’t obey this tradition, a tiger will come eat them or take them away. Wearing Karen clothes shows our loyalty to our ancestors.

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