Images from Karen State

Richard Humpheries

Traditional Dancing

(Black and White)

Jason Miller

Karen New Year 2003

 Shwe Koako, Karen State

Sylvia Murcfeld

Karen State


 Jean de La Tour


Richard Humphries


Version Date

June 2004


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The Colonial Period 

Life for the Karens during the colonial period began to redress the balance after years of Burman dominance and subjugation. With the arrival of the British came missionaries and secular education. The S'gaw Karen found themselves willing converts to the Christian teachings of the missionaries and the educational opportunities provided them the chance not only to improve their education at home but also abroad[1].

S'gaw Karen script was invented by Dr Jonathan Wade in the 1830's with Rev. Brayton, who had opened a relief centre for Karen refugees providing rice, medicine, rehabilitation, medical care and education, unveiling the Pwo Script 10 years later, both the scripts had been developed from the Burmese alphabet.

By 1881 the Karens had began to organize themselves in to a Karen National Association the 'Daw K'lu'. The leaders include , who had earlier returned from America where he had obtained a Doctorate, U Loo Nee, Thra Mya San, Thra Say Te', and U Shwe Maung Ohn. To help bring the Karen people together the association published a Journal 'Daw K'lu'.

However, despite the gains some of the Karens had achieved during the colonial administration the Burmese people were unhappy with their new rulers. A numbers of insurgencies took place and the Karens could not help but become involved.

In the Taungoo area thousands of Burmese, Karen and Pa-O were organized by Abbot Mayan Chaung to rebel against the British. Similarly another abbot, U Thuria of Hanthawaddy organized the Karens and Burmese in the area to rebel against the colonial regime.

For the most part the Karens, especially those taught by the missionaries, remained loyal to the crown. As lower Burma descended into anarchy and banditry, the Karen were forced to defend themselves from the pre-dominantly Burman rebellions that were overtaking the countryside. Reverend Vinton expressed his concern for the Karens in a number of correspondence to local Government officials, especially in requesting arms for the Karens. Vinton, probably ever mindful of how Burmans had treated the Christian Karens in the past[2], in a letter quoted by D.M. Smeaton in 'The Loyal Karens of Burma' says

''I don't believe myself a coward or an alarmist, but I am warning Karens everywhere that the fight has not yet begun. Mr. Bernhard has told me he would arm the Karens in any threatened district if they would volunteer. I can put any number of Karens in the field.

Every mission has promised me a levy en masse of all the able-bodied men. They all agree to refuse all pay and to fight from pure loyalty to the queen.'

In letters by Vinton, quoted by Smeaton, there was a very strong Christian against Buddhist leaning, that saw the rebellion not so much has the Burmese people against the Colonialists, but rather Buddhist Burmese against Christian Karen he continues in the same letter later.

 '…The strangest of all is the presence of the pongyees (Buddhist monks) on the battlefield. This is unheard of in history.

            My Karens usually interpret this as God's sign that Buddhism is to be destroyed forever…'  

                                                 Rangoon, Feb 28th, 1886


As the British moved to quell the rebellions with the support of the Loyal Karens, peace was to be finally restored. Yet, for the Burman and Karen people a perpetual distrust had been formed . The Karen would not be happy until they could administer their own country and free themselves from Burman oppression. A Karenland needed to be founded.

North of Bassein, in a small village called Go Hsu, San Po was born on 4th October, 1870. He was later to become one of the most important Karen Statesmen known, and it was he who was to call for a free 'Karenland'.

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[1] Saw Catcher and Saw Pale Kwe Htoo went to America in 1860. IKHRA, 'New Country Historical Journal', pp 99, Saw Catcher and Saw Pale Kwe Htoo went to America in 1860

[2] A number of missionaries including Marshall had reported how Burman suspicions over Karen Christians had resulted in imprisonment, torture, village burning, and even crucifixion. I.H. Marshall, 'Karen People of Burma.', p297