Karenni People

Myanmar is home to over ten ethnic Karenni subgroups, the largest of which is the Karenni (Kayah) people, whose name means ‘Red Karen’ and is taken from their brightly-coloured clothing. Other subgroups include the Padaung (Kayan), Geko, Geba, Yintale, Bwe and Paku (Thein Lwin, 2011). Although all Karenni subgroups speak the same Karenni language, dialects vary from one group to another. The Karenni language (Kayah Li) is taught at schools in Karenni refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.

The Karenni originate from Mongolia, and arrived in Myanmar around 700 BC (Thein Lwin, 2011). Most Karenni are Christians, some practice Animist traditions, and others are Buddhists. The Karenni have several festivals and holidays, the most important of which is Kay Htoe Bo, held in April each year.


History of Conflict in Karenni State

The ethnic groups that comprise Karenni State have suffered from a long history of conflict.

In 1875, the Karenni were granted independence, according to an agreement between the Burmese government and the British colonial administration. After World War II, they were involuntarily incorporated into the Union of Burma on terms that they could regain their independence after 10 years, however, this agreement was not honoured.

This, along with the assassination of the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re by the government military police in 1948, caused an armed insurgency in Karenni State, leading to a violent conflict between the Karenni and the Burmese military that is still ongoing.

As a result of this conflict, many Karenni people have suffered grave human rights abuses. A large number of Karenni people are internally displaced within Myanmar, about 20,000 have fled to refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, and there are also large populations who have resettled in the USA, Finland and Australia.


Since March 2012 there has been a ceasefire in Karenni State, and there are currently efforts to create a nationwide ceasefire in the whole of Myanmar. This is a feat that has not been accomplished in over 60 years. The Karenni community across the world is hoping that the ceasefire talks can finally bring peace for their homeland and their people.


For further information and reports about Karenni people and the conflict, please see our resources page.