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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Post Independence

The British immediately recognized Aung San's[1] role, and his Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League, as being the way forward for governance in Burma. The Karen Central Organisation, which had emerged during the war, called for the creation of a  United Frontier Karen State which also included areas of Thailand going down as far as Chang Mai. The British totally ignored the request, but regardless the KCO still made a number of requests which finally resulted in a four man delegation of lawyers, comprising Saw Ba U Gyi, Sidney Loo Nee, Saw Tha Din and Saw Po Chit, visiting London and requesting, unsuccessfully, a separate state.

A number of British officials warned the government in London that the Karens should be given some rights towards autonomy, yet the British continued to dispute such claims and the Karen became more impatient and began boycotting the Burmese Government's Executive Council and the elections for the Constituent assembly.

In 1947 the Karen National Union was founded to represent the legitimate Karen request for a separate state whilst Aung San tried to unite all the ethnic races by arranging a conference at Panglong which the Karen refused to participate in but instead sent an observer party.

The 1947 constitution written by the AFPFL made no mention of the creation of a Karen state but it did contain a clause that after the elections, should there be no agreement with the Karens, then a state could be created, however unlike others, the Shan and the Karenni, no secession would ever be allowed. All Karen organisations including the KNA, KCO and KYO, were called to a conference and agreed to merge into one body, the Karen National Union (KNU). The conference ended with all delegates calling for a separate Karen State, Karen units in the army, and an increase in representation in the constituent assembly.

Whilst debate continued the KYO, which had been formed in October 1945 as the youth wing of the KCO, began to emerge as pro-AFPFL supporter. The KYO and KNU were in disagreement over what part of the country would form Karen state, to such a degree that the Anglo-Karen commander of the Burma army, Smith-Dun  was prompted to say that, 'the KNU was asking for the best of Burma, while the KYO was asking for the worst.'

Karen fears over Burman domination and the possibility of further violence, echoing the outrages perpetrated by the Burma Independence Army during the war, prompted Karen villages to begin training local militas which were later to be know as Karen National Defence Organisations or KNDOs. Similarly the KNU began making contact the Karen units of BIA, especially important was the Karen staffed signals section which relayed KNU information to a number of sympathisers for the cause.[2]

Angered by the AFPFLs attempts to introduce a number of non-representative hill Karens into the assembly, the KNU held a six hundred strong meeting that would one again reiterate the Karens desire for their own nation and, as earlier, send another warning to the British government that the Karens would not settle for being governed by the Burmans.

Saw Ba U Gyi, one of the original founders of the KNU, wrote to the Burmese premier U Nu outlining one again the Karens request for separate state and organised on the 11th February a mass demonstration throughout the country requesting that four main demands be met:-


Give the Karen State at once.

For the Burmese one kyat and the Karens one kyat

We do not want communal strife

We do not want civil war


Throughout 1948 communal tensions were at fever-pitch, U Nu accused the KNU of setting up a parallel government in a move which was hardly likely to placate the growing unrest amongst the Burman and Karen communities. In a move to stop the flow of violence KNDO units, commanded by Mahn Ba Zan in Rangoon, began to take over village administrations. The KNU organised themselves into two separate zones; 'the Delta' under Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe and the 'Eastern area' to be controlled by Saw Sankey.

In response to the anarchy that was enveloping the country Saw Sankey ordered the KNDO and Karen Union Military Police to take over Thaton and Moulmein with the latter, some believe, being taken so that a shipment of arms, from sympathisers in the British military, could be landed at the seaport and then a fuel a total rebellion against the government.

Premier U Nu, ever aware that an armed Karen uprising could break out any moment, started forming armed militias, Sitwundans, to counter the threat posed by the KNDO and UMP's. The Sitwunduns, on Christmas Eve 1948, threw a hand grenade into a church in Palaw killing 80 Karens, and similar events then sprang up throughout Karen areas, causing the deaths of at least another 200.

With the situation deteriorating Saw Ba U Gyi and Saw Sankey moved their headquarters, from U Loo Nee street, to Insein a suburb of Rangoon. Shortly after a number of KNDOs were brought in to protect the building against Sitwuduns who had started to surround the building. The situation was becoming more and more volatile as the Karen Rifles, and later the Kachin, left the army and joined with the KNU. A number of town and villages throughout the country fell as the Karen's revolution began to entrench itself into the political landscape.  

Open hostilities broke out around the Karen's H.Q. in Insein, on the 31st January 1949, in a siege that lasted a 112 days before the KNDO's retreat in a fight that saw over 200 casualties left behind and hundreds dead.

Saw Ba U Gyi, president of the KNU, called the first congress since fighting began on 17th July 1950, here four main principles, which would be the guiding objectives of the Karen revolution, were outlined:-


There shall be no surrender

The recognition of the Karen State must be complete

We shall retain our arms

We shall decide our own political destiny


Shortly after the congress on the 12th August 1950, Saw Ba U Gyi and Saw Sankey were killed in a Burma Army ambush near the Thai-Burma border. His body was taken and thrown into the sea. The loss of two of the Karens most outstanding leaders was a tragic blow to the movement. Former British governor Reginald Dorman-Smith wrote in the time shortly after hearing of the deaths:-


'Saw Ba U Gyi was no terrorist…I, for one, cannot picture him enjoying the miseries and hardships of a rebellion. There must have been some deep, impelling reason for his continued resistance…the major tragedy is that Burma is losing her best potential leaders at far to rapid a rate. Aung San, U Saw, saw Ba U Gyi, U Tin Tut, all have gone.'[3]  


Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe took over the position as president, from Skaw Ler Taw, who had been holding the position in his absence, in 1954 and some of the heaviest fighting the Karen had seen continued throughout the 50's.

As the movement became stronger it was decided a more focussed political ideology was need. Emulating the CPB the KNU, under the guidance of Mahn Ba Zan and Skaw Ler Taw, set up a socialist vanguard party, the Karen National United Party (KNUP), in 1953, with the purpose of uniting the Karens and ensuring that the masses would form the foundation of the revolution.     

In what was to become know as the KNU's second phase programme a number of ground-rules aimed at consolidating and centralising the KNU structure was promulgated including land reform and more concrete foreign policy. Agricultural co-operatives and fish farms were set up in many villages, often where the village was mixed nationality, with Burman civilians support.

The strong Leninist-Marxist theory behind the KNUP did not sit easily with all however. During political induction courses a number of Buddhist monks who had willingly attended found themselves offended by what they interpreted to be a very strong anti-religious sentiment in the movement.

Although the KNUP was predominantly based in the delta, to the east a separate Karen movement was emerging, here the areas were less developed with very little schooling and prospects for education. Despite the fact that the KNUP was beginning to strengthen its support base and develop a strong agrarian revolutionary system the inhospitable terrain in the mountains ensured that the mainly Buddhist and Animist Karens in the east saw only slow improvement.

Hunter Thamwe sent a group of representatives to Thailand to set up and underground Karen embassy and call for the United Nations to recognize an independent Karen State. Whilst in Thailand a number of discussions were held with the Thai government, CIA, KMT and SEATO who expressed their dismay at what was seen to be a progressively left leaning revolutionary movement.

The Karen movement had gone from that of a mainly nationalist organisation to embrace a particularly Maoist ideology. Whilst the KNUP successfully introduced its people's reforms, those in the Karen Revolutionary Council, Hunter Thamwe especially, were to become more unhappy with the left leaning nature the KNU was now adopting.


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[1] Prime Minister Churchill was somewhat scathing of Aung San who he described as a ' Traitor, rebel leader.' Quoted in Smith, Burma, Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity

[2] Martin Smith, Burma, Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, pp 86

[3] Ibid, pp 144