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


Website: Designed, Built and written  by Paul Keenan

1970ís Struggle for Identity

Communism, Socialism and Christianity

As Ne Win continued to secure his position and strengthen the BSPP regime and the Burmese Way to Socialism, ex-premier U Nu and his Parliamentry Democracy Party joined with Mahn Ba Zan, representing the Karens, and Nai Shwin Kyin, for the Mon, to form the Nationalities United Liberation Front with the main aim of dismantling the BSPP and installing a federal system of governance.

Meanwhile the KNUP found a need for a clearer political identity. Throughout Asia, Communism was beginning to spread. China was supporting the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) against the Taiwanese and CIA backed Kuomintang, whilst in neighbouring Thailand students fled the Thammasat University massacre to join the Communist Party of Thailand which had gained major footholds in the north-east of the country. Against this backdrop, in 1971, the KNUP sent a delegation, including Skaw Ler Taw, to the CPB in Shan State. Arriving two years later in 1973 the group spent a year and visited Simao and Kunming in China. However the KNUP still found there were many ideological differences between what they perceived as their national democratic movement and that of the CPB's people's democratic movement which did not take into account the need for the recognition of the ethnic nationalities separate identities. The KNUP became disillusioned with the CPB's attitude, especially in it seeing itself as the sole leader of any people's revolution, Somewhat disheartened another year was spent on the return journey before arriving in Karen state in 1975 only to find the  KNUP in total disarray.

The 9th KNU congress held in September 1974 (photo above) was used to reform the KNU and dropped many of the socialist ideas espoused by the KNUP including that of class distinction. The congress vowed that the Karen National Union supported by all classes, whether they be farmers or the elite, would be the sole body that represented all of the Karen people.

The last strongholds of the KNUP in the Pegu Yomas fell and what remnants of the KPLA and KNUP that were left, crossed into KNU territory and reunited with Bo Mya and Mahn Ba Zan, shortly afterwards a KNUP congress was held in 1975 and it was agreed that the KNUP would be dissolved and become a part of the KNU and that all ties would be severed with U Nu's PDP.

In the need to unite towards the ultimate goal of toppling the BSPP regime a number of ethnic groups including the Kachin, Arakan, Mon, Karen and several other groups met at the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw (Victory Field) in 1976 and formed the National Democratic Front. The ethnic groups realized that if there struggle was to be successful they would have to join together in their attempts to topple the military dictatorship and win some kind of self-determination.


The Karen consolidated there power along the border acting as a buffer for neighbouring Thailand which was threatened by increased security problems along its border has the CPT gained more control throughout the north-west of the country. Bo Mya's anti-communist ideology sat well both with the Thai government and its American backers who were pouring billions into Asia in its attempt to stop the spread of communism.

General Bo Mya had taken over the presidency of the KNU in August 1976 and Mahn Ba Zan, who was on a Thai government list banning him from crossing over into the country due to his so called communist sympathies, stepped down. Bo Mya steered the Karen revolution away from its socialist ideology instead embracing the capitalist west and any support it may give.

 With ample financing coming in from a number of trading gates along the entirety of the border and permanent bases, the Karen National Union was able to exert its influence throughout Karen state and was recongnized, by Thailand at least, as the defacto government for the border area.

It was in one of its strongest positions since its inception that the movement entered into the 1980's however as the Karen became stronger, so too did the desire of Ne Win to crush not only the Karens, but also the other ethnic nationalities struggle against oppression.