Who Are the Karen People?

The Paduang women wear neck rings, adding additional rings as they age.
Photo of a Karen (Paduang) child in Thailand. The Karen people live mainly in Burma (Myanmar), but many are refugees in Thailand, as well. christine zenino on Flickr.com


Karen People: A hill tribe people of eastern and southern Burma (Myanmar). Many Karen people live in north-western Thailand as refugees from the decades-long Karen insurgency and Burmese government oppression, as well.

The Karen speak a Burmo-Tibetan language, and are likely descended from Mongolian ancestors who lived in western China. They gradually moved south, arriving in what is now Burma around 750 BCE.

Today, the Karen people are targets of ethnic cleansing and systematic destruction of villages by Burma's ruling military junta under the leadership of General Than Shwe. In response to persecution by ethnic Burmese, the Karen launched a guerrilla war in 1947, which continues to this day.

The Karen are divided into the Red and White Karen. The most famous sub-group are the Padaung, known for the "giraffe-necked women" who wear multiple metal neck-rings that stretch their necks.

Pronunciation: "kuh-REHN"

Also Known As: Pwa Ka Nyam Poe, Kahnyaw, Ploan, Kariang, Yang, Padaung, Ka-Kuang

Alternate Spellings: Kayin

Examples: "The Karen have an ancestral story about the 'river of running sand,' which is believed to be a reference to the Gobi Desert now far to the north of their present-day home in Burma."