Karen People - Origins

Origins

Karen legends refer to a 'river of running sand' which ancestors reputedly crossed. Many Karen think this refers to the Gobi Desert, although they have lived in Burma for centuries. The Karen constitute the third biggest ethnic population in Burma, after the Bamars and Shans.

The term "Karen" is an umbrella term that refers to a heterogeneous lot of ethnic groups that do not share a common language, culture, religion or material characteristics. A pan-Karen ethnic identity is a relatively modern creation, established in the 1800s with the conversion of some Karens to Christianity and shaped by various British colonial policies and practices and the introduction of Christianity. After Christianity was introduced by missionaries during this period, some Karen-speaking Christians began asserting a distinct identity from their non-Christian counterparts, and garnered special privileges from the British, including military recruitment. Many of these Christians became leaders of Karen ethnonationalist organizations, including the Karen National Union.

"Karen" is a Anglicisation of the Burmese word "Kayin" (ကရင်), whose etymology is unclear. The word, which was originally a derogatory term referring to non-Buddhist ethnic groups, may have come from the Mon language, or is a corruption of Kanyan, the name of a vanished civilization.

In pre-colonial times, the low-lying Burmese and Mon-speaking kingdoms recognized 2 general categories of Karen, the Talaing Kayin (တလိုင်းကရင်), generally lowlanders who were recognized as the "original settlers" and essential to Mon court life, and the Bama Kayin (ဗမာကရင်), highlanders who were subordinated or assimilated by the Bamar.

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