The Karens, as well as other ethnic groups, actually arrived in Burma before the majority group known as the Burmans (as opposed to the Burmese, all the citizens of Burma). But, in the sixteenth century, the Burmans conquered most of Burma and proceeded to impose their will on the ethnics.
But the modern "origins of the ethnic hatred. . . can be traced back to the Anglo-Burmese wars," writes Benedict Rogers in his 2004 book World Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People. The Karens assisted the British in their efforts to conquer the Burmans. The British, in turn, allowed them a measure of autonomy (in part, also, because they were too far-flung to rule). The ethnics' first taste of freedom was an ironic byproduct of British colonialism.
During World War II, Burmese forces joined the invading Japanese in mercilessly attacking the Karens, who feared they were destined for genocide. But the Allies turned the tide on the Japanese and the Karens helped drive them out. The Karens hoped that they would be rewarded with statehood, but during the war Mountbatten of Burma had authorized a secret deal with the Burmans that left the Karens out in the cold.
Once Burma was granted its independence, the Karens sought to co-exist with the government. But, in 1949, General Ne Win, later the leader of the coup that installed junta rule, led militias on a rampage of Karen territory. In response, the Karen National Union (KNU) emerged to fight for the rights of the Karens and the establishment of Kawthoolei, the state around which their dreams revolve.
The recently appointed vice-chairman of the KNU, David Thakabaw, furnished us with the Karens' version of that period when we contacted him. "The Burman regime led by U Nu started war against the Karen people with the help of fascist Ne Win [the general who led the coup in 1962]. The United States probably encouraged Ne Win to [later seize power in the coup] as U Nu was too neutral for its liking. Later, the United States gave aid to Ne Win to fight the communists, after the 1967 Burmese-Chinese riot."
Meanwhile, Thakapaw continues, the "British labor government gave military aid to the Burmans, in the belief that [it was the Karens who] started the war and committed atrocities. [But the atrocities] were committed by Ne Win's pocket army troops wearing Karen uniforms."
In recent years the disintegration of ceasefire talks has been a pretext for junta offensives against the Karens. Others include a perceived need on the part of the junta to engage in wholesale destruction of Karen villages to make room for large dam-building projects, as well as relocation of the capital from Yangon (Rangoon). Or, as an SPDC official quoted by Benedict Rogers said in 1992, "In 10 years all Karens will be dead. If you want to see a Karen, you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon."
As of today, hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities have been forcibly relocated by the Burmese army, their villages burned to the ground. Tens of thousands have fled across the border to Thailand. Meanwhile, the army not only tortures and executes those villagers suspected of working with the insurgent groups, but forces others to labor as porters.
Adding insult to injury, the army uses children as soldiers, seeds the Karen territory with land mines, and then forces Karen people to act as mine-sweepers by traversing the terrain ahead of the army. As in Cambodia, citizens missing a leg, or parts of one, are common in the Karen regions.
But neither is the KNLA (the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU) blameless. It too has been known to lay mines and use child soldiers. Also, according to Phil Thornton in his 2006 book, Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border, one of its officers told him that because it can't afford to feed them, the KNLA often kills prisoners on the spot.