Who are the Karenni?

22,000 people from Karenni state in eastern Burma languish in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, among a total of 142,000 Burmese refugees, mostly of ethnic minorities, in Thai border camps that have now existed for twenty years. Others are among the 92,500 internally displaced persons in Karenni state and 650,000 internally displaced people in Eastern Burma alone.

The Karenni are an ethnic minority from eastern Burma who have spent more than fifty years engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Burmese government, struggling for the independence and self-determination they historically enjoyed. During this time, Karenni civilians and villagers have repeatedly and continue to be subjected to large scale atrocities, human rights abuses and persecution by the Burmese state military forces.

Karenni state is an area situated between Thailand and Burma. Covering an area of 4,582 sq. miles, it is approximately the same size as Hawaii. The land in Karenni state is rich in tin, wolfram, teak, gold and precious stones and the indigenous Karenni people who inhabit it are made up of 12 subgroups. The largest of these groups is the Kayah and perhaps the most well-known is the Kayan, sometimes referred to as 'Long Necks'. Other Karenni groups include the Peku and the Kayaw.

The oppression of the Karenni people by the Burmese military has accelerated since 1988, when people throughout Burma and the surrounding ethnic minority regions demanded democracy. Intent on maintaining control over resource rich Karenni state and annihilating Karenni culture and people, government military forces have systematically destroyed hundreds of Karenni villages and large areas of natural resources. Where this occurs men, women and children from the villages are sent to military camps controlled and operated by the regime and often subjected to forced labour without adequate access to food, water and other necessities.