Karen Refugee Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Karen peoples fleeing persecution in Burma met with a hostile reception in Thailand, where the military stopped some from crossing the border and forced the repatriation of some five thousand others. Because the Karen were subjected to extensive human rights abuses in their homeland, humanitarian organizations protested the Thai policy.

Summary of Event

In January and February of 1997, Thai soldiers under the command of General Chettha Thanajaro forcibly repatriated some five thousand Karen refugees who had fled to the Thai border from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The Karen people have been subjected to brutally repressive policies in Myanmar, but Chettha asserted that the refugees in question either were illegal migrants who were not fleeing immediate conflict or were not civilians but members of the revolutionary Karen National Liberation Army. Refugees;Karen Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses [kw]Karen Refugee Crisis (Jan.-Mar., 1997) [kw]Refugee Crisis, Karen (Jan.-Mar., 1997) [kw]Crisis, Karen Refugee (Jan.-Mar., 1997) Refugees;Karen Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses [g]Southeast Asia;Jan.-Mar., 1997: Karen Refugee Crisis[09640] [g]Burma;Jan.-Mar., 1997: Karen Refugee Crisis[09640] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Jan.-Mar., 1997: Karen Refugee Crisis[09640] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Jan.-Mar., 1997: Karen Refugee Crisis[09640] Chettha Thanajaro Than Shwe Bo Mya Chavalit Yongchaiyudh

For political, economic, and military reasons, the Myanmar capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), marginalized hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples, either displacing them internally—forcing many into the jungle—or causing them to flee to neighboring Thailand. The forced repatriations by the Thai Ninth Infantry Division, known as refoulements under international law, raised protests from international humanitarian organizations. The Thai military temporarily ceased repatriation of the Karen, although a policy hostile to refugees remained in place.

After World War II, the Karen were frustrated by the failure of the Allies to recognize the role they had played in fighting the Japanese. At the same time, they were being forced from their villages because of aggressive assimilation policies on the part of the Myanmar government or for reasons of economic development. The Karen National Union Karen National Union (KNU) therefore sought to establish an autonomous state in Myanmar, which it would call Kawthoolei, understood to mean “land without evil.” The KNLA, under the rigid leadership of General Bo Mya, began guerrilla action against Myanmar government targets.

In 1962, a military junta led by General Ne Win and known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) seized power in Yangon and launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Karen and other indigenous peoples, including the Shan, Mon, and Karenni. SLORC also forced relocation on some villages. In 1969, the military regime began the “Four Cuts” (Pya Ley Pya) offensive, attempting to eliminate all contact between civilian communities and the KNLA.

Soldiers of the rebel Karen National Union march at their headquarters near the Thai border on January 31, 1997—a date they celebrate as Revolution Day. Two weeks after this picture was taken, Myanmar government troops attacked the camp and scattered the rebels.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Villagers suspected of aiding the guerrillas were punished severely, and the financing and recruitment of new guerrillas was therefore interrupted. When General Than Shwe became commander in 1992, counterinsurgency measures were intensified to intimidate noncombatants: These included rape, looting, arbitrary executions, the burning of crops and homes, and other atrocities. The Myanmar military forced Karen villagers to clear mines and serve as porters against the nationalist guerrillas. If a village was suspected of harboring Karen insurgents, official policy was to burn it to the ground. Accusations of many human rights violations were leveled against a special paramilitary unit known as the Sa Sa Sa.

Although most Karen are Buddhists/animists, a significant number were converted to Christianity during the nineteenth century and particularly during World War II, when they fought with the British against the Japanese. The leadership of the KNU was primarily Christian, a phenomenon which led to a political-religious division among the Karen.

In 1995, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), formed by monk U Thu Zana and led militarily by former KNLA sergeant Maung Chit Htoo, broke away from the KNU and sought accommodation with the Myanmar junta. Having inside knowledge, the DKBA was soon able to capture KNLA headquarters at Manerplaw on the Salween River, forcing a massive exodus of refugees into Thailand. The situation was also worsened by the building of the Yadana gas pipeline in the Tenasserim district of Myanmar, as several villages were forced to relocate to make way for the development. At the same time, an offensive against the KNLA by the Myanmar government declared the Duplaya district of the central Karen state a free-fire zone and targeted villagers who did not relocate. Thousands sought asylum across the border, where they were still at risk because of regular cross-border raids by Myanmar troops and the DKBA.

Thailand’s reception of asylum seekers has always been restricted. Bangkok did not sign the 1951 United Nations accord on refugees and has maintained a narrow policy that extends refuge to civilians in immediate flight from conflict, but not to victims of forced relocation, forced labor, or other forms of ethnic harassment.

In 1995, the Thai National Security Council decided that the situation in Myanmar had returned to normal and repatriation should begin when SLORC agreed to accept returnees. In 1996, on the eve of the East Asian financial crisis, Thailand’s economy was extremely sluggish, a situation that could have been exacerbated by border conflict or by the burden of thousands of additional displaced persons from Myanmar. Furthermore, a rampant drug trade flowing into Thailand was made more difficult to police by the number of refugees. The Thai government was also aware that its refugee camps, which housed leaders of the KNU and KNLA, were potential sources of support for the Karen insurgency. Thailand enjoyed commercial ties with Myanmar, and its government was reluctant to jeopardize those connections.

Under these circumstances, the Thai Ninth Army refused entry to some refugees from Myanmar and repatriated others, with assurances from SLORC that they would not be harmed. The Thai military claimed that the villagers, including many women and children—some suffering from malaria and diarrhea—had voluntarily returned to their homes under promise of reconciliation from Yangon. However, on hearing reports from aid groups about the forced repatriations, the United States, the European Union, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) formally deplored the actions and urged Thailand to grant asylum to unarmed refugees according to international humanitarian principles.

International criticism led General Chettha and Ninth Division commander Lieutenant General Taweep Suwannasingh to halt the repatriation policy momentarily. However, interior minister Snoh Thienthong denounced the aid organizations’ reporting of the deportations and vowed to continue the ministry’s long-standing plan to send home all illegal Karen migrants on grounds that Thailand had to ensure the well-being and safety of its own people. In spite of further forced repatriation, by the end of 1997, nearly one million refugees from Myanmar, including 200,000 Karen—some 91,000 of them in refugee camps—were thought to be in Thailand.


At the beginning of 2007, despite the threat of sanctions from the U.N. Security Council, the military government of Myanmar (now called the State Peace and Development Council) was still in power and exercising repressive policies against its peoples, including some seven million Karen. In addition, proposals that the UNHCR administer refugee camps in Thailand were rejected, and Thai authorities tightened circulation into and out of camps, including Mae La and Mae Sot. At the same time, the DKBA, having ingratiated itself with Yangon, continued military attacks on the KNU and on villages and camps thought to shelter the KNLA.

In 2000, Thai public opinion against the Karen was further hardened when a group called God’s Army, under the leadership of twins Johnny and Luther Htoo (who were only about twelve years old at the time), took some seven hundred people hostage at the Ratchaburi hospital in Thailand. Following the death of long-term Karen leader Bo on December 24, 2006, resistance seemed increasingly futile. Still facing policies of ethnic cleansing, hundreds of thousands of displaced Karen continued to struggle to survive as a people. Refugees;Karen Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burma Ethics Research Group and Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Forgotten Victims of a Hidden War: Internally Displaced Karen in Burma. Chaingmai, Thailand: Nopburee Press, 1998. A study of the living conditions of Karen peoples and the circumstances leading to their expulsion from their villages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delang, Claudio O. Suffering in Silence: The Human Rights Nightmare of the Karen People of Burma. Boca Raton, Fla.: Universal, 2001. A report on the rape, torture, execution, forced labor, and other abuses committed against Karen villagers by the military of Myanmar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Human Rights Watch. Burma/Thailand: No Safety in Burma, No Sanctuary in Thailand. New York: Author, 1997. Presents an indictment of the treatment of indigenous peoples by the government of Myanmar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, Phil. Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border. Bangkok: Asia Books, 2006. A journalist’s account, including pictures of life among the Karen refugees and guerrillas.

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Categories: History