Karen Refugees in Burma and Britain: History and Identity

  • Peter Bjorklund

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores the relationship between the displacement and resettlement of the Karen people of Burma and their reflections on their history and identity. It pays particular attention to those living in the refugee camps in Thailand and those resettled in Sheffield. It covers the years from 1988 to the present day. The thesis aims to contribute to the field of refugee history and advance emerging academic interest in the Karen by providing a clearer understanding of the impact of protracted displacement, resettlement and socio-cultural adaptation from the perspective of the Karen experience. It foregrounds the role played in Karen communities in different settings in reinterpreting Karen history. It examines how notions of Karen identity have been created and recreated in different settings by engaging with their stories on the Thai-Burma borderlands, the refugee camps, and Sheffield. The research draws upon a series of extended oral interviews and participant observations conducted over the last thirty years with Karen people in two locations: the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand and Sheffield. Amongst the thousands of displaced Karen living in Mae La, common themes emerged: ideas of displacement and historical oppression, the significance of ‘homeland’ and ‘nation’, and the importance of faith, all of which were bound up with ideas of cultural change. The use of personal testimony will show how past events are transferred into the present as they continue to affect the resettlement community. The thesis also gives particular attention to women’s new role in Karen leadership and organisation in the resettled community in Sheffield. The thesis also explores how the resettlement process has influenced Karen ceremonial practices, which have taken on fluid and contested forms considering processes of cultural adaptation - the thesis will demonstrate how Karen reconstruct and reify both cultural and political aspects of their identity in Sheffield. Finally, the thesis attempts to make sense of how the Karen have recurrently constructed a narrative of persecution while establishing new forms of political and ethnic identity.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPeter Gatrell (Supervisor) & Ana Carden-Coyne (Supervisor)


  • resettlement
  • Karen history and identity
  • Refugees

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