top of page

Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)

Introduction & Overview

The Karen (Kuh-ren) National Liberation Army (KNLA) is a military branch of the political organization, Karen National Union (KNU), which campaigns for the self-determination of the Karen people of Myanmar, and fights for peace and unity against the military dictatorship within the country. The KNU and its armed wing have been fighting the military, The Tatmadaw, or Junta for 75 years.

History & Foundations

Myanmar is a country that is rich in diversity, with over 135 ethnic groups. However, Myanmar wasn’t always formally known as Myanmar – “In 1988, after a brutal suppression of a pro-democracy uprising via the country’s military dictatorship (which saw thousands executed), leaders changed its name to Myanmar,” (1)  from Burma based on the dominantly ethnic group, the Burmese. During the colonial period of Burma, the British colonialist rule brought forth more ethnic division by favoring certain ethnicities, leading to greater social and economic differences.

Predominantly, Buddhism is the main religion among the Burman ethnic group. This is noteworthy, for it influences perceptions within Myanmar, where there is a tendency among some sections of the Burmese population to view non-Buddhist ethnic groups as less traditional, or ‘civilized.’

“The initial conflict among Burma’s disparate ethnic groups and its Burman majority dates back to the British colonial era when ethnic minorities were given favorable treatment over the Burman majority.” (2) With the arrival of the British during World War II, the Karen – as well as other ethnicities – hoped to escape what they perceived to be the brutal and oppressive rule of the Military. But this was not the case; the tensions only heightened as the Burmans sided with the Imperial Japanese. In response, the Karens sided with the British.

Since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1947, the KNLA has been engaged in this conflict. Initially, they were promised autonomy within the Burmese federation, with an option to secede after ten years. However, these promises were unfulfilled due to the subsequent civil war. Since 1962, the Karens, along with other insurgent groups, have conflicted with the military junta.

Objectives & Ideology

Following independence, the Karen's future was and still is uncertain. By mid-1948, the newly-formed Burmese state split into warring factions, and fighting started between the KNU and the Burmese army and other various ethnic groups. By 1950, the KNU had spelled out its political principles in four short statements: (3)

  1. “For us surrender is out of the question. 

  2. The recognition of the Karen state must be complete. 

  3. We shall retain our arms.

  4. We shall decide our own political destiny.”

In an Al Jazeera report on the violence that the Karens face, Colonel Saw Kler Doh, a commander within the KNLA stated that the “Tatmadaw do not want ethnic minorities like us to have sovereignty and self-determination. They want to take control of everything. They want to control any area where there is a resistance group. They haven’t just been coming to our region for decades.” (4) 

Military/Political Abilities

Despite limited resources and support, the KNLA has been resourceful in acquiring military weapons and equipment. On top of obtaining humanitarian aid, the KNLA somewhat benefits from the sanctions enacted by Western countries. The UK, the US, and Canada are implementing the most sanctions against the military dictatorship. The KNLA has shown innovation in creating their weapons, such as through 3D printing. The FGC-9mm or fully known as (Fuck Gun Control 9-millimeter), is known as a predecessor of the FP-45 which stands for ‘Flare Projector,’ an uncommon yet widely known weapon during World War 2, manufactured by the United States, solely for the discreet resistance within occupied territories within Europe. Through this reputation, it gained the name 'Liberator'. These single-shot pistols were only a stepping stone when it came to the resistance’s arsenal, as these pistols were only a gateway to acquiring better weaponry. Like the Liberator, 3D-printed weapons offer the same opportunity to the KNLA and other armed ethnic groups within Myanmar. 

Moreover, the KNLA is widely known for its guerrilla warfare and ambush tactics within the jungles of Myanmar, through which the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) can gain useful resources and much-needed equipment after these ambushes amongst trade routes of the Junta. The number of armed forces has varied since its formation in 1947. As early as 2021, it was reported that the KNLA had a strength of approximately 15,000 troops. (5) The KNLA is currently divided into seven brigades (6) and a 'Special Force' reserved for special operations. (7)

Approach to Resistance 

The Karen National Liberation Army seeks autonomy for the Karen people and what it perceives as liberation for the the wider population of Myanmar. Their approaches to fight for this outcome involve guerrilla warfare tactics and ambush tactics, with a defensive focus within the Karen territory and communities. The KNLA has been a part of vast ethnic armed movements in Myanmar, such as EAO, otherwise known as Ethnic Armed Organization, and CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement.) Both organizations advocate for political dialogue and a federal system that fully recognizes the rights of the Karens, and other oppressed ethnic groups.

On May 6th, 2022, Andrew Nachemson of Al Jazeera reported on how the Karen became a crucial group within Myanmar’s anti-coup resistance. Within the report, Nachemson re-released a statement from the KNU, which states, “We cannot accept the military taking power and detaining the country’s leaders. This is a massive obstacle and challenge in transitioning to democracy,” essentially accusing the military of violating its own 2008 constitution. (8)

International Relations & Alliances 

The alliances of the KNLA within Myanmar are wide. As of 2023, they are associated with more than a dozen other insurgent groups. The KNLA is a part of the 4k Coalition which consists of the Karenni Army, Karenni National People’s Liberation Front, and the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force. Other allies include the Karen National Defence Organisation, All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Arakan Army, Bamar People’s Liberation Army, DKBA-5, Kachin Independence Army, People’s Defence Force, and the Free Burma Rangers. The KNLA/KNU is also allied with a similar organization called the National Unity Government, or NUG, which was founded on January 31st, 2007 by Major General Saw Htein Maung, who was the commander of 7th Brigade within the KNLA. (9) 


bottom of page