Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Burmese – (Khuhkan) kakweyei

May 25th, 2011 · No Comments · Burmese, Defence

(Khuhkan) kakweyēi

Relates to defence; protection

Variously translated as defence or protection, khuhkan kakweyēi, and its more common form kakweyēi, are among the most prominent security concepts in Burma.  As in English, the word elements that comprise khuhkan kakweyēi imply benevolent actions that are primarily focused on maintaining the status quo.  The government’s discourse about kakweyēi can be misleading, as it seeks to legitimize actions, which are often offensive in nature, both in the sense that they alienate and imperil the populace, and in the sense that they are intended to aggressively restructure the polity rather than maintain the status quo.[1] Moreover, the military’s claim to be defending the country stands in sharp contrast to its widespread castigation for human rights abuses, and charges that it engages in ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.[2]

The prefix khuhkan, which means to resist, defend, or oppose, is often dropped in informal speech.  Kakwe, is formed with the word elements ka, meaning to block (an opening), obstruct, shield or screen, and kwe to hide, conceal, be hidden, or obstruct (the view). Yēi is a noun-forming particle.

In government propaganda, the Ministry of Defense, kakweyēi wunkyī htana, and the Tatmadaw, are presented as the primary referents and providers of defence and protection.  This is reflected in the official translation of Tatmadaw as Defence Services, which is otherwise colloquially translated as ‘armed forces’. 

Government propaganda presents the Tatmadaw, as a benevolent force steadfastly devoted to protecting and defending the state and nation of Myanmar.  Myanmar is said to have existed for thousands of years as an independent empire until imperiled by British colonial subjugation.  “Born of the struggle for national independence”, the Tatmadaw claims that it is working steadfastly to eliminate the malevolent legacies of colonialism and to reunify the country and its peoples.

In fact, the armed forces are often offensively engaged in fundamentally restructuring the polity in fundamentally new and controversial ways.  For instance, military offensives against ethnic insurgencies seek to impose centralized control over areas which remained largely autonomous prior to the late nineteenth century and inhabited by peoples with no sense of a Myanmar national identity.

In other instances, the discourse of protection is highly paternalistic, justifying military rule on the basis that the Tatmadaw is the only institution capable of representing the collective will of the populace in light of the public’s political immaturity.  One political tract demands of the reader:

Does not the Tatmadaw a very strong national political force, deserve a leading role in the performance on the political stage?  Or, is the Tatmadaw to remain confined to barracks as an onlooker with its mouth gagged? . . . Is this immense force to be denied a role on the political stage of Myanmar and forced into the role of a mere spectator?  Now, when a constitution has emerged and if that constitution is being flouted and violated, who is going to protect it? [emphasis added].[3]

Some of the main focal points of defense, and their commonly associated antitheses, are presented in the table below.  However, the juxtaposition between specific objects of defense and antitheses is merely suggestive — in the state’s ideological discourse the imperilment of any of these referents of security, threatens a whole gamut of undesirable outcomes.

Focal points of defense Antitheses of defense
Sovereignty anarchy/chaos 


Independence/Freedom neo-colonialism/foreign domination/enslavement 


Law and Order chaos/public disorder/crime/terrorism/ insurgency 


Unity/national solidarity contestation/disagreement/public expressions of dissent 


People’s desires racialism, extremism, personality cults, communism 




International Human Rights Clinic (2009). Crimes in Burma. Cambridge, MA, Harvard Law School.

Nawrahta (1995). Destiny of the Nation. Yangon, News and Periodicals Enterprise: Ministry of Information.

P.Gutter, a. B. K. S. (2001). BURMA’S STATE PROTECTION LAW: An Analysis of the Broadest Law in the World. Bangkok, Burma Lawyers Council.



[1] This prominence is evident in 171 instances of the word ‘defence’ and ‘defend’ including 119 references to the ‘defence services” in the English version of the 2008 Constitution.

[2] See for example, International Human Rights Clinic (2009). Crimes in Burma. Cambridge, MA, Harvard Law School.

[3] Nawrahta (1995). Destiny of the Nation. Yangon, News and Periodicals Enterprise: Ministry of Information.


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