Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Karen – Dtamersu Bwamadta

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Forced Labour, Karen

Dtamersu Bwamadta

Relates to forced labour


– Dtamersu – Demand

– Bwamadta – Hard work

The Karen are familiar with a number of terms for forced labour, the most widely used being the Burmese expression of Lok-a-pei or Loh Ah Pay. The term loh ah pay has been traditionally used in the past to refer to work given freely to earn merit, especially in the construction of temples and other monastic duties. However successive Burmese regimes have used the term to imply that labour must be performed for the state free of charge and at one’s own expense. When confronted with accusations of forced labour the regime has often used the past practice of loh ah pay as a reason for the use of coerced labourers, arguing that the western term of ‘forced labour’ does not take into account the cultural practices of Asia.

A number of orders, published by the Karen Human Rights Group and distributed in Karen areas use such Burmese terms as loh ah pay, Set Tha, and also wontan (see Burmese language section), demonstrating the widespread use of forced labour.[1] The use of forced labour, by both the military and civilian administration, was purportedly banned by Khin Nyunt on the 1st November 2000. Nonetheless, such practices continue.

Most orders given to villages, either by the SPDC, the DKBA or other related Karen groups are often written in Burmese, and as such, have developed a stronger meaning than its Karen equivalent. Karen orders issued by the DKBA avoid the use of a particular term and are often written in a more polite fashion (depending on the particular unit), utilising more vague terms as in the following, which were written in Sgaw Karen:

Date    7 / 7 / 2005



Head villager

I just want you to know that the order has come. On the 5 of June our DKBA monk leader will come, our logging place hasn’t fish so we need more villagers to come to fix the place and we have already sent one letter to you but you didn’t copy it so this time you must come yourself with villagers on 3rd of June. Last time you asked us to make a window for you now we have finish, come and pick it up.


Special Battalion

Pu K’Saw Wah


While there is little doubt that the above order is requesting work without recompense, this has not been stated explicitly. However the fact that villagers have little choice to comply is already understood by the village head. Similarly:

Date 24/ 5/ 2005


Head villager


When you get this letter to lay out villager (20) people doesn’t matter male or female to build houses for soldiers to live, and bring enough knives we already have bamboo and leaf for the roof so we need you to carry and fix it. If you see this order copy it immediately.

Specially Battalion

Pu K’Saw Wah


In addition to the widespread use of the Burmese term, there is a Karen equivalent (Ter Moe Hsu Pwart mart Ter). The Karen resistance movement has also relied on forced labour, and the term used in Karen is not as strong in language or meaning as its Burmese equivalent and the punishment and treatment of compulsory Karen labour is not as harsh as that meted out by the Burmese. The Karen term literally translates as ‘to demand hard work,’ and the cultural implications especially if requested by an elder offer very little choice. Those who do not comply may face imprisonment.

Regardless of the nature of the work requested, often portering for military columns, especially in the past during Burmese offensives, or assisting in the establishment of military camps, the KNU does not so much as see such practices as forced labour. Rather, such individuals are seen as contributing to the cause. For example in response to numerous allegations made against the KNU by a departing MSF Coordinator[2] , including the use forced labour, the Karen National Union responded that:

‘Though the KNU has to get help from the civilian population, if we compare it with the SPDC, which has been subjecting the civilian population to arbitrary arrest, forced labour and unlawful killing in frontline areas, it will be seen that the fundamental nature of the two are different.’[3]

While there have been a number of attempts to reduce the use of forced labour by the Karen National Liberation Army, such abuses do occur as a recent news article reports:

‘The Karen National Union has been recruiting villagers to join their guerrilla army units, local villagers from Kawkareik said. The Ongkong village of about 300 households was ordered to provide one person from each household. The village is comprised of multiethnic groups, including the Mon, Karen, Lao-Shan and Burmese, located near Kanee of Kawkareik in Karen State. The Mon community comprises about 200 households. A villager who arrived on the border said Commander Kyi Lin of KNU’s No. 6 Brigade gave the order saying that households who could not provide the soldiers would be fined. New recruits were working in farms belonging to KNU officers.’[4]

Despite the fact that the article implies that the villagers have been ‘recruited’ for the KNLA the commander concerned used his own position to force labourers to work on his own lands – a policy which the KNU states it does not condone and when asked to comment about this particular incident denied knowledge of it.

While such behaviour as that noted above is by no means common, the Karen National Union maintains that those who are requested to work for it do so with the knowledge and the understanding that they are contributing to the cause and therefore there is a great distinction to be made between their requests and that of the SPDC.




[1] See almost all KHRG reports – information for this paper used ‘Forced Labour Orders Since the Ban (KHRG 2002#1), Copies of Original SPDC Orders, Set 99c (KHRG #99-06) and SPDC and DKBA Orders to Villages, Set 2000-A.

[2] Address made during CCSDPT Meeting 2003, KHCPS Archive

[3] Clarification in Response to Public Accusations, KHCPS Archive

[4] Kao Wao, 23/09/06


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