Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Karen – Introduction

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · *Introductions, Karen

by Paul Keenan and Nan Mu Chaung Ku

The purpose of this paper is to contribute towards a better understanding of the Sgaw Karen language in terms of security and how the Karen,[1] who have been fighting a civil war since Burmese independence in 1947, conceptualize these terms relating to their own belief in an independent Karen country or Kawthoolei.

It is important to note that the Karen speaking groups have been identified as consisting of at least 15 main and sub-groups each with their own distinct languages and dialects.[2] These diverse groups are spread throughout Eastern Burma, the Irrawaddy Delta, and also into Shan State. The Burmese military themselves have listed twenty Karennic speaking groups split between the Karen and Karenni. These groupings are generally discounted by the Karen themselves and they believe it to be another example of the Burmese Government’s policy to marginalize the race.

For the purposes of security this study has chosen the language of the main political organisation, the Karen National Union. The Karen leadership has, since its conception in the 1800s, been composed primarily of the Sgaw Karen group and, despite the fact the Pwo Karen may be numerically superior,[3] the education and opportunities for societal advancement offered to the Sgaw has been higher. This has resulted in a bias towards the Sgaw language being spoken in political circles, in those cases where Burmese is not used.

The terms Karen, Sgaw and Pwo are in themselves misnomers and are actually anglicised references to the ethnic group constructed after first encounter by western travellers. The word Karen is a derivative of the Burmese ‘Kayin’, while Sgaw class themselves as Pakanyaw and the Eastern Pwo, Plone or Western Pwo, Plone Sho.

Prior to the arrival of western missionaries in the 1800s, the Karen language was purely oral with no cohesive written script, relying instead on a form of Karen poetry or Hta. It wasn’t until the arrival of missionaries and large scale conversions of the Karen to Christianity that a written script was finally introduced.

The first Sgaw dictionary, based on a Burmese script, appeared in 1830 and was a collaborative effort between Reverend Jonathan Wade and Thesdine Than Bya. This dictionary is still widely used today. In relation to political discourse however, especially since the emergence of the Karen Nationalist movement, the preferred language of governance has been Burmese or, especially in the colonial period, English.

Saw Ba U Gyi, considered to be the father of the Karen revolution, wrote the four principles that are the foundation of the Karen struggle in English. It wasn’t until later that they were translated into Sgaw.

Burmese has been adopted as the language of politics, with most official Karen documents, for example the judicial manual, being exclusively in Burmese with no other translation. This has caused a number of problems in relation to our research, as there has been very little documented material actually in Karen. We have frequently been given statements and press releases in English; when we asked for the same statements in Karen there often weren’t any, with the only other copies being in Burmese. A similar problem relating to reliance on Burmese was highlighted in relation to the term ‘deterrence’, which cannot be found in any Karen dictionary. We were given a loose translation in Karen form by one leader we spoke to. Another elder, who is considered to be the local authority in the language, was able to provide an exact word for the term. However the latter term was merely the Burmese word for deterrence, which could be found in the Burmese-English dictionary. It is this word that has been widely adopted as the Karen term.

That said, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the language of security and the concepts these terms invoke are not necessarily going to be familiar to Karen at the village level. For example the word ‘deterrence’ as given by the first Karen leader would be understood by local villagers as synonymous with protection, while the latter definition, using the Burmese term, would probably not.




[1] For the purpose of this study the plural term ‘Karen’ as opposed to ‘Karens‘is used. The reason for this is that one elder stated that they themselves use the former after 1948 and the latter prior to this. Personal conversation with high ranking KNU leader 2003.

[2] Sgaw can also be spelt and pronounced Swaw.  At least one Karen elder I spoke to insisted that the latter was the only way to pronounce it.

[3] There are no definitive numbers for the Karen with estimates ranging from three to seven million. Burmese Government figures are notoriously inaccurate.


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