Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Karen – Kawthoolei

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Karen, State


Relates to ‘Karen state’ or ‘Karen land’


– Kaw – Land/Country/State

– Thoo – Black

– Lei – None

The first reference to the name of a Karen country called Kawthoolei appears in the Karen history written by Saw Aung Hla, published in 1939. It can be translated as either ‘a land without darkness’[1] or alternatively, ‘a land where the Thoo Lei flower grows’: both translations are normally considered to mean a fertile land. The name has been adopted as synonymous with a free Karen homeland separated from Burma itself.

Prior to the adoption of Kawthoolei there were a number  of other names to denote what the Karen would call a Karen country. In the early 1900s  the historical term used for a Karen land was Kaw Lah or ‘green land’ – and  it is unclear as to why the new name was adopted, although it probably developed due to Karen political aspirations after the Second World War. Kawthoolei is not the onkly name used to refer to a Karen country: the Pwo Karen use the phrase ‘Kan Su Line, literally ‘land cool cave’.

The term Kawthoolei has sometimes been translated as ‘a land without evil’. However this translation is at odds with the linguistic realities. It serves to refinforce a particular conception of Karen society and is attributed to Christian beliefs. The translation as ‘a land where the Thoo Lei flower grow’ can similarly be misinterpreted. As one elder pointed out, the Thoo Lei flower can be found throughout the country, and even in Thailand, and as such the term could be interpreted as the Karen making a claim for Burma in its entirety, and perhaps adding even more territory.

The first KNU memorandum to the British government in 1945 called for a ‘united frontier Karen States’, while the Karen Youth Organisation, which was contesting KNU claims on Karen representation was merely calling for a Kanyaw Kaw, or Karen country.

The word Kawthoolei has also been spelt ‘Kaw-thu-lay’ or ‘Kawthoolie’ with the last syllable replacing the ‘lay’ with ‘lea.’ The reasons for the latter spelling are unclear but is most likely just a mis-spelling. ‘Kaw-thu-lay’ was used by the Government of the Union of Burma in drawing up its constitution which made provisions within a Karen State for:


181.     Until the Karen State is constituted under the last preceding section, the Salween District, and such -adjacent areas occupied by the Karen as may be a Special Commission to be appointed by the President, shall be a Special Region to be known as Kaw-thu-lay,…[2]

Kawthoolei became particularly relevant with the reorganisation of the Karen National Union after the 112 day standoff at Insein in Rangoon (February to May 1949). After the retreat,  the KNU reorganised what was left of their forces into the Kawthoolei Armed Forces (KAF) and in June 1949 a radio announcement was issued declaring the establishment of a free country of Kawthoolei.

Since that time the Karen National Union has promoted its struggle for Kawthoolei and at a meeting held in July 1950 the Karen administration had its name changed to the Kawthoolei Governing Body (KGB), although it reverted back to Karen National Union in the 1960s. The word continued to be used in military and government designations and a Kawthoolei (KTL) Women’s Unit was formed in the 1980s. All official KNU correspondence is issued by the ‘Office of the Supreme Headquarters, Kawthoolei’ and it is not uncommon for leadership speeches to talk of a

…peaceful and prosperous state of Kawthoolei that will shine forth in the world with fine attributes such as honesty, peace and justice.


In order to realize the Karenland of Kawthoolei…it is necessary for all of us to have patriotism, courage and loyalty and be ready to sacrifice everything in the performance of our duties…[3]

The actual geographical borders of Kawthoolei have changed throughout the Karen struggle in Burma. The original Karen leadership called for large parts of Thailand to be recognised by the post WWII British administration as part of a United Karen Frontier State. Such claims were dismissed by both the British and successive Burmese governments.  The KNU were pressed to define Kawtholei as meaning those areas  where the KNLA and its administration still operate. Although the Irrawaddy delta—which was a main focus of Kawthoolei at the beginning of the struggle—has been removed from Karen demands however still forms an important part of the Karen National Union’s political aspirations.[4]

Originally Kawthoolei seems to have been a term for the Karen homeland in relation to the Karen Nationalist movement, and became used as such sometime in the mid-40s. With the emergence of the DKBA which has been given control over large areas of Karen State, and to a lesser extent the Karen Peace Army active in the KNU 6th Brigade area – a Karen State of Kawthoolei seems to have become more of an ideal of the Karen resistance than a reality. A more contemporary perspective sees that recent negotiations between the KNU leadership have centred more on negotiating for areas that are more financially viable to its existence rather than necessitating the creation of a Karen homeland.

For a number of anti-KNU elements, including the Burmese government, the only truly KNU controlled areas are actually across the border in neighbouring Thailand, where large refugee camp have been in existence since the 1980s. These camps, which were often opposite main Karen bases inside Karen state, have provided the main support base for the Karen leadership including providing porters for military operations and supplies for soldiers. It is in these camps that many of the middle ranking Karen leaders, and their families, live.

Although under Thai control, the camps have been administered by the Karen Refugee Committee, which is heavily influenced, if not dictated to, by KNU policy. The fact that the main support base for the Karen leadership was in Thailand was highlighted after the DKBA/KNU split when DKBA units, supported by the Burmese army, attacked a number of refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border as opposed to targeting Karen installations or villages inside Karen state.[5]

Since the formation of the first Karen national association in 1881, the ‘Daw K’lu’, predominantly Sgaw Karen leaders have attempted to create a single Karen identity. It is likely that after a number of failed attempts the term ‘Kawthoolei’ was adopted by some ambitious leaders in the mid-1940s who sought to rally the Karen with a long-term goal of a free and extensive Karen land. Kawthoolei as envisioned by these leaders and the Kawthoolei desired by many Karen today are indeed different concepts.

The Kawthoolei that was once envisioned by the leaders of the past and the Kawthoolei that is wanted by many of the Karen population now are most certainly not the same. After years of civil war, death and hardship for most of the Karen people living in Karen state ‘Kawthoolei’, regardless of who administers it, would be nothing more that just a country where there is peace.




[1] See Benedict Rogers ‘A Land without Evil’ for example.

[2] Burma and the Insurrections, G.U.B.C.P.O – No 137 8-9-49

[3] General Bo Mya’s speech 36th Anniversary of Martyr’s Day.

[4] Personal conversations with high level Karen leaders between 2003-2008.

[5] Although it must be noted a number of other reasons were also responsible for such actions including Burmese and Thai policy towards the refugees.


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