Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Karen – Dta maplaw mashel gwi Bwa kalu

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Community, Karen, Race

Dta maplaw mashel gwi Bwa kalu

Relates to racial purity; community

How important is race as a referent as security?  One indication of the importance of race is a stress on racial purity. While there is no real term in relation to racial community the term for racial purity refers more to social rather than security issues. Literally:

– Dta maplaw mashel gwi – clear

– Bwa kalu – nation

Kalu is the Karen term that most closely approximates the idea of ‘race’: Karen is described as a Kalu, as are Shan and Burmese.  No clear distinction is made between race and nationality.  This suggests a difficulty for Karen as a component part of a nation that includes other ethnicities.

The two main Karen groups, the Sgaw and the Pwo, have for many centuries maintained that there should be no intermarriage between the two. Although the reasoning for this is based more on historical bias, such attudes persist. In his book The Four-Foot Colonel,describing the Karen Commander of the Burmese Armed Forces, Smith-Dun comments that ‘…within memory of the author in half a century or so (writing in the 50s) it is most uncommon for a Pwo Karen boy to a marry a Sgaw Karen girl or vice-versa’.

There are some concerns about Karen villages becoming mixed with other races. While there are very few exclusively Karen villages left in Burma there are a couple in Papun which according to one elder have attempted to prevent integration with other Karen and Burmese races., It must be noted that these Sgaw villages appear to be an anomaly.

For the most part, it would appear that the biggest problem concerning Karen villagers is the migration of other races into Karen areas on the basis of privilaged business, logging, mining and trading conditions, exacerbated by the SPDC’s concerted effort to relocate people from towns into ‘development projects’ As one interviewee states in regards to one relocation in Kyauk-Kyi Township:

Ya Hte Ler A’wel Thay Mar Ter Rel Ter Kleh Ei K’duu Awo Taw P’wel Thay Ter Gay Kawl Aa K’lu K’lu Law. Ber M’nu A’kol Lel, A’wel Thay Hsel Taw Pwar T’per May Pwar Ler Wai Puu A’kol May Hel Tuu Dot K’mar Taw Ter Gay Kol Dot P’wel Thay Lay A’ao Tu Lei Pel Ei T’per Aa K’lu K’lu Law. May Ler A’wel Thay Aa T’kelt P’wa T’gay A’kol Law, T’naw Hu Aaw Ter K’ao Dot T’naw Kol Plo Lay T’ter Law Ter Kle Klot, Hsei T’ao Dot A’ter K’nart Ler A’gaw Ter May T’lel T’lol Nay K’ber Nart Hku Dot Pwart Law.

“I think that conflict will surely happen when the new immigrants who are non-Karen stay together with us in the same area. The new immigrants will be mostly non-Karen and civil servants working in government service in towns that have different culture and religion from us. I don’t think that the project will be a benefit for us but only will be for the SPDC troops.”

Although for the two main Karen groups there is a contemporary sense of taboo about inter-group marriages, in response to authors’ questions regarding Karen attitudes towards the offspring of a Sgaw/Pwo union, a Karen elder replied that such a child was perceived as being truly pure, and recalled a Karen saying:

Pwo dot Sgaw May Law Kay A’poe Nay Kel Pwart Hsel Naw Law.

“A Pwo and Sgaw union [will be more] special”

For those children of mixed parentage (not Karen related) the Karen use the term, (kapra), which is borrowed from the Burmese word, (kapya). This connotes an absolutist interpretation of Karen identity, as demonstrated in relation to the union of a Muslim and a Karen. Here the children are often viewed as losing their Karen identity and are not considered to be half-Karen. Rather they are merely referred to as Muslim. According to one elder, once a Karen marries a Muslim they must fully adopt an Islamic identity, and in doing so lose their Karen identity. This points to the distinctive breadth of the concept of ‘race’ within Karen society, which extends beyond ethnicity to encompass ideational factors such as religion.

For the most part social status is based more on religion rather than race . This raises the question of whether the most potent referent of security is, in fact, religious affiliation. For example, ‘Christian Karen’ rather than ‘Karen’. The distinction between Pwo Karen who are often Buddhist-animist and the  Sgaw who are often Christians is crucial. Opportunities for advancement (in KNU/KNLA controlled areas) are more likely if you are a Christian and the authors have personally met a number of Karen who have changed their religion to Christianity so that they, or their offspring, might have a better life.

In its attempts to elevate the Karen in the areas they control, the DKBA have forcibly removed the Muslim population in an attempt to allow Karen ownership of many of the businesses and shops that have traditionally been operated by Muslims. According to one DKBA officer who has control over the DKBA’s model village at Shwe Koako the reason for this is that ‘…they have long caused unrest in Burmese society’.[2]

One of the most extreme examples of DKBA prejudices towards Muslims occurred in the south-east of Hlaingbwe, when 555PthP Division commander Maj. Kyaw Kar, ordered more than 1,000 Muslims to relocate within two months. [3]

For many of the Karen racial purity is often negated by religious practices, and there is much discrimination based on an individual’s belief. This perhaps is the biggest concern in relation to the stability of Karen society as can be seen by the rebellion by Buddhist soldiers in the mid-nineties. Race within their own group does not appear to be a major issue for the majority of Karen although the fact that prejudices do exist especially towards the Muslim  and Burman populations cannot be denied.  This stress on religion over ethnicity opens the possibility for further changes of identity, in particular the assimilation of Buddhist Karen to the Burmese majority community.




[1] Forced Labor on Mu Theh Villagers to do the Rural Development, Interview with Saw Bu Htoo, FTUK

[2] Supamart Kasem, ‘Burma exiles would rather stay at home.’, Bangkok Post 13/11/2000

[3] Ibid


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