Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Karen – Dta bee Dta ber

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

Dta bee Dta ber

Relates to security (More literally: ‘evasive protection’)

Security is seen to have been a major problem for the Karen people both recently and historically. It is often repeated that prior to the colonisation of the country by the British, the Karen found themselves trapped between the emergence of both the Mon and Burman  kingdoms. As both parties struggled for dominance, the Karen, caught in the middle, often found themselves fleeing from slavery and were forced to hide from both parties. Karen villagers in Karen State[1] continue to be harassed by Burmese soldiers.[2]

Government policy has focussed on moving the Karen population into military-controlled relocation camps, and as such, for most villagers security is a term that is synonymous with being free from such actions. In order to provide a more stable and secure environment a number of NGOs, operating from across the Thai border, have attempted to support displaced communities in organizing hiding sites in event of attack. These sites, where rice and other material are stored, are used when Burma army patrols approach villages. When troops have left villagers are free to return to their village but still remain under constant fear of further attack.

Dta Bee Dta Ber captures this anxiety about security – in particular the sense of being vulnerable to stronger forces operating in the vicinity of Karen communities. It can be translated roughly as ‘hidden from view’, and is usually associated with personal security.[3]


– Dta Bee – conveys the idea of being ‘hidden'; (and)

– Dta Ber – suggests ‘covered’

Together they characterise a long-term approach to security, which stresses hiding or seeking refuge.

Burmese army offensives against the Karen, which have focussed on population control rather than anti-insurgent activities, gained further momentum during a 2006 offensive in northern Karen State.

One headline in the on-line Karen language news journal KweKalu[4] drew attention to this fact using Dta Bee Dta Ber for the term security:

Taw Oo Kaw Ray

Sa Taw Lah March Ah Pu  Pa Yaw Thu Ta Par Heet Nay Ah Taw Tar Be Ter Bur Sa Taw Pyin Ma Nar Dot Hsu Mu Taw Ta Ka Part Kway Kway Dot Moe Hsu Tha Wall Poe Ta Par Kot Lay May Oo Kle, Tho Lay Kle Aa Hsay Ta Tel Bar Nay Law.

“Taw U District

March: Burmese military [has started to take] control [of] more security [from the] east of Pyinnmana since March 2006. The villagers [in those areas are] forced to watch [guard] railway and car road 24 hours every day.”

This passage confirms that the Burmese army has increased its presence in the area and,  through a process of forced labour, has assigned the security of the area to local villagers. The articles then goes on further to say in reference to the district that:

Thu Koh Doh Poe Lar Ngwe Seet Wel Ler Kaw Pa Yaw Aa Ter Taw Duu Aei Aa Ter Ber Twe Lo Thart Dot Heet Nay Ter Be Ter Bur Lay Aa We Koh Aa Thaw Pel Pyin Ma Nar Aa Gaw Ao Wel Pel Taw Au Kaw Ray Nay Soot Law Thart Dot Pyin Ma Nar Aa Koh Nay Law. Ta Kart Deet Ber Aa Wel Seet Wel Deet Aa Wel Thay Nyar Ber Wel Aa Thot Pa Yaw Thu Ka Saw Law Wel Taw Oo Deet Kaw Kol Ta Bay Aa Wil Koh Ber Sar Ter Gay Aeh Aa Wel Seet Wel Ta Law Tei Deet Ber Nay Law.

“Major Lah Ngwe said Burmese military take control [of] security for new capital. Re-locate Taw U district [because the area is] connected to Pyinmanna. As he knows about this situation Burmese military [may] resettle the capital to Taw U [as the division of the capital] but with this situation he can not say exactly.”

Although at the time the policy of the Burmese army was unclear, especially in relation to whether the main village would be re-located, Major Lah Ngwe, the commanding officer, had been given the responsibility for security.

The Karen often make no real distinction between personal and other forms of security. There are expressions used  to convey the type of anxiety implied in ‘food security’ or ‘food sustainability’, some of which are related to traditional Karen poems (Hta). One such expression is:

Aw Nyar K’taw Kwee

“Eat fish, preserve the pool.” Or similarly,

Aw Day K’taw Lay

“Eat frog, preserve the cliff.”

In both instances there is the suggestion of a need to protect a food source and keep it safe. It recognises the key issue of sustainability, and the need for long-term management of resources to avoid over-use. The Karen, historically, have used such Hta to communicate with each other often relying on lines of poetry to express a single concept. The use of Hta also represents a form of symbolic power, which can be used to create a sense of group solidarity to combat environmental and human security challenges emanating from central government intervention, as is the case with Karen groups across the border in Northern Thailand.[5]

It must be noted that such metaphors derived from Hta can be adapted to match very different situations. The examples from Hta given above can also be used in the context of people who do something without thinking about the consequences. Such Hta carry more meaning among people who are not well educated – people tending to live in the hills where more modern words are not so familiar.

In elite discussions the English language phrase ‘food security’ may well be used. It was employed, for instance,  in a Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) workshop on Food Security – though  it is unclear whether the participants were aware of the actual meaning.




[1] The Karen population in the Delta areas and in Rangoon have a much more secure environment. Although it must be noted that such security is largely provided by involvement in Church groups and not by the government. The most recent example if this being the Government’s response towards the Karen victims of Cyclone Nargis, many of whom had to rely on local community groups for help.

[2] See http// or http//

[3] Contextually the actual Karen term ‘Dta Bee Dta Ber’ can be seen as having two meanings another means to be ‘flat’

[4], accessed on 26th April 2006

[5] Prasert Trakarnsuphakorn, ‘Space of Resistance and Place of Local Knowledge in Karen Ecological Movement of Northern Thailand: The Case of Pgaz K’Nyau Villages in Mae Lan Kham River Basin, Indgenous Knowledge and Peoples Network, 2007 <> (Accessed 27 May 2011), p.2.


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