Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Karen – Dasinyaw Bper law tha

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Karen, Self-determination

Dasinyaw Bper law tha

Relates to self-determination

The Karen leadership places a strong emphasis on the concept of self-determination which connotes  an autonomous (‘autonomy’ can also be a translation of the same word) state ruled by the Karen. The Karen use two terms to describe such an autonomous country. The first is ; and has the literal meaning:

– Dasinyaw – Decide

– Bper law tha – Rule Self

This term has salience at the local village level. With the emergence of the Karen political movement  in the late 1940s, however, a more politically loaded term was introduced by Saw Ba U Gyi, the KNU’s founder and one of the principle architects of the Karen independence movement. It is this term that appears as the last of the four principles that he enunciated. The relevant principle states:

‘We shall decide our own political destiny’

The Karen for this phrase is:

Kanyaw Geh Sinyaw Dta Nee Abut Dtaw De Weh

This is now widely understood as the classic conception of Karen ‘self-determination’, attained by oneself or one’s good fortune. The term for ‘we’ used in this phrase deploys ‘Kanyaw’ (Karen people) instead of a pronoun. This principle of ‘self-determination’ is ingrained in Karen political thought and a number of previous negotiations have failed due to the Burmese Government’s failure to recognise Karen aspirations.

In the KNU 56th Karen Revolution Day Statement 2005:

K’Nyaw K’lu Aa Ter Paar Hser Aeh Khay Taw Wel Der Lay K’Nyaw Poe T’per  Ka Dot Nay Ber Ter Pa Taw Tu Thot Htel Thot Dot Ter Thay Hse Nyaw Law Kay A’bu A’taw Dar Wel May Gay, Tee Law Kaw Pu K’lu Du Kel Ler K’dot Nay Ber Wel Naw K’ser Tee Ruu Kaw Thet Ter K’thay Hse Nyaw Naw K’sar A’bu A’taw May Gay, KNU- K’nyaw Daw K’lu Hser Pwo K’ray T’kol K’heet Kher Gay Klar Wel Tee Ru Kaw Thet A’ter Hser Thol A’wel Aeh Nay Law

“All Karen nationals ask [for] equality, self-determination (Sinyaw Dta Nee Abut Dtaw De Weh), and inside [the] country all ethnic people (civilians) will have their own political sovereignty. The Karen National Union must uphold [their] political stance.”

Similarly in another statement made to commemorate the 57th Revolution Day in 2006,the reasons for the struggle included the need for self rule:

Ter per Hser Eei Keh Taw A’thart Kaw Plo Ler Ter Doot Nay Berk ay Htoo Lei Kwet Yar ler A’may P’Ka Thay Doot Nay Ber Ter kwet Ter Yar Lay P’ka His Nyaw Pay Law Thart Dar Wel A’gaw K’nyaw Poe Gay Lei Wah T’par, K’nyaw Poe T’per Dar Wel Gel Hser Tao per Hser Lay Ter Thu Duu Thart Duu A’pu Nay Law. Ter Gay A’wel Eei May Ter Gay Kho Thay Lay Ter Per Hser Eei Thay Hser Tao Gao Klao Wel 57 Ni A’taw Puu Eei Nay Law.

“[This] Revolution has occurred so indigenous people [can] get a chance such as human rights and self-determination (Kanyaw Geh Sinyaw Dta Nee Abut Dtaw De). We stand bravely for revolution [and] this basic situation has happened for 57 years already.”

The word indigenous (Kanyaw Pogay Lee) in this example is best translated as people who have been here a long time, and suggests the Karen belief that they were the original inhabitants of the country.

The concept of Karen self-determination probably first appeared with the founding of the Karen National Association (KNA), Daw K’lu, in 1881. Although the term may not have been used at that time, the Association, which was heavily Christian influenced, had sought:

‘To utilize the clannishness of the race by having a common platform for heathen and Christian Karen, and thereby keep the nation together.’[1]

The KNA had been encouraged by a number of Christian missionaries to take up arms against the Burman rebellion following the third Anglo-Burmese war and side with the British. After the rebellion was crushed the first widely held view that their should be an independent Karen country appeared in 1887 in a book, The Loyal Karen of Burma by the British Civil Servant Donald Mackenzie Smeaton. A strong critic of British policy in India and closely associated with a number of missionaries, also agitating for Karen independence, Smeaton asked why the British did not:

give the Karen a chance of growing as a nation in their own way?’

Such calls were echoed throughout the Christian Karen elite and in 1928 Sir San C Po, C.B.E, the only Karen member of the legislative council, published in his book, Burma and the Karen, a call for a ‘Karen Country’.

The book, which relied heavily on Smeaton‘s work declared that:

The present-day ideal is self-determination; but the Karen, in their desire for self-determination, realise that self-deter­mination in their case must be determined according to the method and mode mapped out by experienced British officers…

By the late-1940s, with Burmese independence on the agenda, the younger Karen leadership had adopted a more guarded attitude towards British assistance. Faced with accusations that the Karen were preparing to split from the Union of Burma, and that their identity owed much to British colonial constructions, Saw Ba U Gyi gave an address to post-independence Burmese leaders including Prime Minister U Nu to rebuke such claims:

‘We have been much misunderstood by our demand for a separate Karen State. Some people misunderstand it as a manifestation of our desire to return to servitude under the British… We are not so foolish. We know them better than others and that is the reason why we steer clear of them.’[2]

The call for Karen self-determination now became linked to an anti-Rangoon vision of a Federal Union of Ethnic Nationalities based on a number of agreements.

A seminar on national solidarity in December 1998 called for ‘a genuine federal union, composed of national states, having national equality and full right of self-determination’.[3]

The Karen aspiration for a greater autonomy have become tied to those of all the other major ethnic groups – for Burma to become a federal union with each state having the right to self-determination.




[1] Smeaton. ‘Loyal Karen of Burma’ p223

[2] Text of Saw Ba U Gyi’s speech, Karen National Club, 9/10/48, Burma and the Insurrections, G.U.B.C.P.O – No 137 8-9-49

[3] Federal Union and Ethnic Nationalities, NCUB


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