Legend has it that the word ‘ karen’ means ‘a river of running sand’, referring to the Gobi Desert that Karen ancestors reputedly crossed. The third most populous group in Eastern Myanmar, the Karens number an estimated 4 million, and live in Myanmar; half of them call the Delta region home and the rest reside in the Thai borderlands. Though Sgaw, Pwo and Bwe are the three ethnic sub-groups that make up the Kayin group, Sgaw and Pwo are the two main camps.
Traditionally, no Karen woman would consider marrying a Karen whose body has not been tattooed, as the tattoos represent a man’s endurance and strength. Customarily animists, the Karens practise offering a portion of the family meal to spirits as sacrifice, even though most members have turned to Buddhism; about 20 percent have converted to Christianity and a small percentage are Muslims. Hailing from a long lineage of wrestlers, boxers and martial artists, the Karens are a force to be reckoned with. The members from this major ethnic group value their independence highly and are known to never sign peace agreements with the Myanmar military.
Gradually, many migrating Karens have become assimilated to the local Burman community in neighbouring towns, such as Bassein, and no longer speak Karen. In addition, with their numerous dialects, linguistic cohesiveness is a hard concept to grasp.
All Sgaw Karen people, regardless of their location, are bonded by a common language, biological characteristics and cultural heritage. The Karen languages are divided into three broad categories: Northern, Central and Southern. Although the Karen languages fall in the Tibeto-burman family, they do not fully fit into the overall classification, as they consist of monosyllabic, agglutinated speech. The Sgaw dialect, adapted from the Karen language, takes this further by dropping the final consonants and nasals like [n] and [m] because of pronunciation difficulty, but kept the original language form. Its written form uses the Mon script. To date, over one million people in Myanmar and Thailand use the Sgaw dialect, also referred to as Sgaw Karen or Sgaw Kayin.
People from the Pwo mountain tribe make up 30 percent of the entire Karen population. Majority of the Pwo are wet rice agriculturalists who often live alongside Burman or in the plains and valleys where they gather fruits and vegetables. The men hunt, plough, cut timber and make mats and baskets. Some of the Pwo villages still live in the traditional long house that can accommodate 20 to 30 families. The Pwo Karens are believers of supernatural deities including nats (spirits). However, in the past century, about 20 percent of the Pwo Karens have converted to Christianity.
The Pwo language, which has six tones, has been modified due to close contact with outside tribes, but has retained the original nasals. The dialect utilises a Thailand Pwo Karen script, in which only 26 of the 44 Thai characters are used.
Traditionally, no Karen woman would consider marrying a Karen whose body has not been tattooed