Asian Geographic - - On Assignment -


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

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