Pwo Karen

Geographical Distribution

Globally the Karen can be found between latitude of 10 – 21 degrees North, and a longitude of 94 – 100 degrees east. The Ethnologue at the WEB site from the Summer Institute of Linguistics teaches us that the Karen can be sub-divided into 19 different subgroups. Each of those having their own language and culture. In these subgroups dialect differences vary to the extent that one dialect often cannot understand another dialect.


The total population of the Karen numbers approximately 3,8 million people. About 89% of them live in Myanmar; the other 11% live in Thailand. In Thailand the Karen are the largest tribal group, and they form 46% of the tribal population of Thailand. The largest Karen sub-group in Thailand is the Sgaw Karen. Roughly 30% percent of the Karen population are Pwo. The Pwo Karen form the second largest tribal group in Thailand.


Language Group:
The Karen languages are classed as Sino-Tibetan languages.

Languages & Dialects

All Karen languages are monosyllabic agglutinated speech, with no final consonants in Sgaw Karen and with nasals and finals in other dialects. These are all marks of Sinitic speech. Dr. D.C. Gilmore believes that the Pwo dialect branched off from the parent stem earlier than the Sgaw, but kept the original nasals and, being in closer contact with outside races, adopted more outside words. The Sgaw has dropped the final nasals, because they were more difficult to pronounce, but has kept the original form of the language to a greater extent than the Pwo.

Pwo Karen has six tones. In Myanmar a Burmese script is used to write down the language, in Thailand a modified Thai script is used. There are only 26 of the 44 Thai characters used, in the Thailand Pwo Karen Script.

The name “Karen” is an imperfect transliteration of the Burmese word “Kayin” the derivation of which has puzzled students of that language. It has been thought that this word is derived from the name by which the Red Karen call themselves, i.e., “Ka-Ya”

According to their language or dialect differences the Karenic people can be divided into four subgroups.

  • The Manumanaw, theSgaw Karen that call themselves Paganyaw, and the Bwe Karen.
  • The Eastern and Western Red Karen groups also known as Kayah.
  • The Pwo Karen that refer to themselves as Phlong, Pho and Shu.
  • The Pa ’o or Black Karen are Karen speaking people, however ethnically they are not Karen.


Harmony is one of the highest cultural values among the Pwo Karen. This comes out in particular during weddings and funerals. Every body is supposed to turn up on these events. Not attending these events is often explained as living not in harmony with the family concerned. Large crowds gather together for these events, also from other village in the area.

The Material Life
The Pwo Karen people live in houses that are made out of bamboo or wood. To have a wooden house is usually a sign that people are better off then others. These days the grass and leafe roofs are being replaced with corrugated iron or asbestos sheet roofs. In villages close to the main roads. You often see more houses like the Northern Thai build them. The building of those houses is often a project that takes more then one year to build and to pay for them the people will often have to leave the area to work in larger cities.

The original Pwo Karen houses are build on stilts about 4-5 feet off the ground. Under the house a good amount of firewood is kept to last from year till year. Also tools used in their fields are kept under the house, as is the cattle when they come home for the night.

Physical Characteristics
The Pwo Karen people are of medium height. On average about 5 feet and 4 inches (cm.) in stature. The Karen is a stocky race with broad, well-built bodies, strong legs, and well-rounded calves. The legs are often short in proportion to the body. They are capable of considerable physical exertion, but soon tire. The woman is well formed and buxom. They have an erect carriage, being used to bearing heavy burdens on their heads or backs. Their teeth, like the men’s, are stained with continual betel nut chewing. Their youth is cut short by heavy work in the fields, childbearing, and nursing, and soon the signs of age appear. Less common these days is the tattooed waist, bottom and upper part of the upper-legs of the men.

The basic and the traditional Karen dress for men are red cotton shirt and bleu trousers with wide legs. The shirt is simply two pieces of cotton cloth joined at the sides to form a “sack” with a hole for the neck at the top and two holes for the arms on either sides of the sack. The variation of the shirt. Most Karen shirts for the men have a few patterns woven into them. Some men still wear earrings.

The married women’s clothing is much more decorated shirt and a decorated red skirt. Traditionally the women wear heavy chains with beads and sometimes coins around their neck. The earrings are decorated with wool and sometimes with little silver chains. The clothes of a single lady are a white sack-like dress that hangs from the shoulders down to about one foot above the ground.

Agriculture and Domestic Animals
The Pwo Karen people are rice farmers. They use two methods of growing rice. One method is the paddy rice the other is rice planted on the hill-slopes that have been cultivated by means of the slash and burn method. Due to shortage of water in the mountains the Pwo Karen people can usually only grow one crop per year. Some Pwo Karen that live on the plains can grow two crops of rice per year due to the fact that the rivers on the plains contain more water all year round. During the rainy season the Karen also grow some vegetables.

Men like to go hunting at night. The women go out fishing and frog hunting. Pigs and chicken are raised to fulfill the need for animals for sacrifice during religious ceremonies.

The wealthier Karen have Cows and buffalo’s. These animals are bought as an investment. In order to have cash, men and woman will go to work for the northern Thai and Lawa people that do market gardening.

Trade and Industrial Arts
In each village you will find people that have different skills. Several people are carpenters, a few are blacksmith’s that forge knives in charcoal that has been blown red hot with a wind pump. Others are experts with bamboo that make rice tray’s, baskets, chicken coupes, pipes, containers etc.

All married woman are supposed to be able to weave shoulder bags, men’s shirts single dresses, married ladies skirts and tops. Some ladies sell shoulder bags they have made to the Thai, but this is on a very low scale. On the whole the products are made to be used in the village.

Religion and Beliefs

The animistic Pwo Karen believe that they have 33 good spirits living in them. Care must be taken to keep these spirits in their bodies or they will suffer sickness and misfortune. They also believe there are harmful spirits around them that must be appeased with expensive ceremonies and sacrifices of pigs and chickens. Fear of the spirits rules their lives. There are also many Pwo Karen that are strongly influenced by Buddhism.

Pwo Karen culture is matriarchal. The head of a spirit clan is always a woman who requires regular clan offerings. When a couple marries the husband becomes part of the wife’s clan. When a husband is the first to believe the wife is not required to change her belief. If the wife is first to believe, often the husband and children follow.

With more schools in the villages more Pwo Karen have adapted Buddhism. This is usually a religion added on to their animistic beliefs. Other religions as Joerie, and Bahai are also reported in Thailand. Besides this some Pwo Karen are faithfully following a few influential monks that claim to have special powers. There seem to be less fear of the spirits with the younger generation then there was with the older generation.

Myths, Legends, and Tales
The Pwo Karen have several legends. Some people are very good at telling them and gather lots of listeners around them when they talk. Some legends are similar to Old Testament Bible stories. Others deal with their poverty and claim that one day this will come to an end. i.e. The orphan boy that has nothing will one day be rich himself. Different legends are found in different villages, but it is not uncommon that they are all similar in content.


Christian Work
In 1827 Adoniram Judson, the first Protestant missionary to Myanmar hired a Karen man who later became the first convert. This Karen man by the name of Kho Tha Byu was touched by what Mr. Judson told him from the Bible and thought that the Bible must be the lost gold and silver book that some Karen legends talk about. He was convicted of his sin and received forgiveness for the 30 murders he was guilty of. He then became a zealous evangelist that went to many Karen villages to share the Good News. Many Karen became Christians in these days and at present there are about 500,000 Karen Christians in Myanmar.

In Thailand the Baptist where the first to start a work among the Sgaw Karen. Later the work started among the Pwo Karen. In 1955-56 the language was analyzed and by using the Thai script a writtren language was made.

Exit Strategy
God has already called thousands of Pwo Karen into His family so the Pwo Karen are not an unreached people group. However, there are areas where few Pwo Karen are Christians. Areas of unreached people we refer to as an unreached population segment. Most of the Pwo Karen people and Pwo Karen Christians live in Myanmar but 100,000 Pwo Karen live in Thailand and many of these villages have not yet heard the Gospel.