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Kawthoolei (S'gaw Karen: ကီၢ်သူလ့ၤ) is the Karen name for Karen country that the Karen people of Myanmar have been trying to establish since the late 1940s. Kawthoolei roughly approximates to present-day Kayin State, although parts of the Burmese Ayeyarwady River delta with Karen populations have sometimes also been claimed. Kawthoolei, as a name, was penned during the time of former Karen leader Ba U Gyi, who was assassinated around the time of Burma's independence from Britain. Kawthoolei has also been spelled ‘Kaw-thu-lay’ or ‘Kawthoolie’ with the last syllable replacing the ‘lay’ with ‘lea.’ The name ‘Kaw-thu-lay’ was used by the Government of the Union of Burma in drawing up its constitution which made provisions within a Karen land.
Prior to the adoption of Kawthoolei there were a number of other names to denote what the Karen people would call a Karen country. In the early 1900s, the historical term used for a Karen land was Kaw Lah or ‘green land’ – and it is unclear as to why the new name was adopted, although it probably developed due to Karen political aspirations after the Second World War. Kawthoolei is not the only name used to refer to a Karen country: the Pwo Karen use the phrase ‘Kan Su Line’, literally ‘land cool cave’.
The precise meaning of Kawthoolei is disputed even by the Karen themselves. Kawthoolei, literally means a land without evil in Sgaw Karen. However even this translation is at odds with the linguistic realities. It serves to reinforce a particular conception of Karen society and is attributed to the influence of Christian beliefs. The translation as ‘a land where the Thoo Lei flower grow’ can similarly be interpreted. As one elder pointed out, the Thoo Lei flower can be found throughout the country, and even in Thailand, where Karen People settled around northern Thai City ChingMai (Karen people call it Keimel, Burmese Kings called it Zinmel), and as such the term could be interpreted as the Karen making a claim for Burma in its entirety, and perhaps adding even more territory. According to Martin Smith in "Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity", Kawthoolei has a double meaning, and can also be rendered as the Land Burnt Black; hence the land that must be fought for.
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