Ethnic and Religious Minority Groups of Burma

Ethnic and Religious

Minority  Groups of Burma


The greatest threats to global security today_

  1. come not from the economic deficiencies of the poorest nations  
  2. but from : 

  • religious,
  • racial (or tribal)
  • and political dissensions 

raging in those regions where principles and practices which could reconcile the diverse instincts and aspirations of mankind have been_

    •  ignored,
    • repressed
    • or distorted….
  1. Diversity and dissent need not inhibit the emergence of strong, stable societies,
  2. but inflexibility, narrowness and unadulterated materialism can prevent healthy growth.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. This reflects its strategic position between the borders of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Tibet, China, Laos and Thailand.

Throughout history settlers from many different ethnic backgrounds have migrated across the great horseshoe of mountains which surround the central Irrawaddy river-plain.

Today ethnic minority groups are estimated to make up at least one third of Burma’s population of 45 million and to inhabit half the land area.  The 1974 constitution (which is now being revised) demarcated seven ethnic minority states – the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah (formerly Karenni), Mon, Rakhine (or Arakan) and Shan – and seven divisions, which are largely inhabited by the majority Burman population. Such a map, however, is a political simplification. Over 100 different dialects and languages have been identified in Burma, and many unique ethnic cultures have survived late into the 20th century. These vary from the Kayan (Padaung) on the Shan/Karenni borders, where the ‘long-necked’ women wear extraordinary brass necklaces, to the Salum sea-gypsies of sub-tropical Tenasserim and the once head-hunting Naga along the India frontier.  The State Law and Order Restoration Council, which has ruled Burma since 1988, itself refers to the ‘135 national races’ of Burma, but has produced no reliable data or list of names. In general, the different ethnic sub-groups in Burma have been loosely simplified by anthropologists and linguists into four main families: the Tibeto-Burmese, Mon-Khmer, Shan (or Tai) and Karen.

Under General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party government (1962-1988), ethnic minority languages were openly downgraded and a tacit policy of ethnic, cultural and religious assimilation was instituted by the state.

A theory was developed of the ‘Burmese family of races’ -a family sharing one blood and historic origin. This view still continues and was summarised by the SLORC/SPDC chairman, Sr General Than Shwe, on the 46th anniversary of Burma’s Union Day on 12 February 1993:

“In the Union of Myanmar where national races are residing, the culture, traditions and customs, language and social systems may appear to be different, but in essence they are all based on the common blood of Union Kinship and Union Spirit like a hundred fruits from a common stem… There can be no doubt whatsoever of the fact that our national races have lived together unitedly in the Union of Myanmar since time immemorial.”  

Clinging firmly to the policy of Burman chauvinism, they muffle the basic birth rights of the indigenous races and absorb them of their cultures and traditions. Despite their shoutings of national unity, they ignore the equality of races.

In the present political climate, any substantial redrawing of Burma’s borders is unlikely. But several ethnic groups are found on both sides of the land frontiers surrounding Burma: notably,

  1. the Chin (Mizo) and Naga are also present in India;

  2. the Kachin, Wa and Shan in China;

  3. the Karen, Mon and Shan in Thailand;

  4. and the Buddhist Rakhine and ‘Rohingya’ Muslims in Bangladesh.

  5. The smaller hill communities of the Lahu, Akha and Lisu are even divided across four modern-day borders, being split between Burma, China, Laos and Thailand.

Only the Naga are represented by cross-border political movements of any significance, but the importance of inter-ethnic ties should not be underestimated. The idea, put forward by governments in Rangoon, that Burma is a homogenous island that can be successfully isolated from the outside world is a Burman-centric view which most other ethnic groups reject. It is also a view which has been a major impediment to the natural development of local economic and cultural ties between indigenous peoples on both sides of post-colonial borders.

Far from being a peripheral frontier problem, the ethnic minority crisis is one of the most central issues facing Burma and its neighbours today. All the regions along Burma’s 4,016-mile-long land border are inhabited by ethnic minorities, often with historic ties in neighbouring states, and armed ethnic opposition groups still police many of Burma’s frontier crossings and trade routes.

Historical Background

  1. The Mon and their distant hill cousins the Wa and Palaung in Shan State are usually described as the earliest inhabitants with descendants in Burma today.

  2. Ethnic Karen and Chin were probably the next to move down into central Burma

  3. before Burman migration accelerated into Upper Burma in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.

  4. Ethnic Shans also began migrating into south-east Asia at around the same time,

  5. followed by different Tibeto-Burmese hill peoples,

  6. including the Kachin and Lahu.

In general,

  1. hill-dwellers, such as the Chin and Kachin, practised slash-and-burn cultivation,

  2. while those who settled in the valleys and plains, notably Burman, Mon, Shan and Rakhine, formed larger communities where they turned to sedentary wet-rice farming.

There were many wars and political power changed hands frequently. Only in the late 18th century was the Burman ruler Alaunghpaya able to achieve control over most of the territories which subsequently came to constitute British Burma.

Nevertheless, despite these wars, there was cultural and ethnic inter­change throughout the centuries. This raises serious doubts over the wisdom, or indeed the relevance, of interpreting Burma’s history too literally in racial or nationalist terms. Many local communities and societies in Burma have, historically, been multi-ethnic. This suggests that there are many important precedents for inter-ethnic tolerance and understanding which could be drawn upon to reach a new consensus today.

During the British Colonial times, the ethnic minority Frontier Areas, in contrast, were governed quite separately from Ministerial Burma and, for the most part, left under the control of traditional rulers and chiefs.

Much to the resentment of the Burman majority, the Karen, Kachin and Chin were also preferred for recruitment into the colonial armed forces, and ethnic regiments were formed.

While Burma’s national liberation movement, led by Aung San, at first fought on the Japanese side, most minority peoples, including the Karen, Kachin and Muslims, stayed loyal to the British.

As a result, there were many bloody communal clashes and retaliatory killings during the war in which the minorities, for the most part, came off very much the worse.

Ethnic minority leaders have frequently said that the war massacres made them resolve to take up arms after independence if their political demands were not met.

As a symbol of equality and voluntary union, Aung San famously promised: “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.” But the Karen, Mon, Rakhine and several other ethnic minority groups were not represented and, amidst many other errors, were critically overlooked by both the British and the coalition Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), which was to form Burma’s first independent government.  Following elections to a Constituent Assembly, these principles were incorporated into the constitution of September 1947, which was federalist in principle. The new constitution instituted a bicameral legislature, with a Chamber of Nationalities and a Chamber of Deputies. On ethnic rights, however, it was riddled with anomalies. The Shan and Karenni were awarded the voluntary right of secession after a 10-year trial period, whereas the Mon and Rakhine ended up without even a state of their own. And while in the Karenni and Shan States the traditional royal Sawbwa or rulers were allowed to retain their near-feudal rights, the complex rules of representation determined that ethnic Burmans would predominate in both houses of parliament. Equally inconsistently, the much-promised Karen State remained undemarcated, and, right up until independence, arguments continued over the different merits of ‘nationality states’, ‘communal seats’ in parliament and special ‘ethnic minority rights’.6  As a gesture of conciliation, the figurehead positions in the new Union were shared on an ethnic basis in keeping with Aung San’s philosophy of ‘Unity in Diversity’ (see box). After U Nu, a Burman, was elected as prime minister, Sao Shwe Thaike, a Shan, and Smith Dun, a Karen, were appointed as president and army chief-of-staff respectively. But such measures came too late. By the end of 1947 the KNU and several other nationality parties were already boycotting the political process. Across the country storm clouds were clearly gathering with many ethnic Burmans, especially in the communist movement and the army, equally unhappy about the AFPFL government of U Nu. Burma’s independence was born out of bloodshed. The country’s second-largest political party, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), went underground in March 1948, and the KNU followed at the beginning of 1949. In quick succession, many ethnic Burman and Karen units in the army mutinied in sympathy, reducing government authority at one stage to just six miles out of Rangoon. AFPFL reasserted urban control, but throughout the late 1940s and 50s various other ethnic groups, including the Karenni, Mon, Pao, Rakhine and Muslim Mujahids, took up arms in the countryside.

Acknowledgements: Extracts from Martin Smith’s Ethnic Groups in Burma.

A Burmese Muslim Democracy Activist

A Burmese Muslim Democracy Activist

Republish from Burma Digest

“So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannise will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.”

– Voltaire


mmda2.pngA Burmese Muslim Democracy Activist