A Brief Overview of the Ethnic Minorities of Burma

8 February 2021


Although the name ‘Burma’ comes from the Bamar people who form two-thirds of the country’s population, in official government statistics, Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region containing over 135 ethnic groups. Throughout its long history, the country’s geographic position has resulted in the country attracting settlers from many different backgrounds. Over 100 languages are spoken, and minority ethnic communities are estimated to make up between 40-60% of the country’s total population and inhabit half the land area.

According to the most recent government census in 2014, Burma has a population of more than 51.4 million. It was the first census in over 30 years and fell short of estimates of 60 million however populations from certain northern zones of Rakhine State, home to the Rohingya minority, and some villages in the states of Kachin and Kayin were not counted.

Officially, the many ethnic communities of Burma are grouped into eight ‘official’ groups, broadly based upon location, but this official designation takes little account of the diverse characteristics, languages and cultures that they encompass. The eight ‘official’ groups are the Bamar (68%), Chin (2.5%), Kachin (1.5%), Karen (7%), Kayah (1.83%), Mon (2%), Rakhine (4%) and Shan (9%). (Figures from 2016). But these broad categories embrace multiple identities, from the ‘sea gypsies’ of the southern islands, to the “long-necked” women of Padaung, to the Nagas on the Indian frontier, and the tattooed women of Chin State, not to mention the Pa-O, Wa, Kokang, Akha and Lahu tribal peoples. The main religions in the country are: Therevada Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism.

This ethnic diversity is the product of Burma’s strategic position, bordered by Bangladesh, India, Tibet, China, Laos and Thailand. Throughout history people migrated across the mountains that surround Burma’s central plains, putting down roots in remote pockets of the countryside. The locations they settled in were often extremely isolated and inaccessible, meaning that these cultures survived for generations without outside influences. It is this combination of factors that makes Burma so ethnically diverse.

This ethnic diversity is also expressed by a multiplicity of languages. Whilst the national language is Burmese, over 100 different dialects and languages have been identified, even possessing different alphabets. Reflecting their varied origins, the families of languages include Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, and Indo-European languages and many more besides. However, during the decades of military government, the use of minority languages was discouraged as the government attempted to assimilate ethnic minorities into the majority population, promoting the concept of a common national identity.

In addition to these many groups, there are others who are not recognised by the government and who are barred from citizenship. Currently, the most famous of these are the Rohingya, Muslims who migrated from Bangladesh and settled in Rakhine State. Even those who have lived in Burma for generations are denied citizenship both by Burma and by Bangladesh, making them currently one of the world’s most persecuted and ‘stateless’ groups. Other unrecognised groups include Tibetans, Anglo-Burmese, Gurkhas, Panthay and Burmese Pakistanis – groups that are mainly either immigrants or children of migrants who settled in the country many years ago.


Burma’s Ethnic Minorities – A Brief History

1,500 years ago, the country we now know as Burma was inhabited by the Pyu, a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people who migrated south from present-day Yunnan in China, and the Mon, who came to Burma from what is now Thailand. In the ninth century, the Bamar people – who also hailed from the Yunnan region of China – invaded from the north, bringing an end to Pyu civilisation, and setting up the Pagan Kingdom, marking the beginning of Bamar ascendancy in Burma.

Following the fall of their 500-year empire, Burma experienced centuries of rivalries, in which independent states and kingdoms rose, fell, and reformed anew. Some of these historic rivalries continue today. But at the end of it all, the Bamar prevailed.

Ethnic frontiers were finally identified during the period of British imperial rule from the 1840s to 1948. (Burma became a province of British India in 1886). Under British control, diverse peoples were brought under at least nominal central administration, though many areas remained effectively self-ruled. Some ethnic groups were given preferential treatment. Others were ignored. This nurtured further inter-tribal tensions, some of which have continued to this day. During World War II, many minority groups supported Britain whilst many from the Burman majority joined Japanese forces. This reflected a genuine desire for independence on the part of both groups; Burmans struggling to be free of the British colonial yoke, and ethnic minorities wishing to escape Burman domination.

The Union of Burma became independent in I948 after extensive negotiations led by General Aung San, (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) who convinced most ethnic minority groups to join the new union. The departing British arranged for referendums to be held and some people even voted to stay under India. The Panglong Agreement of 1947 outlined minority rights and specifically gave the Shan and Karen peoples the option to secede from the union a decade after independence. But after Aung San’s assassination, the Panglong Agreement disintegrated, the constitutional guarantees were never fully respected, and almost immediately Burma was thrown into a series of brutal ethnic wars that have continued with varying intensity to this day. Whether General Aung San would have remained faithful to the Panglong Agreement or, having used it to bring in the various nationalities in, would have himself developed Burman supremacy, cannot be known Some nationalities see Aung San Suu Kyi as very much father’s daughter and notice her refusal to speak out for the rights of some ethnic minorities.

The failure to address the concerns of Burma’s ethnic groups lies at the heart of many of Burma’s problems. Burma’s ethnic minorities have been struggling for ethnic and political rights for decades as successive dictators in Burma have pursued a policy of ‘Burmanisation’, which ranges from repressing the teaching of ethnic history, language, and culture, to military attacks against civilians.

There is probably a genuine fear at the ‘Centre’ that Burma would fall apart, and its borders be fragile, if there is not a ‘strong’ government at the centre.

There is also the fact that the larger part of resources, such as the mining of precious stones etc…, and the terrain for massive hydro-electric schemes, lie in the areas inhabited by the ethnic minorities. A huge part of the wealth of Burma lies in those areas. As one commentator coming from such an area, but with wide experience of other areas, said, “Burma is greatly developing economically. But we on the ground see nothing of that wealth.”

In recent years, despite continuing attacks against ethnic minority groups and regional conflicts, progress has been made. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 after 21 years of house arrest; her winning of a Parliamentary seat in 2012, and the election of the National League for Democracy – headed by Aung San Suu Kyi – in 2015, has been claimed by some to have brought a possibility of hope for ethnic minority communities. Others were doubtful and feared a false dawn.

The landslide victory of the National League for Democracy in the November 2020 election, with their focus on increased political representation for ethnic minorities and the implementation of more democratic processes was a source of great hope for the country.  But before the new Parliament could be announced, the military leadership, led by the Commander in Chief of the Army Min Aung Hlaing who was due to retire and lose power next year (2022), including the power of that leadership to protect the massive investments they have gathered, launched a coup on 1 February 2021. Today, the future is once again uncertain for all the people of Burma, and especially for the diverse array of ethnic communities that inhabit the country.


Click here to learn more about HART’s work in Burma



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