An Introduction to the Shan People

10 February 2021


Given recent events in Burma/Myanmar, the complexity of the country’s ethnic make-up, and the fact that our partners in Burma all operate in minority ethnic community areas, HART has decided to offer a brief introduction to some of the main ethnic groups within the country. Here we begin, with the Shan people, the largest tribe in the country. HART currently works with two partners in Shan State.


The Shan

The Shan people have lived in the area that is today the Shan State of Burma for over a thousand years. Ethnically, they are part of the broad tribal group known as the ‘Tai’ people, which emerged from Southwest China, and migrated across the region, settling as sub-groups which now live in the mountain regions stretching across Thailand, Laos, Burma and into China. Shan State comprises about a quarter of the land mass of Burma. It is impossible to get accurate population statistics in Burma and statistics would depend on which of the many various Tai groups were included in the figure. However, there are estimated to be between 4-6 million Shan in Burma, making up about 10% of the country’s population. Historically, the areas that the Shan people covered encompassed many ethnicities, but once they were established, they became the majority and ruled the territory. Only in the late Nineteenth Century did the Burmese Shan States fall entirely to British imperial rule.

Shortly after World War Two, post-war negotiations between the British and the Chinese created a unified Shan State in Burma. Ten years later the same Shan State was due to gain its own independence from (the then newly independent country of) Burma. But subsequent fighting between the Chinese, newly formed pro-Shan insurgent factions and Burmese military rulers, along with the emergence of the area as a major opium growing and trafficking base, thwarted the emergence of a truly independent Shan State.

Historically, the Shan have lived alongside ethnic Bamar, Intha, Kachin, Mon Palaung, Pa-O, Rakhine, Taungyo, Wa and other peoples for much of their history. But many Shan continue to desire a Shan State with full political independence from Burma. To this end the Shan State Army continues to wage guerrilla warfare against the Burmese military government. The Chinese however wield considerable economic control over much traditional Shan land, particularly in eastern Shan State where it borders China.

The infrastructure in Shan State, the capital of which is Taunggyi, is highly deteriorated and all but destroyed after over 40 years of war. Most villages have neither plumbing nor electricity.

The military government has tried in recent years to improve the nation’s image by doing all kinds of infrastructure improvement projects, using forced labour to do so. The Shan have to build roads, bridges, and the like, using the most primitive of methods and without any pay.

Most of the Shan people live in small, rural villages farming subsistence and cash crops. Tea is also an important cash crop. Shan State is also an important source of timber — especially teak — and metals such as silver and lead. Many Shan are skilled artisans, their crafts ranging from making fans out of bamboo to making jewellery.

There is very little health care available, especially in rural areas. There is inadequate sanitation and lack of clean water. Life expectancy in Burma is around 56 years. High infant mortality rate (approx. 78.5 per 1000 nationally in Burma). Very few Shan children have the chance to attend school. Local temples serve as schools in many villages.

It is often reported that the Shan also make their living growing opium. The reality is that most Shan have little or no involvement in the cultivation. The trafficking and processing of opium poppy is largely controlled by a small number of regional drug lords.



The Shan have a rich cultural heritage and are a proud and sophisticated race. They are a gentle and

peaceful people. Many of their customs are related to the Chinese, Burmese, and the Thai. They have their own centuries old literature, art and history. The Shan have their own alphabet related to ancient Sanskrit and spoken language strongly influenced by Pali. The Shan language is one of the Tai languages, closely related to those of other sub-groups. Since World War II a modified script has been introduced that has gained widespread acceptance.

The majority of Shan are Theravada Buddhists mixed with Animism and tribal beliefs. The Shan believe in spirits which can cause good or evil in a person’s life and must be appeased. Outside every village is a large spirit house where the village spirits reside. Each household also has their own, smaller spirit house and a spirit shelf inside the house where candles are lit and offerings made regularly. Their entire lives are governed by spirits, and each village has several spirit doctors and shamans which are consulted for the timing of weddings and funerals, planting crops, festival, for healing the sick, and placing curses or charms on people. Most Shan are terrified of spirits, though they are a normal part of their lives. There are numerous festivals throughout the lunar calendar year.

The Shan believe in reincarnation and that the good or evil done in one’s life will determine their status and fate in the next life.  The temple is the centre of a Shan community. All Shan boys enter the monkhood for a short period of time, and it is considered a rite of passage into adulthood.


Military government policy towards the Shan

The Burmese military regime has long suppressed the Shan to gain control over the wealth of natural resources in Shan State, where the majority of Burma’s resources are found. The government uses a 5-part strategy to control the Shan.

  • Military offensives against the area.
  • Forcibly relocate all villagers to sites under direct Army control.
  • Use the relocated villagers and others as forced labour, building military access to roads into their home areas.
  • Move more Army units in and use the villagers as forced labour to build bases along the access roads.
  • Allow the villagers back to their villages, where they are now under complete military control and can be used as a rotating source of extortion money and forced labour, further consolidating control through “development” projects, forced labour, forming for the army, etc. If resistance attacks persist at this stage, retaliation is carried out against villages by executing village elders, burning houses and other means. The aim is to cut food, funds, intelligence, and recruits provided to the insurgent groups by local villagers. Civilians are the primary targets for attacks that intensified to an unprecedented scale in 1996.

It has been widely reported that these tactics have not diminished in recent years.


Challenges facing the Shan 

Trafficking of young Shan girls into Thailand who are sold into prostitution is a major issue. Poverty and disease (such as malaria and AIDS), poor nutrition and lack of education are others. The ongoing war has destroyed much of the infrastructure, and many Shan live in constant fear of attack from the Burmese Army. Torture, extrajudicial killing, rape, plundering and burning of villages, forced labour, forced relocation, and forced military service have affected nearly every Shan. As a result, tens of thousands of refugees have fled to Thailand.

The Shan are denied refugee status in Thailand, unlike the Karen and other ethnic groups of Burma, thereby hindering humanitarian assistance from organizations such as the UNHCR from reaching them. After arriving in Thailand, they are treated as illegal migrants, denied identity papers, and are often deported back to Burma, imprisoned, killed, or fined. They are left to the mercy of unscrupulous employers who take advantage of the low-cost labour, often refusing to pay workers and threatening to expose them to the Thai authorities.

Many Shan are stateless, being illegal in any country they reside. According to the UN, there are one million internally displaced people in Burma and may be hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Shan State. Even though Burma is rich in natural resources, it is the world’s seventh poorest nation, and was designated “Least Developed Nation” by the United Nations in 1987.


Learn more about HART’s partners in Shan State here.


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