We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

A Kaleidoscope Of Peoples


A Kaleidoscope of peoples
The ethnic groups of today can be broadly classified into four:
the Tibeto-Burman, the Tai, the Karen, and the Mon.
The Muslim Rohingya originate from the Middle East and are a distinct group.

[image, unknown]
Burma [image, unknown]
Burma [image, unknown]
Burma [image, unknown]
Burma [image, unknown]
Burma [image, unknown]

Burma has probably the most complex ethnic mix in the world. Twenty-one major ethnic groups and over 100 languages have been identified in a population of around 45 million.

Over the centuries different ethnic groups have clashed – but most of the time they have managed to live alongside each other. British colonizers, however, were able to exploit ethnic tensions in order to pursue their policy of ‘divide and rule’.

In the struggle for independence that followed, the strength of ethnic-minority nationalist feeling was underestimated by the Burmese freedom fighters led by Aung San. After the 1962 military coup brought General Ne Win to power, ethnic-minority groups were even more marginalized. They claimed they were treated as second-class citizens in relation to the racial majority (who are called ‘Burman’) in every field.

Since then, ethnic-minority groups and their armies have been at the forefront of the armed struggle against the dictatorship. They have also been at the receiving end of some of the most serious human-rights abuses. Recently government forces have gained the upper hand on the battlefield and also negotiated ceasefires with a number of groups.

If and when democracy is restored in Burma, preventing inter-ethnic strife will need to be at the top of the agenda – or very close to it. Otherwise Burma could become another Yugoslavia – and this is a justification the country’s military uses to hold on to power.


Ethnic nationality
: Shan
: between 3.5 and 4 million

The Shan are predominantly Buddhist and have played an important role in shaping the mystique of Burma. Living several thousand feet above sea-level, amid the pine forests, waterfalls and freshwater lakes of Shan State, they traditionally favour a life of simplicity and spirituality. Buddhist temples and pagodas dot the crests of their rugged hills. A local subgroup, the Intha people of Inle Lake, are famous for their leg-rowing technique.

For the past three decades Shan State has played host to a greater variety of ethnic militia and insurgent armies than perhaps any other place on earth. In recent years the strongest resistance to Government forces has come from the 15,000-strong Mong Tai Army led by ‘opium warlord’ Kung Sa, who signed a ceasefire with the Government in January 1996.

Today there is a humanitarian crisis in Shan State. Over 500,000 people are estimated to have been forced to leave their homes and refugee communities huddle around every town in the state. Well over 1,000 villages have been forcibly relocated or destroyed by the Army since 1988 and human-rights abuses are widespread. War and poverty have also forced thousands of women and girls over the border to Thailand to find work as prostitutes. hiv rates among returnees are reported to be as high as 90 per cent.


Ethnic nationalities: Karen, Karenni, Pao, Padaung and Kayaw.
: between 4 and 5 million

A Karen

The Karen are known as a rugged and stoic people who have a great appreciation of nature and a reverential attitude towards the environment. They live mainly in farming villages built of thatch and bamboo. There are several sub-groups of Karens including: the Pwo (lowland and delta), the Sgaw and the Bwe (mainly in the hills). The Karen are also connected ethnically with the Karenni, the Pao and the Kayan. is the dominant religion among the political leaders. It is said that the Karens were predisposed to the Christianity because of the uncanny parallels between Bible stories and traditional Karen animist legends. The Karen are probably the largest Christian group in Burma, although spirit worship still exists and most Karens are in fact Buddhists.

The Karen National Union – with its 8,000-strong guerrilla army – has been a most determined opponent to the military dictatorship. However, recent splits between the Christian leadership and some Buddhist units made the movement vulnerable and SLORC forces successfully stormed Karen resistance headquarters at Manerplaw in 1995.

Over 70,000 Karens are currently in refugee camps in Thailand.


Ethnic nationalities: Burman, Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Akha, Lisu and Naga.
Population: 29 million

The Burmans – with a population of around 26 million – are the majority ethnic group in Burma. They are Buddhist and have dominated all areas of Burmese life, especially in the past 150 years. Until recently, armed Burman opponents of the military regime have tended to belong to the Democratic Alliance of Burma or the Communist Party of Burma.

Of the several hill peoples inhabiting north-east Burma, it is the minority Kachin – two-thirds of whom are Christian – who have most determinedly pursued the dream of creating a federal or independent nation-state.

Their main armed resistance group, the Kachin Independence Organization, was reckoned to be the best-organized insurgent group – so the Government embarked on a long-term policy to neutralize it once and for all. As many as 100,000 Kachin villagers were forced from their homes in counter-insurgency operations between 1988 and 1992 and hundreds of Kachin villages were destroyed. In many Government-controlled Kachin areas people have been forced to work as labourers or front-line porters. A formal ceasefire was signed in February 1994 but grave human-rights abuses continue.

The Chin, who inhabit a vast mountain chain running up western Burma into north-east India, are highly regarded as skilled fisherfolk, hunters and weavers of fine fabrics and blankets. But the poor quality of their land has made them dependent for food and supplies on their lowland neighbours and this helps explain the long-standing political and economic under-development of the region. After the 1962 coup, insurgent groups were either subsumed by communist groups or they took to the Thai or Indian borders. Since 1988 Chin politics have undergone transformation: in the 1990 election seven nationalist Chin and five National League for Democracy candidates were elected and nationalist sentiment continues to grow. The main armed opposition group is the Chin National Front.


Ethnic nationalities: Mon, Wa, and Paulung.
Population: 4 million

Mon -Khmer

It was the Mon who introduced both Buddhism and writing to Burma – and for centuries they have taken pride in their literacy and high regard for culture and aesthetics. Today many Mon have been assimilated into the mainstream of Burmese Buddhist culture. Mon intellectuals and Buddhist monks have, however, played an important role in the survival and teaching of the Mon language. In Shan State live a smaller Mon-Khmer group, the Palaung, who are hill-dwellers practising both Buddhism and spirit worship. Another group, the Wa, have since the 1960s earned the dubious reputation of becoming one of the main suppliers of opium from the notorious Golden Triangle, source of 60 per cent of today’s heroin.

Although the Mon generally worked with the mainstream independence movement they were not rewarded for it and their political demands were largely ignored. Following the 1962 coup Mon nationalist fighters took up arms again, joining the present-day opposition army, the New Mon State Party.

Since 1988 there have been repeated incursions by the Burmese Army into Mon villages, and mounting reports of enforced labour, relocations, rape, murder and other serious human-rights abuses. As many as 100,000 Mon refugees and economic migrants went into exile in Thailand. In recent years Mon communities have also come under intense pressure from government forces operating in conjunction with Thai logging and other commercial interests.

In June 1995 the New Mon State Army signed a military ceasefire with the Government.


Ethnic nationality: Rohingya
Population: 1.4 million


The state of Arakan along Burma’s coast is partly inhabited by the Rohingya, a distinct cultural group of Muslims descended from Arab, Moorish, Mughal and Bengali merchants who arrived after the seventh century. Rohingya predominate in the far north of Arakan State, mainly inhabited by the Buddhist Rakhine who are of Tibeto-Burman stock. There have been centuries of tension between the two groups. The Rohingya were ignored by the Burmans during the independence struggle and sided with the British.

In 1977-78, Rangoon’s armies forced 200,000 Rohingyan refugees into Bangladesh. Renewed atrocities by Ne Win’s regime sent an additional 260,000 fleeing across the border in 1992, bearing accounts of gross human-rights abuses. By late 1995 over 190,000 had been allowed to return but in many cases not to their home villages.

Under the British, Arakan was one of the richest areas of Burma – now it is one of the poorest. After three decades of military rule, many therefore see Arakan as a tragic example of all that is wrong with Burma: ethnic discrimination, a stagnant economy, widespread corruption, rampant inflation and fighting in the mountains. The main insurgent groups are the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization and the National Unity party of Arakan.


All population figures are estimates. There has been no reliable census of ethnic nationality populations since 1931.

Sources: Martin Smith, Ethnic Groups in Burma, Anti-Slavery International, 1994, and Burma Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, Zed Books, 1991; Alan Clements and Leslie Kean, Burma’s Revolution of the Spirit, White Orchid, 1995.

[image, unknown] Issue 280 Contents

[image, unknown] NI Home Page

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 280 magazine cover This article is from the June 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop