Burma (Myanma)

Population: 38 million (est. 1989)
% of population: two-thirds of population are Burman, remainder are from indigenous ethnic minorities, e.g. Mon, Shan, Karen, Chin, Arakanese etc., and immigrant minorities — mainly Chinese, Bengali and Tamil
Religion: mainly Buddhist
Language: Burmese and various minority languages

There are estimated to be 67 separate indigenous racial groups speaking numerous languages and dialects in Burma. Of these the principal minorities are the Mon, Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin and Arakanese, who live for the most part in separate minority states surrounding the central Irrawaddy plains, the chief settlement area of the majority Burmans. These various tribal groups belong to three racial categories: the Mon-Khmer, the Tibeto-Burman and the Thai, all of whom moved gradually south into the region over long periods.

The Mons entered the region before the Burmans in the early centuries of the Christian era. It was the Mons who first received Buddhism and they possessed a rich and sophisticated culture which was profoundly to affect the later Burman tradition. There are now about 1.3 million Mons who are well assimilated into the mainstream of Burmese culture. The majority live in the south-east of Burma where they cultivate wet-rice, yams and sugar cane.

The Shans are closely connected linguistically and culturally to the neighbouring Thais. They dominated lowland Burma politically from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century and they are Theravadha Buddhists like the Burmans and the Mons. The Shan state was traditionally divided into more than 30 smaller states, each under the authority of a hereditary prince. The Shans now probably number slightly under three million and inhabit the upland valleys of the Shan plateau where they practise wet-rice cultivation.

The Karens are Burma’s largest minority group, estimated at over three million, or 10% of the population. Linguistically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman group and large numbers live in the Irrawaddy division around Bassein and in Kayah state and Tenasserim. The majority, however, live in Kawthule state in the eastern part of Burma bordering Thailand. Originally a hill-dwelling people, many were forced to move into the Irrawaddy delta by pressure from Burmans. The various tribal Karens such as Sgaw, Pa-O and the Kayah, or Red Karen, of Kayah state are quite distinct culturally. Some are animists, others have adopted Buddhism and a large proportion are Christians who were influenced by the American Baptist mission in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some cultivate dry-rice in the hills, others are wet-rice cultivators and many work the tin mines or are mahouts (elephant riders) around the border areas.

The Kachins share Kachin state in the mountainous north with members of many other tribal groups. More properly called the Jinghpaw, they are hill people who practise shifting cultivation and also use hill-terraces where possible. The majority of the Kachins are animist although many are Christians and a small number of lowland dwellers are Buddhists. Kachin culture is deeply concerned with the veneration of ancestors and with the propitiation of the spirit world.

The Chins, who live in the hill regions bordering India and Bangladesh, number about 350,000, although another 800,000 live on the other side of the border. The northern Chins have hereditary chiefs and an aristocracy, and their economy is more elaborate than that of the southern Chins who have a more democratic type of traditional village government and a less developed agricultural system, largely of the shifting variety. Most — about 70% — are animist, and the remainder are Christian and Buddhist.

The Arakanese are a Tibeto-Burman group living in the coastal strip along the Bay of Bengal. There is known to have been a powerful Arakanese kingdom during the fourth century AD. They are of a slightly darker complexion than the Burmans, probably because of their close ties with Muslim India; from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries the Arakanese controlled Chittagong and although Buddhism remained the dominant religion in Arakan, Islam was widely adopted in the state, which has the highest concentration of Muslim inhabitants in Burma.

Other minority groups include the Nagas of the Assam hills and the Wa of the Shan state-Yunnan border region, both of whom were formerly head-hunting peoples; the Palaung of Shan state, the Padaung, whose women are known for the brass rings they wear about their necks and legs; and the Akha, Lahu and Lisu people who are more numerous in the hills of Thailand.

National unity and insurgency

The relationship between the minority peoples and the Burman majority has been very uneasy for many years. The British made a distinction between “Burma Proper” and “Outer Burma”. “Burma Proper” was placed under the direct rule of British India whilst “Outer Burma”, the settlement areas of the minorities, remained more or less autonomous under indirect rule. The central plains region was brought under a regular system of administration and code of law, leaving the frontier regions more or less undisturbed. Several of the hill tribes served with the British during World War II, gaining a reputation as fierce and dependable fighters who remained loyal to the Allies when the Japanese were in the ascendant, whilst the Burmans for the most part accepted Japanese rule. The Kachins, Chins and Karens were particularly distinguished fighters.

The current administrative divisions — based on the model devised by the British — were built into the 1948 constitution at the time of independence. In February 1947 General U Aung San, the leader of the Burma independence movement, successfully obtained the agreement of the frontier peoples to participate in an independent Burma, an event still celebrated on Union Day each year. The minorities were offered their own states with in some cases the option to secede from the union after 10 years. A 125-seat Chamber of Nationalities was also established in an attempt to ensure the full participation of minority groups in the decision-making process. The Karens rejected all such proposals, however, demanding an autonomous state or complete independence. Within six months of independence the Karens were in armed rebellion and they were soon followed by other minorities. Although government forces were able to push back the various resistance groups, which at one point controlled about 40% of Union territory, insurgency has continued to a greater or lesser degree since that time.

In March 1962 General U Ne Win took over government from U Nu, maintaining that a firm treatment of the insurgents was necessary. The elective state councils in frontier areas were abolished and replaced by appointed state supreme councils. A military-led hierarchy of security and administrative committees was set up. However, despite a great increase in government funds channelled into the border areas and spent on modest agricultural, educational and health improvements, hostilities continued unabated.

Under General Ne Win missionaries were ordered to leave Burma and mission schools and hospitals were nationalized. In 1973 a new constitution swept away the whole apparatus of states for the minority peoples, placing less weight on their separate identities and needs, and emphasizing their common membership of the Union. Reaction to these moves was predictably hostile and more than two-thirds of the country was soon subject to insurgency. Much of government funding has been allocated to combating the various insurgent groups and the Burma Army is active throughout the year.

Recent developments

The various communist groups have become much smaller over the past 15 years and now present little threat to the government, but the complication of the opium traffic, which provides funds for insurgent activity in addition to a livelihood for many hill-dwellers, has added greatly to the difficulty of finding a solution to the question of regional autonomy. A National Democratic Front (NDF) of 10 ethnic minority organizations was set up in 1976 and reformed in 1986 with the aim of greater autonomy for ethnic minorities within a federal system. Increased Karen guerrilla activity in 1982-3 lead to a series of military offensives against the Karen areas and by 1987 30,000 Karen and other refugees had fled across the Thai border. The popular uprising by the Burmese people in 1988 led to many Burmese students fleeing into the hill regions where they underwent military training in Karen insurgent camps and in some cases participated in insurgent attacks on government forces. The effect on the minorities of the change of government and the promise of democratically run elections in 1989 has not yet been gauged, but it would seem that they have been encouraged in their anti-government stance by the dissatisfaction of most of the Burmese people.

(See also Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand; Nagas of India in South Asia)