History & Current Events
Government-classified ethnic groups in Burma:
Ethnic Nationalities of Burma
_There are more than 135 different ethnic groups in Burma, each with its own history, culture and language. The majority Burman (Bamar) ethnic group makes up about two-thirds of the population and controls the military and the government. The minority ethnic nationalities, making up the remaining one-third, live mainly in the resource-rich border areas and hills of Burma, although many have been forcibly removed from their homes by the military-backed government as it confiscates land for development projects and resource exploitation. As a result, millions of people from these minority groups have become internally displaced people (IDPs) within Burma, or refugees in neighbouring countries.
_The seven largest minority nationalities are the Chin, the Kachin, the Karenni (sometimes called Kayah), the Karen (sometimes called Kayin), the Mon, the Rakhine, and the Shan. Burma is divided into seven states, each named after these seven ethnic nationalities, and seven regions (formerly called divisions), which are largely inhabited by the Bamar (Burmans).
The Rohingya people are not recognised by the government as an ethnic nationality of Burma, and thus suffer from some of the worst discrimination and human rights abuses of all the people of Burma. Estimates put the Rohingya population of Burma at close to 2 million, living mainly in Rakhine State, and many more live as refugees in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh. See below for more information.
_PANGLONG AGREEMENT 1947
In February 1947, General Aung San met with national and ethnic leaders at the Panglong Conference, where he outlined his government's committment to minority rights. The Agreement, signed by representatives of the Shan, Kachin, and Chin, stated that "citizens of the Frontier Areas shall enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries", thus ensuring ethnic minorities the same rights and treatment as ethnic Burman citizens, and granted "full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas".
However, Aung San was assassinated in July of 1947, and the Panglong Agreement has never been honoured by Burma's subsequent civilian and military leaders. The leaders of many minority ethnic nationalities have said that fighting will never end unless another Panglong Agreement is signed and respected.
_ETHNIC ISSUES & THE 2008 CONSTITUTION
The 2008 Constitution offers no real protection for the many ethnic minorities of Burma, and many leaders in the different ethnic communities have voiced their concerns that it is meant to wipe out the diverse cultures of the people of Burma. Burma Campaign UK has said that the "Constitution is likely to lead to the continued Burmanisation of ethnic minorities ... [and] to increased militarisation of ethnic areas, with the subsequent increase of human rights abuses which always follows the presence of the Burmese Army ... At the National Convention which drafted the Constitutional principles, every single one of the proposals by ethnic representatives that would give more power, autonomy and protection of ethnic cultures was rejected by the dictatorship." (Read Burma Campaign UK's March 2011 briefing: Burma’s New Constitution - Denying Ethnic Rights.)
_ACCESS TO EDUCATION
The state of healthcare and education in Burma is very poor, primarily due to lack of financing. According to international institutions, the Burmese government spends only around 3% of the GDP on health and education. Consequently, there are no resources to ensure that healthcare and education are accessible to everyone and that their quality is satisfactory. Moreover, education is heavily politicised - the curricula are controlled by the government and schooling is often used to impose ethnic discrimination. Ethnic peoples are not allowed to learn their own language and culture.
7 states & 7 regions of Burma
_ The Bamar, or Burman, people are the majority ethnic group of Burma. They are of Sino-Tibetan origin and reside predominantly in the central plains near the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers. According to population estimates, they compose 68% of the country’s total population, though some claim these numbers are exaggerated to favour the Bamar majority. The Bamar population is itself divided into various sub-groups and thus is not a homogenous ethnic category.
Traditional Bamar culture strongly influences contemporary Burmese national customs and identity. The Bamar are predominately Theravada Buddhists. Their native language (Burmese) is the official language of the country, and they dominate the government and military. Due to the ethnic group’s predominance, its members are often believed to have a social and political advantage over the country’s minority populations. Some ethnic groups claim that the country has been subject to a policy of ‘Burmanisation’ since the 1962 coup. Nevertheless, the Bamar have not been exempt from the human rights abuses and repression that have characterised the country in recent years.
Chin State, Burma
_ The Chin people, estimated at 1.5 million and comprising many different sub-groups, is one of the major ethnic groups in Burma. They are of Tibeto-Burman origin and live in the north-western Chin State, which separates Burma from India. They probably came to Burma, especially the in the late 9-10 century AD. Most Chin people moved westward and they probably settled in the present Chin State around 1300-1400 AD. The original meaning of "Chin" remains obscure, though scholars have proposed various theories no widely held consensus has been reached.
Their history from the 17th to the late 19th century was a long sequence of tribal wars and feuds. The first British expedition into the Chin Hills in 1889 was soon followed by annexation, and British administration ended raids by the Chin on the plains of Burma. Chin villages, often of several hundred houses, were traditionally self-contained units, some ruled by councils of elders, others by headmen. There were also hereditary chiefs who exercised political control over large areas and received tribute from cultivators of the soil. Owing to Baptist missionaries 80-90% of the population is Christian. However, a sizable minority of the Chin adhere to their traditional tribal beliefs, as well as to Theravada Buddhism.
Like many other ethnic groups in Burma, the Chin are subjected to forced labour, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and extra-judicial killings as part of a Burmese government policy to suppress the Chin people and their ethnic identity. The United Nation's World Food Programme believes that food consumption in Chin State is the lowest in Burma. In recent years food shortages have been further exacerbated by a plague of rats, which have devastated Chin crops. There is little in the way of medical facilities in Chin State. The villagers said that they had not seen a doctor for 10 years. The Christian NGO Free Burma Rangers is one of the few sources of medical aid.
Faced with this situation thousands have left their homes. According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), over 60,000 Chin live as refugees in India, where they are forced to compete for scarce resources with the local population, already living in poverty. Due to discrimination, they are prevented from obtaining sustainable employment or proper healthcare and live in fear of physical abuse and forced evictions. Another 20,000 Chins have according to the CHRO fled to Malaysia, where the Malaysian government refuses to recognise Chin asylum seekers and refugees as anything but illegal immigrants. Without legal recognition as refugees they are unable to work, receive education, get access to healthcare, or find adequate accommodation. The refugees are also subject to harassment, detention, and deportation back to Burma.
Report: The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma,Unprotected in India (Human Rights Watch, 2009)
Kachin State, Burma
_ The Kachin people, comprising a number of different ethnic sub-groups, live mainly in north-eastern Burma as well as parts of China and India. The Kachin in Burma are estimated to number between 1 to 1.5 million and are traditionally hill dwellers subsisting on rotational cultivation of hill rice. During British rule of Burma (from 1886-1948), most Kachin territory was specially administered as a frontier region. Christianity spread among the Kachin people at this time. When Burma gained independence in 1948, the northern mountainous extremity of Burma was designated as Kachin State. There is also a sizeable population of Kachin people in northern Shan State.
After independence many Kachin grew increasingly dissatisfied with the discriminatory policies of the central Burmese government. This led to the launch in 1961 of a Kachin armed resistance movement, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and its armed wing, the KIA, which grew into one of the largest ethnic resistance forces in the country. Several decades of armed conflict ensued, causing displacement of many of the highland Kachin population down to the lowland areas of Kachin State.
In 1994 the KIO signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military regime and was granted the right to maintain its own administrative and military infrastructure in certain areas of Kachin and Shan states. The ceasefire agreement unfortunately did not lead to a resolution of the Kachin people’s political grievances that had led to the conflict. Kachin State, like the rest of Burma, remained under a military dictatorship, its people denied the democratic right to choose their government. The regime took advantage of the ceasefire agreement to increase its presence in Kachin State.
In 2009 the Burmese regime issued a demand that all ethnic ceasefire groups, including the KIA, transform themselves into Border Guard Forces under the control of the Burma Army. On 9 June 2011, spurred on by the KIA’s refusal to accept the regime’s demand that they transform into a Border Guard Force, as well as the KIA’s strategic control of areas with lucrative Chinese hydropower projects, the Burma Army launched a full-scale attack on the KIA, breaking the decades long ceasefire.
The renewed conflict has led to an increase in human rights abuses against the Kachin people and has resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, most of whom are now living in makeshift refugee camps alongthe China border. In contempt of humanitarian principles, the regime at first blocked aid to these IDPs, forbidding NGOs and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to these vulnerable people. In December 2011, UN-OCHA reported that the estimated number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who left their homes and sought refuge in camps, and with friend sand relatives or into the forest across the affected region reached 50,000 in Kachin and Shan States, from an estimated 29,000 in October. On 10 December President Thein Sein instructed the army to stop its offensive. However fighting has continued, indicating that Thein Sein does not in fact control the government.
Report: Burma's Covered up War: Atrocities Against the Kachin People (Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), 2011)
Report: Myanmar - Displacement in Kachin State (UN-OCHA, 2011)
Karenni State, Burma
_ The Karenni, also known as the Red Karen (-ni meaning red referring to their preferred colour of clothing) are a subset of the Karen people. Covering around 9 different ethnic subsets, the Karenni are estimated to number about 300,000 people. Together with the Mon, they are the oldest indigenous group in Burma, migrating from China in the 6th or 7th century. Karenni (or Kayah) state sits between Karen and Shan state along Burma’s border with Thailand.
Karenni state was independent until the British colonization of Burma in 1886. In 1948, Karenni state was incorporated into the newly independent Burma without the acknowledgement or consent of the Karenni people. After over 60 years of fighting, the Karenni army signed a ceasefire with the Burmese army in March 2012. Although a similar ceasefire agreement was signed in 1995, it collapsed only three months later.
Karen State, Burma
_The Karen people of Burma, thought to number around 7 million people, make up one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. The religious make-up of the Karen people is a combination of Buddhism, Animism and Christianity. They reside mainly in the Southern and South Eastern part of the country, whilst thousands live over the border in Thailand in a state of limbo.
The Karen sided with the allied forces during the Second World War and were hopeful that with peace they would be able to achieve long sought-after independence. However, the decolonisation process saw Karen State remain part of Burma, which, along with continued aggression towards Burma’s ethnic peoples, helped to instigate an armed uprising against the central government. This uprising was led by the Karen National Liberation Army and resulted in one of the longest running civil wars in history.
In January 2012, after more than 60 years of armed conflict, the main democratic party of the Karen - the Karen National Union (KNU) - signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government. However, the Burmese Army breached this ceasefire in March, and fighting is ongoing.
KNU Press Release: Crucial Steps to Achieve Lasting Peace in Burma
Download the press release in English or Burmese
Mon State, Burma
_ The Mon peoplelive mostly in Mon State, which is situated in the Southern part of Burma and borders Bago (formerly Pegu) Region, Tanintharyi (formerly Tenasserim) Region and Karen State. It also has access to the Andaman Sea.
The Mon are considered to be one of the first peoples in the Southeast Asia and the earliest one to settle in Burma. They were responsible for spreading Theravada Buddhism, the oldest school of the religion, in Burma and Thailand. Currently, there are estimated to be around 8 million Mon people in Burma.
The Mon culture is very rich and ancient. It is credited for having a major influence on the dominant Burmese culture and the Mon script was incorporated into the unified Burmese language. However, the regime does not allow the Mon the right to speak their language or cultivate their traditions.
The Mon people took active part in the anti-colonial struggle for Burma’s freedom. Pursuant to Burma’s independence in 1948, they began to seek self-determination. They rose in revolt several times and were bloodily suppressed by the regime. In 1962 the New Mon State Party emerged and a partially autonomous Mon state, Monland, was created in 1974 to appease the Mon. However, the clashes continued until 1996, when a cease-fire was signed.
Despite the cease-fire, the region is still very fragile and there are serious concerns regarding safety and human rights of the Mon people. Mon refugee communities in Thailand, but also in the United Stated and other countries, are advocating for granting autonomy to the region and ensuring that human rights are not violated there.
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation: http://arakanhrdo.org/2011/09/13/health-and-education-in-burma/
Rakhine (Arakan) State, Burma
The Rakhine people or ‘Arakanese’ are the largest ethnic group in Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, which is found in the west of Burma, extending along the Bay of Bengal. The Rakhine or Arakanese dialect is also spoken by around 35,000 people in neighbouring Bangladesh. The population, as with most areas in Burma, is difficult to establish reliably, especially since the patchy census data only counts the number within the state, and not the population of the ethnic groups. It is estimated that those in Rakhine state make up 4-5.5% of the total population of Burma. They are predominantly Theravada Buddhists, and are one of the four main Buddhist ethnic groups of Myanmar (the others being the Bamar, Shan and Mon). The state itself is also home to populations from other ethnic groups, like the Chin, Mro, Chakma, Khami, Dainet and Maramagri. There is also a large minority population of Muslim Rohingya (see below).
ALTSEAN-Burma estimates that around 60% of the Rakhine population are malnourished, and they suffer from a severe lack of infrastructure – only three main highways cross the Arakan mountains into Rakhine state – as well as hospitals and effective healthcare.
Rakhine state historically has had a strong drive for independence: At various times under Burmese rule, it was eventually fully absorbed into Burma in 1783; it was the centre of many uprisings against the British rule during the 19th century; in 1826 it was the first Burmese territory ceded to the British after the first Anglo-Burmese War. During the Second World War, Rakhine was given autonomy under the Japanese occupation and was even granted its own army known as the Arakan Defence Force. The Arakan Defence Force went over to the allies and turned against the Japanese in early 1945. In 1948 all three districts became part of the newly formed Union of Burma after the Panglong conference. In the 1950s there was a movement for secession from Burma, but this was unsuccessful.
Arakan State, Burma & Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh (BBC)
_The Rohingyas, a Muslim group of ethnic-Indo origins, are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. Although they have been living in Rakhine (Arakan) State in western Burma for centuries, the Burmese Government considers them to be foreigners in Burma. Thus, they are refused citizenship and face some of the worst discrimination and abuse in the country. They are unable to move, marry, or find jobs without obtaining permits or paying bribes, and are systematically subjected to arbitrary arrests, extortion, forced labour, rape, violence and forced displacement and eviction. Furthermore, Rohinhya children are deprived of their right to access education and basic healthcare. This persecution of the Rohingyas is part of a national policy of "Burmanisation", an ultra-nationalist ideology based on the racial purity of the Burman ethnicity and its Buddhist faith, which was implemented when General Ne Win and the military junta came to power in 1962.
There are an estimated 1-2 million Rohingya living in Burma, and roughly 250,000 Rohingya refugees - mostly unregistered - in Bangladesh. Thousands more have fled to Thailand and Malaysia. The situation for the Rohingya who have fled Burma is not much better.
About 30,000 Rohingya live in official camps in Bangladesh's south-eastern district of Cox's Bazar, with another 17,000-40,000 living without support in nearby makeshift camps. Another 200,000 unregistered "people of concern" from Burma live in Bangladesh without any legal status, mostly in the villages outside the camps. In the refugee camps, the Rohingya women are victims of sexual violence, and refugees are denied access to food supplies, medical aid, and education for their children.
In Thailand and Malaysia, Rohingya refugees and migrant workers are subjected to dehumanizing treatment by the authorities, including arrest, police brutality and deportation. They lack access to basic services such as education and health care, and are often victims of human trafficking.
Report: Crimes against Humanity in Western Burma: The Situation of the Rohingyas (Irish Centre for Human Rights, 2010)
Report: The Situation of Stateless Rohingya Children in Myanmar (Burma) (The Arakan Project, 2012)
Shan State, Burma
Most ethnic Shan live in Shan State in eastern Burma, but smaller Shan communities also live in Kachin State to the north, and in China, Thailand and Laos, which border Shan State. Though current census information for Burma is unavailable, there are an estimated 4-6 million Shan in Burma. There are many smaller ethnic groups in Shan State as well, including the Kokang, Lahu, Palaung, Pao and Wa. While most Shan are Theravada Buddhists, Christianity is also practiced among a number of the other ethnic groups in Shan State.
In 1947, Shan leaders signed the Panglong Agreement with the Government of Burma, which aimed to create a unified Burma in which Shan State would be largely autonomous, and would have the option to secede from the Union after 10 years of independence. The Agreement never came to fruition, however, as Burmese leader Aung San was assassinated that same year and the political situation in Burma descended into chaos.
Shan State is home to a number of armed ethnic armies, including the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), fighting against the Burma Army. The most recent ceasefire agreement between the SSA-South and the Burmese Government, signed in December 2011, broke down in February 2012 as fighting broke out in areas across Shan State. Civilians in Shan State have been subject to human rights violations by the military and other government authorities both when there is active fighting and when there is not, including forced labour, portering or conscription, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and extrajudicial killings. The Burma Army has also been known to confiscate land from villagers in Shan State, often leaving them with no means of making a livelihood.
Shan State is rich in natural resources, such as silver, lead, gold, tungsten, rubies, sapphires and teak. Many attacks by the Burma Army are motivated by a desire to control resource extraction. Shan State is part of the Golden Triangle, one of the most extensive opium-producing areas in the world, and the production and trade of heroin - and increasingly other drugs, like methamphetamines, as well - have led to rampant corruption on a local and national level, extortion and illicit taxation, widespread addiction among local communities, and have perpetuated armed conflict._