ETHNIC PEOPLES OF BURMA

THE 43 million inhabitants of Burma, like China and India, are made up of a diverse mixture of cultures, languages, and races, due to successive waves of migratory tribes descending from the north in ancient times, and which appears to be continuing today.

Colonisation by the British has also left its mark on the country, arbitrarily drawing political boundaries and often dissecting a single indigenous nation as occurred in the case of the Chins, whose nation is divided between Bangladesh, Burma and India.

Reliable population figures are not available, since the last attempt at any real census was conducted by the British in 1931. There is especially lacking any real statistics from the ethnic groups themselves.

Here is a brief look at the peoples of Burma, with maps and a chart from Martin Smith’s 1994 “Ethnic Groups in Burma”.

MON-KHMER includes Mon, Wa and Palaung: Ancestors of the Mon-Khmer ethno-linguistic group were the first recorded civilisation in Indo-China. By the 16th century, the Mon ruled much of Burma, Siam and even parts of Laos and the Shan States. In the late 18th century the Mon capital, Pegu, was finally taken by the Burmans. Mons introduced Buddhism to the Burmans, and the Burmese script is based largely on the Mon. Yet in recent history the Mons have seen their language and culture being eroded by successive Burmese governments, and no less so by the SLORC.

TAI includes Shan minorities: The Shans came to the hills and plains of northeast Burma in the 9th or 10th century, at about the same time as the Burmans, as part of the major Tai immigration from China to Southeast Asia. They controlled much of central Burma during the 14th and 15th centuries, and even while the British ruled, they maintained a great deal of autonomy under their Sawbwas.

TIBETO-BURMAN includes Akha, Arakanese (Rakhine), Burman, Kachin, Lisu, Naga and Zo (Chin): The Burmans make up the majority ethnic group in Burma. The Arakanese are also Buddhist and, like the Mon and Shan, once had an independent kingdom which was involved in frequent wars with the Burmans as well as with Indian and Mongol invaders. Arakan was only conquered by the Burmans in the late 18th century. The Kachin and Zo (Chin) live mainly in the hills near the Chinese and Indian borders.

KAREN includes Karen, Kayah (Karenni and Padaung), Kayaw and Pa-O: The Karen probably moved down to Burma in the 6th or 7th century. They occupied the mountainous region covering (and crossing) most of the long Burmese-Thai border. Today there are also large populations of Karen in the Irrawaddy Delta area and in all urban centres.

OTHERS include Anglo-Burmese, Chinese, Indian and Rohingya: As well as indigenous minority groups, Burma also has large populations of naturalised immigrants. Many of these first came to Burma during the British occupation when Indian administrators were brought in to run the country. Chinese and Indian traders dominated the economy. Bengali-speaking Muslims, known as Rohingyas, were also brought into Burma by the British colonial rulers. The British themselves sometimes inter-married or had children with all indigenous peoples, and often educated their children abroad. 

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MAJOR ETHNIC GROUPS OF BURMA 

Name       Population             Main Religion(s)            Main Armed Opposition group(s)

 Akha        100,000                         Animist                                  ———————

Burman   29,000,000                       Buddhist                           members of Democratic
                                                                                        Alliance of Burma and CPB      
Chin        750,000-1,500,000             Christian,                        Animist Chin National Front                  

Chinese    400,000                         Buddhist, Taoist                         ——————

Danu        70,000-100,000                 Buddhist                                —————— 

Indian       800,000                         Muslim, Hindu                           ——————

Kachin 500,000-1,500,000                Christian,              Animist Kachin Independence Org:
                                                                                            *New Democratic army*
Karen     2,650,000-7,000,000         Buddhist, Christian            Karen National Union

Karenni    100,000-200,000              Christian,                         Animist Karenni National Progressive  Party#
                                                                                            Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front*   

Kayan      60,000-100,000               Christian, Animist,             Kayan New land Party*

Kokang    70,000-100,000               Buddhist, Taiost                 Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army*

Lahu       170,000-250,000               Animist, Christian             Lahu National Organisation

Mon         1,100,000-4,000,000           Buddhist                        New Mon State Party*

Naga       70,000-100,000               Animist, Christian             National Socialist Council of Nagaland

Palaung     300,000-400,000                Buddhist                      Palaung State Liberation Party*

PaO         580,000-700,000                Buddhist                        PaO National Org:*
                                                                                            Shan State Nationalities Liberation Org:*

Rakhine    1,750,000-2,500,000           Buddhist                        National United Front of Arakan 
                                                                                            Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front,
                                                                                            Rohingya Solidarity Organisation

Shan        2,220,000-4,000,000           Buddhist                        Mong Tai Army*, Shan State Army*

Tavoyan   500,000                             Buddhist                       Tavoyan Liberation Front*

Wa           90,000-300,000                 Animist                          United Wa State Party*

 

1. All figures are approximate and involve considerable ethnic overlap. Generally, the lower figures on the left are government estimates based on strict interpretations of ethnicity, while the higher figures on the right are ethnic minority estimates, which usually include more local inhabitants and ethnic sub-groups within different territories.

 2. Parties marked with asterisk (*) had cease-fires with the SLORC in November 1994.

 3. # Cease-fire broke down and resumed fighting in July 1995.


Preface             ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS            Acronyms and Abbreviations,  Terms and Measurements
Burma at a Glance: Facts and Figures     Ethnic Peoples of Burma     Headlines in Review: Events of 1995
THE STATE OF BURMESE ECONOMY UNDER MILITARY MANAGEMENT
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Burma

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