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Assessment for Shans in Burma

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Shans in Burma, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 25 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Burma Facts
Area:    676,552 sq. km.
Capital:    Rangoon
Total Population:    47,305,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Shan have five of the six factors that increase the chances of future rebellion: current rebellion; territorial concentration; high levels of support for group organizations; widespread repression by state authorities; and a history of lost autonomy.

Since the late 1980s, the military junta has negotiated ceasefire agreements with 15 ethnic groups including the Shan State Army. At least two Shan rebel groups remain militarily active. However, given the major counterinsurgency campaign that has been underway in Shan state for the past several years, they have been limited in their ability to undertake militant actions.

Analytic Summary

Most Shan are concentrated in Burma's northeastern Shan state, but there are group members in neighboring Thailand and China (GROUPCON = 3). The Shan presence in the region dates back more than one thousand years, and it likely predates the arrival of the Burmans, the dominant community. Group members maintained close ties with the Kachin who also reside in northern Burma. Small Shan states were ruled by a tribal/feudal structure led by Sawbwas who exercised hereditary rule. Following the third Anglo-Burman war, British colonial rule was imposed (1886-1947).

Although the Shan follow Theravada Buddhism like the Burmans, they adhere to different social customs (CUSTOM = 1). Group members speak Tai in contrast to Burmese which is the country's official language and is spoken by the Burmans (LANG = 1). Numerous hill tribes such as the Wa, Akha, and Lahu also live in Shan state.

When Burma became independent in 1948, the small Shan states were consolidated to create the present Shan territory. A constitutional provision negotiated when the Shan were included in the new state allowed for the group to leave the country after 10 years. In 1958, disgruntled with encroaching central rule in Shan areas, the group attempted to exercise this option. Armed conflict ensued as Rangoon rejected the attempted secession (REB60X = 6).

The Shan rebellion was significantly influenced by two factors: Shan involvement in the drug trade and the migration to the state of significant numbers of the Kuomintang army from China. Shan state is located in the Golden Triangle area that is a major producer of the world's heroin. Rivalries between the various Shan rebel groups and the Kuomintang armies were exacerbated by their efforts to control the heroin trade.

In December 1995, the military regime reached a ceasefire agreement with drug kingpin Khun Sa, who led the rebel Mong Tai Army (also known as the Shan State Army). Divisions within the SSA were likely a key factor in the decision to negotiate a settlement (COHESX9 = 3). Up to one-quarter of the group's membership had recently left the organization due to perceived favoritism and the increasing emphasis on the drug trade in contrast to Shan separatist goals. Further, the government utilized the United Wa State Party, the SSA's rival in the drug trade, to militarily weaken the Mong Tai Army.

Since the ceasefire deal, Rangoon has engaged in a massive counterinsurgency campaign in group areas in order to eliminate the Shan United Revolutionary Party and the Shan State Army-South, both of which are factions of the Mong Tai Army. Up to half a million Shan have been forcibly relocated in order to ethnically cleanse rebel areas and more than 100,000 fled the country and are residing in UNHCR-supported refugee camps in Thailand. Group members are subject to arbitrary and widespread arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions, destruction of their property, massacres of alleged rebel supporters, restrictions on movement, and a pervasive security presence in group-majority areas. As with the country's other ethnic groups, the Shan are forced to provide unpaid labor. Severe repression significantly restricts the group's political and economic opportunities (POLDIS04 = 4; ECDIS04 = 4).

The Shan are primarily represented by militant organizations which are supported by most group members. These rebel groups favor independence, or at the very least, widespread autonomy in Shan state. Desires for economic development along with protecting their culture are also group concerns.

Relations between the Shan and Burma's other ethnic groups have periodically erupted in violence. During 2000-2002 there were sporadic clashes between the Shan State Army-South and the Wa militant group, the United Wa State Party, which has often collaborated with the military regime (COMCON00-02 = 3). The Shan have also clashed with Lahu and Akha.

Since the late 1980s, the Burmese armed forces have more than doubled in size, now numbering 400,000. Chinese military assistance to the junta, in the forms of arms and training, has been critical. Despite the large-scale counterinsurgency campaign, the Shan have continued their rebellion in recent years although recently violence seems to have decreased in intensity (REB00 = 4, REB01 = 5, REB02 = 4, REB03 = 1). No protests have been reported in recent years (PROT00-03 = 0).


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Taylor, R.H., "Change in Burma: Political Demands and Military Power", Asian Affairs, Vol. XX11, June 1991.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Burma. 2001-2003.

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