Last Updated: Friday, 02 October 2015, 13:27 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Myanmar/Burma : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date September 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Myanmar/Burma : Overview, September 2009, available at: [accessed 4 October 2015]
Comments Updated September 2009
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.


Myanmar, or Burma as it was known before 1989 until a coup d'état led to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) assuming power, is the largest country in mainland South-East Asia and a meeting point for numerous population groups, being bordered by the People's Republic of China on the north-east, by Laos on the east, by Thailand on the south-east, Bangladesh on the south-west and finally by India on the north. It has a very diverse environment, with snowy mountains in the north, a tropical climate in the south and major transnational river systems on its territory, such as the Mekong and Salween.


Main languages: Burmese (official language), Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Mon, Chinese, etc.

Main religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Animism

Main minority groups: Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, others 5% (2007 estimate from CIA World Factbook; no reliable census available since the Second World War)

Burma has a population of almost 50 million people (the CIA World Factbook has an estimate for 2007 of 47,373,958), though the absence of any reliable census since the 1930s makes it impossible to accurately estimate either its population or its exact composition. It is nevertheless undoubtedly a country of enormous ethnic diversity, containing officially 135 major ethnic groups and seven ethnic minority states, in addition to seven divisions populated mainly by the Burmese majority. More than 100 languages are spoken in Burma, mainly from the Tibetan-Burmese language families, but also with a significant number of languages from the Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien and Austroasiatic groups. Burma's geographic position has resulted in the country attracting settlers from many different backgrounds throughout its long history. Minority ethnic groups are estimated to make up at least one-third of the country's total population and to inhabit half the land area.

The main ethnic groups living in the seven ethnic minority states of Burma are the Karen, Shan, Mon, Chin, Kachin, Rakhine and Karenni. Other main groups include the Nagas, who live in north Burma and are estimated to number about 100,000, constituting another complex family of Tibetan-Burmese language subgroups. To these long-established minorities should be added more recent arrivals, who now constitute substantial numbers in the country, such as the Indians, Pa-O, Wa, Kokang, Palaung, Akha, Lahu, etc.

Some of the minorities share Theravada Buddhism with the Burmese majority, though there are also substantial communities of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and animists.


Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, and was governed under a democratic parliamentary system under Prime Minister U Nu until 1962, though it was under a military 'caretaker government' between 1958 and 1960. After a military coup in 1962, General Ne Win took over, ruling until 1988. During General Ne Win's military socialist regime, the 1947 Constitution, which had outlined an essentially federal structure for independent Burma, albeit one dominated by the centre, was replaced in 1974 by a new constitution which created a more centralized state and withdrew many of the provisions guaranteeing rights for some of the country's ethnic minority groups.

The people of Burma eventually challenged the repressive regime of General Ne Win in 1988, when demonstrations swept through the capital Yangon (Rangoon), and for a time it looked as though the people's will would prevail and democracy would be established. However, the army regained control in September 1988 and cracked down on the democratic movement, putting hundreds of people in jail and ushering in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) as the government of Burma. In 1989 it changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in English.

The SLORC quickly promised elections, but the results of the election held in 1990 gave a landslide victory to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of independent Burma's founder, Aung San). The SLORC not only disregarded these results, but cracked down on the victorious National League for Democracy and sought to impose its absolute control over the country. It prevented any elected national assembly from convening and continued to hold the main leaders of the National League for Democracy under house arrest, despite increasing international pressure for their release and for the recognition of the election results.

SLORC convened a National Convention to begin the task of drawing up a new constitution in January 1993, but restrictions on its activities and other interferences by the military junta led to the NLD walking out in late 1995. The SLORC also dealt with several long-standing minority insurgencies along its borders in the 1990s, negotiating ceasefire agreements that ended fighting with most of them apart from the Karen. The main Karen National Union base at Manerplaw was captured by the Burmese military in spring 1995, but without any final peace settlement.

Against this backdrop, the SLORC also attempted to 'rebrand' itself in November 1997 and adopted the name of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), though this was widely considered a cosmetic change as the leadership remained essentially the same.

Reports of massive human rights violations continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Sanctions against Burma by the European Union, the United States and other countries were intensified during this period, with the State Peace and Development Council placing Aung Suu Kyi again under house arrest in September 2000 until May 2002, when she was 'released' with some travel restrictions. She was taken into custody again in May 2003 where she remains.

The SPDC announced in 2003 a seven-step 'roadmap to democracy'. On 17 February 2005, it reconvened the National Convention in order, among other things, to finish writing a new constitution. Excluded from it were the main pro-democracy parties, including the National League for Democracy, and allied ethnic parties. Over 20 ethnic groups that have negotiated ceasefires, however, did take part. The Convention adjourned again in December 2006, with a draft reportedly nearing completion. It was reconvened in July 2007 in what the SPDC said was the final round and was concluded in September 2007 with a written constitution still lacking. In October 2007 the military junta formed a new committee to address the task as part of its 'roadmap to democracy' but human rights activists hold out little hope of a meaningful constitution.

In May 2008, a draft constitution was finally presented to voters in a referendum widely condemned by the opposition and international human rights groups as a sham. The new document enshrined military control over the government, guaranteed enough seats for the military in parliament to block any further constitutional reform without the military's assent, and excluded Aung San Suu Kyi. The referendum, announced as having received over 92 per cent approval with 99 per cent voter turnout, was accompanied by police harassment, official review of citizen's ballots, revision of 'no' votes to 'yes' votes, and other severe irregularities. Further, the referendum came less than two weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, and especially its Irrawaddy Delta. Voting in the hardest hit areas was postponed until 24 May, but that did not prevent the junta from announcing the results of the referendum on 15 May.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma at the beginning of May 2008, the government failed to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of victims, blocked international aid efforts for weeks before easing some restrictions, and pilfered portions of the international assistance intended for victims. One month after the cyclone struck, UN estimates placed the number of dead at 78,000, with 56,000 still missing. Two million people were still in need of relief. With the Irrawaddy Delta providing two-thirds of Burma's rice harvest, long-term food security was also a major concern, especially in light of skyrocketing world food prices.

In 2005, the government started moving its operations away from Yangon (Rangoon) to a remote jungle location near Pyinmana, its newly designated capital city, officially named Nay Pyi Taw Myodaw ('Royal City of the Seat of Kings') on 27 March 2006.


The denial of the rights of many minorities in Burma, and the continuing conflicts between the SPDC and numerous minority groups mobilized by elites who may or may not be accountable to the constituencies they seek to represent, have roots that go back to the broken promises and unfulfilled expectations from the time of the creation of the country after the Second World War. Even before Burma became a fully independent state, one of its founders, Aung San had concluded in 1947 what is now known as the Panglong Agreement with representatives from the Shan, Chin and Kachin minorities. The Agreement included various autonomy rights for minorities – as equal partners in the new Union – and contained their acceptance to cooperate with his government.

The Panglong Agreement was a good initial starting point, though it contained a number of weaknesses, not least because many minorities such as Karen and the Mon were not signatories. The potential of the agreement remained unfulfilled as, a few months later in July 1947, Aung San was assassinated by political rivals.

Ethnic uprising

A Communist rebellion soon after independence in January 1948 threatened the survival of Burma's civilian elected government under Prime Minister U Nu. With the support of the fledgling Burma Army – and especially that of minority units within this army – the civilian authorities were able to hold back the Communist threat, but distrust and eventually hostility between some of the minority communities and government quickly developed. While many minorities in the 1940s and 1950s were receptive to a union that respected their rights and acknowledged the country's ethnic diversity, an increasingly significant percentage became disillusioned as their rights were eroded over the years. A number of them came to believe that only by armed struggle could these rights be guaranteed. Resenting the unfulfilled promises and perceived increasing Burmese domination of the army and government, minorities such as the Karen and others began holding demonstrations and increasingly demanding some form of independence or federalism. A number of incidents, and the inability or refusal of the government to respond to these demands, quickly led to armed violence, so that by 1949, as political violence swept the country, the government faced uprisings from the Communists and a number of minorities, including the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Pao and Rakhine.

The situation was to worsen dramatically a decade later when General Ne Win first seized power in 1958–60 in a military coup, then again in 1962. The results for minorities were tragic, as the military not only entered into a cycle of increasing repression against all opposition, but also moved towards policies and practices which identified more and more with the Burmese Buddhist majority.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, minority groups increasingly rose against the regime and, by the late 1970s, over a dozen armed groups opposed the military regime, most of which involved minority-based armies controlling much of the hill territories near the country's land borders. In 1976, nine of these groups united to form the National Democratic Front (NDF) alliance. Other minorities in the north-east of the country, especially the Wa and Kokang, also joined with the insurgent Communist Party of Burma that, between 1968 and 1988, was backed by neighbouring China.

Pro-democracy protests

Mass uprisings throughout much of the country in 1988, led by university students and Buddhist monks, were violently suppressed, with many Burmese pro-democracy activists fleeing to minority-controlled areas. While General Ne Win stepped down, he was replaced in power by a handpicked group of military officers in September 1988 which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the predecessor of the currently ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The sad legacy of the military junta's role since Burma's independence has been the elimination of the limited local minority autonomy and of any significant minority leadership in the upper echelons of the tatmadaw (Burmese army); the refusal to recognize education beyond fourth grade in schools in local, non-Burmese languages; discriminatory policies, which resulted in disadvantage or exclusion of minority peoples in public service employment; arbitrary confiscation of land, especially in minority areas; and discriminatory exploitation of natural resources. All of these policies, combined with the brutal tactics of the military junta, have resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis with several hundred thousand people being forced to flee, especially minority groups such as the Shan and Karen. The latter have seen as many as 20 per cent of their population either displaced internally or becoming refugees in neighbouring Thailand.

Ceasefires and resettlement

Militarily, the SLORC (and now the SPDC) seemed to gain the upper hand in its armed struggle with minority opposition groups after 1988, with ceasefire agreements being concluded with 14 armed minority groups. These truces have not resulted in political settlements to the conflicts underlying half a century of insurgency in Burma. However, they have given civilian populations a respite from the fighting, allowing some communities to recover, and providing the space for ethnic minority civil society networks to re-emerge. Resettlement and development programmes were started in many areas, with international agencies also permitted into areas that had been off-limits for decades. This movement has however been hampered again by state authorities more recently, as a number of international organizations have ceased or suspended activities because of perceived interference or restrictions emanating from the SPDC. The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the International Committee for the Red Cross suspended or curtailed their activities in Burma in 2006.

A series of bombings between 2004 and 2006 has led the SPDC to accuse political and armed ethnic opposition groups of terrorism, and to charge political activists with terrorism offences, despite no clear evidence of any linkage with these events and denial from all of these groups of any involvement.

Forced labour issues in Burma and the SPDC's lack of cooperation with the International Labour Organization (ILO) brought matters to a head in 2006 and 2007. In March 2006, the ILO Governing Body agreed to consider new courses of action because of the regime's continual non-compliance with the Forced Labour Convention, and especially the absence of any effective complaints mechanism for accusations of forced labour (previous complaints by individuals in Burma in 2006 had led to their criminal prosecution by government authorities for 'false reports' or 'abuse of officials'). Among the options considered were referring the matter to the International Court of Justice. Following the ILO's determination to take firm action against Burma, a Memorandum of Understanding was concluded in February 2007 which set up a trial complaint mechanism to allow victims of forced labour to seek redress without having to fear reprisals.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In Burma the situation of a range of minority groups remains critical, particularly in Shan and Kayin (Karen) and other minority-populated areas, although largely unreported as international attention focuses on the plight of the political opposition in Yangon. The US State Department labels Burma one of the world's seven worst human rights violators, yet, in January 2007, China and Russia vetoed a US-led Security Council resolution calling on the military junta to stop persecution of minority and ethnic groups. In September 2007 the world once again witnessed the might of the ruling military junta as it violently crushed pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks in Yangon and other major cities.

Information on the involvement of ethnic minorities in the protests is hard to come by due to government restrictions on information flow out of the country. Ethnic nationality populations are also greater in rural areas and the majority of the protests took place in urban centres. However groups such as the Karen, Shan, Karenni and Rohingya joined the protests on the Thai-Burma border and in the city of Sittwe in Rakhine State. In an October 2007 Associated Press article Karen National Union secretary general Mahn Sha said "We need to work together with the Mon, other groups, the students, to oust the (junta). We have a common enemy and common goals."

The Security Council released a formal statement on Burma in October criticizing the military government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. It called on the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to hold talks with opposition leaders and hasten the release of political prisoners. The international community remains divided over the treatment of Burma - the US, Britain and France proposed tougher wording in the UN Security Council statement and continue to call for harsh sanctions, yet China and Russia successfully argued to soften the language of the statement and consistently oppose sanctions. The two countries are key supporters of the military junta and in January vetoed a US – led UN Security Council resolution calling on the military junta to stop persecution of minority and ethnic groups.

The military-run regimes since the end of civilian control have been among the world's worst violators of human rights. Since 1988, the military junta composed of senior military officers has ruled by decree, without a constitution or legislature. These decrees and administrative practices result in what can only be described as one of the world's worst records of discrimination against minorities. The prominent and almost exclusive use of the Burmese language in state primary schools and by state authorities, even in areas with very large concentrations of linguistic minorities such as the Shan and Kachin, is a discriminatory practice that continues to disadvantage these minorities in educational, economic and social terms.

The Burmese junta's monitoring and control of religious activity within its borders has led the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to designate it in 2007 as a 'country of particular concern', a title given to states who are the most 'egregious violators' of religious freedom in the world. The report documents the Burmese junta allowing or instigating violence against religious minorities, and forcefully promoting Buddhism over other religions. It notes that ethnic minority Christians and Muslims have encountered the most difficulties in recent years. Authorization to construct new Christian churches, and especially new mosques, is often denied. Non-Buddhist minorities continued to experience employment discrimination at upper levels of the armed forces and public sector.

Some of the worst discriminatory practices appear to affect the Muslim minority, also known as Rohingya, in the northern Rakhine State. Because their ancestors are not considered by the government to have been in Burma before the time of British colonial rule, most members of this minority are not deemed to be citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law. As a result, the Rohingyas cannot be admitted to state-run secondary schools, are excluded from employment in most civil service positions and also have severe restrictions imposed on them in relation to leaving their villages, which inhibits their ability to trade and seek employment.

Reports from Amnesty International and the Fédération internationale des droits de l'homme confirm the continued discriminatory confiscation of land belonging to minorities in border areas and the western part of the country, and the displacement of these minorities and, on occasion, handing over of their land to Buddhist Burmese (or local Rakhines) in 'model villages', or for development projects mainly controlled or for the benefit of members of the country's ethnic majority. Other so-called government measures claimed to be taken to improve the country's food security and development are not producing the claimed benefits and often involve the take-over of land of many minority farmers: reports in 2006 confirm that large tracts of prime farmland are being confiscated by the military, who then must be paid an annual fee by the same minority farmers to work what is their own land.

The Burmese state has repressed many of the minorities and indigenous peoples in the north of the country for many decades. However, the military junta has more recently managed to convince many of these minorities and indigenous peoples to stop fighting the central government in return for some autonomy and the cessation of military operations against them. After 1989 it had reached ceasefire agreements with about 17 of the country's rebel groups. Many of these agreements were reached in talks with officials led by former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. He was ousted in 2004 and was placed under house arrest. There is a concern that the current leadership of the SPDC may seek to change these policies of engagement with minorities that have agreed to ceasefires. With regard to the durability of the current peace agreements, much will depend on what, if any, rights may be granted in the elusive new constitution.

In contrast, the Burmese military seems to have stepped up operations in non-ceasefire areas against the Shan State Army-South and the Karen National Union, forcing supporters and local villagers to flee across the border to Thailand. The 2006 military offensive against the Shan and Karen has been described as one of the worst in the last ten years, and in part seems to be occurring to make way for South-East Asia's biggest hydroelectric dam projects. Most of the displaced are from the Karen and Shan ethnic minorities.

There are also consistent reports that the army continues to force girls and boys from minorities and indigenous peoples to become soldiers or work as forced labour. Rape, torture and other brutalities remain rampant.

After Cyclone Nargis devastated much of Burma in early May 2008, MRG urged UN and international aid agencies to ensure that minorities were not excluded from relief efforts. MRG cited its previous research, which indicates 'that when a natural disaster occurs, minority communities are often worst affected and last to have access to aid.' This fear proved well founded in Burma. Although little aid was delivered to anyone outside of the military in the month following the cyclone, due to government indifference and obstruction of international efforts, there were reports that minorities were being systematically excluded from assistance in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta. Human rights and humanitarian aid organizations reported that ethnic Karen in particular – perhaps half of the Delta's population – were being completely excluded from aid deliveries and other assistance.

Due to Cyclone Nargis, the government delayed vote on the referendum on the draft Constitution in areas hit by the cyclone to 24 May 2008, which devastated parts of southern Myanmar affecting approximately 2.4 million people. According to Amnesty International more than 84,500 people died and more than 19,000 left wounded in the catastrophe. Already on 19 May 2008 however, the government announced that that the new Constitution had been votes with 94,2 percent of eligible voters in favour. Amnesty Intentional analysis of the new Constitution warns that it ensures impunity for past human rights violations and grants the army the power to suspend all fundamental rights during an emergency situation. No legislative safeguards are put in place to protect freedom from torture and other ill-treatment. The draft version was published only in Burmese language prior to the referendum. The adoption of the Constitution marks the fourth step in the government's 'Roadmap to Democracy', to be followed by elections in 2010.

The government also extended the house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party, National League for Democracy in May 2008. By the end of 2008 Amnesty International reported more than 2,100 political prisoners.

In 2008 military offensive by the army continued against Karen civilians in eastern Myanmar. Human rights organisations reported about grass violations of human rights, including torture, extra-judicial executions, forced labour and displacement and enforced disappearances. According to media reports fresh fighting erupted between government militia and ethnic groups in the north-east part of the country in August 2009. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that between 10,000 to 30,000 people had to flee the conflict to the neighbouring China, which called on Myanmar to maintain stability in the border areas and protect the rights and security of Chinese civilians living in the country. Kokang, where the trouble erupted, is home to many ethnic Chinese and Chinese nationals, many of whom run businesses and trade across the border.

At the beginning of September the Reuters news agency reported about restored stability in the region, following the governments efforts to keep armed ethnic groups under control. Reportedly the junta invited a group of more than 50 observers to the Kokang region bordering China (an ethnic Chinese enclave) comprising of Western and Asian diplomats and foreign journalists, including two from China. An interim local government was also installed in Kokang to play part in next year's elections in return for regional autonomy after the elections. Armed conflict ceased but it is unclear how long peace can be restored in the region, as according to reports, many of Myanmar's ethnic rebel groups such as the Kokang and the Wa in the predominantly ethnic Chinese Shan State do not trust the regime and have long refused to disarm, join an army-run border force and take part in the polls next year.

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