Last Updated: Monday, 30 November 2015, 08:01 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Myanmar/Burma

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date September 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Myanmar/Burma, September 2009, available at: [accessed 30 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
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.


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.


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.


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.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma
Tel: +661 850 9008

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Tel: +66 2391 8801

Asian Human Rights Commission
Tel: +852 2698 6339

Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (HURIGHTS OSAKA)
Phone: +81 6 6577 3578 (Japan)

The Burma Fund
Tel: +1 202 6390636
Fax: +1 202 6390638

Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative

Ethnic Nationalities Council (Union of Burma)

Fédération internationale des droits de l'homme
Fax +33 1 43 55 18 80

Human Rights Watch Asia
Phone: +1 212 290 4700 (US)


Chin Forum
Tel: +613 843 9484

Chin Human Rights Organization
Tel: +1 613 843 9484

Women's League of Chinland

Zomi Re-unification Organization


Kachin Development Networking Group
Tel: +66 86 917 3630

Kachin National Organization

Kachin Women's Association - Thailand


Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People

Friends of the Karen: People of Burma
Tel: +1 860 437 1542 (U.S.)

Karen Human Rights Group


Karenni Independence through Education
Tel: +66 1 899 7507 (Th)

Karenni News Agency for Human Rights


Human Rights Foundation of Monland

Monland Restoration Council (MRC)
Tel: +1 509 338 4982 (US)

Woman and Child Rights Project (Southern Burma)

Muslims and Rohingya
Arakan Rohingya National Organization


Shan Human Rights Foundation
Tel: +66 (1) 531 2837 (Th)

Shan Relief and Development Committee
Tel: +66 (0) 4 169 3960

Shan Women's Action Network

Sources and further reading


Apple, B. and Martin, V., No Safe Place: Burma's Army and the Rape of Ethnic Women, Washington, DC, Refugees International, 3 April 2003.

Burma 'Sea Gypsies' Compendium:

Burma Digest: A Campaign Journal for Human Rights of All Ethnic Nationalities in Burma,

Burma Guide to Rights and Democracy:

Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2006, Human Rights Documentation Unit, 25 June 2007:

Burma Issues and ALTSEAN-Burma, Uncounted: Political Prisoners in Burma's Ethnic Areas, Bangkok, Thailand, August 2003, URL:

Burma Issues:

Burma Media Watch:

Burmanet news:

Democratic Voice of Burma News:

Derechos: Human Rights in Burma:

Free Burma:

ICG, Myanmar Backgrounder: Ethnic Minority Politics, Asia Report No. 52, Brussels, International Crisis Group, 7 May 2003.

ILO, Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma), Report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed under Article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organization to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Geneva, 2 July 1998.

Irrawaddy News Magazine Online Edition:

Matthews, B., Ethnic and Religious Diversity: Myanmar's Unfolding Nemesis, Singapore, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2001.

Online Burma/Myanmar Library:

Project Maje:

Rogers, B., 'Burma: Religious Freedom Survey' (Christian Solidarity Worldwide), Forum 18, 17 August 2004, URL:

Smith, M., Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, London, Zed Books, 1991.

Smith, M., Ethnic Groups in Burma, London, Anti-Slavery International, 1994.

South, A., 'Karen nationalist communities: the "problem" of diversity', Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 29, no. 1, April 2007.

South, A., Forced Migration in Myanmar: Patterns, Impacts and Responses, Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar, June 2006.

Steinberg, D., 'Myanmar's minority conundrum: issues of ethnicity and authority', paper presented at Japan Institute of International Affairs 'At the Front Lines of Conflict Prevention' conference, 6-7 July 2001, URL:

United Nations Human Rights Reports, Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Report of the UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar, 22 January 1999, URL:


Burma Issues: Chin,

Chin Compendium:

Chin Forum:

Chin Human Rights Organization, Religious Persecutions: A Campaign of Ethnocide against Chin Christians in Burma, 2004, URL:

Chinland Guardian:

Karen Human Rights Group and Open Society Institute's Burma Project, All Quiet on the Western Front? The Situation in Chin State and Sagaing Division, January 1998, URL:

Lian H. Sakhong, In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma, Copenhagen, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2003.

Women's League of Chinland, Unsafe State: State-sanctioned Sexual violence against Chin women in Burma, March 2007, URL:


All Kachin Student and Youth Movement:

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, 'Visit to Kachin State', 2006, URL:

Kachin Burma:

Kachin Development Networking Group, Valley of Darkness, 2007, URL:

Kachin National Organization:

Kachin Net:

Kachin News Group:

Kachin Women's Association, Driven Away: Trafficking of Kachin Women on the China-Burma Border, 2005, URL:

Leach, E.R., Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure, Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 1965.

Lintner, B., The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier, Chiang Mai, Teak House, 2002.

Robinne, F., Prêtres et chamanes: Métamorphoses des Kachin de Birmanie, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2007.

The Kachin Post:

The Kachin State:


Amnesty International, Myanmar: 'No Place to Hide': Killings, Abductions and Other Abuses against Ethnic Karen Villagers and Refugees, London, Amnesty International, 1995.

Bamforth, V., S. Lanjouw and G. Mortimer, Conflict and Displacement in Karenni: The Need for Considered Responses, Burma Ethnic Research Group, 2000.

Burma Issues: Karenni,

Chapman, D., Karenni: The Forgotten War of a Nation Under Siege, Stockport, Dewi Lewis, 1998.

Christie, C., 'The Karens: loyalism and self-determination', in Jean Michaud (ed.), Turbulent Times and Enduring People: Mountain Minorities in the South-East Asian Massif, London, Routledge, 2000.

Huay Pu Keng:

Human Rights Watch, They Came and Destroyed Our Village Again: The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Karen State, June 2005, URL:

Karen Human Rights Group, Development by Decree: The Politics of Poverty and Control in Karen State, March 2007, URL:

Karen Human Rights Group, Dignity in the Shadow of Oppression: The Abuse and Agency of Karen Women under Militarization, November 2006, URL:

Karen Human Rights Group, Human Rights in Northern Karenni (Kayah) State, 1994.

Karen Human Rights Group, Setting Up the Systems of Repression: The Progressive Regimentation of Civilian Life in Dooplaya District, September 2006.

Karen Human Rights Group, Suffering in Silence: The Human Rights Nightmare of the Karen People of Burma, 2000.


'Karenni', in Indigenous Peoples of the World, vol. 4., Danbury, CT, Grolier Education, 1995.

Karenni Development Research Group, Dammed by Burma's Generals: The Karenni Experience with Hydropower Development from Lawpita to the Salween, 2006, URL:

Karenni Homeland:

Leopold, P., Karenni and the World: From Missionaries to Mail Art, ed. Ilis Day, 1996.

Rastorfer, J.-M., 'Les Kayah, Kayan, Karenni, et Yang Daeng', 2002, URL:

Rogers, B., A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People, Monarch Books, 2004.

Salween Watch:

Smeaton, D.M., The Loyal Karens of Burma, London, Trubner, 2003.

Smith, M., 'Burma: the Karen conflict', in J. Rudolph (ed.), Encyclopedia of Modern Ethnic Conflicts, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 2003.

Smith, M., Burma (Myanmar): The Time for Change, London, Minority Rights Group, 2002.

Sproat, R., 'Language use and policy in a linguistically fragmented refugee community', Master of Applied Linguistics in the Division of Linguistics and Psychology thesis, Macquarie University, 2004, URL:


Burma Issues: Mon,

Guillon, E., The Mons: A Civilization of Southeast Asia, The Siam Society, 1999.

Human Rights Foundation of Monland, No Land to Farm: A Comprehensive Report on Land, Real Estates and Properties Confiscations in Mon's Area, Burma (1998-2002), October 2003, URL:

Independent Mon News Agency:

Kaowao Newsgroup:

Mon Forum:

Mon Information Home Page:

Mon Unity League, The Mon: A People without a Country, 1997.

South, A., Mon Nationalism and Civil War in Burma: The Golden Sheldrake, London, RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Woman and Child Rights Project (Southern Burma) and Human Rights Foundation of Monland (Burma), Catwalk to the Barracks: Conscription of Women for Sexual Slavery and Other Practices of Sexual Violence by Troops of the Burmese Military Regime in Mon Areas, July 2005, URL:

Woman and Child Rights Project (Southern Burma), Burma's Education in Corrupt and Oppression against Ethnic Education in Mon Territory, March 2003, URL:

Muslims and Rohingya

Amnesty International, Myanmar, The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied (ASA 16/005/2004), London, May 2004, URL: open&of=ENG-MMR

Arakan Rohingya National Organization:

Burma Issues: Rohingya,

Fédération internationale des droits de l'homme, Burma: Repression, discrimination and ethnic cleansing in Arakan, Paris, April 2000, URL:

Free Rohingya Campaign:

Human Rights Watch, 'Crackdown on Burmese Muslims', briefing paper, July 2002, URL:

Human Rights, Peace and Justice for All:

Karen Human Rights Group, Easy Targets: The Persecution of Muslims in Burma, May 2002, URL:

Lewa, C., 'Issues to be raised concerning the situation of Rohingya children in Myanmar (Burma)', Submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, FORUM-Asia, Bangkok, Thailand, November 2003, URL: sia_ngo_report.doc

Refugees International, The Rohingya: Discrimination in Burma and Denial of Rights in Bangladesh, Washington, DC, July 2006.

Rohingya Library:

Rohingya News:

Rohingya Times, The Roots, Fruits and Dreams of all the Muslims in Myanmar, Japan, 2003, URL:


Karen Human Rights Group, Exiled at Home, Continued Forced Relocations and Displacement in Shan State, April 2000, URL:

Karen Human Rights Group, Killing the Shan: The Continuing Campaign of Forced Relocation in Shan State, May 1998, URL,

Shan Herald Agency for News:

Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women's Action Network, License to Rape: The Burmese Military Regime's Use of Sexual Violence in the Ongoing War in Shan State, May 2002, URL:

Shan Human Rights Foundation Monthly Reports:

Shan Relief and Development Committee, Deserted Fields: The Destruction of Agriculture in Mong Nai Township, Shan State, 2006, URL,

Yawnghwe, C.T., Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan Exile, Singapore, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987.

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