Updated September 2017


Most ethnic Shan live in Shan State, though there are also pockets in other parts of Burma such as in Kachin State. Most of them are Theravada Buddhists, with some elements of animist practices, and speak a language which is part of the Tai-Kadai language family, and closely related to Thai and Lao.

As there are no reliable population figures for Burma since the Second World War, the size of the Shan minority is a matter of some uncertainty, though most outside sources appear to agree that the Shan are probably the country's largest minority, with some sources putting them at more than 5 million. The term Shan itself is however problematic, at least as it is used by Burma authorities, since they include under this term 33 ethnic groups that are in fact quite distinct and to a large degree unrelated except for close geographic proximity.

Historical context

The Shan are thought to have started migrating southward from Yunnan, China as early as the first century. There were major population movements of Shan in the sixth and thirteenth centuries, with a Shan kingdom known as Mong Mao already in existence in Burma's northern reaches by the ninth century. From the thirteenth century, ethnic Shan dominated much of Burma until about the nineteenth century, by which time the their power declined and was diffused into a large number of Shan states, many of which recognized the authority of the ethnic Burmese (or Bamar) king. British colonial rule from the nineteenth century resulted in Shan states being ruled by their hereditary chiefs as British protectorates.

Most of these protectorates were brought together in 1922 under the banner of the 'Federated Shan States' administered by an appointed commissioner. This eventually led to the creation of a Shan State under the 1948 Constitution of independent Burma, which also provided for a right to secession after 10 years. But the absence of any real federal structure for Burma, contrary to the aspirations in the 1947 Panglong Agreement (an agreement concluded between Aung San and the leaders of a number of ethnic groups of Burma which, among other things, set out a commitment to cooperate for the establishment of federal structure for soon to be independent Burma), and the perception that the government authorities in Yangon (Rangoon) were completely dominated by ethnic Burmese and discriminating against non-Burmese contributed to the emergence of violent opposition by some minority groups such as the Karen and Mon.

This increased between 1958 and 1960, during General Ne Win's caretaker government, as the uprising also moved into Shan areas. The theoretical right to secession given by the Constitution was effectively cast aside after General Ne Win's coup d'état in 1962, and was seen by some as an important factor fuelling the Shan uprising against the increasingly centralizing efforts of state authorities, especially with the 1974 Constitution. It was also from 1962 that the government's increased 'Burmanization' efforts became more blatant, such as making Burmese the exclusive medium of instruction in state schools (with on occasion some teaching of English).

Two main armed groups were based in Shan State: the Shan State Army (also known as the Mong Tai Army, led by drug kingpin Khun Sa) and the Shan State Army/Restoration Council of Shan State. The former concluded a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1995 and effectively disbanded in 2005, though some of its units joined the Shan State Army/Restoration Council of Shan State or continued to operate as distinct factions, such as the Shan United Revolutionary Party and the Shan State Army-South.

There was a massive counterinsurgency campaign against Shan groups after 1995. Especially since this date thousands of Shan sought refuge in Thailand, as the Burmese army began to forcibly relocate hundreds of villages and expel hundreds of thousands of ethnic Shan (300,000 according to the NGO Refugees International in 2004), with some displacement also occurring because of land confiscation by the Burmese army and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The situation was further complicated by the arrival of Wa, who are being relocated to parts of Shan State by the Burmese government. This is seen as an attempt by the Burmese government to use Wa to fight the Shan resistance forces. From 1995 onwards there were widespread reports of Shan being subjected to human rights violations such as arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, extra-judicial executions, forced labour, destruction of property and discrimination against members of the Shan minority. Hundreds of thousands of Shan are thought to have fled their homes as a result, as well as to avoid fighting between rebel groups and the Burmese army.

Their language was also not provided for as a medium of instruction in state schools and, in most Shan villages outside of towns, Burmese educational authorities are either unwilling or unable to provide free education to Shan children. Even private community schools set up and paid for by Shan have been ordered to stop teaching the Shan language, and there were reports of military officers ordering their troops to search for and destroy all Shan-language school materials. The government in addition continued to pursue various measures to forcibly assimilate the Shan or 'dilute' their culture, including by 'importing' Burman and Wa settlers into Shan State as part of a three-year resettlement campaign in 2006.

Reports also emerged of the military confiscating large tracts of land farmed by Shan, and then 'renting' the land back to them for an annual fee. This and other obstacles and regulations imposed by government authorities, such as forbidding the trade of rice and other foodstuffs outside of local areas, effectively led to a decrease in overall goods productivity in some Shan areas, contrary to government reports.

Current issues

Fighting has continued in Shan State, with government forces conducting military attacks against Shan State Army-South; Shan State Army-North (SSA-North); and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Fighting has also taken place between Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South) and the government military in northern Shan State. In 2011, the military broke a 22-year ceasefire with the Shan State Army-North as fighting intensified. The SSA-South signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, but SSA-North did not, due to continuing offences by the military, despite a bilateral ceasefire signed in 2012.

Civilians are caught in this fighting, resulting in multiple displacements, increased militarization near villages, torture, extrajudicial killing, use of villagers as human shields and porters and shelling of civilian targets. Humanitarian access is difficult due to the shifting frontlines of fighting and an increasingly complex web of armed actors.

At least half of the 43 dams being planned in Burma are in Shan State; many of them are in active conflict zones and contested territories. The Burmese army is providing security for dam planning and construction, causing fighting to ignite around these areas. At the Kunlong dam site on the Salween River, for example, fighting between Kokang resistance forces and the Burma army caused 100,000 refugees to flee to China in 2015. Despite significant local opposition, developers from China and Thailand are continuing to proceed with plans for the Mongton/Tasang dam, slated to be one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. Burmese army troops around the dam increased four-fold in 2015, leading many to fear that the root causes of the ongoing conflict, including unsanctioned natural resource exploitation, will continue to be ignored in favour of a military solution.

This 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.