Myanmar Profile

The ethnic minorities of Myanmar

A very diverse country

Myanmar is a very diverse country: the government officially recognizes 135 ethnic minorities.  Despite its small size, Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South-East Asia: 40% of the population belongs to an ethnic minority. The country’s ethnic majority is the Burmans, who are historically settled in Myanmar’s central and upper plains.

Minority groups have mainly lived in resource rich border areas and in the mountains and hills of Myanmar, which are quite isolated. That is historically, because, many were removed from their homes as the government confiscated many of their lands for development projects and resource exploitation.

Myanmar is a country with a very wide range of different cultures. Women’s roles and status thus varies greatly depending on their cultural background.

The Panglong agreement

Myanmar is historically a very ethnically diverse country. The unification of the country was never a given and different groups got different levels of autonomy throughout history, under the British or even the Japanese rule. In order to bring all the different groups together as the country was gaining its independence, Aung San, the father of Burma’s independence, negotiated with the ethnic minorities to get them to agree to be part of the new independent Burma. This was in 1947 and the agreement was called the Panglong Agreement. The Chin, the Kachin and the Shan people signed it. It stipulated that the citizens of the frontier areas would enjoy the same rights and that, with time, full autonomy and internal administration would be granted. After 10 years, these states would have the option to secede. Later in 1947, Aung San was assassinated and the following leaders never honored this agreement.

Burmanization of Myanmar

After the assassination of Aung San, the following democratically elected government was quite short lived as the first military coup happened in 1958, and the military junta was in place from 1962 until recent years. The junta tried to enforce a very centralized form of government. Many ethnic groups have often denounced a “burmanization” of the country. Indeed, until this day, little efforts have been made to encourage or protect the cultural diversity of Myanmar. The 2008 constitution still doesn’t offer any type of protection for the country’s minorities. One example of this policy is the history of ethnic languages teaching in the country: it has been banned from public school in 1962 and the ban lasted for several decades. People who taught an ethnic language were threatened or jailed. In 2012, the teaching of ethnic languages was finally allowed, but only if it was outside of school hours, and no budget was allocated to it. This teaching is officially recognized since the passing of a law in 2014.

Decades of fighting

If many ethnic groups started fighting for their autonomy or independence since the time of the British colony, then the time of the military rule has certainly sparked many civil wars within the country.

Civilians from ethnic minorities have suffered many violations of their human rights from the military: torture, extrajudicial killings, and punitive restrictions on movement and humanitarian access. Some ethnic armed groups have also committed exactions such as abductions of people seen as supporting opposing parties or illicit taxation. Humanitarian access has been severely limited in areas controlled by armed groups. Exactions from the army are still ongoing and are an open secret in Myanmar, but even when civilians speak out about the abuse, soldiers never face prosecution, much less punishment.

As the government is unable to properly provide for its troops, they resort to extortion, theft, confiscation of food or bribes at checkpoints. Often the army requires villages to provide them with rice and livestock. Many people are also submitted to forced labor, such as portering, or in many cases in state run profit making industries or construction. In 2012, a government campaign was aimed at ending forced labor, and if it dropped in much of the country, it still persists in border areas controlled by the army.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the main conflicts:

–          Shan

There are an estimated 5 million Shan people. They are mostly Buddhist and live in the northeastern hills of the country. The Shan leaders signed the Panglong agreement, so when it became clear that the promises would stay wishful thinking, several militias formed and the resistance started to fight the Burmese army. The first ceasefire was signed in the mid-90’s but quickly broke. The last ceasefire to be signed was in 2011, but it also failed to last. The army relocated tens of thousands of Shan people. The Burmese army is particularly harsh on the Shan people, as there are high stakes in this area: the land is rich in silver, lead, gold, tungsten, rubies, sapphires and teak. On top of decades of fighting with the government, the Shan state is also part of the golden triangle: the production and trade of drugs has led to widespread corruption, extortion, illicit taxation and addiction.

–          Chin

There are 1,5 million Chin people. They are Christians and live in the impoverished mountains near the Indian border. They suffer from religious persecution from the army, and from the exactions of the Chin army. This area also often suffers from food shortages. Many Chin people have fled to India but there were reports of many of them being repatriated despite the persecutions.

–          Karen

The Karen represents the 2nd largest ethnic group after the Burmans with 7 million people. They have led a long rebellion seeking self-determination and independence. They are both Christians and Buddhists. There are rival factions within the Karen independence movement. A general ceasefire was signed with the government in 2012 but broke only a few months later, fighting still occasionally breaks in some parts of the Karen state. They mostly live in the Irrawaddy delta near the Thai border. They have suffered forced relocation as well as forced labor programs. They have fought Japan alongside British forces during WW2. They were then promised an independent state but the British did not maintain their hold on the country. They were seen by the Burmans as collaborators and suffered brutal repression, which led to many Karen people fleeing elsewhere in Burma or abroad, which today makes their political representation more difficult. The Karen insurrection is one of the longest running civil wars in history.

–          Kachin

The Kachin are mostly Christians and live in northern Myanmar. They were famous during the colony for their battle skills. They started the rebellion in 1961 and have endured forced labor campaigns and human trafficking to nearby China. The Kachin Independence Organization has administrative control over the Kachin state, they are very popular in the state and are maintaining an armed branch, the Kachin Independance Army (KIA). They are one of the largest ethnic resistance forces in the country. They signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1994, but it didn’t lead to the resolution of the grievances that had led to the conflict in the first place. In 2011, the Burmese army launched an attack on the KIA who had refused to lay down the arms and transform itself into a Border Guard Force, and who controlled some areas with lucrative Chinese hydropower projects. The conflict got renewed, which forced many civilians to flee. Furthermore, the government blocked the humanitarian aid for the internally displaced persons.

–          Mon

The Mon people are one of the first people in Southeast Asia and the first one in Myanmar. (See article “Overview”). They are responsible for spreading Theravada Buddhism in the region. They have a rich and ancient culture and have had a major influence on the Burmese culture. They have taken an active part in fighting the British and suffered violent repression. Monland is a partially autonomous state that was created in 1974. In spite of that, violent clashes still occurred until the 1996 ceasefire. There are still reports of human rights abuses in the Mon state.

Women and girls

Conflicts affect women, men, boys and girls differently as they have different roles in society and a different status. They suffer the consequences of conflict in a different way. For instance, most combatants are men (although not exclusively), which makes them more vulnerable to injury and death. This also has consequences on women who become the sole breadwinners of the households. Women suffer from other conflict-related problems such as sexual violence and its traumatic impacts.

The Women’s League of Burma has documented many cases of sexual violence in the different conflicts occurring around the country. According to the organization, this is only the tip of the iceberg as many women are not easy to reach and many more are too afraid to speak up about the abuses that they have suffered. The data shows that rapes are not random or isolated acts. They are a tool to demoralize and destroy the ethnic communities, as well as a way to punish civilians for their alleged support for armed ethnic groups. The practice is widespread as it has been recorded in many different geographical locations, and its occurrence is seen increasing with military offensive, proving that this is indeed linked to a military strategy. Sexual violence is often perpetrated by high ranking officers, making the practice institutionalized and accepted, and, the lack of consequence is another green light for soldiers to abuse their power as punishment for these crimes is a rare exception. As a matter of fact, article 445 of the constitution basically provides complete amnesty for all regime officials for any crimes.

A report from the UN’s secretary-general has, for the first time in 2018, included the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) in its annual list of parties that have committed sexual violence in armed conflict. While many cases of sexual violence used as a weapon of war have been documented by different organizations, the army denies that it is a systematic tool used during conflict and is willing to admit only to a few isolated cases. Therefore, they have taken no action to end the practice. As for the government, they have repeatedly refused to engage in addressing conflict related sexual violence.

The problem is never seriously addressed, as women’s issues are never seen as a priority when it comes to building long lasting peace. In fact, sexual violence is never at the center of the talks, and one of the reasons is the absence of women in the peace talks. Yet, since the UN’s Security Council’s resolution 1325 on women peace and security in 2000, there is now an international consensus on the need to have women at the table to be able to build sustainable, democratic and inclusive peace.

Women should indeed be included in all levels of decision-making. If there is an unofficial rule stating that 30% of the negotiating members should be women, it is still not the case. For many activists, there can be no long lasting peace without women present. Considering this, there is an absolute need for women to be at the negotiating table, because the complementary perspectives and skills can only improve the results. Women are the ones who can best represent their own interests. They should not be represented solely as objects of suffering but should be involved as actors of change.

A new peace process

Since the power has been handed over to a civilian government, new efforts have been made toward the peace process. Aung San Suu Kyi has made the peace between the ethnic groups and the government a priority, and thus has reinvigorated the negotiations, but so far she has still failed to convince everyone that this time was going to be different. Indeed, this is far from being the first round of negotiations between the ethnic armies and the government. 15 armies have sent representatives to Naypyidaw to negotiate the terms of the ceasefire, but the entanglement of allegiances is very complex.

There is an initial agreement on the principle of making Myanmar a federal state, which is a key demand of the ethnic groups, but the military is very reluctant on this principle, as they have always preferred a very centralized form of power. And, since the beginning of the peace talks, the violence has not decreased; the military is still leading intense campaigns and ethnic armies are fighting each other in some areas.

These elements are reinforcing the initial skepticism of the ethnic groups about the motivations of the government, and its actual scope of action if its plan opposes those of the military. Out of the 15 armies, 8 have signed the initial ceasefire while the other 7 have refused because there is no trust in the intentions of the government. Those that refused are presenting a united front led by the United Wa State Army and backed by China. China has projects in some conflict areas and is now a new key player in the negotiations. While in the past, all the ethnic armies were allies against the military; there are now some divisions between those who signed the agreement and those who didn’t, within the same state.

The armies’ skepticism is linked to the failures of past agreements signed with the government. The government has always tried to centralize the control of resources to the detriment of local populations. Previously, some ethnic groups had given up control over the resources of their territory in exchange for development programs in their state, like schools, hospitals etc. At the same time, the Burmese army and corrupt leaders of armed groups reaped all the immense revenues generated from activities such as mining or damming, leaving nothing to the population. This meant that the population had suffered from the conflict and got nothing from the truce. As an example, a ceasefire was signed in 1994 in the Kachin State. The natural sites got militarized and civilians living nearby were forcibly removed from the area. In the end, the ceasefire was broken in 2011 and led to intense fighting that is still going on today. This time, before laying down arms, the ethnic groups are expecting the political aspects of the conflict to be addressed, such as federalism, or the withdrawal of Myanmar’s troops from their territory.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s margin of action is still limited as the army is pressuring her to give up as little as possible. Indeed, for the army, a ceasefire is not necessarily the best option: if the area remains in conflict, they can keep control of the natural resources. Furthermore, the continuing instability is an excuse to not let go entirely of power. Their narrative is still that they are protecting the population from the many internal enemies, which legitimates the need for a stronger authority than what a civilian government can offer. But she is broadening her approach compared to previous attempts inviting more groups to negotiate that had previously been sidelined.

The conflict with Rohingyas in Rakhine state is separated from the peace process. It is not currently being discussed at the conferences in Naypyidaw, as the government does not officially recognize them as a minority. They are seen as foreigners and so are not included in any of the negotiations. (The situation of the Rohingyas will be the subject of another article in this blog.)

If having a civilian government in charge is a huge change, for the minority groups there it is still not enough to restore their faith in the government with which they have been in conflict for decades. Plus, the faith people had put into Aung San Suu Kyi might be in decline as the NLD (National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party) has suffered several losses in recent by-elections. The international community has also been questioning the method of Aung San Suu Kyi regarding her handling of the Rohingyas crisis. There has been a lot of hope in this new government especially regarding the peace process, which is a process that can take a long time. But so far, it has not led to major change. There was still fighting occurring in May 2018 in Rakhine State, Shan State and Kachin state.




L’ObsRohingyas perséutés: « Aung San Suu Kyi est prise entre l’opinion et l’armée » – Sarah Diffala – 13 septembre 2017 –

Time – A Closer Look at Burma’s Ethnic Minorities – Hannah Beech – Jan 30th, 2009 –,8599,1874981,00.htmlAung San Suu Kyi Had a Plan to Bring Peace to Myanmar. But Convincing Others Hasn’t Been So Easy– Francis Wade – June 7th, 2017 –

BBC NewsWho are Burma’s minority groups? –November 18th, 2010 –

Amnesty InternationalMyanmar: ethnic minorities face range of violations including war crimes in northern conflict –June 14th, 2017 –

World AtlasLargest ethnic groups in Myanmar (Burma) –Benjamin Elisha Sawe – April 25th, 2017 –

Oxford Burma AllianceEthnic nationalities of Burma

Office of the Supreme Headquarters Karen National Union KawthooleiCeasefire and peace talk progress reportFebruary 22nd, 2012 –

BNI Multimedia GroupChallenges in teaching ethnic language in Burma – Mwe Khur – January 10th, 2017 –

Human Rights WatchDiscrimination in Arakan puts Myanmar army on UN “list of shame” Secreatary-General report details sexual violence as a weapon of war –Shayna Bauchner – April 16th, 2018 –

ReutersForced Labor shows back-breaking lack of reform in Myanmar military –Aubrey Belford and Soe Zeya Tun – July 2nd, 2015 –

Al JazeeraMyanmar’s Suu Kyi opens fresh round of peace talks –May 24th, 2017 –

Myanmar Times – Why gender matters in peace and conflict – Isaac Khen, Julia Federer and Jean D’Cunha – November 25th, 2015 – as women “kept in the kitchen” during peace process – Cherry Thein – September 23rd, 2015 – Tatmadaw admits rapes but denies they are “institutionalized” – Nan Tin Htwe – March 3rd, 2014 –

Women’s League of BurmaSame impunity, same patterns. Sexual abuses by the Burma Army will not stop until there’s a genuine civilian government –January 2014 – file:///C:/Users/User/Desktop/Univers’ELLES/Articles/Myanmar/SameImpunitySamePattern_English-final.pdf

2 thoughts on “The ethnic minorities of Myanmar”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s