The People of Myanmar

Discover the various ethnic groups that make up the people of Myanmar: where they live, what they believe in and their specific traditions and family values.
No fewer than 135 indigenous ethnic groups are recognised by the Myanmar government (as well as many others not given official status) speaking around a hundred languages and related dialects.

Ethnically, Myanmar is one of Asia’s most diverse nations – a fact which has caused many problems over the years, but which also greatly enriches the country’s cultural life and enhances its appeal to visitors. The present population is around 55 million, the majority of which live in the fertile Ayeyarwady delta region, in Rakhine, and along the southeastern coastline. The Burmese authorities presently recognise no fewer than 135 separate ethnic groups living within the union. Of these, the Bamar are easily the largest. The other six main ethnic groups are the Shan, Kachin, Kayin, Rakhine, Chin and Mon, each of which has its own state. These seven main ethnic groups together constitute about 92 percent, with the remaining 8 percent divided between a fascinating patchwork of minority tribes. Discover Myanmar in all its diversity, with a tailor-made trip

Ethnologists divide Myanmar’s indigenous population into four main groups: Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, Austro-Tai and Karennic. The Tibeto-Burman group, which includes the predominant Bamar, the Rakhine, Kachin and Chin, constitutes around 78 percent of the total. Mon-Khmer peoples include the Mon, the Wa and the Palaung, while the major Austro-Tai group are the Shan. Karennic peoples include the Kayin (Karen) and the closely related Kayah. Major non-indigenous groups, who are predominantly urban-based, are relatively recent migrants (in the past 150 years) from South Asia and China.


The Bamar

Myanmar’s majority group (around 40 million people, or two-thirds of the population), the Bamar have traditionally held sway over much of the country, particularly the fertile central plains and Ayeyarwady valley. Originally migrants from the southern China, the Bamar (or “Burmans”, as they were known in colonial times) were a wet-rice farming people, Theravada Buddhist by religion, whose tonal, Tibeto-Burman tongue – Burmese – has long been the national language. As the country’s largest racial group and main holders of government power, the Bamar are often viewed with suspicion and even hostility by Myanmar’s minorities.

Most of the cultural forms described in later sections of this book are broadly representative of the Bamar, who live typically in thatched dwellings and work as rice farmers. Perhaps their greatest distinguishing trademark is the pale yellow/white powder, made from thanaka bark, which Bamar women apply to their faces as protection against the sun. Their traditional dress is the wrap-around longyi, similar to the Malaysian sarong.


The Shan

At just over 9 percent of the population, Myanmar’s 5 million Shan, or Tai Yai as they call themselves, are the second-largest nationality in Myanmar. Close relatives of the Thai, the Shan mainly inhabit the upland plateaux and rolling hills of northeast Myanmar, work mostly as wet-rice farmers and practise Theravada Buddhism.

From the 15th century – when they were pushed back onto the Shan Plateau after early success in establishing an Ayeyarwady kingdom – until 1959, 34 sawbwas (hereditary princes) ruled separate feudal principalities in medieval splendour, with serfs, slaves and concubines. Their alliance of small states was recognised by the 1948 constitution, and granted the right to withdraw from the “Union of Burma” after 10 years of membership.

However, in 1959 many of the sawbwas sold out, signing an agreement with the Ne Win government to renounce all their hereditary rights and privileges. In exchange, the Shan princes accepted a payment of 25 million kyat, a sum roughly equal to their income over a 15- to 25-year period.

Other sawbwas and their followers founded the Shan Independence Army (SIA), and in the ensuing years attempted to wrest territory away from the government. U Nu’s inability to deal with this problem was one of the factors which led to Ne Win’s military coup of 1962, after which Shan leaders who had remained in Myanmar were imprisoned. Some are now in self-imposed exile, while those who responded to the 1980 amnesty have returned to Shan State.

Shan are recognisable by the turbans worn by men and married women. Men usually dress in baggy, dark-blue trousers rather than in Bamar-style longyi. Girls wear trousers and blouses until the age of 14, at which time they don colourful dresses. As they get older, their costumes grow less colourful until, at about the age of 40, the women start to wear sober black clothing for the rest of their lives.


The Kayin and Kachin

The fiercely independent Kayin (Karen), who constitute about 7 percent of the population (four million people), live scattered throughout central and southern Myanmar, but mainly in their own Kayin State, which they call “Kawthoolei”. Many Kayin are Christian, and this – together with the favoured status they enjoyed over the majority Bamar during the British period – has exacerbated their already poor relations with the Bamar-dominated Yangon government. Closely related groups are the Kayah and the “long-neck” Padaung of Kayah State.

Comprising around 2 percent of the population (roughly a million people) and the dominant minority of northern Myanmar, the Kachin are skilled dry-rice farmers and hunters. They have been widely Christianised, chiefly by American Baptist missionaries, but retain a complex and wide-reaching kinship system. Like the Kayin, the Kachin were widely employed as soldiers by the British and have fought a long struggle for independence. Sometimes called the “Gurkhas of Southeast Asia”, they are renowned for their military prowess. At war with the military authorities from the early 1960s, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and its military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), have proved perhaps the most intractable of Yangon’s opponents. In 1994, the Kachin rebels signed a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese government which lasted until June 2011, when fighting broke out once again in the region between Bhamo and Myitkyina, the capital.

Shan, or Tai Yai, drummer. Photo: ShutterstockShan, or Tai Yai, drummer. Photo: Shutterstock


The Rakhine and the Chin

Closely related to the Bamar, the Rakhine inhabit Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan) and constitute about 4 percent of the total population (some 2.5 million people). Although of the same Tibeto-Burman stock as the Bamar, the Rakhine are slightly darker in complexion, an indication of the region’s 2,000-year history of contact and intermarriage with Indian traders, sailors and settlers. There are several significant differences between the lifestyles of the coastal Rakhine and the Bamar of the Ayeyarwady basin.

The Chin, together with the related Naga people, make up about 1 percent of Myanmar’s population, numbering around 0.5 million in total. They live in the far northwest, where they inhabit the dense forest close to the India and Bangladesh borders. Traditionally animist, most Chin have converted to Christianity, having been evangelised by American and Australian missionaries.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has for centuries furnished land for dry-rice growing, though the resulting soil erosion has depleted the amount of cultivable land to less than is required to sustain the population in recent decades. Some Chin along the banks of the Kaladan River, to the north of the ruined former Arakan capital of Mrauk-U, also practise subsistence fishing alongside settled farming. Among these, and throughout the jungle region to the north, may be seen senior women with elaborately tattooed faces, though the custom is rapidly dying out.

Armed insurgent groups, under the umbrella leadership of the Chin National Army (CAN), have been active in the Chin heartland since Independence in 1948, but the fighting intensified following the 1988 uprising, since when the minority has been persecuted by the Burmese army. Chin State is officially the poorest in the country, with the least infrastructure: 70 percent of its population live below the poverty line and 40 percent live without adequate food. As a consequence, and to flee the violence perpetrated by the tatmadaw, hundreds of thousands of Chin have fled across the Indian frontier to neighbouring Mizoram – a cause of political controversy between the two countries.

The ongoing problem of food shortages in Chin State reached crisis proportions in 2006, after the region’s bamboo forest flowered – a natural event that occurs only once every 50 or so years. The fruit produced by the bamboo causes a spike in the rodent population, but when the feast is over the rats and mice target local grain stocks. Famine ensued, forcing still greater numbers or refugees across the border.


The Mon

Possessors of a proud, ancient civilisation even older than that of the Bamar, the Mon – at about 2 percent of the population (a million people) – have their own state centred on Mawlamyine in the southeast of the country. Though largely assimilated into Bamar culture, they continue to use their own distinct language, and have retained their own state within the Burmese union. Traditionally, they have preferred to live in rainy lowland areas to pursue wet-rice growing. As Buddhists, they observe their own calendar of Theravadin festivals. Experience a Theravadin Festival with a tailor-made trip to Myanmar.  


The Indians

Myanmar has an influential migrant Indian community, particularly in Yangon and Mandalay. The Indians and their culture have a 2,000-year history in Burma, predating the arrival of the Bamar majority, although it was not until the 19th century, when Burma became a part of the British Raj, that they began to settle in large numbers. At one stage in the early 20th century the population of the capital was almost 60 percent Indian, though this figure has since declined drastically.

Some Indians were well educated and occupied middle and higher levels of administration and business during the colonial era. Those with less education came to Burma as contract labourers for government construction projects, and to work in teak camps. Many of the immigrants were from southern India, and brought with them their beliefs and regional village social structure, which included the caste system, Hindu deities and professional moneylenders (chettyars), who quickly became so entrenched in Burmese society that they bought up more than half of the arable land in the Ayeyarwady Delta region.

Many were forced to return to India during the Japanese occupation. In what would become the one of the most desperate and difficult mass evacuations in history, an estimated quarter of a million made the journey on foot via the leech-infested, jungle-covered mountains of the northwest – 4,268 are recorded to have died en route, but the true death toll was probably much higher. Those who remained faced the land reforms of the new government. Large numbers of businessmen who had stayed on after independence then left as a result of Ne Win’s nationalisation programme following his 1962 coup.

Besides Hindus, there is a small South Asian Muslim population in major towns, particularly Yangon. Many trace their ancestry back to areas that now form part of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Others, known as zerbadi, are the result of unions between migrant Muslim men and Bamar women.

The Chin tribe living in Myanmar. Photo: ShutterstockChin girl. Photo: Shutterstock


The Rohingya

The Rohingya of Myanmar are one of the world's most embattled minorities. Living in Rakhine State, the Rohingya (numbering around 800,000) are Muslims of Bengali descent who arrived during colonial times, or possibly earlier. The Rohingya have long been persecuted by the Burmese government, which denies them citizenship and insists they be returned to Bangladesh (a country that doesn't want them either, and in which most have never set foot). Their plight worsened significantly during 2012 when anti-Rohingya riots spread across Rakhine State, forcing most Rohingya into refugee camps, where they languish to this day.


The Chinese

The number of Chinese in Myanmar today is estimated at around 1.3 million. In broad terms, there are two groups, with very different histories and lifestyles. The first is mainly rural, comprising the Shan Tayok and the Kokang Chinese. They came across the border of Yunnan during the time when the Shan principalities were under British administration, and are still concentrated in the northeast, close to Yunnan province from where many originate. In the Kokang area of northern Shan State they form more than 80 percent of the population, so that Kokang is known as Myanmar’s “Little China”.

The urban Chinese, on the other hand, have an entirely different background. A large number arrived in Yangon to work as merchants or restaurant owners during the colonial era. By grafting hard and sending their children to be educated in Western-type schools and universities, they soon occupied the middle and higher strata of modern society. Far from being “overlanders” from Yunnan, most were Overseas Chinese originating from the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Hainan Island. Despite nationalisation under Ne Win and vicious anti-Chinese riots in Yangon in 1967, the urban Chinese remained strong commercially, and with a market economy now becoming established in Myanmar, many are once again in business, with some having grown extremely wealthy as a result of numerous government-sponsored joint ventures between Myanmar and China.

Another Chinese group found in remote parts of Shan State, as well as in large towns like Yangon and Mandalay, are the Panthay. This group is essentially identical with the Hui minority in Yunnan. The descendants of Uzbek soldiery who fought for the Mongol dynasty, their ancestors settled in Yunnan over six centuries ago and intermarried with local Han Chinese. Today, there is little to distinguish them from other Chinese except for their Muslim faith.


Other minorities

Inle Lake, in Shan State, is the adopted homeland of the resourceful Intha minority, whose “one-legged” rowing style, stilted villages, floating gardens and beautiful handicrafts make them one of the more distinctive among Myanmar’s ethnic groups. An immigrant tribe from the southeast coast who left their former homeland in the 18th century to flee wars between the Burmese and Thais, the Intha now number around 70,000, most of whom live in villages clustered around the lush, paddy-filled shores of Inle Lake.

Another of Myanmar’s iconic minorites are the Kayan-Lahwi, better known as the Padaung and famous for their “long-necked” or “giraffe-necked” women, who wear brass rings around their necks to depress their collar bones and make their necks appear longer. Originally from the Golden Triangle region of northeastern Shan State, some have now migrated to villages around Lake Inle, where they can often be seen selling trinkets and handicrafts, and posing for photographs with foreign tourists. Visit a hill-tribe village around Inle Lake as part of our Secrets of Myanmar trip.

The homeland of the Kayan-Lahwi, straddling the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, has long been an area associated with lawlessness and insurgency. On the opposite, northwestern frontier with India, the Naga people inhabit the thick forests sweeping from the Chindwin River. Notorious for their former practice of head hunting, the Naga are today all but completely Christianised, although they continued to resist Burmese rule until 2011, when a peace accord was struck with the government guaranteeing Naga leaders representation in the national parliament. This followed the creation three years earlier of a Naga Self-Administered Zone, formerly part of Sagaing Division. With militancy on the decline, tourism has made its first tentative steps in the region. A handful of Burmese tour operators now run trips to remote Naga towns where the various tribes celebrate their New Year – a great opportunity to see Naga traditional dress and dance in its authentic context. Among the more distinctive elements of Naga attire are the colourful shawl and black kilt worn as everyday garb, and the conical head gear with boars’ teeth and feathers donned on ceremonial occasions.

Further north from Naga territory sprawls the most remote, impenetrable region of Myanmar, around the foothills of the Hukaung Valley and Hkakabo Razi massif. As well as harbouring a viable tiger population, the forest here is also home to an array of obscure tribes, including a race of pygmies known as the Taron. The outside world was ignorant of their existence until the American conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, while conducting a wildlife survey in the area in 1996, was introduced to members of the community. Enslaved for generations by the dominant Kachins, the Taron had dwindled to a vestigial population of a dozen individuals who, beset by deformities and other health problems resulting from inbreeding, had made a pact not to have children.

Although not approaching extinction, the Moken of the far south are another ethnic group struggling to survive on the margins of modern Myanmar. Often dubbed “Sea Gypsies” because of their nomadic lifestyle, the Moken spend eight or nine months of the year at sea, rarely touching dry land except to re-provision and trade. For the rest of the year, when the rough conditions of the rainy season make life in their hand-built kabang boats too dangerous, they reside in stilted villages at remote sites on the coast of Tanintharyi (Tenarassim) Division, particularly in and around the Myeik Archipelago. Diving and beachcombing the shores of these remote islands, the Moken fish and collect sandworms and molluscs to eat, and shells and oysters to trade with the Malay and Chinese market people in the area’s ports.

Newly-weds in traditional dress in Mandalay. Photo: ShutterstockNewly-weds in traditional dress in Mandalay. Photo: Shutterstock. 


Culture and society

Myanmar’s decades as a pariah state have ensured that it ranks today among the most staunchly traditional nations in Asia. And it’s not just the peripheral, remote and mountainous regions where picturesque, antiquated traditions still hold sway. Even in the cities, adherence to traditional values remains to the fore – something you’ll notice from the minute you step off the plane. Traditional dress is ubiquitous, and the Burmese are remarkably polite and deferential towards their elders and strangers. Conventions of hospitality remain strong, as do the beliefs and practices of Theravada Buddhism, fervent adherence to which is a fact of daily life in a country where monks queue in the street each morning to accept alms from lay people and the terraces of huge gilded pagodas throng from sunset to sunrise with pilgrims and worshippers.

Because they comprise by far the largest and most dominant cultural group in Myanmar, the following account refers principally to the Bamar, the overwhelming majority of whom are Buddhists.


Dress

The Burmese emphasise their national identity through the clothes they wear. Most evident is the longyi, introduced by immigrant families from southern India. Similar to the Malaysian sarong, it consists of a kilt-like piece of cloth worn from the waist to the ankle. Together with the eingyi, a transparent blouse which is worn with a round-collared, long-sleeved jacket, the longyi still takes precedence over Western-style garments.

The Burmese Premier, General Than Shwe, and other members of the ruling junta caused a stir in February 2011 when they appeared on national television wearing women’s acheiks and longbon headscarves – an act political observers were quick to interpret as an example of yadaya, something akin to Burmese black magic. Fortune tellers have repeatedly predicted that a woman will rule Myanmar one day, and so the generals’ cross-dressing was seen as an attempt to confound the pundits and forestall the rise of NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.


Marriage

By and large, and unlike their Indian cousins across the Andaman Sea, Burmese choose their own life partners. Traditions of romantic love are strong. Couples meet, court and decide to marry themselves, albeit in a style that appears very old-fashioned and demure to Western eyes. Should the parents disapprove of the match there’s little they can do about it. Parental opposition to any marriage in Myanmar will typically result in an elopement, followed by a gradual rehabilitation of the couple if the marriage proves a success.

The ceremony itself is considered lokiya, or “earthly”, in the Buddhist tradition, and as such is not officiated over by a monk or abbot (although to gain merit, monks may well attend the betrothal dinner or wedding reception). Instead, a Brahmin priest presides over the ritual, which begins with the blowing of a conch shell as the couple have the palms of their hands bound together in cloth and placed in a silver bowl (the Burmese for marriage is “let htat” or “join palms”). Sanskrit verses are intoned by the Brahmin, who then raises the couple’s hands and unties them, to more blasts from the conch shell. Afterwards, there will be entertainment and speeches, and with more affluent families, perhaps a reception dinner at a smart hotel.

Throughout, traditional dress is worn by the participants and those attending, even among more sophisticated urbanites – though with wealthier families the bride’s dress tends to be an extravagant modern designer twist on the traditional htamein featuring embroidery, pearls, sequins and even on some occasions gold. Upper-class brides will also wear a pearl- and jewel-encrusted tiara, and an opulent necklace.

Burmese get married expecting it to be for life; comparatively few marriages end in divorce, but those that do see the common property divided equally. If the marriage fails, women can return to their parents.


Birth and family life

One hundred days after the birth of a child, the parents invite family and friends to a naming ceremony at the local monastery, where the baby is given a name by a senior monk based on astrological calculations; it need bear no relation to that of the parents. After the ritual, a grand feast is held at the family home or in a functions venue to mark the event.

Children are sent to school at the age of five. However, despite a system of compulsory education and strenuous efforts by the government since independence to ensure education for all, there are still areas with no state schools. In these places, the local kyaung (monastery) takes charge of elementary education.

When a boy is nine years old, his shin-pyu takes place. This is an initiation ceremony marking the end of childhood and the start of a period of monkhood. Girls of the same age participate in an ear-piercing ceremony called the nahtwin, which also symbolises a farewell to the unburdened life of the child.

As two-thirds of the population still work on the arable land, the transition from school to adult life is relatively easy for most young people: during their school years, they help out with the harvest in their parents’ fields.


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