Myanmar Ethnic Groups
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has a population of over 55 million. A majority of its people belong to the Bamar ethnic group and are related to the peoples of Tibet and China. Because the Bamar are so numerous in Myanmar, their language and culture is dominant there. However, there have always been many minority ethnic groups in Myanmar as well. Although the Burmese government has officially recognized more than 100 of these groups, many Myanmar ethnic groups remain victims of state-sanctioned abuse and violence and continue to rise up in insurgency. In Myanmar, ethnic conflict has remained a way of life since the country was part of the British Empire; the violence has only escalated since Myanmar became an independent nation in 1948. The Kachin, Karen, Rohingya, and Shan are some of the most well-known groups at the center of the Myanmar ethnic conflict.
The Kachin region lies in the northern part of Burma, close to the Chinese border. Although Myanmar is an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, a majority of the Kachin people practice either Roman Catholicism or Protestant Christianity. Kachin soldiers historically constituted a large portion of the Burmese Army, but this changed in 1962, when the government of military dictator Ne Win annulled Myanmar’s existing constitution. Kachin troops defected and formed their own military organization, which they called the Kachin Independent Army (KIA).
The Kachin people were essentially autonomous for three decades, although they engaged in continuous battle with the Burmese Army. In 1994, they agreed to a ceasefire. However, most Kachin people remain impoverished, and many remain the victims of human trafficking, forced labor, and other crimes. In 2011, violence between the KIA and the Burmese Army erupted again.
The Karen are a group of Buddhists and Christians who live along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta and near its border with Thailand. They are the largest of the non-Bamar Myanmar ethnic groups. A number of Karen insurgent groups have arisen over the years; some have sought increased autonomy within Myanmar, while others have sought complete independence. The Karen have been fighting with the Burmese government since 1949.
The Karen agreed to a ceasefire with the Burmese Army in the 1990s, but sporadic violence between the two groups continues to occur. The Burmese Army has a long history of forcing Karen people to relocate and perform hard labor.
The Rohingya people’s Muslim identity makes them one of the most distinct groups involved in the Myanmar ethnic conflict, as does the Burmese government’s refusal to grant them citizenship. The Rohingya live in the western part of Myanmar and are often mischaracterized as Bangladeshis. The Burmese military has frequently rounded them up for forced labor purposes, and many of them have fled to Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia as illegal immigrants. Rohingya militants have been engaging in violent uprisings against the Burmese government since 1947; some have wanted their own independent state, while others have wanted to become part of Pakistan. Some Rohingya militants have been connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Rohingya also have a violent relationship with the Rakhine, a Buddhist ethnic minority group in Myanmar. This violence goes back to at least the 1940s and saw a drastic resurgence in June, 2012. In that month alone, at least 600 Rohingya people died and tens of thousands became displaced.
The Shan, a Buddhist mountain people, enjoyed a great deal of independence when Myanmar was under British rule. They agreed to join the new nation of Burma (not yet renamed Myanmar) when it gained independence because they were led to believe that they would enjoy the same amount of autonomy under its government. The Shan maintain that this autonomy was never granted; for this reason, they began organizing militias and fighting against the Burmese Army as early as 1948. Like other Myanmar ethnic groups, the Shan agreed to a ceasefire in the mid-1990s; however, violence between the Shan and the Burmese Army has erupted several times since then.
In the past decade, the Burmese military has forced thousands of the five million Shan people to relocate. The plight of the Shan people continues to attract the attention of human rights groups around the world.