The Non-Burman Ethnic People of Burma

Harn Yawnghwe

“Burman” or “Burmese”?

“Burman” and “Burmese” are often used interchangeably in the English language. I will use “Burman” to refer to the majority ethcin population, and “Burmese” refers to all the citizens of Burma.

“Burma” or “Myanmar”?- It has been argued by the military that “Burma” refers only to the majority Burman population, whereas “Myanmar” is more inclusive and therefore, more appropriate because it refers to all the peoples of Myanmar. Ironically, Burmese nationalist fighting British colonialism in 1936, argued the reverse. Therefore, as far as the non-Burmans are concerned, the real question is not what the country is called but what political system will include the non-Burmans.
“135 Races”

The military likes to say that there are 135 races or tribes in Burma implying that it is impossible to cater to everyone and therefore, it is necessary to have a strong military to hold the country together. In fact 65 of the so called 135 races are all from the Chin State, which makes up about 3% of the population and they live in an area that makes up about 5%of the whole nation. In other words, the military is exaggerating the problem.

According to the SPDC, people who speak different dialects are classified as being of a different race. It would be like saying that somebody from Oslo is of a different race from somebody from Bergen. We all have differences but both are of the same race.

In actual fact, all Burmese are from the same racial grouping and they can be roughly sub-divided into 3 major subgroups: Tibeto-Burman, Sino-Thai and Mon-Khmer.

In political terms Burma has only 8 constituent states, not 135: Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Karen, Mon and “Burma Proper or Ministerial Burma” in the center. At this point it should be pointed out that the Burmans are also one of the ethnic groups of Burma. So we cannot really talk about the ethnic people and the Burmans.

Ethnic Nationalities

In the past, the non-Burmans were referred to as the “Nationalities” as in Chamber of Nationalities or the Upper House of Parliament. Burm the word the “ethnic minorities” became used more frequently in international circles. So now, we use the term “ethnic nationalities” or the non-Burman ethnic nationalities to denote the non-


We do not like to use the term “Minorities”. This is because it gives the impression to outsiders that they are talking about only 1-2% of the population.

It is estimated that Burma today has a population of approximately 50 million people. Burmans are supposed to make up 60% of the population. Therefore, when we talk about the “minority” problem in Burma, we are in fact talking about a problem that affects the lives of at least 20 million people. I think this is more than the population of Norway.

In terms of geography, the non-Burmans occupy 55% of the land area or 371,000 sq kms-slightly larger than Germany (357,000 sq km). The non-Burman problem is Burma is definitely not a “minority” problem.

“Tribes” and “Hill Tribes”

Another favourite of the military is to describe the non-Burmans as “Tribe” or “Hill Tribes”. This implies that the Burmans are the only civilized people and that it is their burden to guide the “Tribes” to a better Burman way of life.

This is actually a gross abuse of historical facts. Arakan and Mon kingdoms prededed Burman kingdoms by at lease 500 years. The first Burman kongdom was not recorded before the 11th century. Then Shan kings ruled most of Burma from the 13th century until the 16th century when Burman kings ruled again. It is also well documented that the Burmans took their civilization and culture from the Arakanese and Mon peoples. Therefore, the non-burmans are not uncivilized tribes that need to be civilized by the Burmans.

Of course, the non-Burmans today are less developed than their neighbours but is this because they ae uncivilized or because they have been systematically deprived of their rights for the last 50 years? For example, a UNICEF study showed literacy in the non-Burman areas to be lower than the Burman areas. Why is this so? One reason is that literacy in Burma is measured in terms of knowledge of the Burman language. In the last 50 years to non-Burmans have not been allowed to teach their own languages. Another factor of course is the 50 year-old civil war in the non-Burman areas.

Burma-a Kingdom or a Union States?

Another major difference in perspective between the Burman nationalist and the non-Burmans is history.

At the time the British came into contact with Burma in 1824, the Burman king ruled over the Arakan, Mon and Karen areas and claimed the allegiance of the rulers of the Kayah and Shan states as well as Assam and Manipur in India. Aftet the Britiseh conquest in 1886, the Burman kingdom(including Arakan, Mon and Karen) was make a part of British India. It later became known as “Ministerial Burma” or “Burma Proper”. Karenni or Kayah State was recognized as a sovereign state. The Shan States which later became the Federated Shan States like the Malay states, became a British Protectorate. The Kachin and Chins wre administered separately as the Frontier Area.

Burman nationalist, therefore, claim that they are the heirs of the pre-British Burman kingdom and that rightfully all of Burma belongs to them. They claim that the British deliberated carved up the country to divide and rule. So to the nationalists, the claims of the non-Burmans for self-determination are nothing buty a product of British imperialism. The non-Burmans, however, claim that by 1886 the Burman empire was crumbling and that the British only took the practical way ort by recognizing their de-facto independence from the Burman king. In any case, after 62 years, the Burmans who lo longer had a king could have no practical claims on them.

The Burmese situation is, therefore, different from Indonesia where most of the inslnds were one colony under the Dutch. The colony then became Indonesia. In Burma a formal agreement was entered into by different entities to become the Union of Burma.

1947 Panglong Agreement

To the Chins, Kachins and Shans, the Panglong Conference and Agreement formed the basis of their current union with the Burmans, not any historical claims of a now defunct empire. At that Conference, General Aung San, leader of the Burman independence struggle from “Ministerial Burma”, and leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin peoples agreed to merge their homelands on the basis of equality to form the “Republic of the Union of Burma” in order to accelerate the process of seeking independence from Britain.
1974 Constitution

Based on Panglong Agreement, a Union Constitution was drawn up. The non-Burmans believed they were getting a federal system but in reality, while the Shan, Kachin, and Kayah States and the Chin Special Division were recognized, power was not devolved to the states. At this time, the Kayah or Karenni people felt that they had been forced into a union without adequate consultation and took up arms against the central government. Separate negotiations with the Karens also broke down and they also took up arms. The Mon also joined the rebellion as did the Arakanese although the Arakan, Karen and Mon states were recognized at a later date.

From this you can see that, the non-Burman proplem in Burma stems from a failure of the government of Burma to properly address the basic nostitutional arrangement between the different states that make up the union.

To make matters worse, Prime Minister U Nu requested General Ne Win to form a “Caretaker Government” to prevent the Shan and Karenni states from exercising their constitutional rights to secede from the Union after 10 years if they were not satisfied. This started the Shan struggle for independence. To understand the problem you need to be aware that the Shan State makes up 23 % of the land area of Burma and about 20% of the population.

Following the Caretaker Government, the Shan leaders recognized the need to amend the constitution if the nation was be saved and initiated the Federal Movement. But General Ne Win instead seized power and said he was saving the nation from disintegration. General Ne Win also suspended the 1947 constitution .

As far as the Shan, Kachin and Chin were concerned, the suspension of the 1947 constitution nullified the Panglong Agreement which ound them legally to “Ministerial Burma” and as such, Ne Win had at one stroke set them free and illegally occupied their homelands. This plunged the country into civil war in earnest.

From all this, it is very clear that tho non Burman problem in Burma is not a “minority” problem, it  is not a tribal problem and it is not an ethnic problem. I want to emphasos this because when we say ethnic problem, most people think of the fomer Yugoslavia where different ethnic people were killing each other. We do not have that kind of problem in Burma. Our problem is not a horizontal ethnic problem, but vertical one. It is basically a constitutional problem and it can be resolved by negotiations.

It is clear that we do not need a strong army to keep the country together. In fact in Burma, the army has made the problem worse by preventing dialogue and refusing the 8 states to engage in constitutional talks. I trust I have been able to clarify some souses for you.

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