The Book

The Shan and Their Country

Tonight our train will labor up the foothills of the Shan Plateau and enter Shan State, the largest and most diverse state in the Union of Myanmar. In the southern part, at the foot of the mountains, lies Lake Inle, a major tourist attraction for Burmese and foreign travelers alike. To the east, the fierce Thanlwin River rushes through a plateau that is scored by deeply incised valleys that are home to half the population. The river also marks the border with Thailand for many miles. The steeply rolling terrain of the plateau has an average elevation of some three thousand feet (one thousand meters), but some peaks are twice that high.

A mild climate allows fruit, vegetable, and citrus crops, and rice, peanuts, potatoes, tea, tobacco, coffee, and cotton to do well here. The region is also known for its timber, and most of the highly valued teakwood comes from here; however, the teak forests are being over harvested and the wood gets exported illegally to Thailand and China. The most well known crop, however, I will not be able to view-the one that is grown in isolated mountainous areas: the beautiful poppies that yield the destructive opium. The infamous Golden Triangle is part of Shan State.

My two main destinations in southern Shan State will be Lake Inle, which we will reach tomorrow morning, and the nearby state capital, Taunggyi. Lashio, some one hundred miles north of Taunggyi, sits at the center of northern Shan State at the Burma terminus of the Burma Road. But Taunggyi and Lashio are not connected by either road or rail because of the high mountains and deep valleys that lie between them. So in order to travel from Lake Inle to Lashio, I will have to return to Mandalay and pick up another railway line from there that will take me all the way to Lashio.

The immense plateau is home to the Shan and many different, but much smaller, ethnic groups and subgroups. As I noted in the Part I chapter on Myanmar's ethnic composition, the Shan, descendants of the Tai-Chinese immigrants, refer to themselves not as Shan (a name given to them by the British and probably derived from the word "Siam") but as Dtai, and in fact ethnically, linguistically, and culturally they are related to the ethnic majority of Thailand, the Thais. Of Myanmar's many ethnic groups, only the Shan and their neighbors to the south, the Karen, ever posed a real threat to the Burmese in the twentieth century.

Some 3.9 million Shan live in the valleys or on the high plains of the Shan Plateau and they are easy to recognize when they wear their traditional clothes instead of the Burmese longyi. The men wear baggy Chinese-style trousers and a blue or white cotton jacket; the women wear similar cotton jackets, skirts, and a towel wrapped around their head. They are good-looking people, tall and fair. Although some remote hill tribes may still follow animistic beliefs, the great majority of Shan are devout Buddhists, just like the Burmese. The Shan have been able to preserve customs and beliefs long since abandoned by other ethnic groups, but their uniqueness is threatened by government efforts to give the whole country a Burmese "face" and by an increase in Western influences now that the country is opening itself to the rest of the world.

For the most part, the Shan are rice, vegetable, and fruit farmers, but they are also skillful traders and smugglers. The majority of the Shan live in the valleys of the plateau, but the hill-dwelling tribes are mostly not Shan and not of Tai-Chinese origin. Some of them are related to the Burmese (such as the Intha on and around Lake Inle); others (such as the notorious Wa near the Chinese border or the peaceful Palaung to the west of Lake Inle) are of Mon-Khmer ancestry. The Pa-O, who live primarily to the east of Lake Inle, are one of the many Karen tribes. Various Chinese clans also live in this region, and they have considerable economic influence in the state. Burmese people repeatedly pointed out to me that some Chinese derive their wealth from illegal activities. I shall introduce some of these minority groups soon, in the context of my visit to the lake and the plateau. For those readers who have an interest in glimpsing the remarkable and colorful ethnic diversity of Burma, I recommend the beautiful photography of Richard K. Diran in his 1997 book, The Vanishing Tribes of Burma.


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