Travel Burma / Myanmar - a travelogue by Klaus Schroeder
The Book

Who Is Burmese and Who Is Not?

Myanmar is an arbitrary creation of colonial rulers who were not much concerned with existing natural, cultural, religious, or ethnic boundaries. Historically, Lower and Upper Burma (the British Burma Proper) were under the direct rule of British India. This region was surrounded by the Frontier States (Outer Burma), where some of the many ethnic minorities-such as the Kachin, Kayin (Karen), Kayah (Karenni, or Red Karen), Shan, Chin, Mon, and Rakhine-enjoyed a degree of independence from the Burmese and limited autonomy under colonial rule. Many of them served in the colonial army that controlled Burma Proper and the Burmese. This, of course, fostered more ethnic enmity between the Burmese majority and the various other groups.

Today, the country has seven administrative divisions, with the Burmans having the overwhelming majority, and seven states, which are supposed to represent the seven largest ethnic minorities: the Shan, Kachin, Mon, Chin, Rakhine, Kayin (Karenni), and Kayah (Karen). The seven divisions share a basic culture, language, religion, tradition, and royal history that together are called "Burmese." In regard to the states, a significant problem is that there are many small ethnic groups who do not have a state of their own. For example, within the Union of Myanmar, the Shan are a minority group, and although they are the majority within their own state, they must share it with several other minority groups (like the Pa-O and the Wa) who are ethnically neither Burmese nor Shan. The accompanying table shows the main ethnic groups in Burma and their proportions in the total population.

Burmese (Burman)69.0
Karen and Karenni6.2
Many small groups2.5

Scholars are still arguing over what criteria to use in standardizing ethnic definitions, and the subject is indeed a confusing one. But I am convinced that in the near future, because of the rapid progress in the field of genetics such as the decoding of DNA, it will be possible to identify the origins of ethnic groups and their relationships to other groups. For now, however, we use languages as a means of classifying ethnic groups. Adding to already complex ethnic matters, one ethnic group may consist of several subgroups, and there is much geographic overlap between groups. For example, numerous Karen live in the Burmese divisions, several Shan groups make their home in Kachin State, and many Kachin reside in northeastern Shan State. Although the idea of distinct ethnic groups would seem to be a straightforward matter, asking a question such as "What makes someone Kachin, or which local tribes are Kachin?" brings a different answer every time. But in practical terms, one's ethnicity determines allegiance. It means that loyalty goes first to one's own group, not to the central authorities. The local leader is boss and is obeyed, and he decides whether the tribe will be loyal to the central government.

In terms of both ethnicity and language, Myanmar recognizes an estimated sixty-seven distinct indigenous ethnic groups and some two hundred languages and dialects; nevertheless, all of the different languages and dialects belong to one of only four major linguistic groups:

  • the Sino-Tibetan language family, which includes the Chinese and the Tibeto-Burman languages
  • the Daic languages which includes the Tai and Shan languages
  • the Austro-Asiatic language family, which includes the Mon-Khmer languages
  • the Austronesian language family, which in Myanmar is represented by only one very small ethnic minority, the Moken (sometimes referred to as the sea gypsies who live in the south)

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