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Home > Burma issue > Ethnic Groups


Burma’s Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic Diversity

Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Since Burma’s independence in 1948, various ethnic minority groups (often called ethnic nationalities) have sought greater autonomy from the Burman dominated government. During the period of turmoil and uprisings after independence, Burma’s ethnic minorities gathered with Burman leaders to amend the 1947 Constitution in an attempt to establish a genuine federation of states.

These principles were laid out in the Panglong agreement, which was signed by several major ethnic groups. However, when General Ne Win launched a coup d’etat on March 2, 1962, all such initiatives were disregarded.

Four Cuts Program

Most of Burma’s refugees come from the ethnic minority groups located near Burma’s borders which have been engaged in the struggle for equality and autonomy rights with the central Burmese authorities since the country’s independence. In the 1960s, Burma’s dictator, General Ne Win, launched a new counter-insurgency strategy called the Four Cuts, designed to cut the four main links (food, funds, intelligence, and recruits) between insurgents, their families and local villagers. This campaign has increased in severity over time and today most of the formerly automous ethnic regions are controlled by the military regime. In many cases, the junta has brokered so-called cease-fire agreements with leaders of ethnic minority groups, which, as in the case of the Wa, often allow the military to further protect, exploit and profit from the drug trade (see drugs). Moreover, these “agreements” have not stopped the repression of Burma’s ethnic minorities who continue to suffer the brunt of the regime’s tyranny. (Martin Smith’s Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 1999).

Forced Relocation

Villagers are often forcibly relocated from their villages to military-controlled sites, where they do not have access to food or medical care. In these forced relocation sites, people are at the mercy of the military, which prohibits them from farming, but does not provide them with enough food, uses them for forced labour, often rapes, beats and sometimes kills them. After the 1988 staged coup, when the military opened up the economy to desperately-needed foreign investment, the Four cuts continued against the ethnic peoples but the military also began seizing their lands for state-run farming, logging, or other business projects (see Yadana pipeline).

Lack of reliable census makes it impossible to more than roughly estimate the composition of Burma’s ethnic mosaic or its total population. Some experts suggest existing population data is skewed to exaggerate the number of Burman, who are the largest single ethnic group. According to available statistics, they comprise about two-thirds of Burma’s approximately 48 million people, and dominate the army and the government. Most of Burma’s ethnic minorities inhabit areas along the country’s mountainous frontiers. Karen and Shan groups comprise about 10% each, while Akha, Chin, Chinese, Danu, Indian, Kachin, Karenni, Kayan, Kokan, Lahu, Mon, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rakhine, Rohingya, Tavoyan, and Wa peoples each constitute 5% or less of the population.

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