Myanmar is a true cultural mosaic. Two-thirds of the Burmese population are Bamar. It was the ruling majority ethnic group that gave the country its name. The other inhabitants come from other ethnic groups in Myanmar. 135 ethnic groups (Shan, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Kachin, Chin and Arakanais etc…) are officially listed by the government. They total a hundred different languages and dialects. Each ethnic group also includes sub-ethnic groups. The Bamars have retained most of the power since the end of British colonization. The ethnic minorities never got the autonomy they expected and that they had been promised a few months before the independence of Burma in 1948. These ethnic groups in Myanmar continue to rebel every once in a while. Some groups have reached agreements with the government, others have not. Thus, the predominantly Christian Kachins have been fighting for the independence of the Kachin state for more than 50 years...
The Shan group is the next largest of the ethnic groups in Myanmar, after the Bamar. The total population of the Shan people is estimated at around 4 million. The Shans are the descendants of Thais driven from Yunnan in the 13th century. They settled in the high valleys of Myanmar where they founded the first Shan kingdoms. They enjoyed real autonomy during British colonization. The Shan country should have had the right to secede 10 years after Myanmar’s independence, but the Ne Win coup in 1962 abolished it. Since then, Shan State has been the scene of a multitude of armed dissidents without ever achieving its ends. The economy of the Shan country is primarily based on rice growing and you can notice that men generally wear a turban on their heads.
The Rakhine people (formerly Arakanese) live in Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State). This state is located on the west coast of Myanmar and its capital is Sittwe. Since 2012, there has been a violent conflict between the Rakhine (Buddhists) and the Rohingya (stateless Muslim ethnic group) who also live in Rakhine. Many ethnic groups in Myanmar face similar conflicts due to religious differences. Rakhine people also live in the southeastern parts of Bangladesh and some have even spread as far north as India.
The Mon ethnic group lives in southern Myanmar and is thought to be one of the oldest ethnic groups in Myanmar. They are said to be responsible for the spread of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia and the civilizations they founded were some of the earliest in Thailand as well as Myanmar. While today, the Mon are a minority, in the 15th century it reigned in Myanmar. Mon culture has significantly marked Myanmar’s history through language, architecture, religion (in particular devotion to nats, local spirits).
The Kachin ethnic group whose ancestors originated from the Tibetan plateau, live in the Kachin state, northeast of Myanmar and are known for their independence, complex clan inter-relations, craftsmanship and herbal healing. Like some other ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Kachin are mostly Christian, having been converted by missionaries in the 19th century. Today, the Kachin are still in conflict with the Burmese military army over autonomy and administrative control over the region.
The Karen ethnic group, also known as the Kayin, originated from the Tibetan-Burmese regions. These people settled in northern Myanmar around the 8th century and are now estimated to be one of the five largest ethnic groups in Myanmar. Karen from Myanmar fought alongside the British in WWII and were promised an independent state in return. This never happened, and they continue to fight for the independence of their territory. Many Karen have migrated to Thailand, settling on the Thailand-Myanmar border, or in the Andaman and Nicobar islands to avoid repression from the Burmese government.
These people of Tibetan-Burmese origin today represent nearly 1.5 million people, with the majority residing in Chin State near the border with India, one of the poorest areas in Myanmar. The Chin were originally animist, but mostly converted to Christianity in the 19th century after the arrival of the first Christian missionaries in Chin State. This has resulted in the military government’s prosecution of them on religious grounds. Some women have the particularity of tattooing their faces as per tradition.
The Kayah ethnic group, also known as Karenni (meaning ‘Red Karen’), mainly live in the mountains of central east Myanmar in Kayah State, one of the least developed areas of the country. They are one of the numerous ethnic groups in Myanmar thought to have migrated to Myanmar from Tibet or China. Like the Shans, the Kayah should have had the right to secede and become independent 10 years after the independence of Myanmar. This is why violent armed conflicts have pitted the Kayah against the Burmese army for a long time.