Burma has a population of around 51 million people, roughly 68% of whom belong to the majority Bamar ethnic group.
The Burmese government identifies eight major national ethnic races (Bamar, Chin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Mon, Kayah and Kachin). Together, these encompass a total of 135 individual ethnic groups - a misleading classification that lumps ethnic minorities together by geography rather than by linguistic or genetic similarity. For example, the Shan "Major National Ethnic Race" includes a total of 33 groups, amongst which are found at least four widely differing language families.
In addition to these "official" ethnic groups, there are an array of minorities who are not recognised by the Burmese government. These include the Burmese Chinese, Panthay, Burmese Indians, Rohingya, Anglo-Burmese, Lisu, Rawang, Naga, Padaung, and Gurkha, who together form around 10% of the country's population.
The Bamar people (also simply known as "Burmans") are the dominant ethnic group of Burma, numbering approximately 30 million people. The Bamar speak the Burmese language and primarily live in the Irrawaddy basin, which covers the Magwe, Sagaing, Mandalay, Bago, Yangon and Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) divisions. They migrated here from what is now Yunnan in China, displacing and absorbing the earlier Mon and Pyu ethnic groups who once dominated the area.
Since the Bamar people constitute the majority of Burma's population, their customs and identity are closely intertwined with the Burmese national identity as a whole. Traditional dress for the Bamar constitutes a type of sarong called a longyi (male) or htamain (female), with gold jewellery, silk scarves, cloth turbans and Mandarin-collared jackets often worn on special occasions. Though you will still see many Burmese wearing traditional dress today, in urban centres especially the trend is increasingly toward Western-style clothing and make-up.
The Moken are a nomadic group within the Bamar ethnic race who live on wooden boats on the seas around the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago in Burma's far south - some believe since as early as 2,000 BC! The Moken are known as Salon (or "sea gypsies") in Burmese, and number just 2,000 to 3,000 people. They provide for themselves by free diving to depths of up to 60 metres for shellfish, using a long pipe to breathe - but despite their skill, this dangerous practice kills several Moken divers every year.
The Shan people are the next most populous Major National Ethnic Race according to the Burmese government's classification, making up 9% of the country's total population. The Shan live primarily in Shan State, and are a branch of the Tai ethnic family whose offshoots are found throughout Southeast Asia.
The Shan ethnic race includes a large number of distinct Tai ethnic groups, many of whom speak their own distinct languages. Most Shan, however, speak both the Shan language (a member of the Tai-Kadai family, closely related to Thai and Lao) and Burmese.
For many decades the Shan have struggled for independence from the rest of Burma, with periods of civil war breaking out intermittently between the Burmese Army and two main Shan State armies. Though one of these armies was officially abolished after surrendering in 2005, the other continues guerrilla warfare against the Burmese Army to this day. Many Shan people have fled Burma into Thailand, taking low-paid jobs as a preferable alternative to the oppression they suffered under the Burmese military regime.
In the far north of Shan State and the east of Kachin State live the Wa, who are officially considered part of the Shan people according to the Burmese government. During British colonial times, the Wa became notorious as unwashed and violent drunkards - a terrible reputation that they have struggled to shake off ever since. The British divided the Wa into two groups: the "Tame Wa", who allowed the colonisers to pass through their land unchallenged, and the "Wild Wa", who were headhunters, grew opium, and absolutely refused to play ball.
Today, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is thought to number around 30,000 people and has effectively controlled the area in which the Wa reside ever since the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma in 1989. The UWSA, which is considered a drug-trafficking organization by the USA, considers its territory to be a Special Administrative Region, but this is not recognised by the Burmese government - despite the fact that the UWSA often teams up with the Burmese Army against Shan nationalist rebels.
The next largest Major National Ethnic Race in Burma, the Karen (also known as the Kayin, Kariang, or Yang people), is an umbrella term used to refer to a heterogeneous mish-mash of different ethnic groups with no unifying characteristic other than geographical location. Though since the 1800s there has been a sense of a unified ethnic identity amongst the Karen people, there is in fact no common language, culture, religion or material characteristic within the group - a diversity that reveals the pitfalls of the Burmese government's ethnic classification system.
The Karen are thought to make up around 7% of Burma's population, although their numbers are difficult to estimate due to a lack of reliable census information, and reside primarily in Karen (Kayin) State. The Karen languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman language family and constitute three main, mutually unintelligible branches (Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa'o), with a dozen or so different (also mutually unintelligible) dialects within those. The majority of the population are thought to be Theravada Buddhists who also practise animism, though there is also a high percentage of Christians (approximately 25%).
Since the late 1940s, the Karen people have been trying to establish an independent state called Kawthoolei, which roughly comprises present-day Karen State. In the 1980s they were the largest of the 20 minority groups participating in an insurgency against Burma's military dictatorship, and the conflict (known as the "longest civil war in the world") continues today, having claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused many refugees to flee to Thailand.
The Chin people live in the mountainous area of western Burma, bordering India and Bangladesh and roughly corresponding to Chin State. The Chin race includes 53 different ethnic groups (according to the Burmese government's official list).
The Chin are descended from Tibeto-Burman peoples and refer to themselves as "mountain people" (Zo-mi or Lai-mi). The Zo (or Kuki) people, living across the border in India's Mizoram State, and the tribal peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, share a language, culture and common ancestry with the Burmese Chin.
Due to the efforts of American missionaries during the British colonial period, around 80-90% of Chin people are thought to practise Christianity - but the state also has the highest prevalence of animism in the country. As is the case in most of Burma, the Chin practise animist beliefs concurrently with organised religion.
The tattooed women
Amongst some Chin people, it was once traditional to tattoo women's faces with dark lines in a sort of spiderweb pattern. The tradition was usually carried out when the girls were around nine years old, and was a painful process that covered every inch of the face - even the eyelids. Each tribe had its own style of tattooing, so it was possible to tell where a Chin woman was from by the lines on her face.
Though legend suggests that the custom was intended to dissuade men from the neighbouring Rakhine Kingdom from stealing away young Chin women, the lines were probably also seen as a mark of beauty and womanhood in their own right. The custom of facial tattooing was banned by the government in 1960, and has largely died out among the Chin tribes. Nevertheless, you may still come across some elderly women who bear such marks, and there are a small number of younger Chin women who chose to have their faces tattooed as recently as the late nineties in order to keep the tradition alive.
Also known as the Arakanese people, the Rakhine ethnic minority make up around 5% of the population of Burma and reside mainly in Rakhine State, on the western coast of Burma. The Arakanese have resided in this area for an extremely long time - since the first independent Rakhine Kingdom was established in 3,325 BC - and reportedly began to practise Buddhism during the lifetime of the Buddha himself. Relations of the Arakanese people can also be found in southeastern Bangladesh and India.
Divided from mainland Burma by the Arakan mountains, Arakanese culture is very similar to the dominant Burmese culture but retains traces of influence from India. The Arakanese language is very similar to standard Burmese, and the two languages are generally mutually intelligible.
Widespread anxiety amongst Arakanese people that they would soon become a minority in their ancestral state led to fighting between ethnic Rakhine people and Rohingya Muslims, also resident in Rakhine State, in 2012. The Rohingya are not currently recognized as Burmese citizens by the government, despite the fact that many have lived in Burma for generations and claim to be indigenous to Rakhine State. In reality, most Rohingya are thought to have migrated to Burma from Bengal during British colonial rule in the 19th century.
Sporadic fighting continues in Rakhine State today, where the status of the Rohingya remains uncertain. Tourists are currently discouraged from all but essential travel to the state (except to the beach resort of Ngapali).
The Mon people make up around 2% of the population of Burma, living mainly in Mon State, Bago Divison, the Irrawaddy Delta and along the southern border with Thailand. The Mon were one of the earliest peoples to settle in Southeast Asia, had a major influence on Burmese mainstream culture, and are credited with the spread of Theravada Buddhism in Indochina. Mon people traditionally speak the Mon language, an Austroasiatic language related to Khmer, however it is now in decline and the majority of Mon people are now monolingual in Burmese.
Like many of Burma's minority groups, the Mon have risen in revolt against the Burmese military regime on a number of occasions, with resistance continuing until 1995.
Red Karen people
Also known as the Kayah or Karenni, the Red Karen people are a Sino-Tibetan ethnic minority mainly to be found in Burma's Kayah State. Itself a subgroup of the Karen, this group can be further divided into a variety of smaller ethnic groups, namely the Geko, Geba, Padaung, Bres, Manu-Manaus, Yintale, Yinbaw, Bwe, Shan and Pao.
In the past, the Red Karen inhabited an independent collection of states called Karenni, which had feudal connections with Burma but were not formally a part of it until the Union of Burma in 1947. The Padaung (also known as the Kayan Lahwi) are one of the most famous tribes within the Red Karen people, easily recognisable due to their long necks elongated using copper neck rings.
The last and smallest of the Major National Ethnic Races in Burma are the Kachin people, also known as the Jingpo people. Members of this group are to be found in the Kachin Hills of Burma's northern Kachin State, as well as in neighbouring areas of China and India. Like the other "ethnic races" in Burma, the term Kachin incorporates several different ethnic and linguistic groups, including the Rawang, Lisu, Zaiwa, Lashi/Lachik, Lawngwaw and Jinghpaw peoples.
More than half of the Kachin people are Christians, with a significant minority following Buddhism and some following animism. The term "Kachin language" can be used to refer to a variety of different tongues, all related to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, but the most widely spoken common language is Jingpo.
The Kachin people are traditionally known for their good fighting and jungle survival skills, complex inter-clan relations, craftsmanship and herbal healing. Since 1961 the Kachin people have fought for independence from Burma, with various ceasefire agreements always giving way to more fighting. Unrest continues to plague Kachin State today, and tourists are advised to stay clear of the area.
- Chiang Rai
- Pyin Oo Lwin
- Macleod Island
If you are keen to explore the remoter corners of the world, our Untouched Burma trip is for you.
19 nights: from US$4792 pp (twin share) Read more >
- Pyin Oo Lwin
- Inle Lake
Our most challenging and active itinerary, this trip will really test your mettle as you hike, bike and kayak amid the stunning scenery of Shan State.
13 nights: from US$2936 pp (twin share) Read more >
- Htee Thein
- Inle Lake
Our Burmese Family Adventure is proof that travelling with children in Burma opens doors to unforgettable experiences for all members of the family.
13 nights: from US$2835 pp (twin share) Read more >