Myanmar Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Myanmar is a classic example of how ethnicity can create real struggles within a country. In this lesson we will look at ethnic diversity within Myanmar, and see what this has meant over the last half century.


In Southeast Asia is a nation called Myanmar. It used to be called Burma as a British colony. Myanmar, in many respects, is the exemplary case of what can happen when nations are formed by colonial empires, not by the people who lived there. When Myanmar achieved independence from the British Empire in 1948, it entered the world as a country filed with people who didn't consider themselves to be Burmese. Now, to really understand what this means, we need to talk about ethnic diversity in Myanmar. Census keeping has been inconsistent at best, but the various attempts over the last century have all come to roughly the same number of ethnic groups in Myanmar: a lot. Actually, as of 2011, the government of Myanmar estimated a total population of almost 55 million people, made up of 135 formally recognized ethnic groups. That is a stunning amount of diversity. So, do you think this causes tension in Myanmar? Yes it does, and in fact the nation has essentially been in a perpetual civil war for almost 50 years.


The Burman People

While Myanmar has a large number of ethnic groups, it does actually have a single group that makes up a great majority of the population. The Burman people, sometimes called Bamar people, are about 68% of the total population. The Burman ethnicity is actually similar in many respects to other ethnic groups of the nation, including the preference to live with extended families and strong family values. Marriage is one of the most venerated institutions of the Burman, and they do encourage marriage for love rather than any other sort of political or economic arrangement.

Burman wedding

Being the ethnic majority by a wide margin, people of the Burman ethnic group are in tight control of the government and the military. This is where much of the conflict within Myanmar stems from. The other 134 ethnic groups share little to no national unity with the Burman people, and often refuse to acknowledge them as legitimate rulers. This has been exacerbated by the fact that the Burman government has been historically oppressive of many minority ethnic groups. Most of Myanmar's ethnic minorities live in the hills that are rich in mineral resources, and at several points the government forcibly evicted these groups to open up the hills for mineral extraction. If you've ever heard about Burmese or Myanmar refugees on the news, you're generally hearing about ethnic minority populations forced out of the nation by the government. Myanmar's government claimed that allowing people to practice such diverse ethnicity undermined national unity and was dangerous to the future of Myanmar. This justification for abuse has recently been abandoned, and the current government is trying to reconcile differences, although the results are not yet conclusive.

Ethnic Minorities in Myanmar

To deal with the amount of ethnic diversity in its borders, the Myanmar government categorized the 135 ethnicities of the country into 8 general ethnic categories. These categories serve as the basis for the geographical division of Myanmar's provinces as well. The eight categories are Bamar (Burman), Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan. Besides the Bamar, no single group makes up more than 7% of the total population.

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