Myanmar: The repression of ethnic minority activists in Myanmar

February 16, 2010

Myanmar: The repression of ethnic minority activists in Myanmar

Although between 60 and 65% of Myanmar's 50 million people are ethnic Burmans, Burmans comprise the vast majority of the strongly centralised Myanmar government and army. Burmans speak a Sino-Tibetan language, which is the official language of Myanmar and is widely spoken throughout the country. Most Burmans are Theravada Buddhists. They live in all parts of the country but predominantly inhabit Myanmar's central river valley areas in its seven central divisions. Burmans were largely excluded by the British colonial administration before independence in 1948, resulting in Burman resentment of not only the British but of the ethnic minorities whom the British sought to work with more closely. Such was the mutual distrust that immediately after independence--and despite the signing of the Panglong Agreement the same year, which accepted in principle "Full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas"--many ethnic minorities took up arms against the central government. 25


Ethnic minorities therefore make up approximately 35-40% of the country's population, including people of Chinese and Indian ethnicities, who comprise an estimated 3% and 2% of the population, respectively.26 According to the government, there are at least 135 different ethnic nationalities in Myanmar, but the exact number is difficult to conclusively determine. For example the government emphasizes a debatable difference between S'gaw Karen and Pa'o Karen, and asserts that there are 54 different Chin tribes, mostly based on small differences in locations and dialects. One ethnic leader told Amnesty International that "sometimes being just one mountain away" makes one a different ethnicity, and that if the true measure was in fact differences in dialect, "then even 135 would almost certainly be too low a number". 27


This report addresses the seven largest officially recognized ethnic minorities in Myanmar, each of which makes up a majority in its eponymous state: the Rakhine, the Chin, the Kachin, the Shan, the Karenni, the Karen, and the Mon. 28On account of time, resource, and access constraints, this report does not address any of Myanmar's other smaller ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya--who are not even officially recognized by the government. Their plight, however, has been well-documented by Amnesty International and other groups. 29


The Rakhine (also known as Arakan) are concentrated in Rakhine State on the western coast of the country. They are predominantly Theravada Buddhists. The Rakhine language is widely spoken in the region and is mutually intelligible with Burmese. The Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), which won 11 of 26 contested seats in the 1990 elections (becoming the country's third largest political party) seeks to represent the Rakhine.


The Chin (also known as the Zomi) live mostly in the isolated mountainous region of northwest Myanmar, Chin State. An estimated 80-90% of the Chin population is Christian, although some are Theravada Buddhists. There are at least six major Chin tribal groups speaking at least 20 different mutually unintelligible dialects. The Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) and the Zomi National Congress (ZNC) won three and two seats, respectively, in the 1990 elections, and though both were later banned by the authorities, they still work with the NLD and seek to represent the Chin.