Burma - Frontier Minorities in Arms


The nation known as the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma has a population of about 40 million of which approximately 15 million are not ethnically Burmese. This includes Indian and Chinese urban minorities, and the many ethnic groups of the frontier areas. Currently, most ethnic groups of the frontier areas have formed insurgent armies in rebellion against the Burmese government. These rebel armies and allied political groups have varied aims, ranging from total independence of their territory to the establishment of a federation of autonomous states. Such rebellion has historical roots in the conflict of ethnic groups in Burma.

A History of Conflict

The pattern of successive migrations into Burma between the sixth century and the eighth to ninth centuries AD led to extended conflict. The Mon civilization in Burma entered from Cambodia in the sixth century BC. In the fourth century AD the Arakanese established a kingdom. The Karen tribe migrated to Burma from Yunnan during the sixth to seventh centuries AD and the Burmese entered Burma from the north during the eighth to ninth centuries AD. The Tai (also known as Shan) invaded from Yunnan also during the eighth to ninth centuries AD. In addition, numerous other tribal groups settled in the mountainous regions of the north.

From the tenth through nineteenth centuries, a series of wars took place, with the Mon, Burmese and Shan struggling for the upper hand in the region. The Karen tribe was often enslaved by other groups and the Kachin tribes raided other areas.

In the nineteenth century, the British annexed Burma as part of their Indian Empire. British administrative policies to encourage an upsurge in rice production through "industrialized agriculture" further complicated internal relations. Indian moneylender took over ownership of most Burmese farmland, causing a breakdown in traditional Burmese society, violence and resentment of the British colonists. The south-central (Burmese) area was strictly governed by British officials, whereas the frontier areas had indirect rule or protectorate status. Non-Burmese ethnic groups such as the Karen and Kachin were favored by the British, particularly in the military and police force.

In 1941, members of a Burmese anticolonial movement called the "Thakins" helped the Japanese invade Burma. Non-Burmese groups such as the Karen and Kachin tended to aid and support the British. After the British forces retreated to India, Kachin and other frontier guerrilla forces helped the Allies to retake Burma from the Japanese. World War II increased hostilities between the Burmese and the frontier ethnic groups - hostilities which persist today.

After the war, a Thakin leader, Aung San, promoted Burma's independence. He engineered the Panglong Agreement, in which frontier groups (Shan, Kachin and Chin) agreed to support a Federation of Burma, with guaranteed autonomy. The Shan, Kachin and Chin states were assured the right to withdraw from the Federation in 10 years, if dissatisfied with it. Before Burma became independent in 1948, Aung San was assassinated by political rivals. Burma left the British commonwealth and U Nu was elected head of state. A parliamentary government was established; freedom of speech, religion and assembly were constitutionally guaranteed; and the Shan and Karenni frontier peoples were granted autonomy and 10-year right of withdrawal.

Immediately after independence, problems arose between the new government and the Karen, who had opposed independence from Britain and had no autonomous area. Many Karen were Christians (the Burmese are Buddhist), and anti-Christian massacres of Karen villagers sparked a Karen revolt against the Burmese government. At the same time Communist groups left the government and began to fight against it. Arakanese Moslems and Mon forces also revolted, and Kachin rebels joined with the Karen. The government in Rangoon almost surrendered to the Communists, but General Ne Win built up the Burmese army. During 1950-1951, the Karen rebels were driven into the Tenasserim area (bordering Thailand) and the Communists and other rebels were forced into the northern mountains.

In 1950, Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) troops, including General Li Mi, fled the Chinese Communist takeover in Yunnan to the Shan state of Burma. There, Kuomintang forces recruited more soldiers and engaged in the opium trade on a large scale. Burmese military efforts to dislodge the KMT included attacks on Shan villages.

During the 1950s, Burma's economy drastically worsened. Development plans were mismanaged and failed. The economy was totally dependent on rice, and rice sales fell. By 1958, the economy was in shambles and insurgency (both Communist and Karen) was on the rise. Prime Minister U Nu temporarily gave power to General Ne Win, who set up a military government. Kachin and Shan forces revolted, and Ne Win outlawed the Shan artistocracy, imprisoning and executing many Shan leaders.

In 1960, U Nu won a large majority in elections. He made good on a promise to make Buddhism the state religion, which caused further Karen insurrection. The Shan and Karenni asked to leave the Federation as provided by the 10-year clause. In 1962, Ne Win staged a coup d'etat, citing the need for national security, and has remained in power ever since. He suspended the constitution and instituted the "Burmese Way of Socialism," a Utopian mixture of Marxism and Buddhism, to "bring the masses to enlightenment." The economy was brought under state control, and Burma was governed by a "Revolutionary Council" of military officers. The frontier states' autonomy was canceled, and they were placed under direct government administration.

Insurgency vs. the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma

In 1974, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was established with a new constitution. Ne Win declared that "Our Union is just one homogeneous whole." Despite constraints on free assembly, considerable civil unrest plagued Burma during the 1970s, including strikes, student riots and a coup attempt. Discrimination against urban Chinese and Indians was evident in government policy, and widespread among the Burmese.

Burma has maintained an isolationist foreign policy and remained uninvolved in the war in Indochina. It was by no means at peace during the 1970s and early 1980s, however, as its domestic insurgency continued. At present Burma's economy is best described as stagnant, and despite abundant resources, Burma is one of the world's 15 poorest countries. A "shadow economy" thrives in which consumer goods enter and agricultural, forest and mineral products are exported.

Trade is largely controlled by insurgent groups who occupy almost all of Burma's borders with neighboring countries. Opium, traditionally grown in the northern frontier areas, has become an important source of income for many of the insurgent groups. Cross-border smuggling has enabled insurgent groups to obtain better weapons than those of the Burmese army. The war, essentially stalemated for many years, has included such actions as considerable abuse of civilians by Burmese troops in frontier areas. Members of minority ethnic groups have been confined to walled villages, used as slave labor or as shields and human mine detectors. Thousands die each year in the ongoing war. Burmese government figures for 1985 state that 1,870 insurgents were killed by its troops, and that 416 Burmese soldiers died.

In its attempts to gain control over the diverse people who inhabit Burma, the government has attempted to regulate Buddhism and to suppress non-Buddhist religions such as Christianity and Islam. Mass arrests, detention and forced registration of Arakanese Moslems have frequently occurred. In 1978, 200,000 Arakanese fled to Bangladesh, fearing detention as illegal aliens. Nonindigenous citizens (defined as those whose families arrived in Burma after 1824) were denied rights pertaining to employment and residency under a 1980 citizenship law.

The insurgents' stated reasons for fighting the Burmese government include suppression of religion, language and culture; the imposition of the socialist economic system; human rights violations (such as torture and forced labor); the right to secession granted in the first constitution; precolonial territorial claims; and perceived government intention to "exterminate" minority groups. In many cases, grievances arose because the government was fighting the insurgents in the ethnic minority areas, with government abuses provoking local support for the insurgency rather than suppressing it.

Along with the ethnic rebels, groups such as the Communists and KMT are fighting the Burmese government. The Burma Communist Party (BCP), with 10,000 troops, is one of the world's largest Communist insurgencies. Its troops are mainly from minority ethnic groups such as the Wa and Shan. Since Chinese support has been reduced, the BCP has become a major opium trading organization and has been known to collaborate with KMT forces on opium trade and transport.

A coalition of 10 ethnic insurgent groups, the National Democratic Front, has become a viable political and military alliance. The NDF has expressed willingness to negotiate an end to the war. The few attempts at negotiation in the past have failed, however, and there has been no internationally sponsored mediation.

Minorities and Armies

The following groups inhabiting Burma's frontier areas have been involved in the war against the central government.

* Karen: A strong sense of oppression at the hands of the Burmese is ingrained in Karen culture. The Karen elite are Christian, although most Karen are animist or Buddhist. Some Karen still live as a hill tribe; others are British-educated doctors, teachers and guerrilla leaders. The Karen have been driven from their homes in the Irrawaddy delta into the mountains along the Thai border. Karen rebels have been the group hardest hit by the Burmese army - many instances of abuse of Karen civilians by the Burmese army have been reported. More than 17,000 refugees (Karen and Mon) have fled to Thailand and about 3 million Karen remain in Burma. The Karen National Liberation Army claims some 5,000-8,000 soldiers.

* Mon: The Mon, who are Buddhist, live in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam as well as Burma. Most Mon in Burma are considered assimilated into Burmese culture, but some Mon insurgents are allied with the Karen and seek to reestablish the ancient Mon civilization. About 1.3 million Mon live in Burma, about 800 of whom are Mon insurgents.

* Karenni: The Karenni, an ethnic group related to the Karen, have a long history of independence. Granted protectorate status by Britain, the Karenni were never part of the Burma colony. The Karenni state is small but potentially rich in minerals, gems and hydroelectric power. The Karenni elite is Christian. The Karenni Liberation Army numbers about 1,000 troops. About 75,000 Karenni live in Burma.

* Shan: The Shan are Tai-speaking people, related to the Thai of Thailand, the Dai of Yunnan, the Lao and other Southeast Asian ethnic groups. Traditionally, the Shan were governed by hereditary princes. The Shan have adapted magic and astrology to Buddhist practices. During the colonial period, the Shan aristocracy negotiated protectorate or indirect rule agreements with the British. Inclusion in a Burmese-dominated nation was viewed by many Shan as a threat to their traditional independence and culture. The Shan insurgency has been divided by severe factionalism, which has been intensified by the opium trade. The Shan State Progress Party, a resistance group based in the north of the Shan state, has about 3,000 troops. Another Shan group, the Thailand Revolutionary Council, also has a force of about 3,000. There are approximately 3.2 million Shan in Burma.

* Pa-O: The Pa-O are an ethnic group related to the Karen. The Pa-O National Organization has a few hundred troops.

* Palaung: The Palaung are related to the Mon. They are Buddhist and their social structure is similar to that of the Shan. Some 60,000 Palaung live in Burma. The Palaung State Liberation Organization, with less than 100 soldiers, is a member of the NDF.

* Padaung: The Padaung call themselves "Kayah" and are known for the women's brass neck rings, which create the effect of an elongated neck. Some Padaung are soldiers in the Karenni force. About 7,000 Padaung live in Burma.

* Hill Tribes: Nomadic tribes such as the Lahu, Akha and Lisu live in the mountains of Yunnan, Laos, Thailand and northern Burma. They practice shifting cultivation and grow opium. In Burma, they practice traditional religions and are poor even by Burmese standards; hill tribes are dependent on opium as their primary source of cash. More than 600t of opium was produced in Burma in 1984. Thailand has had a great deal of success in providing the tribes with alternative crops, but similar programs do not exist in Burma. Hill tribes in the north of Burma have been adversely affected by the aerial spraying of 2, 4-D herbicide (an Agent Orange component) over their land by the Burmese government. Provided by the US for opium eradication, 2, 4-D may produce such long-term effects as cancer and birth defects. In the Shan state, the spraying of 2, 4-D is said to have ruined non-narcotic crops and caused medical problems in animals and humans. Fear of the spraying is said to be causing migration of the hill tribes, and the ruined crops are causing economic hardship and further political destabilization in the area. Hill tribes may be seeking the protection of the insurgent groups.

* Wa: The Wa were among the earliest inhabitants of northern Burma. Traditionally headhunters with limited contact with the outside world, the Wa are perhaps the most isolated, poorest group in Burma. Wa soldiers serve as mercenaries for several insurgent groups, such as the BCP and the KMT forces. There are approximately 30,000 Wa in Burma and Yunnan.

* Kachin: The Kachin live in the mountains of northern Burma. Most Kachin in Burma are Christian. The Kachin were the mainstay of the British forces in Burma. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) controls large sections of the Kachin state, supported by a smuggling trade in precious metals, gems and jade. Fighting between the KIO and the Burmese army has been fierce and constant. The KIO claims a 2.5 million population for "Kachinland" (including Kachin related and non-Kachin tribes in the Kachin state area). The KIO army has over 8,000 troops.

* Naga: Most Naga live in the Nagaland state of India. Nagaland has considerable autonomy, but leftist Naga factions continue armed resistance against India. These Naga insurgents are based in the Kachin state of Burma and have been supported by Kachin insurgents. About 50,000 Naga live in the mountains of northwest Burma. Most Naga in Burma are Christian.

* Chin: The Chin live in remote mountain areas of western Burma, and in India and Bangladesh. The Chin state is extremely underdeveloped. About 350,000 Chin live in Burma, but attempts to organize a politicized insurgency have been largely unsuccessful.

* Arakanese: Animosity between the Arakanese and Burmese has long existed. Arakan is geographically isolated from the rest of Burma, and has been influenced by trade with India and Bangladesh. Most Arakanese are Buddhist, but a substantial number are Moslem. The Burmese government has jailed and detained Arakanese Moslems, who are often mistaken for illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There have been various small Arakanese insurgent groups, both Communist and non-Communist.

These frontier minorities have been involved in conflicts with the Burmese for hundreds of years. When the Burmese came to dominate the postcolonial government, that government saw non-Burmese groups as a threat to national stability. The government has promoted a "Burmese Way" as the national identity. Assurances of autonomy for frontier areas which had a history of independence were abrogated. Burmese culture and language were promoted to the exclusion of other indigenous cultures and languages. A government-controlled Buddhism was promoted to the exclusion of other religions.

Today, the Burmese government controls the cities, coastline and central plain of Burma. The mountains and jungles of the frontiers are in the hands of ethnic and political groups who are fighting the central government for a wide variety of reasons. Pervasive economic and social decay has brought about black market corruption and a massive narcotics trade. The insurgency has been fought for three generations, and the ethnic minority civilians of the frontier areas continue to suffer as casualties of the war and its effects - disease and poverty. The Burmese government does not allow international humanitarian aid agencies to operate in the rebel frontier areas. Thus, largely unobserved,(1) the war continues behind Burma's careful "lacquer screen" of isolation.

The political situation in Burma may change as one group or another stages a violent takeover. But the war will only end when the Burmese and other ethnic groups are able to trust each other, as neighbors if not as compatriots. Increased interest by the international community can help to encourage a peaceful resolution of this conflict.


(1) The Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong) provides ongoing extensive coverage of Burma (economics and politics) and the insurgency.

Voices from the Frontier

In Their Own Words: The Shan

On March 2, 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup d'etat, arrested the Shan state leaders and other political leaders and abolished the national constitution. Some leaders disappeared altogether and were never seen alive or ever heard of again, while many spent years behind bars without trial.

The narrow-mindedness of the Burmese, their supranationalism, their ultrareliance on the military power to forcefully change everything and everybody towards their Burmese Way to socialism...all added to exacerbate the situation and create the chaos in Burma. Undeniably today, blackmarketeering is the life-saving bloodline of Burma's economy. This will always be the case until the Rangoon government heeds and gives the legal democratic rights of the people in the Union.

From a speech by officials of the Tailand Revolutionary Council, February 20, 1986.

In Their Own Words: The Kachin…

80 percent of the state - that is, most rural areas - are controlled and administrated by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIO organizes and pays for 5 high schools, 10 middle schools and 119 primary schools. Apart from all these schools, there are many so-called "self-help schools." These are supported by us, but maintained by village volunteers.

Both kinds of schools are located deep inside our area, and Rangoon's forces cannot reach them unless there is a major offensive against us. Whenever that happens, villages and schools invariably are burned down. At other times, the military government has used airplanes to bomb civilian settlements under our control. For instance, the school at N'Raw Kawng was destroyed in such an air raid on 25 February, 1985.

From a letter of appeal to international aid organizations, by Mr. Brang Seng, chairman of KIO.

In Their Own Words: The Karenni

The Karenni people did not concede to any of the Burmese propositions or proposals. This drove the Burmese nationalists to take a course of the strong trample the weak. On August 9, 1948, the Burmese government invaded Karenni and perpetrated a war of aggression on the Karenni people. The Karenni people to one man resisted the Burmese aggression and the resistance continued to this day.

Yearly, the army terrorized the whole country. Innocent villagers are made homeless, poor peasants are press ganged to carry military hardware for the army for its offensive against the resistance. In the 37 years of resistance Karenni suffered at the hands of Burmese terror...At present about 14,400 persons are rendered destitutes to exist in jungles where mosquitoes thrive for malaria and other diseases. They suffered untold hardship.

From The Karenni Paper, by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of the Karenni national government.

In Their Own Words: The Karen

By this time it must be realized about the belligerent resistance of the Karen against the Burma government that it is not the struggle for the emancipation of a people from foreign rule. Neither is it true to say that it is a struggle undertaken solely to fulfill national aspirations. It is a struggle first to survive, then through a long experience of mistakes, series of political and military setbacks and untold adversities, to seek the right form of government - government of the people, by the people and for the people.

When a people fights for its own existence, the people must be ready to face any kind of hardship, be ready to sacrifice their own lives for the good of posterity. Therefore, a people fighting for self-determination cannot be satisfied till freedom is achieved. The Karens fight to create a piece of land where their people may live in peace.

From a pamphlet by Mika Rolley, July 1980.

In Their Own Words: The Pa-O

One midnight, the Burmese soldiers of Regt. 54 surrounded our village and seized [30] villagers and took us to Loikaw. The next day we were taken to Bawleke where we were forced to carry rice and all kinds of ammunitions. I was to carry two tins of rice and some ammunitions about 25 viss heavy. We were not paid and they fed us very little. We crossed [a] rocky mountain in the sun, hungry and thirsty also. We all are tired very much, besides my shoulders [are] blistered and feet sore with blood. The soldiers kicked us and blood comes out. I was boxed at my side many times and very painful[ly]. One of my friends was beaten to death in front of me. When we passed any village they burnt all the houses and paddy barns. All the villagers fled or they would be killed. I managed to hide under a bush and stayed there for [6] days until the Karenni soldiers found me and carried me to headquarters where I was treated. I am still alive.

Statement by Maung Tun, a 30-year-old Pa-O farmer.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: