The failure to address the concerns of Burma’s ethnic groups lies at the heart of Burma’s problems. Burma’s ethnic minorities have been struggling for ethnic and political rights for decades as successive dictators in Burma have pursued a policy of ‘Burmanisation’, which ranges from repressing the teaching of ethnic history, language and culture, to military attacks against civilians.
Lack of a reliable census makes it impossible to more than roughly estimate the composition of Burma’s ethnic mosaic or its total population. Some experts suggest existing population data is skewed to exaggerate the number of Burman, who are the largest single ethnic group. According to available statistics, they comprise about two-thirds of Burma’s approximately 50 million people, and dominate the army and government. Most of Burma’s ethnic minorities inhabit areas along the country’s mountainous frontiers. Karen and Shan groups comprise about 10% each, while Akha, Chin, Chinese, Danu, Indian, Kachin, Karenni, Kayan, Kokang, Lahu, Mon, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rakhine, Rohingya, Tavoyan, and Wa peoples each constitute 5% or less of the population.
Burma has experienced a long history of migration and conflict among various ethnic groups along fluid frontiers, which were finally fixed only during British imperial rule from the 1820s to 1948. Under British control, diverse peoples far from Rangoon were brought under at least nominal central administration. Yet many areas remained effectively self-ruled, with only a thin veneer of imperial oversight. During World War II, while many Burman joined Japanese forces, many minority ethnic groups remained loyal to Britain. This reflected a genuine desire for independence on the part of both groups; Burmans struggling to be free of the British colonial yoke, and ethnic minorities wishing to escape Burman domination.
The Union of Burma became independent in I948 only after extensive negotiations led by General Aung San, who convinced most ethnic minority groups to join the new union. The Panglong Agreement of 1947 outlined minority rights and specifically gave the Shan and Karenni peoples the option to secede from the union a decade after independence. Yet these constitutional guarantees were never fully respected. Almost immediately upon independence, Burma was thrown into a series of brutal ethnic wars that have continued with varying intensity to this day.