Indigenous peoples in Burma

Burma’s diversity encompasses over 100 different ethnic groups. The Burmans make up an estimated 68 percent of Burma’s 51 million people. The country is divided into seven, mainly Burman-dominated divisions and seven ethnic states.

The Burmese government refers to those groups generally considered indigenous peoples as “ethnic nationalities”, which includes the:

  • Shan
  • Karen
  • Rakhine
  • Karenni
  • Chin
  • Kachin
  • Mon

However, there are many more ethnic groups that are considered or see themselves as indigenous peoples, such as the:

  • Akha
  • Lisu
  • Lahu
  • Mru

And many others

Some Brief Notes on the Political History of Burma

Burma has been ruled by a succession of Burman-dominated military regimes since the popularly-elected government was toppled in 1962.The regime has justified its rule, characterized by the oppression of ethnic nationalities, by claiming that the military is the only institution that can prevent Burma from disintegrating along ethnic lines.

After decades of armed conflict, the military regime negotiated a series of ceasefire agreements in the early and mid-1990s.

While these resulted in the establishment of special regions with some degree of administrative autonomy, the agreements also allowed the military regime to progressively expand its presence and benefit from the unchecked exploitation of natural resources in ethnic areas.

In November 2010, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won Burma’s first general election in 20 years by a landslide. The UN said the electoral process failed to meet international standards.

Three months later, the USDP-dominated Parliament installed former General Thein Sein – the military regime’s former Prime Minister and the architect of the widely-criticized 2008 Constitution – as Burma’s President.

The president released hundreds of political prisoners, eased certain media restrictions, took steps to liberalize the economy and engaged in ceasefire talks with ethnic armed groups but have still not addressed many ongoing human rights violations. 

Despite positive steps taken by President Thein Sein (installed in 2011) and him nominally civilian administration, many critical issues remain unaddressed. Among these are the ongoing human rights violations and military offensives in ethnic nationality areas, and a lack of significant legislative and institutional reforms.

The general election, held November 8th 2015, saw Aung San Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) unseat the Union of Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in a landslide.

The transfer of power is due to take place in March 2016.  

The current situation of indigenous peoples in Burma

Control over land and natural resources for development projects in indigenous peoples’ territories is driving violent conflict and related human rights violations.

Indigenous peoples face problems of widespread land confiscation, negative environmental, social, and health impacts, and threats to traditional and sustainable livelihoods.

Militarization, displacement, oppression, the struggle for self-determination, and lack of free, prior, and informed consent are cross-cutting issues. 

Burma is still seeing serious human rights violations in ethnic nationality areas, military offensives in Kachin and Northern Shan states, a lack of significant legislative and institutional reforms, and persecution of Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State.

Legislation concerning indigenous peoples in Burma 

Myanmar/Burma’s 2008 Constitution makes no mention of indigenous peoples, their collective rights, or customary land use practices in indigenous peoples’ territories.

In October 2014, the government released a draft National Land Use Policy, which includes a chapter on “Land Use Rights of Ethnic Nationalities”. However, the policy gives special privileges to business investors, and the references to customary land use tenure are vague.

Burma voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007.

The government, however, claims that all full citizens of Burma are ‘indigenous’ and on that basis dismisses the applicability of the UN Declaration. 

Burma has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

Yearly Update

Download the 2016 yearbook article on indigenous peoples in Burma to learn about major developments and events during 2015.