• Indigenous peoples in Myanmar

    Indigenous peoples in Myanmar

    Myanmar’s population encompasses over 100 different ethnic groups. Myanmar has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but the country’s indigenous peoples are still facing a number of challenges, among others in relation to armed conflict, human rights violations and land rights.

The Indigenous World 2021: Myanmar

There is no accurate information about the number of Indigenous Peoples in Myanmar, partly due to a lack of understanding of the internationally recognised concept of Indigenous Peoples. The government claims that all citizens of Myanmar are “Indigenous” (taing-yin-tha), and on that basis dismisses the applicability of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to Myanmar. Indigenous Peoples' rights activists use the Burmese language term hta-nay-tain- yin-tha in describing Indigenous Peoples, based on international principles; using the criteria of non-dominance in the national context, historical continuity, ancestral territories and self-identification.[1]

The government recognises eight ethnic groups as national races or taung-yin-tha: Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Mon, Burman, Arakan and Shan. According to the 1982 Citizenship Law, ethnic groups who have been present in the current geographical area of Myanmar since before 1823 (the beginning of the first British annexation) are considered taung-yin-tha.[2] However, there is a number of ethnic groups that are considered or see themselves as Indigenous Peoples, such as the Naga, that would not identify with any of those groups.

While the democratic transition from quasi-military government to quasi-civilian took place peacefully, and early signs of progression took place via ministerial development focussed on Indigenous rights and development via the newly established Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, the overwhelming feeling held by Indigenous rights activists is that the governing National League for Democracy party (NLD) have not honoured pre-election manifesto promises to eradicate harmful policies which restrict fundamental freedoms such as the right to assembly and peaceful expression. Furthermore, the stated aims of the NLD for “national reconciliation” via the 21st Century Panglong forums are presently stalled, with conflict escalating in many ethnic states and regions. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, coexists with the military, which retains 25% of unelected seats in the Hluttaw (House of Representatives), allowing it a veto over constitutional change as well as three ministers in the government and one of the two vice-presidents.

Myanmar voted in favour of the UNDRIP, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, but has not signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and nor has it ratified ILO Convention No. 169. It is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) but voted against a bill to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under the rationale that it was a threat to national sovereignty. In 2017, Myanmar became the 165th State Party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

On 1 February 2021, just hours before the first scheduled session of the recently elected Myanmar parliament, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) declared a state of emergency, annulled the election results and deposed civilian leaders. While at the time of publishing it is still too early to evaluate the full impact of this latest development, one could expect that it may have major influence on the course and outcomes of some of the processes described in this chapter.


National elections took place in Myanmar in 2020 despite calls for their postponement by the military-backed Union Solidarity Party (USDP) and 24 other parties due to the wave of COVID-19 and resulting lockdowns in Myanmar.[3] The Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) secured more than 390 combined seats in both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, 60 seats more than necessary to form the next government (the minimum is 322). These figures surpassed the NLD’s 2015 landslide victory.[4]

The elections were widely condemned due to the disenfranchisement and marginalisation of the Rohingya refugee and internally-displaced populations, who are not considered citizens and were banned from voting in what was deemed an apartheid election.[5] Rohingya candidates were also banned from contesting the elections.[6] Furthermore, on 16 October the NLD-appointed Union Election Commission (UEC) announced the cancellation of voting in six townships in Shan State and hundreds of village tracts throughout Kachin and Karen states and Bago Region, as well as one in Mon State.[7] The UEC also cancelled voting in the northern townships of the conflict-ridden, Rakhine State and the majority of village tracts in Chin State’s Paletwa Township.[8] This was condemned as an attempt by the NLD to deny seats to ethnic parties under vaguely-stated security grounds, the effect of which wiped out the majority of Rakhine’s electoral constituencies and disenfranchised 73% of its 1.6 million voters while maintaining the constituencies in the south of the state where the NLD has a stronger foothold.[9]

During the lead up to the elections, in March, the NLD voted down a proposed constitutional amendment bill, supported by ethnic parties and the USDP, which would have granted state and regional parliaments the ability to choose chief ministers as opposed to the current determination by presidential decree.[10] This would have allowed ethnic parties, if successful, to govern their own states with a local mandate, increasing the process of decentralisation. The blocking of this amendment was seen to be in contradiction to the NLD's promise to deliver a “federal democracy” and allow more meaningful representation in the ethnic states.[11] The NLD later insisted that the reform could only happen once the Tatmadaw’s constitutional allocation of 25% of seats in all Hluttaws (Parliament chambers) had been removed.[12]

A handful of seats were won by ethnic political parties in Kayah, Mon and Shan states. Following the landslide victory, the NLD sent official letters to 48 ethnic parties headed “The issue of unity and Myanmar’s future” and signed by its vice-chairman, Zaw Myint Maung. The letter stated that “the aims of the ethnic parties align with those of the NLD and our party will focus on the wishes and desires of ethnic people in the future” and that the NLD hoped that ethnic political parties would cooperate and work with the NLD “towards building a federal democratic union”.[13] There was no formal response from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy – the most successful ethnic party ­– nor the Mon Unity Party, which made gains in Mon State, although leaders from both parties told the media that they welcomed the gesture.[14]

Following the election, the military wing of the government announced a unilateral permanent committee “to continue peace talks as quickly as possible” with ethnic armed organisations.[15] The committee, made up of five lieutenant-generals, has no civilian representation and indicates a growing divide between the military and the NLD. The committee will engage with both signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and non-signatory ethnic armed groups.[16]


It is unclear how many deaths and infections have occurred in Myanmar due to a lack of systematic data collection and limited testing.[17] By the end of December, the government data repository had registered 2,532 deaths from the virus; [18] however, there has so far been no testing in IDP camps across the country.[19] Government support has also been variable. The April 2020 COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan “Overcoming as One”,[20] which aimed to provide unconditional cash and in-kind food transfers to vulnerable households and at-risk populations, was accused of failing in its objective to “leave no-one behind” in South-East Myanmar as only villagers living in government-controlled areas received assistance.[21] The political response to the pandemic, however, endorsed by the NLD government, has seen the Myanmar military use COVID-19 as a tool to intensify its repression of ethnic communities, rights defenders and the media.[22]

On the same day that the government officially announced the appearance of the first COVID-19 cases in Myanmar, President Win Myint also declared the Arakan Army (AA), its political wing the United League of Arakan (ULA), and affiliated groups and individuals to be a terrorist outfit under the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law.[23] In stating that the AA had “constituted a danger to law and order, peace and stability of the country and public peace”, the armed group was also declared unlawful under Section 15(2) of the Unlawful Associations Act.[24] This resulted in escalations of airstrikes and violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Rakhine and Chin states.

Similarly, on 23 March, the Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a directive ordering all telecommunications providers to block access to more than 220 websites that were allegedly spreading “fake news”.[25] The directive included multiple independent ethnic media sites that had been reporting on conflict and sharing updates related to the coronavirus pandemic, such as the Rakhine State-based Narinjara and Development Media Group and the Karen Information Centre.[26]

During 2020, a wave of prosecutions of journalists and social media activists took place under the Myanmar Penal Code, the Natural Disaster Management Law and the Telecommunications Act for spreading “misinformation” related to COVID-19. Many of these prosecutions have been linked to COVID-19 and government efforts to control narratives around the pandemic. [27] The third union-level committee headed by the military nominated Vice President U Myint Swe and, with strong military representation but no Ministry of Health and Sports representation, was established to deal with the emergency response. Other task force members included all three military-appointed members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Cabinet, namely the Ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs. Five civilian ministers were also included. The committee’s sweeping powers to prosecute anyone deemed to be spreading “misinformation” and the fact that it was headed by a former powerful general was evidence that the Tatmadaw were leveraging power in response to COVID-19.[28]

The Internet blackout instituted by the NLD government in June 2019 persisted in eight conflict-affected townships in northern Rakhine and southern Chin states, leaving communities in these areas without the ability to receive updates or share information on either the ongoing civil war or the COVID-19 pandemic. This continued to be widely criticised by civil society[29] as well as by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who called for “mobile internet in Rakhine and Chin states to be reinstated in all areas.”[30]

After the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic,[31] UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez appealed for a global ceasefire to address the crisis.[32] Despite calls from United Nations bodies,[33] diplomatic missions,[34] civil society,[35] and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs)[36] to implement a ceasefire, the military increased hostilities and operations in Paletwa and Northern Rakhine. During February, March and April, Paletwa Township endured the worst state atrocities committed at any point since 2015 as the Tatmadaw began carrying out indiscriminate airstrikes on locations in the Rakhine and Chin state border regions. In March and April alone, 31 civilians died and many more were injured as a result of the air assaults. As a result, the numbers of internally displaced people more than doubled in Chin and Rakhine states in 2020. There are over 10,000[37] currently displaced in Chin State, and over 80,000 newly displaced in Rakhine State.[38] In April, Yanghee Lee, the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said in a statement that the country’s armed forces were escalating assaults and targeting the civilian population while the world was “occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic”.[39]

Universal Periodic Review

In January 2021, Myanmar will undergo its 3rd Cycle Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council (HRC). In the Summary of Stakeholders report, Indigenous rights were highlighted on a number of occasions. It was reported that the lack of formal legal recognition continues to negatively impact Indigenous People’s rights to representation, consultation and participation in decision-making processes. Indigenous Peoples, it was reported, are poorly represented within ministries and high-level civil service positions. As a result, many laws, policies and practices undermine Indigenous customary practices and are not in line with relevant international standards. In addition, a series of new laws that have a direct impact on Indigenous Peoples such as the 2018 Forest Law and the 2018 Conservation of Biodiversity and Protected Area Law do not specifically mention Indigenous Peoples (htanay-taing-yin-tha).[40] As such, issues of state-sanctioned land grabbing were raised; for example, large tracts have been confiscated within Myanmar’s Permanent Forest Estate, the establishment of which took place without the free, prior and informed consent of local communities.[41]

Amendments to the 2018 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law (See Indigenous World 2020[42]) were also noted to have facilitated displacement and the criminalisation of people who failed to meet the six-month deadline to register their land. Furthermore, the prevailing model of mega-development projects such as deep-sea ports, hydropower dams and roads continued to fuel grievances among Indigenous communities regarding land rights and their autonomy over the use of traditional land, resulting in social and environmental injustices.[43]

The Summary of Stakeholders report also highlighted that Indigenous and environmental human rights defenders were struggling to protect their land, environment and natural resources and that they were being criminalised, harassed or killed in their work to prevent land grabbing and negative environmental impacts.[44]

As well as health and education facilities being chronically underfunded and understaffed in Indigenous areas in Myanmar, there is also a lack of schools and suitably qualified teachers.[45] The report specifically highlighted the inadequacy of COVID-19 treatment provision in Indigenous areas.[46]

The government report to the HRC highlighted the establishment of certain institutions such as the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, which they stated had the aims of achieving equal citizens’ rights for all ethnic peoples, preserving ethnic literature, and culturing and fostering ethnic unity and socio-economic development. The government also highlighted laws such as the Ethnic Rights Protection Law 2015, which provides that “No-one shall commit any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity and discord among the ethnic groups.”[47]

International recognition of Indigenous and community conserved areas

The Salween Peace Park (SPP) was awarded the 2020 Equator Prize in June. The SPP is a community-led initiative that is striving to empower local Indigenous communities to manage their own natural resources. The SPP spans 5,485 km2 of biodiverse landscape in Mutraw District, Karen State and is managed sustainably by Indigenous Karen communities through an inclusive democratic governance structure that provides spaces for local people and leaders.[48]

The SPP is an example of Indigenous self-determination that has transcended the complexities of land and natural resource governance in Myanmar. While the National Land Use Policy (NLUP) - which seeks to “recognise and protect customary land tenure rights and procedures of the ethnic nationalities” [49] (Indigenous people) and harmonise the current myriad of overlapping land laws - remains some way from being implemented, and the park remains militarised and unrecognised by the union government, the SPP provides an example of conservation activities that does not seek recognition within the centralised bureaucracy of Myanmar and resistance against land grabs for commercial development purposes.


The author and publisher of this article are well aware of the existing Myanmar/Burma name dispute; however, Myanmar is here used consistently to avoid confusion.

This article was produced by the Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO). CHRO works to protect and promote human rights through monitoring, research, documentation, and education and advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Chin people and other ethnic/Indigenous communities in Myanmar. The organisation is a founding member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Network of Myanmar, made up of over 20 non-governmental organisations engaged in Indigenous Peoples’ issues in the country.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Coalition of Indigenous Peoples in Myanmar. “Joint Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review”. March 2015.

[2] Section 3 of the “Burma Citizenship Law 1982, Pyithu Hluttaw Law No 4 of 1982”.

[3] Myanmar Now. “NLD dismisses calls to postpone election because of Covid-19 outbreak.” 16 September 2020.https://www.myanmar-now.org/en/news/nld-dismisses-calls-to-postpone-election-because-of-covid-19-outbreak

[4] US-ASEAN Business Council. “Myanmar Analytical Update: Ruling NLD Party Wins 2020 General Elections in a Landslide; Will Form New Government.”


[5] Burma Campaign UK. “An Apartheid Election Less Free and Fair than the Last.” 5 November 2020. https://burmacampaign.org.uk/an-apartheid-election-less-free-and-fair-than-the-last/

[6] Aljazeera. “Myanmar bars Rohingya candidate from contesting election.” 12 August 2020.


[7] Burma News International, “UEC Cancels Voting in Nearly All Paletwa Village Tracts.” 2 November 2020. https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/uec-cancels-voting-nearly-all-paletwa-village-tracts

[8] Union Election Commission. “2020 General Elections Cancelled Areas.” Myanmar Information Management Unit, 27 October 2020. http://themimu.info/sites/themimu.info/files/documents/Map_2020_Election_Cancelled_Areas_As_of_27_Oct_IFES_MIMU1713v02_28Oct2020_A3.pdf

[9] Dunant, Ben. “Myanmar’s Election Marks a Step Away From Peace.” The Diplomat, 4 November 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/myanmars-election-marks-a-step-away-from-peace/

[10] “Constitution of The Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” 2008, Section 261.http://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/mm/mm009en.pdf

[11] Aljazeera. “Myanmar bars Rohingya candidate from contesting election.” 12 August 2020.


[12] Naing, Kaung Hset. “NLD olive branch leaves ethnic parties wary.” Frontier Myanmar, 16 December 2020. https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/nld-olive-branch-leaves-ethnic-parties-wary/

[13] Zaw, John. “UEC Cancels Voting in Nearly All Paletwa Village Tracts.”UCA News, 2 November 2020. https://www.ucanews.com/news/ethnic-parties-suffer-major-losses-in-myanmar-election/90310#

[14] Naing, Kaung Hset. “NLD olive branch leaves ethnic parties wary.” Frontier Myanmar, 16 December 2020. https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/nld-olive-branch-leaves-ethnic-parties-wary/

[15] Radio Free Asia. “Myanmar Military Launches Body For Talks With Ethnic Armies as Vote Count Goes On.” 11 December 2020. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/peace-talks-committee-11102020202224.html

[16] Burma News International. “Tatmadaw creates new committee to hold talks with ethnic armed groups.” 12 November 2020 https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/tatmadaw-creates-new-committee-hold-talks-ethnic-armed-groups

[17] Kyi Soe, Aung Phay. “Missing data leaves the pandemic’s true death toll in Myanmar in the dark.” Frontier Myanmar, 19 December 2020. https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/missing-data-leaves-the-pandemics-true-death-toll-in-myanmar-in-the-dark/

[18] Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports. “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) situation reports (Myanmar).” 25 December 2020.https://www.mohs.gov.mm/page/9575

[19] Maung, Manny. “Human Rights Watch Statement:Impacts of Covid-19 on Internally Displaced People in Myanmar.” Human Rights Watch, 14 December 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/14/human-rights-watch-statement-impacts-covid-19-internally-displaced-people-myanmar

[20] Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. “Overcoming as One: COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan.” April 2020.

[21] Karen Human Rights Group. “Delayed and Uneven: COVID-19 Response in Rural Southeast Myanmar, March to June 2020.” October 27, 2020.https://khrg.org/2020/10/20-4-nb1/delayed-and-uneven-covid-19-response-rural-southeast-myanmar-march-june-2020#ftn11

[22] Progressive Voice. “A Nation Left Behind: Myanmar’s Weaponization of COVID-19.” June 2020. https://progressivevoicemyanmar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Final_PV-COVID-19_Report-2020.pdf

[23] Myanmar Anti-Terrorist Central Committee, Order No. 1/2020, 23 March 2020.

[24] Myanmar Ministry of Home Affairs, Order No. 1/2020, 23 March 2020.

[25] Article 19. “Myanmar: Immediately lift ban on ethnic news websites.” 1 April 2020. https://www.article19.org/resources/myanmar-immediately-lift-ban-on-ethnic-news-websites/

[26] These were, among others: Narinjara News, https://www.narinjara.com/; 19 Development Media Group, https://www.dmediag.com; 20 Karen Information Center/Karen News, http://karennews.org/; 21 BNI Multimedia Group, https://www.bnionline.net/en; Progressive Voice. “A Nation Left Behind: Myanmar’s Weaponization of COVID-19.” June 2020. https://progressivevoicemyanmar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Final_PV-COVID-19_Report-2020.pdf

[27] Article 19. “Briefing Paper: Freedom of Expression concerns related to COVID-19 Response.” August 2020. https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/2020.08.31-COVID-19-briefing-paper-Myanmar.pdf

[28] Lintner, Bertil. “Covid-19 restores Myanmar military’s lost powers.” Asia Times, 2 April 2020. https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/covid-19-restores-myanmar-militarys-lost-powers/

[29] Progressive Voice. “Joint Statement Condemning One of the World’s Longest Internet Shutdowns in Rakhine State.” 21 December 2019. https://progressivevoicemyanmar.org/2019/12/21/joint-statement-condemning-one-of-the-worlds-longest-internet-shutdowns-in-rakhine-state/

[30] UN OHCHR. “Myanmar must allow free flow of information and aid to protect right to health in COVID-19 crisis – UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee.” 9 April 2020.

[31] World Health Organization. “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19.” 11 March 2020. https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-mediabriefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020

[32] UN News. “COVID-19: UN chief calls for global ceasefire to focus on ‘the true fight of our lives.’” 23 March 2020. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059972

[33] Anadolu Agency. “UN Urges Myanmar to immediately extend ceasefire.” 16 September 2020. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/un-urges-myanmar-to-immediately-extend-cease-fire/1974730

[34] Nyein, Nyein. “Ambassadors Call for End to Conflict in Myanmar Amid COVID-19.” The Irrawaddy, 2 April 2020. https://www.irrawaddy.com/specials/myanmar-covid-19/ambassadors-call-end-conflict-myanmar-amid-covid-19.html

[35]Civil Society Organizations Calls for Immediate Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Myanmar,” 15 April 2020. https://mailchi.mp/chro.ca/joint-statement-civil-society-organizations-calls-for-immediate-protection-of-civilians-in-armed-conflict-in-myanmar

[36] Weng, Lawi. “Myanmar Rebel Coalition Calls for Military to Extend Ceasefire to Rakhine.” The Irrawaddy, 11 May 2020. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-rebel-coalition-calls-military-extend-ceasefire-rakhine.html

[37] Chin Human Rights Organisation. “Annual Report: Human Rights Situation In Chin State and Western Burma.” December 2020. https://www.chinhumanrights.org/annual-report-2020/

[38] OCHA. “Myanmar: Humanitarian Update No.2” December 2020. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/OCHA%20Myanmar%20-%20%20Myanmar%20Humanitarian%20Update%20No%202.pdf

[39] Gunia, Amy. “Myanmar's Military May Be Committing War Crimes While the World Is Distracted by Coronavirus, Says U.N. Rights Expert.” Time, 29 April 2020.https://time.com/5829012/u-n-human-rights-myanmar-war-crimes-coronavirus/

[40] Human Rights Council. “Universal Periodic Review Second Cycle.” Thirty-seventh session, 18–29 January 2021. at para 69 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/UPRMMStakeholdersInfoS23.aspx

[41] Ibid at para 72

[42] Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO). “Myanmar”. In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 291-30. IWGIA, 2020.

[43] Human Rights Council. “Universal Periodic Review Second Cycle.” 37th session, 18-29 January 2021. At para 70 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/UPRMMStakeholdersInfoS23.aspx

[44] Ibid at para 71

[45] Ibid at para 52

[46] Ibid at para 50

[47] UN-OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/UPRMMStakeholdersInfoS23.aspx

[48] Progressive Voice. “Salween Peace Park Wins 2020 Equator Prize.” 15 June 2020. https://progressivevoicemyanmar.org/2020/06/15/salween-peace-park-wins-2020-equator-prize/

[49] The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. “National Land Use Policy.” 2016. http://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/mya152783.pdf



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand