• 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 2022: Myanmar

There is no accurate information on the number of Indigenous Peoples in Myanmar, partly due to a lack of understanding in the country of the internationally recognized 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 to describe Indigenous Peoples, based on international principles that use the criteria of non-dominance in the national context, historical continuity, ancestral territories and self-identification.[1]

The government recognizes 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 are 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 in 2016, and early signs of progression took place with ministerial developments focussed on Indigenous rights and development via the newly-established Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, the overwhelming feeling held by Indigenous rights activists was that the governing National League for Democracy party (NLD) did not honour pre-election manifesto promises to eradicate harmful policies that restricted fundamental freedoms such as the right to assembly and peaceful expression. Furthermore, the stated aim of the NLD of “national reconciliation” via the 21st Century Panglong forums stalled, with conflict escalating in many ethnic states and regions.

On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw) attempted a coup d’état by deposing the elected government, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and detaining Aung San Su Kyi and members of both Union and State level Parliaments. Since then, large parts of Myanmar have descended into civil war as the Tatmadaw violently suppresses dissent across the country.

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).

Military coup

On 1 February 2021, the Burmese Military – known as the Tatmadaw – staged a coup d’état, arresting the elected government and imposing a national state of emergency, all through powers allegedly granted under the 2008 Constitution. The rationale was that mass voter fraud, to the tune of 8 million illegal votes, had taken place during the landslide election win for the National League for Democracy (NLD). This has never been substantiated.

Acting President Myint Swe transferred legislative, executive and judicial power to the Commander in Chief. The state of emergency has since been extended to 2023.[3]

Aung San Su Kyi, the ousted leader of the NLD and former State Counsellor, has to date been held at an undisclosed location, only having been seen in court as she faces a slew of spurious charges ranging from breaking the official secrets act to corruption, inciting unrest and violating COVID-19 regulations.[4] Her lawyer Khin Maung Zaw was issued a gagging order which prevents communication to the media, international organizations or foreign governments.[5]

The coup triggered mass protests and an ongoing civil disobedience movement (CDM), with the majority of the public sector remaining on strike.[6] The military cracked down on the peaceful protest movement with lethal force, killing hundreds of people. This eventually provoked an armed uprising against its rule in the form of localized peoples’ defence forces (PDFs). Many of these were trained by established Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and remain linked either by ethnic ties, for example to the numerous Chinland Defence Forces (CDFs) operating across Chin State, or as part of the developing framework under the exiled National Unity Government’s (NUG) long-term plan for a “Federal Union Army”.[7]

On 7 September, the NUG declared a “peoples’ defensive war”. Duwa Lashi La, the acting president of the NUG issued a call for a nationwide uprising, which was delivered with a military Code of Conduct aimed at keeping the multiple PDF factions accountable to international human rights and humanitarian laws, and the Geneva Conventions.[8]

“Parallel” government-in-exile

In March, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), established by ousted lawmakers in the wake of the military coup in February, formed a National Unity Government (NUG) based on the mandate bestowed on it by the people in the 2020 general election, which the NLD won by a landslide. Despite being outlawed by the SAC junta, the NUG enjoys popular support in Myanmar and growing recognition abroad as the legitimate government.[9]

The NUG, which functions in exile, has purported to build a Union State with the following values as their guiding principles:

  • Democracy Rights, Gender Equality and basic Human Rights;
  • Equality and Self-Determination;
  • Collective Leadership;
  • Diversity, Social Harmony, Solidarity and Non-Discrimination; and
  • Protection of Minority Rights.[10]

In a move designed to gain the support of Western democratic nations, some initiatives spearheaded by the NUG’s Ministry of Human Rights distanced the government-in-exile from previous controversial stances taken by the NLD. For example, in July, the NUG lodged a declaration under Article 12(3) of the Rome Statute delegating jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court (ICC)—an important step towards improved accountability for atrocities committed in Myanmar or by Myanmar nationals.[11]

Similarly in June, the NUG released a new policy which, using the term “Rohingya”, committed to ending human rights abuses against this group and promised to grant them equal citizenship rights, thus signalling a marked departure from the previous administration’s stance.[12] The NUG also suggested that once a new constitution could be drafted they would repeal laws used to repress the Rohingya and other ethnic groups deemed to be outside of the “national races” groupings.[13] National news outlets suggested this was a premature initiative and potentially opposed in Rakhine State.[14]

The establishment of the NUG was set out in Part II of the Federal Democracy Charter (FDC), which provides a framework for interim governance. This includes a National Unity Coordination Council (NUCC) as a platform for negotiating the FDC’s strategic development.[15] The NUCC members include the CRPH, currently serving as the interim legislature, the NUG as the executive, EAOs and ethnic political parties, CDM groups, general strike councils, and civil society organizations from across the country.

Interim councils have been established in some states, largely made up of ethnic political figureheads that report through the NUCC.[16] At the local level, various “Peoples’ Administrations” have also been established. For example, the Mindat Peoples’ Administration announced in February that it would govern the Southern Chin Township under the 1948 Chin Special Division Act.[17] In some cases, peoples’ administrations stretch further down than the township level and administer specific ethnic groups, such as the Yaw People’s Administration in Magway Region.

War crimes and crimes against humanity

The SAC’s violence became increasingly more brutal throughout the year as PDF combatants, members of the civil disobedience movement, aid workers and the civilian population at large were targeted with extreme and arbitrary violence. Multiple independent United Nations experts have stated that the Myanmar junta’s systematic and widespread attacks on the civilian population since February 2021 amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.[18]    Widespread instances of murder, torture, sexual violence, rape, enforced disappearances and the destruction of property have taken place.[19] As of 31 December, the SAC has killed more than 1,300 civilians, arbitrarily detained over 11,000 and a further 1,964 civilians have had arrest warrants issued against them.[20] The UN reported in early December that there were 284,700 people newly displaced since the coup and at least two million newly in need of humanitarian assistance in 2021, while projecting that humanitarian needs would further escalate in 2022.[21]

In early December, 11 unarmed people, including teenagers and a disabled person, were captured and massacred by junta soldiers in a village in Sagaing Region. Photos of the incident seemed to infer that the victims had been set on fire while still alive.[22] In similar circumstances, on Christmas Eve, 35 people including women and children were killed and burned by the military in Hpruso township, Kayah State.[23] Save the Children later confirmed that two of its staff were among those killed in the massacre.[24]

The Tatmadaw has also been accused of instances of rape and other forms of gender-based violence. On 11 November, SAC troops entered the village of Aklui in Teddim township, Chin State, and entered the home of a 27-year-old woman who had given birth less than one month earlier and raped her. Reports suggest that the soldiers held her husband at gunpoint and forced him to watch the crime taking place. On the same night, soldiers raped the woman’s 30-year-old sister-in-law, who was seven months pregnant.[25] On 7 November, a junta soldier raped a 62-year-old woman in Kutkai township, Shan State.[26]

Torture has also been systematically used across the country with reports of widespread and systematic mistreatment in detention. [27] Civilians arrested after being shot by security forces are often denied medical treatment and subsequently die from their injuries. There are multiple instances of mutilated bodies being returned to families. Some bear the marks of organ removal.[28] Others have been returned to their families alive, only to die a few hours later from their injuries.[29]

A return to the “Four Cuts” doctrine

Since May, in places such as Chin, Kayah and Karen states, the SAC have been undertaking a well-known response to armed dissent by initiating a policy commonly known as the “four cuts”, i.e. restricting access to food, funds, intelligence and recruits to ethnic armed groups.[30] In implementing this strategy, local populations are treated as a central resource in the conflict area and exposed to extreme violence and livelihood destruction.

For example, in Chin State, the Tatmadaw have been implementing this policy since May, when the community of Mindat were violently suppressed for peacefully protesting against the coup. Meanwhile humanitarian access to the area has been arbitrarily restricted, medical supplies impounded or destroyed en route to IDP camps and those attempting to deliver stated items arbitrarily arrested and sometimes tortured.[31] Similar practices have been documented in Kayah [32] and Karen states.[33]

Operation Anawrahta

During October, in the midst of an overwhelmingly supported CDM movement and in response to heavy losses inflicted by the CDF,[34] the SAC launched “Operation Anawratha” in the Northwest.[35]

The symbolic operation – named after the warrior-founder of the Burmese nation – was overseen by the Tatmadaw’s hard-line, newly placed commanders, Lieutenant General Than Hlaing, deputy interior minister and head of Myanmar’s militarized police force and Lieutenant General Tayza Kyaw, head of Bureau of Special Operations No 1. [36]

The operation thus far has led to the destruction and burning of a large portion of Thantlang town and multiple villages across Chin State that military convoys and battalions pass through in clearance operations. Almost all of the town’s shops and businesses have been destroyed.[37]

Targeting of churches and religious infrastructure

A prevailing pattern amongst the Tatmadaw’s military operations across the country has been the targeting of religious leaders and the wilful destruction of church buildings and other religious infrastructure in ethnic states and regions where the population form a Christian minority.

As crackdowns on protests and protestors grew, the military began actively pursuing religious leaders and religious institutions.

On 13 March, the Kachin Theological College and Seminary in the Kachin state capital, Myitkina, were raided when 15 military trucks surrounded the school and began to search the grounds and property. The school has since remained closed. Other Kachin churches were also subjected to targeted searches.[38]

Searches sometimes resulted in the arrests of pastors. On 14 June, three pastors in Kachin State’s Nawngmun township were detained on charges of incitement for allegedly using the phrase “ending military dictatorship” during a prayer for peace.[39] On 23 September, Pastor Ngai Kung was arrested in Ngaleng village in Chin State along with four others. The four other civilians were released but Pastor Ngai Kung remains detained by the military.[40]

Between February and July, 14 churches were bombed in Kayah State, places where civilians were seeking shelter from the ongoing conflict across the state. In one such instance, on 24 May, the Tatmadaw bombed the Sacred Heart Church in Kayan Tharyar that was housing 300 people from Loikaw township, killing four and injuring eight more. White flags were raised around the religious infrastructure and soldiers had previously entered the premises and warned the people sheltering not to leave the church as a search took place. [41] The day after, Cardinal Charles Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, released a statement calling on the junta to refrain from targeting churches.[42] Father Celso Ba Shwe from Demosa stated that churches were now unsafe to house IDPs due to their active targeting.[43]

In Thantlang, the Assembly of God Church and a church belonging to the Thantlang Association of Baptist Churches were burned down by government soldiers.[44] Meanwhile, across Chin State, the Tatmadaw began implementing a policy whereby soldiers were ordered to use churches as bases on the rationale that they would be less likely to be attacked by local defence forces.[45] This inevitably led to looting and desecration of church belongings and infrastructure in Kanpetlet, Mindat, Falam and Hakha townships.

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

This article was produced by the Chin Human Rights Organization (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 organization is a founding member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Network of Myanmar, made up of over 20 non-governmental organizations engaged in Indigenous Peoples’ issues in the country.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 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] BBC Asia, “Myanmar: State of emergency extended with coup leader as PM”, 1 August 2021, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58045792

[4] BBC Asia, “Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar court sentences ousted leader in widely criticised trial”, 6 December 2021, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-59544484

[5] Reuters, “Lawyer for Myanmar's Suu Kyi says he has been issued a gag order”, 15 October 2021, available at https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/chief-lawyer-myanmars-suu-kyi-says-he-has-been-issued-gag-order-2021-10-15/

[6] Chin Human Rights Organization, “Myanmar’s Ethnic Nationalities, Doctors and Teachers Against the Military Coup”, 1 March 2021, available at https://debatesindigenas.org/ENG/ns/93-Myanmar-against-military-coup.html

[7] The Diplomat, “Can Myanmar’s New ‘People’s Defense Force’ Succeed?” 6 May 2021, available at https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/can-myanmars-new-peoples-defense-force-succeed/

[8] Republic of the Union of Myanmar National Unity Government Press Release (14/2021), 13 September 2021 available at https://gov.nugmyanmar.org/2021/09/13/press-release-14-2021/

[9] Evidenced by examples such as official recognition in South Korea, Nikkei Asian, “Myanmar shadow government sets up office in South Korea,” 18 September 2021, available at https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Crisis/Myanmar-shadow-government-sets-up-office-in-South-Korea and maintaining a seat at the UN General Assembly; Reuters, “U.N. committee agrees Taliban, Myanmar junta not allowed in U.N. for now”, 2 December 2021, available at https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-myanmar-junta-unlikely-be-let-into-un-now-diplomats-2021-12-01/

[10] See National Unity Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar website, available at https://www.nugmyanmar.org/en/

[11] Fortify Rights, “Myanmar’s Civilian Government Myanmar’s Civilian Government Delegates Jurisdiction to International Criminal Court”, 19 August 2021, available at https://www.fortifyrights.org/our_impact/imp-mya-2021-08-19/

[12] Frontier Magazine, “The NUG’s Rohingya policy: ‘Campaign statement’ or genuine reform?” 15 July 2021, available at https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/the-nugs-rohingya-policy-campaign-statement-or-genuine-reform/

[13] Myanmar Now, “NUG releases statement recognising Rohingyas’ right to citizenship”, 4 June 2021, available at https://www.myanmar-now.org/en/news/nug-releases-statement-recognising-rohingyas-right-to-citizenship

[14] The Irrawaddy, “Myanmar’s Parallel Govt's Rohingya Policy Angers Rakhine Groups”, 8 June 2021, available at https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmars-parallel-govts-rohingya-policy-angers-rakhine-groups.html

[15] Federal Democratic Charter, 2021, available at https://myanmar-law-library.org/law-library/laws-and-regulations/constitutions/federal-democracy-charter-2021.html

[16] BNI Online, “Interim Chin National Consultative Council formed”. 16 April 2021, available at https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/interim-chin-national-consultative-council-formed

[17] Myanmar Now, “Mindat People’s Administration defies regime’s martial law”, May 2021, available at https://www.myanmar-now.org/en/news/mindat-peoples-administration-defies-regimes-martial-law

[18] Such as the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar IIMM, UN News, “Myanmar: Systematic attack on civilians, rights mechanism reveals”, 5 November 2021, available at https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/11/1105082 and Tom Andrews, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, United Nations Human Rights Council, “Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Tells Human Rights Council that the International Community is Failing the People of Myanmar”, 7 July 2021, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=27284&LangID=E

[19] ND-Burma, “Waking to War Crimes”, December 2021, available at https://nd-burma.org/waking-to-war-crimes/

[20] AAPP, Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup, 31 December 2021, available at https://aappb.org/?p=19515

[21] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Myanmar Humanitarian Update No. 13, 9 December 2021, available at https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/myanmar-humanitarian-update-no-13-9-december-2021

[22] Myanmar Now, “Junta soldiers massacre and burn 11, including teenagers, during raid on village in Sagaing”, 7 December 2021, available at https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/junta-soldiers-massacre-and-burn-11-including-teenagers-during-raid-on-village-in-sagaing

[23] Al Jazeera, “Christmas eve killings reinforce views of ‘evil’ Myanmar military”, 30 December 2021, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/30/a-dark-christmas-in-myanmar

[24] Save the Children, “Save the Children staff identified among the dead after burnt bodies found in Myanmar”, 28 December 2021, available at https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/news/media-centre/press-releases/statement-on-myanmar-staff

[25] Radio Free Asia, “Junta troops accused of raping two women in Myanmar’s Chin state”, 16 November 2021, available at https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/rape-11162021200357.html

[26] The Irrawaddy, “Myanmar Junta Troops Rape Chin Mother”, 15 November 2021, available at https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-junta-troops-rape-chin-mother-media.html

[27] Associated Press, “Myanmar Military Uses Systematic Torture Across the Country”, 18 November 2021, available at https://apnews.com/article/myanmar-torture-military-prisons-insein-abuse-390fe5b49337be82ce91639e93e0192f

[28] The Irrawaddy, “Tortured to Death in Myanmar Regime Custody”, 10 June 2021, available at https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/tortured-to-death-in-myanmar-regime-custody.html

[29] AAPP Press Release, “The Burma Military’s use of torture is an international crime – it must be stopped!” 26 June 2021, available at https://aappb.org/?p=16124

[30] Al Jazeera, “What is the Myanmar military’s ‘four cuts’ strategy?” 5 July 2021, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/5/what-is-the-myanmar-militarys-four-cuts-strategy

[31] Amnesty International, “After Coup, Myanmar Military Puts Choke Hold on People’s Basic Needs,” 1 December 2021, available at https://www.amnesty.or.th/en/latest/news/974/

[32] Fortify Rights, “Access Denied: The Myanmar Military Junta’s Deprivation of Life-Saving Aid in Karenni State”, November 2021, available at https://www.fortifyrights.org/downloads/Access%20Denied%20-%20Fortify%20Rights%20-%20November%202021.pdf

[33] Human Rights Watch, “Myanmar: Junta Blocks Lifesaving Aid Donors Should Channel Assistance Via Local and Cross-Border Efforts”, 13 December 2021, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/12/13/myanmar-junta-blocks-lifesaving-aid

[34] Mizzima, “CNA/CDF-Thantlang capture Tatmadaw Lungler base”, 13 September 2021, available at https://mizzima.com/article/cnacdf-thantlang-capture-tatmadaw-lungler-base

[35] The Irrawaddy, “Myanmar Military Detains North Western Commander for Planning to Defect: Ethnic Insurgent Sources”, 7 October 2021, available at https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-military-detains-north-western-commander-for-planning-to-defect-ethnic-insurgent-sources.html

[36] See Generally, Asia Times, “Myanmar military prepares an onslaught for the ages”, 19 October 2021, available at https://asiatimes.com/2021/10/myanmar-military-prepares-an-onslaught-for-the-ages/

[37] The Washington Post, “Burn it all down’ How Myanmar’s military razed villages to crush a growing resistance”, 23 December 2021, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/myanmar-military-burn-villages-tatmadaw/

[38] The Irrawaddy, “Myanmar Military Raids Kachin Churches”, 6 April 2021, available at https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-military-raids-kachin-churches.html

[39] Aljazeera, ‘A living hell’: Churches, clergy targeted by Myanmar military”, 4 October 2021, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/14/a-living-hell-churches-suffer-in-myanmar-military-attacks

[40] Chin Human Rights Organization, “Reign of Terror”, November 2021, available at https://www.chinhumanrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Reign-of-Terror-ReportCHRO-1.pdf

[41] Myanmar Now, “Four killed as military shells a Catholic church near Loikaw”, 24 May 2021, available at https://www.myanmar-now.org/en/news/four-killed-as-military-shells-a-catholic-church-near-loikaw

[42] Ibid

[43] Supra note 36

[44] Premier Christian, “Churches burnt by Myanmar military in another attack in predominantly Christian state”, 2 January 2022, available at https://premierchristian.news/en/news/article/churches-burnt-by-myanmar-military-in-another-attack-in-predominantly-christian-state

[45] Chin Human Rights Organisatoin, 20 October 2021, available at  https://twitter.com/chinhumanrights/status/1450695645472321541?s=21



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