A group of Riang (Yang-Wan-Hkun) in Myanmar in 1922. Photo: Wikimedia
A group of Riang (Yang-Wan-Hkun) in Myanmar in 1922. Photo: Wikimedia

On December 1, Radio Free Asia reported that Myanmar’s parliament intended to conduct a debate on the status of 135 ethnic groups and decide whether to adjust the number accorded official recognition after a consultation process.

It is appropriate to look into the historical backdrop concerning the population census of the country, as the 135 ethnic groups’ categorization is the key component in a lot of political considerations and related rights.


The 2014 population census was launched by the Ministry of Immigration and Population, together with teams of international analysts from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and approximately US$75 million in international grants was spent within a year and a half to organize the massive data-gathering operation.

The 2014 exercise was Myanmar’s 12th Western-style census, according to Jane Ferguson of the University of Sydney’s department of anthropology, in her 2015 article “Who’s Counting? Ethnicity, Belonging, and the National Census in Burma/Myanmar.”

She wrote that the British began mapping the territory after the end of the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826. She underpinned her findings by quoting from various sources. She wrote:

It was not until 1891 that Upper Burma was enumerated, as those territories were annexed five years prior. From 1881, the colonial census repeated once every decade, and censuses from 1901 onwards were more uniform and consistent in their coverage. The final colonial census was in 1941, but results were never completed; during the British evacuation of Burma in 1942, the 1941 census officer fled, leaving behind all of the data save two pages.

Before the 2014 census, the military regime under the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) had conducted two censuses, in 1973 and 1983.

In 1982, the Burmese citizenship law was promulgated, stating that the 135 recognized ethnic groups were entitled to automatic citizenship as indigenous peoples (Taing Yin Tha) of the country.

And even though the idea of recategorizing the ethnic composition from eight major ethnic groups into 135 groups was already present, the 1983 census didn’t make use of that ethnic coding. But the 2014 census made this ethnic coding one of the centerpieces of the whole undertaking.

The survey calls for participants to identify themselves with one major race (one of the eight national races) as well as one’s sub-group (of the official 135 ethnic groups), though it does have an ‘other’ option (Code No 914), where the respondent can write in the name of her or his ethnic group,” Ferguson said.

Recognized ethnic groups 

Originally, just eight major ethnic groups – Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhine and Shan – were recognized. But after 1991 the idea of diversifying these into 135 ethnic groups was floated by the military government, which was made official in 2014 census.

They are divided as follows: the Kachin group comprises 12 sub-groups; Kayah nine; Karen 11; Chin 53; Bamar nine; Mon one; Rakhine seven; and Shan 33, totaling 135.

But in a 2012 analysis titled “135: Counting Races in Burma,” an observer named Gamanii put the figure at only 59 – Kachin six; Kayah five; Karen three; Chin 11; Bamar six; Mon one; Rakhine (Arakan) five; and Shan 22.

Many ethnic nationalities believe the 135 figure was inflated by a military regime influenced by occultism and should be drastically reduced. According to insider sources, General Ne Win’s arbitrary suggestion of his favorite number nine was the real reason his government devised 135 sub-categories, as one plus three plus five is nine, Ferguson wrote.

There are a number of inconsistencies in the categorization. First, the diversification of eight major ethnic groups is flawed in a number of places.

For example, the categorization puts some Burman ethnic groups such as the Danu, Taungyo and Intha among the Shan. It also lists Salon or Moken, a non-Tibeto-Burman Austronesian Malayo-Polynesian group, among the Burmans, according to Gamanii.

The second inconsistency is depicting clans or dialect differences as separate races or sub-ethnic groups, including the addition of a common denominator to a major ethnic group.

The third flaw is repeating the same group with a different name;  “Shan Gyi” and “Tai-Lon,” for example, are different names of the same ethnic group. “Shan Gale” and “Tai-Lay” are also the same.

Perhaps the highly inflated count of 53 sub-groups within the Chin ethnic group is worth emphasizing. Chin ethnic groups acknowledged by Chin political parties and scholars say the total should be only eight, as the list displays clans or dialects that are not separate races, tribes or sub-ethnic groups.

The de-ethnicization of the main groups into numerous newly created sub-ethnic identities only muddies the political waters more

The same case has been made for the Karen, with the government scheme putting the number of sub-groups at nine, but Karen leaders say there are only five.

Outlook and suggestions

It is now appropriate to tackle the controversial ethnic count in parliament and make it public, something that has been delayed time and again. But it would do the government good if it would consider the following points and come up with a believable and convincing solution so that the ethnic stakeholders involved would be ready to cooperate.

First, an official expansion of the sub-ethnic groups would dilute the main groups’ ethno-nationalism, with the consequent empowerment of the Burman or Bamar majority, which could put the minorities at a disadvantage politically.

Many of the main groups believe that recognition of an overly large number of sub-groups could lead to “alienating and breaking up ethnic national identity,” to borrow a phrase from Ferguson. In other words, the de-ethnicization of the main groups into numerous newly created sub-ethnic identities only muddies the political waters more, although this does not mean that certain sub-groups desiring to be evaluated as a separate ethnic identity should be blocked; for example, in addressing the ethno-nationalism upsurge among the Wa, Palaung, Pa-O and so on.

Second, the government should seek to depoliticize the ethnic categorization and show that it is mainly a statistical exercise for developmental purposes without political ambition.

And finally, it should consider how the left-out ethnic groups – intentionally or unintentionally – could be integrated to make the country all-inclusive and all-encompassing.

Sai Wansai

Sai Wansai is a columnist for Mizzima Weekly and regular contributor of the online Shan Herald Agency for News.

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