By Katie May
Myanmar, a place of various landscapes and lively customs, is home to a profusion of indigenous tribes, each contributing to the country's unique cultural mosaic. These tribes, with their own rituals, dialects, and lives, provide an intriguing peek into Myanmar's past.
In this article, we will look at the distinctive qualities of some famous Myanmar tribes, giving light on their history, customs, and modern-day concerns.
How Many Tribes Are There In Myanmar?
Myanmar's population ranges from 51 to 55 million people, with approximately 68% belonging to the dominant ethnic group, the Bamar (or Burmans). The government recognizes a total of 135 ethnic groups, collectively speaking over 100 different dialects and languages.
Several ethnic groups, including the Indian and Chinese populations and the Rohingya Muslims, are not officially recognized by the Burmese government. These unofficial tribes, part of the Myanmar tribe list, are estimated to constitute about 10% of the country's population. The 135 official ethnic groups are identified as belonging to eight categories called “major national ethnic races,” which are:
Myanmar's classification of its eight primary ethnic races is unique because it is based on geography rather than language or genetic lineage, which has caused consternation among ethnologists. Except for the Mon, each race has its state, and within these states are many ethnic groupings that are closely connected. The complexities mirror broader debates over categorizing ethnicities and civilizations, which is a contentious issue. Myanmar's minority groups prefer the phrase 'ethnic nations,' expressing opposition to cultural absorption, sometimes known as 'Burmanization.'
Myanmar is home to a profusion of indigenous tribes
What Are The 8 Tribes In Myanmar?
1. Kachin Tribe
The Kachin tribe, situated in the northernmost regions of Myanmar, is distinguished by its distinct language and customs. With a profound connection to nature, the Kachin people rely on agriculture and traditional hunting for sustenance. Unfortunately, the persistent conflict in Kachin State has not only disrupted the lives of the people but also posed a significant threat to the preservation of their cultural heritage.
The Kachin tribe is distinguished by its distinct language and customs
2. Kayin Tribe
Kayin State, located in southern and southeastern Myanmar, is home to the Kayin or Karen people. They constitute around 7% of Myanmar's population and comprise several frequently geographically split sub-groups. The Karen, who reside primarily in mountain communities between Myanmar and Thailand, have a strong musical legacy, with women frequently playing the guitar in their daily lives.
For more than 60 years, the Karen, like numerous other ethnic groups, have been at odds with the Myanmar government, demanding independence. Their diversified population includes Buddhists, animists, and Christians, with many Christians fleeing persecution in neighboring Thailand.
3. Rakhine Tribe
The Rakhine people comprise 4 to 5% of Myanmar's population and are closely related to the Bamar but have embraced Indian cultural influences due to physical isolation by mountain ranges. They are known as the Arakanese and are primarily located in Rakhine State on Myanmar's western coast. Their ancestors may be traced back to the ancient Rakhine Kingdom, which was formed in 3,325 BC. Unfortunately, the region is defined by recurrent conflict, mainly between Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims, leading to instability and poverty in Rakhine State, where the Rohingya experience persecution and are denied recognition as citizens by the Burmese government.
4. Kayah Tribe
The Kayin and the Kayah, commonly known as the Karenni or Red Karen and part of the Myanmar tribe long neck tradition, share solid cultural links. The Kayan Lahwi or Padaung subgroup, renowned for their 'long-necked' ladies, resides in Kayah State, eastern Myanmar, and parts of neighboring Shan State and Thailand.
Women from this subgroup start wearing brass rings at the age of five, creating the illusion of elongated necks despite the coils applying pressure to the collarbone and rib cage. Despite their Christian heritage, the Kayah, who are also part of the Myanmar tribe dress tradition, have their own religion called Kan Khwan, dating back to the Bronze Age. This belief system involves ancient divination rituals such as reading chicken bones or breaking thatch grass for communal decision-making.
The Kayan Tribe is famous for their long necked ladies
5. Chin Tribe
The Chin is a heterogeneous ethnic group with 40 to 45 dialects that live in the remote mountains and deep woods of northwestern Myanmar, mainly in Chin State. The name "Chin" is most likely derived from the Chindwin Valley, which is near the borders of India and Bangladesh.
The Chin people, dressed in bright traditional clothes mainly in red, green, and black hues, display a complex cultural legacy that differs throughout tribes. During events such as Chin National Day, they dress in brightly colored, patterned sarongs with gold or silver waistbands, accessorized with a plethora of jewelry—rings, hairpins, necklaces, and bracelets. Their formal dress is adorned with bells, tassels, and shells, making it look eye-catching.
6. Mon Tribe
The Mon are a separate ethnic group found predominantly in Mon State and the southern border districts of Myanmar, with a significant presence in Thailand. They are credited with introducing Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia as early immigrants. The hintha, a legendary water bird, represents the Mon's cultural identity, and their rich legacy includes ancient instruments such as the gong chime, saung harp, and crocodile xylophone. They celebrate their cultural diversity via vivid festivals and traditional dances performed in their communities.
Hmong hill tribe children at Mon Cham
7. Bamar Tribe
The Bamar, who comprise two-thirds of the population, live predominantly in the Irrawaddy River basin, with roots dating back to the 7th century in Yunnan Province, China. Long sarongs, velvet sandals, and the usage of thanaka for sun protection characterize their culture.
Traditional clothing includes gold jewelry, silk scarves, turbans, and mandarin collared jackets, with rural regions maintaining traditional clothing despite the growing popularity of Western clothing. Rice, noodles, seafood, and salads are staples of Bamar cuisine. They practice Theravada Buddhism, speak Burmese, and partake in rites of passage such as shinbyu for males and nar tha for girls.
8. Shan Tribe
The Shan are Myanmar's second biggest ethnic group, accounting for more than 9% of the total population. This category includes a variety of ethnic minorities (about 33 in all), most of whom live in Myanmar's east and northeast.
Both men and married women wear turbans, with color playing an essential part in Shan tribes. At 14, young girls wear vividly colored gowns, eventually graduating to less colorful clothing as they age. Notably, women over the age of 40 embrace black attire for the rest of their lives, with older women frequently losing their distinct identities.
The Shan are Myanmar's second biggest ethnic group
How To Visit The Ethnic Groups Of Myanmar Responsibly?
When visiting Myanmar tribes and indigenous peoples, following a few ground rules is critical to avoid adding stress to their lives. Remember that we are fortunate to be able to visit this magnificent nation and that sustainable tourism can play a significant part in bringing to light regions of the globe that were previously hidden. Here's a brief checklist to ensure a pleasant journey:
- Learn a few phrases in the native tongue. We understand that there are a lot of languages spoken by the many tribes, but if you make an effort to ask someone at the start of your journey and write down the words for 'hello' and 'thank you,' you will reap the benefits.
- Visit towns and tribes only in small groups, and carry as few foreign and mainstream products as possible. It should go without saying that you should not leave any rubbish behind.
- Because the country is still emerging from a conservative time isolated from the rest of the world, wearing clothes that cover your knees and shoulders is appropriate to make the people you encounter feel at ease.
- Pay with your right hand and support your right arm lightly with your left hand.
- Always get permission before taking a photograph, especially of a person. They'll usually want to view the snapshot thereafter as well.
- Smile! This is the nation of smiles, and a grin will always put a smile on your face.
Myanmar's tribes are precious cultural variety reservoirs, presenting a tapestry of time-tested customs. As the country faces modernity and political complications, it is critical to acknowledge and maintain the tribes' legacy. Preserving the distinctive rituals and identities of Myanmar's tribes is not only a tribute to the country's history but also an essential step toward establishing a more inclusive and culturally rich society for future generations.
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