Myanmar Races

Major Races | Myanmar Women


The Burma, also known as Burman make up the majority of the population (65%) and not surprisingly, it is they who rule the country. Thought to have originally migrated from the Himalayas, the Bamar ruled much of what is now Myanmar by the 11th century. When the British conquered Myanmar in the 19th century, it was the Bamar who relinquished the most. Many ancient court customs and arts were lost as the Bamar monarchy was abolished.
Devout Theravada Buddhists, the Bamar (which includes the top general who runs the country down to the lowliest trishaw driver) believe that being Buddhist is a key aspect of being Bamar. The Burmese media reports daily on the merit-making of top government officials at the country’s principal Buddhist places of worship. Through the government’s efforts at nation-building, the Bamar language (Burmese) has also been established as the language of instruction in schools throughout Myanmar. Thus most non-Bamar speak Burmese as second language.


The Mon were one of the earliest inhabitants of Myanmar and their rule stretched into what is now Thailand. As happened with the Cham in Vietnam and Phuan in Laos, the Mon were gradual conquered by neighboring Kingdoms and their influence waned until they were practically unknown outside the region. As in Thailand, which also has a Mon minority, the Mon have almost completely assimilated with the majority and are in many ways indistinguishable from the Bamar. In the ancient past, Mon Buddhist sites, which include the Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda, were appropriated by the Bamar, and Mon tastes in art and architecture were adopted into Bamar culture. Today the Mon make up just over two percent of the population of Myanmar, but Mon art and culture have influenced that of the Bamar quite thoroughly, as a trip to the Mon Cultural Museum in Mawlamyaing (the capital of the Mon state) will attest.


The Shan called themselves Tai. Shan is actually a Bamar word derived from the word Siam. This is significant as the Shan are related ethnically, culturally and linguistically to Tai peoples in neighboring Thailand, Laos and China’s Yunnan province. In fact, if you’ve spent some time in northern Thailand or Laos and learned some of the respective languages, you’ll find you can have basic conversation with the Shan especially in eastern Shan State on the border of northern Thailand. The Shan are also Theravada Buddhists and at one time they fought the Bamar for the control of Myanmar. Today they make up about 10% of the population.
Traditionally the Shan wore baggy trousers and floppy, wide brimmed sun hats, and the men were known for their faith in talismanic tattoos. Nowadays Shan town dwellers commonly dress in the Bamar longyi (sarong) and are mostly indistinguishable from the Bamar, except during festival occasions when they proudly wear their ethnic costumes.
In former times the Shan were ruled by local lords or chieftains called Sao Pha or Sky Lords. This word was later corrupted by the Bamar to Sawbwa.
The Shan are said to be very fond of gambling and festivals and Shan women are admired throughout Myanmar for their beauty and light complexions.
The Shan are said to be very fond of gambling and festivals and Shan women are admired throughout Myanmar for their beauty and light complexions.


The Kachin (who called themselves “Jingpaw”) are another ethnicity that was heavily missionised by Christian groups during British Colonial times. The Baptists seemed to have been the most successful, with the Catholics following close behind. As much of the Kachin state lies above the tropic of Cancer, the climate is more extreme-stifling hot in the summer month and downright cold in the winner-and the Kachin seen to have abandoned their traditional dress for Western clothes that can be easily change to suit the seasons.
About the only vestige of Kachin dress that foreign visitors are likely to note is men’s longyi of indigo, green and deep-purple plaid. However, during festive occasions Kachin dress is quite impressive. Women sport finely woven wool skirts decorated with zigzag or diamond patterns and dark blouses are festooned with hammered silver medallions and tassels. This exotic blouses are admire by the Bamar and until fairly recently it was not uncommon for photo studios in Bamar-majority towns as far south as Pyay to keep a few Kachin blouses on hand so that Bamar women could wear them while posing for photographs.


More than a dozen ethnic groups inhabit Kayah State, a rugged mountain region in eastern Myanmar. The Kayah people, numbering just over 150,000 comprise the largest ethnic group in the region.
Their brightly-colored head-cloths or shawls gave the territory its former name of Karenni or Red Karen. There are four major linguistic branches of the Kayah people which includes the Pwo, Sgaw, Pa-O and ??????????. Although spirit worship is still practiced, most Kayahs converted to Christianity last century.
The most important annual festival is the Kutobo festival, held sometime between March and May.


Kayin legends refer to a “river of running sand” which ancestors reputedly crossed. Many Kayins think this refer to the Gobi Desert, although they have lived in Myanmar for centuries.
The Kayin were most probably among the earliest inhabitants to descend from China down the Ayeyarwaddy, Sittaung and Thanlwin Rivers into Myanmar. Over the centuries they retreated into the mountains of the South-East and the forests of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta.
The Kayins constitute the biggest ethnic population in Myanmar after the Bamars and Shans. The term Kayin usually refers to the major sub-groups of the Pwo and Sagaw as well as the Bwe speakers around Taungoo.
Myanmar is home to approximately 4 million Kayins, half of whom live in the Delta region and the rest in the Thai borderlands. Most are Buddhist, about 20 percent are Christian and some in the eastern mountains regions are still animists.


The Chin inhabit the western mountainous region which borders on India. In the past the Chin, as with most highland dwellers, led labor intensive lives and their relatively simple traditional dress reflected this. Men wore loincloths in the warmer months and draped blankets over themselves when the weather turned cool. The women wore a poncho like garment woven with intricate geometric patterns. These garments and Chin blankets are highly sought after by textile collectors today.
The most extraordinary Chin fashion of old was the custom of tattooing women’s faces. Chin facial tattoos cover the whole face starting near the bridge of the nose and radiate out in a pattern of dark lines that resemble a spider’s web. Even the eye lids were tattooed. The tattooing was traditionally done to girls once they reached the age of 12 or 13. The practice died out after World War 2, but in many Chin villages one can see a few tattooed grannies going about their daily chores. Legend has it that this practice was initiated to keep young Chin maidens from being coveted by Rakhing princes whose kingdoms bordered the southern Chin hills.


The Rakhaing (formerly called Arakanese), who make up about four percent of the population of Myanmar, are principally adherents of Buddhism. They live in a region in the west of Myanmar the northern part of which shares a border with Bangladesh. Its ancient capital was centered in northern Rakhaing at Mrauk-U. Their language is akin to Bamar but, due to the geographical location, they have absorbed a fair a mount of culture from the Indian subcontinent. In the eyes of most Bamar, the Rakhaing are a Creole race being a mixture of Bamar and Indian. This perception is strongly resented by Buddhist Rakhaing people
The Rakhaing state also has a minority population of Muslim Rakhaing, who refer to themselves as Rohingya.The Rakhaing are skilled weavers and are known in Myanmar for their eye-catching and intricately patterned longyis.
Other than the ruins at Mrauk-U, the most visible vestige of Rakhaing’s illustrious past is the Mahamuni Buddha image in Mandalay which was plundered by the Bamar from its shrine near Mrauk-U in 1784.