The Union of Myanmar is one of the most racially diverse countries on the planet. Home to roughly 55 million people with an average density of about 70 people per square kilometre, Myanmar is a cultural melting pot with outside influences from neighbouring countries of India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. The influence of these countries, combined with local customs and traditions, have formed the culture of the Burmese people that has stood the test of time – lasting for over 2000 years.
Throughout time, Most Burmese lived off the land. Many in Myanmar work on farms, and even those in Yangon would likely have relatives and family members who work on farms away from the city. Unlike many other developing nations around the world, Myanmar does not have many bustling cities, with the only major built up region being the country’s largest city, Yangon, with a population of roughly four million.
The Union of Myanmar is made up of 135 races, with the most prominent of the minority races being Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Bamar, Rakhine and Shan. The primary religion is Buddhism, however a significant number of Burmese worship Christianity and Islam along with local beliefs that have been followed for centuries.
The following is a list of some of the most prominent ethnic groups.
The Kachin people of Myanmar live in the northernmost reaches of the country, close to the borders of Tibet and India. They originally migrated from Yunnan province in China , and it is believed that the Kachin were the last of the Tibetan-Burman races to make their way into the country. Famous for their weaving skills, the Kachin people’s language is based on the Roman alphabet and the race was heavily influenced by Christian missionaries during the British colonial times.
Over a dozen ethnic groups live in this rugged mountainous region of eastern Myanmar. This ethnic group is also known as Karenni or Red Karen, but the population of the Kayah People totals nearly 150,000, and is the largest ethnic group in state of Kayah. In modern history, the Kayah people were often the targets of missionaries who intended to convert the people to Christianity. While many of the Kayah did convert to Christianity, they still worship spirits which they have done so for thousands of years.
It is believed that the Kayin people migrated from the Gobi Desert to Burma centuries ago. The Kayin race is diverse and is divided into various subgroups. Most of the Kayins were Animists and the target of Christian missionaries during the rule of the British. Many converted, while a large number also converted to Buddhism. It is believed that the Kayin people were one of the earliest groups to settle in the region, having descended from China along the Ayewaddy and Than Lwin Rivers. The Kayins live in mostly border regions along Thailand and in the north towards the Chinese border.
The Chins, also known as Zomi, are a race of Tibeto-Burman people who live in the mountainous regions in the north-west of the country. Many of the Chin villages are practically cut off to the outside world and even other communities, as the harshness of the landscapes makes communication difficult. The Chins are divided into roughly 40 subgroups which are easily recognised by their unique facial tattoos and colourful costumes.
The Mon group of people are native inhabitants of Southeast Asia, closely related to the Khmer people of Cambodia. The Mon inhabits regions from the north of Vietnam, through Laos, Cambodia, northern Thailand and considered to be one of the earliest of modern-day groups to move into Myanmar. The Mon brought the Buddhism with them alongside the unique architecture and art. Many believe Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was modelled on Mon designs. A lot of the Mon traditions and cultures still are in existence today and are best seen in Mon State, home to the incredible Kyaikhtyo Pagoda.
The Bamar People originate from the upper and central plains of the country and are descendants of the Tibeto-Burmans who migrated south from China and India. They set up their capital as Bagan on the Ayeyarwaddy River in around 1044 and 1287 AD, later to become the dominant ethnic groups in the country with a population of 30 million. The rich culture of the Bamar people is ingrained with Buddhism and shows strong influences of Indian and Chinese cultures.
The Rakhine ethnic group populate the mountainous regions of Rakhine State, just a stone’s throw from the border with India. Due to the close proximity with India, the Rakhine have built an incredible strong trade link with India and the sub-continent. Throughout the long history of Burma, Rakhine has mostly had independence, until 1784, and speak a dialect of Burmese. The culture and dress of the Rakhine people also resembles that of the Bamar.
The Shan are the second most prominent ethnic group in Myanmar and occupy the regions in and around Shan State. Shan State is the largest in the country with a population of more than 4 million citizens, and provides a unique mix of 35 races and tribes. It is believed that the Shan people migrated south from the Yunnan province of China, while also inhabiting regions of northern Thailand and Laos.