Shan is Burma’s largest ethnic nationality group. According to most estimates ethnic Shan make up 9% of Burma’s population and about half of the population in the Shan State. Some smaller Shan communities can also be found in parts of Mandalay Division, Kachin State, Karen State, and in adjacent regions of China and Thailand. The Shan State is a mountainous area covering 160,000 square kilometres in the northeastern part of the country. The state is rich in natural resources such as gems, minerals and teakwood (SHRF & SWAN, 2012). Other ethnic groups inhabiting the Shan State include Akha, Kachin, Lahu, Palaung, Pa’o and Wa, most of whom are hill-dwellers (e.g. Smith, 1994).

Children in Shan village

Shan village children near Hsipaw, Shan state. (Photo: Liz Bordo)

The Shan are ethnically linked to the Thai, and speak a similar language. Shan language can be divided into three groups; eastern Shan dialect is closer to northern Thai dialect, the southern Shan dialect has borrowed some Burmese words, and the northern Shan dialect has Chinese influences (Thein Lwin, 2011). Although there are different forms of written languages, Lik-Tai is mostly used as a written form of Shan. In most cases the Shan speaking different dialects can understand each other.

Although the vast majority of Shan are Theravada Buddhist, there are also some Shan Christians. Many Shan celebrations follow the Buddhist calendar, the most important celebrations including Thingyan (the Water Festival), Full Moon Festival, Shan New Year in November, and Shan National Day on February 7. Similarly to the Burman and Mon, most Shan boys also ordain as monks for a short period of time. Monks are also commonly asked for guidance and leadership in Shan communities.

According to SHRF & SWAN (2012), the traditional rural Shan society is male-dominated and women play no role in decision-making at the community level: Men occupy all leading positions in the public sphere, serving as village chiefs and members of village and temple committees. In family life, men are regarded as the heads of the household, as illustrated by an old Shan proverb: “nang ying ker lii pho, to sat ker lii cao” (a woman respects her husband; an animal respects its master).

A large number of the population in the Shan State lives below the poverty line, and education is lacking especially in rural areas of the state. Many Shan also feel that educational institutions discriminate against the Shan as well as other ethnic nationalities (Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010). Most teachers are Burman and the medium of instruction is Burmese.

Publishing information in languages other than Burmese has been difficult and can result in arrests.  As Shan is not taught in government-sponsored schools, Shan Buddhist monasteries are the main source of the promotion and preservation of Shan language and culture in the Shan State. Shan opposition groups also run schools on the Thailand-Burma border, where the Shan language is taught and used as the medium of instruction. Most of these schools have decided to omit Burmese language from their curriculum. Despite the dominance of the Burmese language throughout most of the state, there are also many Shan in rural ethnic villages who do not speak the Burmese language.

Health facilities in the Shan State are poor and much of the business in the state is focused on cross-border trade and sex industry (Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010). HIV/AIDS and serious drug problems are prevalent in the state. Most Shan earn their living as farmers, growing rice, tea, mangoes, avocadoes, and other vegetables. Many have however, turned to farming opium which has become a substantial problem in the state. In 2012, Shan State accounted for no less than 88% of opium production in Burma (UNODC, 2012). In 2013, the number had climbed to 92% (UNODC, 2013).

Tea leaves

Villagers grow tea on the mountainside in Palaung village, Shan State. Once harvest, tea leaves are dried and largely exported to China. (Photo: Liz Bordo)

Motorbike loaded with food

A motorbike loaded with foodstuffs at the morning market in Hsipaw, Shan State. (Photo: Liz Bordo)

Most Shan people in the south trade with Thailand and Shan people in the north with China. Ethnic Chinese are increasingly migrating to the Shan State where they have set up major businesses and bought much of the traditional land. This has resulted in high prices throughout much of the state and the inability of many Shan to afford common amenities. Brain drain is another important issue affecting the Shan as many young educated Shan leave the state in search of better work opportunities (Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010).

Across the centuries the Shan State has witnessed a volatile history both of armed conflict and of cultural interchange (Smith, 1994). The Shan State used to be divided into over 30 principalities, which were ruled by their own hereditary chieftains. Even after the British colonisation, the Shan were allowed to continue self-rule. The Shan signed the Panglong agreement in 1947, in which they agreed to join the Union of Burma on the condition of being granted the right to secede after 10 years. While this condition was stipulated in the constitution, it was never honoured.

Efforts by Shan and other ethnic leaders to negotiate with the Burmese government for more equitable rights for their people ended abruptly with the military coup of 1962, when the Burmese army, led by General Ne Win, seized power. An official government policy of Burmanisation and open discrimination against ethnic nationalities followed and many human rights violations, especially in ethnic border areas including the Shan State, became systemised under the Ne Win regime. The Shan State Army (SSA) was formed in the 1964 and remains active today.

The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) was formed during the 1990 elections, in which it won the second highest number of seats, second only to NLD (e.g. AIPMC, 2005). After the Burmese military government refused to honour the election results and to hand over power, members of the SNLD suffered harassment much in the same way as other prominent political opposition party members.

Various ethnic resistance movements have operated in the Shan State over the past 40 years. The Burmese military has responded by steadily building up their military presence in the area and by carrying out large-scale counter-insurgency campaigns targeting civilians. Especially in the central and southern part of the state, local populations have suffered from horrendous human rights violations perpetrated by the Burma Army (see e.g. SHRF & SWAN, 2012).

Burmese army campaigns have involved large-scale forced relocation of villages to strategic sites near army bases where civilians can be closely guarded. According to SHRF & SWAN (2012), the largest and most intensive forced relocation program was carried out in 1996-1997 in central Shan State where more than 300,000 people from over 1,400 villages were forced out of their homes into relocation sites. Most of these villagers are still not allowed to return home, and over half are estimated to have fled as refugees to Thailand (SHRF & SWAN, 2012).

It is estimated that Burmese army oppression, forcible relocations, and persecution have driven an estimated 300,000 Shan across the Thailand-Burma border. Shan refugees in Thailand are particularly vulnerable as they are not recognised by the Thai government and have not been allowed to set up camps in Thailand’s soil. According to TBC (2013c), over 125,000 remain internally displaced in the state, all in desperate need of basic supplies such as water, food, and medicine.

SSA military base camp

Shan State Army – South (SSA-S) military base camp in Loi Kaw Wan, Shan State. (Photo: Sai Kwan)

While the Shan State Army (SSA) signed a union-level ceasefire with the Burmese army on May 19, 2012, fighting has broken out between SSA and government troops a number of times since the ceasefire was signed. The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) reported over 30 violations of their ceasefire agreement by the Burmese military during 2012, with skirmishes continuing into 2013 (see TBC, 2013, p. 14). Clashes between Burma army and SSA caused about 1000 locals to flee their villages in northern Shan State during April 2013 (Shan Herald, April, 2013). On April 15, 2013, Burma Army shelled two villages in the same area, causing two injuries and two houses burnt down (KP, April, 2013). On May 9, Burma Army reportedly launched an attack against Shan bases on the China-Burma border, resulting in over 800 local people fleeing across the border to China (KP, May, 2013). Increased militarisation and large-scale attacks by the Burma Army have continued in 2014, as reported by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (see e.g. SHRF statements in March, June, and July, 2014).

The clashes have also been accompanied by grave human rights violations in ceasefire areas, particularly in northern Shan State where local organisations such as Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), Palaung Women’s Organisation (PWO) and Ta’ang Student and Youth Organisation (TSYO) have reported cases of rape, killing, portering and other forced labour, arbitrary arrest and torture as well as looting and destroying property (see SHRF, April, 2013, December, 2013, March, 2014, June, 2014; PWO & TSYO, May, 2013, respectively).

In a survey research conducted in Burma in 2009 (Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010), all Shan interviewees cited good relationships between the Shan and other ethnics, with the exception of the Burman who were perceived as being different from ethnic nationality groups. The Burman were viewed negatively due to the volatile history and Burmanisation. Similarly to the Karen and the Arakanese, the Shan perceived the Burman as being one and the same with the Burmese military. Some divisions were also cited to exist between the northern and southern Shan people.

The Shan interviewees also expressed a strong desire for equality among the different groups in Burma (Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010). Many Shan NGO workers expressed that the international community does not play a role in Burma and that in order to work effectively the international community should learn more about the ethnic groups in Burma and create more dialogue between international actors and ethnic groups. Should the international community succeed in the mentioned issues some Shan suggest that they could aid Burma through education.

Akha and Shan villages

Village in Loi Kaw Wan, Shan State. The nearby area has Lahu, Akha and Shan villages, all protected by the SSA-S. Loi Kaw Wan has about 3,000 internally displaced persons and 65 orphaned children. (Photo: Sai Kwan)

Updated October 17, 2014

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