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Minorities under Threat, Diversity in Danger: Patterns of Systemic Discrimination in Southeast Myanmar

November 18th, 2020  •  Author:   Karen Human Rights Group  •  16 minute read
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Myanmar has often been cited as one of the most diverse countries in Asia. The government itself officially recognizes 135 taingyintha (translated in some cases as ‘ethnic groups’ or ‘indigenous races’) as nationals of Myanmar. But the government’s policies and actions tell a different story about the diversity of Myanmar and the government’s celebration of that diversity. The government has systematically excluded and marginalized those who cannot claim and prove Bamar (Burmese) ethnicity, and has long engaged in a widespread policy of Burmanisation that discounts and suppresses the culture, language, history, and ethnic expression of non-Bamar peoples. This report considers the experiences of ethnic minorities in Southeast Myanmar and the government’s on-going violation of their political and cultural rights.

Ethnicity and conflict have been deeply interlinked since Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Many ethnic leaders never accepted incorporation into the nation-state, while others preferred a federal system with full autonomy over their own areas. The failure of the newly established central government to meet the demands of ethnic groups resulted in uprisings against the government on the part of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) to secure increased autonomy or independence. Following a military coup in 1962, General Ne Win took power and launched a militarized campaign of Burmanisation that sought to create a strong, unified nation built on Bamar culture and identity. The new junta government combined heavily militarized operations to counter ethnic insurgency, like the ‘Four Cuts’ strategy that used attacks against civilians in an attempt to sever armed opposition from food, funds, intelligence, and recruits, with more culturally-oriented operations that forbade the teaching of ethnic languages and actively silenced alternative historical narratives. Such strategies led not simply to the widespread killing, torture and displacement of villagers, but also the corrosion of ethnic languages and cultures, and the distrust and stigmatisation of non-Bamar peoples. This association between violence and persecution, on the one hand, and cultural assimilation, on the other, remains strong in the mind and memory of villagers, and can be heard in many of the interviews conducted by KHRG.

It was also during this period that the idea of taingyintha took on a heavily politicised meaning in the service of a xenophobic, Burmese-centred state. Framed as a celebration of the country’s diversity, taingyintha was increasingly used to distinguish between ethnic groups in order to make claims that the country belonged to some but not to others.[1] The drafting of the 1982 Citizenship Law established taingyintha as the primary basis of citizenship. Thereafter, the right to claim citizenship became contingent on the ability to prove affiliation to taingyintha, which the subsequent military government, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC),[2] defined through a controversial list of 135 ethnic groups.[3] The term taingyintha came to be equated with the idea of indigenous ‘national races’, and a single political community, “united in struggle against common enemies inside and out.”[4]

This legislation has often been cited because of its blatant exclusion of many populations residing in Myanmar. The list of recognised ethnic groups itself has been widely criticised for its numerous inaccuracies, as well as its lack of inclusiveness – notably the non-inclusion of Rohingya – and its lack of scientific foundation.[5] But even in the government’s call for unity and solidarity among the ‘national races’, the idea of taingyintha has been used primarily to rally around a Burmese chauvinism that claims ethnic Burmese to be the most legitimate ‘national race’. As Jane Ferguson, anthropologist at the University of Sydney, has noted, while other ethnic groups might be recognized as indigenous, only ethnic Burmese are seen as exclusively indigenous in government discourse.[6] It has been argued that even the name change from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, which was framed as an attempt to create greater inclusivity of other taingyintha by removing the association of the nation with ethnic Burmese, was a mere ploy to quell ethnic insurgency. Since Burma is actually just a colloquial version of Myanmar, in reality it did not represent a shift in government logic.[7] Moreover, it was coupled with a wider program of Burmanisation that stripped away non-Bamar ethnic identifiers by changing the names of locations and people.

The partial transition to civilian rule in the 2010s brought some hope for change. In 2015, the Ethnic Rights Protection Law created Ministries of Ethnic Affairs at both the Union and Regional/State levels to protect “the fully [sic] enjoyment of the rights of ethnic groups” and develop and preserve “language, literature, fine art, culture, custom, and exploration and preservation of historical and ancient heritage of ethnic groups.”[8] Provisions were also made in the National Education Law to include the teaching of ethnic languages, culture and history in government schools. But the Ethnic Rights Protection Law still fails to encompass ethnic groups that are not included in the official list of national races, which leaves Rohingya and some groups of Chinese or Indian descent out of its scope of application. And because the 1982 Citizenship Law is also based on the concept of indigenous ‘national races’, many members of these unrecognised groups remain barred from citizenship and thus deprived of any rights.

Even ethnic groups recognised by the government continue to face difficulties in accessing citizenship, along with their full civil and cultural rights. Ultimately, the 2015 Ethnic Rights Protection Law was merely an attempt to create legislation that would ensure the ethnic rights already prescribed in the 2008 Constitution, like Article 348 stating that “the Union shall not discriminate any citizen” based on race, religion, status or culture, and Article 22 stating that “the Union shall assist to develop language, literature, fine arts and culture of the National races.”[9] Despite these progressive elements, the Constitution itself was the product of the earlier re-named military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, formerly SLORC),[10] and was adopted by force and fraud through the censoring of all opposition.[11] Although it did later open the door for democratic reform, it has been criticised as legitimising military power in a way that “relegates the people to a status from where they may never constitutionally depose the military.”[12] It has also been criticised as anti-democratic and anti-pluralist, reinforcing the power of the Bamar majority. As Nyi Nyi Kyaw points out, “For ethnic minorities, it is a Constitution of the majority, by the majority, for the majority.”[13]

Thus, inequalities and imbalances in the government’s validation of non-Bamar ethnic groups as citizens of Myanmar continue to be central to government policies and activities. These inequalities and imbalances have been nurtured through an assumed correlation between population size, political legitimacy and entitlements.[14] As such, state tools like the census have played an important role in supporting political agendas that bolster the power of certain groups over others. This correlation between population size and legitimacy even appears in the 2008 Constitution. The government had further divided the 135 taingyintha into eight major national groups (Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Bamar, Rakhine and Shan), and then only accorded those groups “of suitable population [size]”[15] the right to legislative representation. While some ethnic groups have been entirely excluded from the possibility of representation, the rest are forced into a numbers game that pits them against other ethnic minorities in order to have any political legitimacy. Because the accuracy of the census in representing ethnic diversity has been called into question, so has its potential or future use in making determinations not only about legislative representation but the allocation of rights, protection and services.

This report examines the effects of the government’s Burmanising policies by presenting the challenges villagers in Southeast Myanmar have faced in validating their citizenship and their rights. The first part of this report focuses on issues related to civil and political rights. It highlights the ways in which the necessity of proving one’s affiliation with one of the government-recognised ‘national races’ leaves many ethnic minorities undocumented despite their right to Myanmar citizenship. Because this problem concerns all who are considered non-Bamar, the perspectives of the different ethnic groups in KHRG’s operational area are presented here. Although primarily Karen, the diversity of the region cannot be ignored, and is revealing of the complex local dynamics that have been produced as a result of Burmanisation. A discussion of Muslims is included, and shows that although they are part of Karen communities, and may even have Karen parentage, the discriminations they face are clearly embedded in the wider, systemic exclusionary practices enacted against Muslims throughout Myanmar, even in more volatile areas.

The second part focuses on cultural rights, mostly from a Karen perspective. It demonstrates that, although ethnic populations in the Southeast now have more opportunities to celebrate their ethnic identity in the public space than before the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA),[16] government interference still prevents them from enjoying the same rights as their Burmese counterparts in this regard. In addition, an analysis of the measures taken to introduce the teaching of ethnic subjects in Myanmar schools demonstrates that much more needs to be done to make sure that all schoolchildren from ethnic minorities can learn about the language, culture and history of their ethnic group, and from their own ethnic perspective.


The cultural rights of ethnic minorities have increased with the establishment of the 2015 Ethnic Rights Protection Law and the 2014 National Education Law. But the on-going battle in local communities to secure access to non-Bamar-centred history and minority language and culture education in schools, as well as the right to celebrate their ethnic history, culture and traditions within their States and Regions, is a clear signal that there remain barriers to the application of these laws. We see as well that the Burmanisation policies of the Myanmar government extend across public space, and include not simply the renaming of locations but also the imposition of Burmese honorific titles and Burmese names that strip away key elements of the identity of ethnic minorities.

The protection of civil rights seems to be in even greater need given the scope of exclusions that continue to exist, and the persistent inability of those who are eligible for citizenship to officially validate that right by obtaining civil documents. Political and cultural rights are of course intimately intertwined, and thus need to be secured in tandem. Local leaders, ethnic organisations, and villagers themselves are adopting strategies to help protect the civil rights of ethnic minorities, but ultimately they are operating within a system that fails to truly recognize and implement principles of equality. In fact, despite references to equality, both the 2008 Constitution and the 2015 Ethnic Rights Protection Law leave open considerable room for inequality between the ethnic groups that the government has recognized as the ‘national people’ of Myanmar. By repeatedly stating that specific rights only exist to the extent that they do not go against national security, this legislation does as much or more to guarantee the protection of Bamar ethnic privilege and to justify policies of Burmanisation. It also perpetuates the complete exclusion of certain ethnic groups from any rights whatsoever.

Of course, a further issue is accounting for the vast ethnic and religious diversity of Myanmar. The government’s policies are framed in ways that give credence to the idea of ‘might makes right’, and that further marginalize ethnic groups that are small in number. The assumed connection between population size, political legitimacy, and entitlements needs to be challenged, not simply because of the power it provides to the Bamar majority, but because of the dynamics it creates between ethnic groups, and the problems that it presents for future peacebuilding. As Clarke et al. insist: “Ethnic nationality actors, whether they be civil society organisations, political parties, or EAOs, need to engage in reflection on the reality of diversity within their own group and the ways that ethnic identity remains fluid over time.”[17]

The KNU has claimed a commitment to protecting the rights of all communities living under KNU control. A senior member of the KNU Central Executive Committee states: “There are Karen communities living in the Delta, and they are Karen even if they don’t speak the Karen language. There are also many differences between different parts of the Karen community and we need to work to protect all of them. But we also want other groups in Burma to live without discrimination. So for us, when we say we want to establish federalism, it isn’t just because we think federalism will be good for the Karen—federalism will provide a path where we can make sure that everyone is treated equally.”[18] For that to happen, KNU leaders, as well as other ethnic leaders, need to make sure that all voices are being heard from all the way down at the village level up to the executive level. Pa’O, Shan, Mon, and Muslim villagers, along with everyone else who might not fit neatly into a single ethnic category, need to be included in decision-making at all levels so that federalism can indeed be a victory for all ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

All political stakeholders need to work in conjunction and adopt this kind of commitment. But first and foremost, the Myanmar government needs to revise its approach to ethnic rights and equality. This report highlights the importance of securing rights for all ethnic minorities because, if not, any advancement in rights for one group may potentially spark further internal (inter-ethnic) tension that could put those advancements at risk for all.


The following recommendations are addressed to the Myanmar Government. They are derived from the research, analysis, and key findings elaborated by KHRG in the present report.


  • Officially recognise all ethnic groups living in Myanmar as national races (taingyintha) to better reflect the ethnic diversity of the country;
  • Adopt a new citizenship law to replace the 1982 Citizenship Law. Make sure that the new law:
  1. conforms to international human rights standards and best practices regarding non-discrimination;
  2. abolishes distinctions between different types of citizens;
  3. grants citizenship to all persons born in Myanmar, regardless of their ethnic or religious background;
  4. removes existing restrictions on naturalisations;
  • Expand the narrow definition of ‘fundamental rights’ in the 2008 Constitution to legally protect the rights of all persons by replacing ‘citizens’ with ‘any persons’ in section 34 of the Constitution;
  • Ease the administrative requirements for the obtainment of a national ID card, taking into consideration the specific constraints encountered by members of ethnic and religious minorities living in rural and conflict-affected areas;
  • Facilitate the obtainment of legal documentation by providing support and more inclusive ethnic language provisions for administrative services in rural ethnic communities;
  • Take the necessary measures to allow members of all ethnic minorities in all States and Regions to use their ethnic names and honorific titles in legal documents and official settings, and to accurately represent the ethnic group they identify within their legal documents;
  • Remove any reference to the holder’s religious beliefs in legal documents;
  • Design and implement dedicated policies to tackle the systematic discrimination and marginalisation faced by Muslim communities all across the country.

Expression of ethnic and religious identity in the public sphere

  • Create a safe and enabling environment for ethnic minorities to hold their ceremonies and special days, including by amending the 2011 Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law to bring it in line with international standards;
  • Allow the use of the term ‘martyr’ for the celebration of Karen Martyrs’ Day; and drop all charges against activists subjected to criminal proceedings for organising Karen Martyrs’ Day ceremonies;
  • Uphold the constitutional right to freely profess and practice one’s religion, and expand this right to all persons residing in Myanmar, not just citizens;
  • Amend the Union Flag Law to explicitly allow for ethnic flags to be displayed alongside, and at the same level as, the Union flag in educational establishments or any other public building located in predominantly ethnic communities;
  • Take the necessary measures to recognise ethnic location names and protect their use in official settings; and adopt a multilingual policy for the display of names in all locations that have both an ethnic name and a Burmese name;
  • End the practice of erecting statues of or naming infrastructure projects after Bamar historical figures in predominantly ethnic areas; and leave decisions about the erecting of statues and the naming of infrastructure projects to the local population;
  • Refrain from using violence against peaceful ethnic demonstrators protesting against the installation of monuments associated with Bamar culture or history in their area;
  • Allow ethnic communities to pay tribute to their historical figures in the public space, including by erecting statues or setting up memorials without interference from security forces or government officials.

Language and education

  • In consultation with relevant ethnic stakeholders, revise the national history curriculum to shift from its Bamar-centred narratives to a representation of the national history that takes into account the experiences and diversity of the country’s ethnic communities;
  • Extend the development of local curricula to all States and Regions; and include representatives from all local ethnic groups in their development so the local educational offer matches the State’s or Region’s ethnic diversity;
  • Increase the time allocated for the teaching of ethnic subjects in government schools; and ensure, through appropriate monitoring, that all government schools located in ethnic communities consistently apply existing legal and policy provisions regarding the teaching of ethnic languages;
  • Expand the hiring of full-fledged ethnic teachers to promote the use of local languages as classroom languages in government schools located in ethnic communities;
  • Develop strategies to make sure that all schoolchildren across the country can benefit from the teaching of ethnic subjects relevant to their ethnic groups, notably in non-homogenous linguistic and ethnic communities;
  • Cooperate with and recognise the credentials issued by ethnic education providers.

The following recommendations are addressed to the Karen National Union.

Non-discrimination and inclusiveness

  • Design and implement dedicated policies to tackle the systematic discrimination and marginalisation faced by Muslim communities in Southeast Myanmar;
  • Promote the equal participation of villagers belonging to non-Karen ethnic minority groups in decision-making processes, and the full expression of all ethnic identities.

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