Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, the outcome of three mass migrations from Central Asia and Tibet. Myanmar’s 60,280,000-person population is divided into 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. These 135 ethnic groups are subsets of 8 major national ethnic races grouped by region as opposed to language or actual ethnicity.
Bamar are the ethnic majority in Myanmar. They make up 68% of the total population and dominate both the government and the military. Because they drastically outnumber every other ethnic race in the country, their language (Burmese) is the official language. The Bamar live in the central plains near the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers.
Shan are Myanmar’s second largest ethnic race, live in the river valleys of the Shan plateau and most survive on their farming abilities. While most members of this race are Theravada Buddhists, the Shan State is home to a number of ethnic groups that practice Christianity. It is also rich in natural resources, such as silver, lead, gold, tungsten, rubies, sapphires and teak.
Kayin or the Karen, are the third largest ethnic race in Myanmar and live in tribal mountain villages as well as along the Myanmar-Thailand border. The majority of Kayin are Theravada Buddhists, while approximately 15% are Christian.
Rakhine or Arakenese people live along Myanmar’s western coast. They are very closely related to the majority Bamar race differing only slightly in language. Though not a subset of the Rakhine people, the Muslim Ronhingya people of Indo-Aryan race reside in Rakhine state.
Mon are Myanmar’s earliest settlers of the Ayeyarwaddy delta, Mon state, and Karen state. The Mon were vital in shaping the culture of modern Myanmar. Their script became a part of the Burmese language, and, perhaps most importantly, they brought Theravada Buddhism to both Myanmar and Thailand.
Kachin can be found in northern Myanmar. They are subsistence farmers practicing rotational cultivation of hill rice. This race is known for its expertise in fighting, herbal healing and jungle survival. The entire race is said to share a common ancestor in Madai, a man they worshipped
as a god. Today, as a result of American missionaries, most of the Kachin people are Christians.
Kayah live in the Karenni state, which was independent until the British colonization of Myanmar in 1886. The Karenni, or the Kayah, are a subset of the Kayin people. The Kayah themselves include nine different ethnic subsets. One subset of the Kayah, the Padaung tribe living on the Myanmar-Thailand border, are famous for the neck rings worn by the women of this group.
Chin people inhabit both the Chin and Rakhine state on the Myanmar-India border. They arrived in Myanmar late in the 9th century A.D. Chin villages were once self-governed municipalities run by chiefs and councils of elders. Missionaries managed to convert about 80% of these people to Christianity, but many still practice traditional tribal beliefs and Theravada Buddhism.
Many unrecognized ethnic groups still exist. The Burmese Chinese and the Panthay are two of these groups. Together they make up 3% of Myanmar’s population while Burmese Indians make up 2%.