Debunking the 8 Burmese national races myth

I am currently reading the entertaining book Finding George Orwell in Burma by an American journalist who uses a pseudonym. However, while reading, I noticed a grave error in the author’s judgment of the 8 national races. She writes:

Thought the ethnic Burmese constitute some two-thirds of the population, seven other ethnic groups, within which there are scores of ethnically distinct tribes, make up the rest.

Another book, an English children’s book on Burma, describes the ethnic composition of Burma. It states the following:

The term “Shan” covers thirty-three ethnic subgroups in Shan state, including the Padaung*, Intha*, Danu* and Palaung*. Their language, T’ai, is closely related to the languages spoken in northern Thailand and Laos.

*The Padaung speak a Tibeto-Burman language while the Intha and Danu speak archaic dialects of Burmese. The Palaung, on the other hand speak a Mon-Khmer language.

The book also continues to group together the Mon, the Arakanese, and the Burmans:

Although the Mon and Rakhine share a common language and religion with the Bamar, they historically had independent kingdoms and fought many wars against the Bamar.

For those who don’t know, the Burmese government has cleanly subdivided Burmese people into eight “distinct” national ethnic races, namely:

  1. Kachin
  2. Kayah (Karenni)
  3. Kayin (Karen)
  4. Chin
  5. Mon
  6. Bamar (Burmans)
  7. Rakhine (Arakanese)
  8. Shan

Underneath each national race are various ethnic minorities, often improperly placed. Unless this “national ethnic race” organization is done geographically, there is no way that many of these supposed ethnic groups belong in the proper branches. For example, the Moken, (who speak an Austronesian language) ethnic group are casually placed under Bamar (Burmans speak a Sino-Tibetan language). Just under the Bamar national ethnic race are many fallacies. The government has created ethnic groups out of Burmese dialects. For example, Myeik dialect-speaking Burmans form an ethnic minority, as do Dawei and Yaw dialect-speaking Burmans. And the Bamar national race is not alone. The Shan national race consists of a medley of ethnic groups that speak a variety of languages from several language families (Sinitic, Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer and Tai-Kadai). Moreover, a variety of ethnic groups are entirely missing, including Rohingya and the Indians and Chinese (except for the Kokang Chinese, who are apparently Tai-Kadai-speaking Shans).

There is a very extensive article written on the New Era Journal that explains the possible reasoning (supposedly an importance of ‘8’ in Burmese numerology) and cleans up the entire list of the 135 ethnic groups. Unfortunately, since it is dated, I cannot find it.

It is terrible that these factual errors that wash down and inappropriately and officially misplace and omit ethnic groups is gaining ground in the literary world. I found it especially astonishing and disappointing to find it in a book written by someone who is very keen and knowledgeable in Burmese affairs. And how appropriate of a topic, George Orwell, who wrote in 1984: “Who controls the present controls the past.” If everything falls into place accordingly to the government’s intentions, the world will know of only eight ethnic groups, which is unfortunate indeed.

2 thoughts on “Debunking the 8 Burmese national races myth

  1. Editor says:

    Whenever writing about Burma, I always find myself stuck at the point at which I have to come up with that very generalized phrase about the state/ethnic divisions of the country. It’s kind of depressing to think that this phenomena you point out may have as much to do with laziness over semantics as anything else – at least with examples like that from Larkin’s book. To an outsider, or an editor, that phrase seems to make sense, and rewording it to clarify that there are in fact 7 political states encompassing multitudes of ethnicities probably seems pendantic. Of course, it still can and and should be done.

    I’ve never really connected it though to the junta’s own agenda. I must admit that recently when I was rewriting a project description, I was bit horrified to realize that I’d only originally referred to the 7 main ethnic minority groups, and had forgotten to include the Rohingya. Of course I knew about them, but somehow the ‘7 ethnic nationalities’ had imbedded itself in my brain, I think.

    Someone told me once that the Karen probably even outnumbered the Burmans, as so many were living in Burma proper and had intermarried but weren’t counted – they joked that if the KNU ever came to power, half of all Burma would suddenly become ethnic Karens.

  2. Reality says:

    Rohingyas are Bangladeshis. No Arabs came to Myanmar or stayed there, it is out of the way. Bengali liars who steal and thieve their way into different nations and then claim indigenous status. DNA tests will clearly wake the Banglas up to their true HINDU roots from Bengal.

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