• Indigenous peoples in Myanmar

    Indigenous peoples in Myanmar

    Myanmar’s population encompasses over 100 different ethnic groups. Myanmar has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but the country’s indigenous peoples are still facing a number of challenges, among others in relation to armed conflict, human rights violations and land rights.

The Indigenous World 2023: Myanmar

There is no accurate information on the number of Indigenous Peoples in Myanmar, partly due to a lack of understanding in the country of the internationally-recognised concept of Indigenous Peoples. The government claims that all citizens of Myanmar are “Indigenous” (taing-yin-tha) and, on that basis, dismisses the applicability of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to Myanmar. Indigenous Peoples' rights activists use the Burmese language term hta-nay-tain- yin-tha to describe Indigenous Peoples, based on international principles that use the criteria of non-dominance in the national context, historical continuity, ancestral territories and self-identification.[1]

The government recognises eight ethnic groups as national races or taung-yin-tha: Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Mon, Burman, Arakan and Shan. According to the 1982 Citizenship Law, ethnic groups who have been present in the current geographical area of Myanmar since before 1823 (the start of the first British annexation) are considered taung-yin-tha.[2] However, there are a number of ethnic groups that are considered or see themselves as Indigenous Peoples, such as the Naga, who would not identify with any of those groups.

In accordance with the 2008 Constitution,[3] Myanmar/Burma is divided into seven States, seven Regions, and one Union Territory. These political boundaries are, to some extent, organised according to ethnic demographics. The seven states are named after seven large ethnic groups namely, Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Kayin (Karen), Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states. Although the Bamar (Burmese) do not have a specifically named state, they are the dominant ethnic group living in the country, predominantly in six of the seven Regions (Sagaing, Magwe, Mandalay, Yangon, Ayerywaddy, and Bago) and the Union Territory of Nay Pyi Taw. There are also five self-administered areas and one self-administered Region that form part of Regions or States, each named after the ethnic group that forms the majority in the area (Naga, Danu, Pa-O, Paluang, and Kokang and the Wa Self-Administered Division).

On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw) attempted a coup d’état by deposing the elected government, the National League for Democracy (NLD), detaining Aung San Su Kyi and members of both Union and State-level Parliaments. The military junta failed to consolidate power after the attempted coup due to resistance from the Myanmar people. Since then, large parts of Myanmar have descended into civil war as a revolution has been taking place, shaped by growing allegiances between elected lawmakers, Ethnic Revolutionary Organisations, strike and protest leaders, and civil society organisations. At the centre of this alliance is the National Unity Government (NUG) and the broader, more representative, National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), an inclusive body that includes a range of revolutionary organisations that hold territory and act in alliance with the NUG. Most foreign governments and international institutions have so far been reluctant to formally recognise either the junta or the NUG as the government of Myanmar. Governments and other officials do engage with both entities in international fora.

Myanmar voted in favour of the UNDRIP, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, but has not signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and nor has it ratified ILO Convention No. 169. It is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) but voted against a bill to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under the rationale that it was a threat to national sovereignty. In 2017, Myanmar became the 165th State Party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).


Scorched earth campaign

By the end of 2022, the tally of documented pro-democracy activists and other civilians killed via military crackdowns had reached a total of 2,689, although the real number is likely much higher. There remains the ongoing detention of over 13,000 people.[4] Political prisoners include opinion leaders, members of civil society, key political figures, health workers, and civil servants formerly involved in the administration of elections.

In July, four democracy activists were executed by Myanmar's military in what was believed to be the first use of capital punishment in decades. The four – including activist Ko Jimmy and lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw – were accused of committing “acts of terror”. They were sentenced to death in a closed-door trial.[5]

The humanitarian situation continues to be dominated by hostilities and increasing economic stress for millions of people. Frequent, indiscriminate attacks, including airstrikes and artillery fire in civilian areas, have caused casualties and spread fear. Displacement also continues to rise despite some reported returns. According to the latest UN figures, the estimated number of new internally displaced persons (IDPs) since the military takeover has passed 1.1 million, bringing the total number of IDPs across the country to over 1.5 million.[6] While Indigenous Peoples’ territories continue to be some of the worst affected conflict areas, the junta has also actively targeted the Burmese heartland in areas such as Magway and Sagaing.

Despite the United Nation’s (UN) Special Envoy, Noeleen Heyzer, calling on coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on 17 August to cease air and artillery strikes on civilian targets and the torching of homes, the State Administration Council (SAC) intensified its scorched earth campaign.[7] In November, it was estimated that 38,383 houses in 12 states and regions had been razed.[8] Later in December, Myanmar Junta forces torched 19 villages in Depayin Township, destroying 50 % of houses and leaving 10,000 people homeless. The attack, which began on 1 December, resulted in the razing of 1,700 buildings, including religious infrastructure.[9]

The Myanmar Junta also intensified the use of its air force to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amnesty International documented 16 unlawful air attacks between March 2021 and August 2022 in Kayah, Kayin and Chin states, as well as in Sagaing Region.[10] The attacks killed at least 15 civilians and injured some 36 more. Aerial bombardments have also destroyed homes, religious buildings, schools, medical facilities and a camp for displaced persons. Recent junta aerial attacks include indiscriminate air strikes against a concert held at a Kachin Independence Army base in Kachin State, killing more than 80 people, and against a school in Let Yet Kone village, Sagaing Region, killing at least 12 people.[11]


Conservation challenges

Conservation efforts undertaken by Indigenous communities across Myanmar have been in decline since the coup. This is in part due to inherent security risks due to the ongoing conflict,[12] large amounts of displacement and the increasingly aggressive natural resource extraction currently being carried out by the SAC and private entities operating as opportunists during the political crisis. Deprived of revenue, the military junta has increasingly relied on revenue from natural resources to support their operations and their ongoing campaign to retain power.[13]

Despite ongoing sanctions, since the coup the junta has reportedly auctioned more than USD 8 million in teak and exported more than USD 190 million in timber products. Companies in the EU, the US, UK, Canada, and Switzerland have all reportedly continued to import timber from Myanmar since their sanctions came into force in 2021.[14] Meanwhile, civilian populations left without access to livelihoods have resorted to working at mining sites that are stripping mountainsides and riverbanks of trees.[15] Furthermore, at least half of the more than 1 million people internally displaced by the conflict have sought refuge in Myanmar’s forested areas, creating new pressures on already heavily impacted ecosystems.

Three recent examples cited in reports include the proliferation of gold mining in Kachin State, driven by crony companies that have polluted streams and rivers, destroyed cultural heritage sites, and eroded and damaged agricultural lands;[16] large-scale mining sights in Eastern Shan State, which have impacted surrounding agricultural lands; and tin and gold mines in Tanintharyi Region led by state and ethnic armed groups, damaging local riverine ecosystems upon which communities depend for their livelihoods.[17]

Speaking at a press conference in the lead up to UNFCCC COP 27, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said that with security risks and travel restrictions blocking a comprehensive assessment, the full extent of environmental degradation and destruction following the military takeover was “hard to imagine”.[18]


Ethnic governance

As the junta’s public administration system continued to collapse in large parts of the country, resistance organisations continued to strengthen governance institutions to fill the void. In Myanmar’s ethnic areas, ethnic resistance organisations (EROs) and newly formed local coalition “councils”, including elected politicians, EROs, civil society organisations (CSOs) and striking civil servants, are the primary actors leading these efforts. The councils aim to supplant the SAC and serve as the main State-based bodies for social and political affairs in their regions, a nascent implementation of federalism at the state level.

In some areas, such as Kachin, Karen, Chin and Karenni states, the SAC administration is largely inactive. In areas such as Mon State, Bago Region and Tanintharyi Region, EROs and people’s defence forces (PDFs) closely aligned with the anti-coup federal democracy movement also consolidated control throughout 2022.[19] Meanwhile, significant parts of Rakhine and Shan states remain under the control of well-established EROs such as the Arakan Army (AA), which have kept themselves distanced from the anti-coup, pro-democracy movement but stand in opposition to centralised rule by the SAC.


Peace talks?

In early 2022, the military junta reached out to 17 of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups, including seven that had been unwilling to sign the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the military, and invited them to preliminary peace talks to mark the 75th Union Day celebrations. So-called “terrorist” organisations, meaning Peoples Defence Forces and the National Unity Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (NUG) were excluded from the invitation.[20]

The Karen National Union (KNU), Chin National Front (CNF), Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) all publicly rejected the approach.[21]

However, in September peace talks were held between 10 ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the junta. Among the signatories of the 2015 NCA were the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA); the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC); the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation (PNLO); the New Mon State Party (NMSP); the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP); the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS); and the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU). Non-signatories of the NCA that joined the peace talks were the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP).[22]

The talks were widely regarded as standard divide-and-rule tactics initiated by the SAC. The rationale for engagement on the part of these resistance elements was assumed to be the possibility of negotiating self-administered zones, easing military tensions, providing input to the formation of a federal democratic union, either by amending the Military-drafted 2008 Constitution or re-writing it and, finally, pursuing the development of their respective regions.[23]

Whatever the rationale behind the engagement, the actions were condemned by civil society organisations who urged attendees to refrain due to the fact it was a sham dialogue intended to divide and rule over the resistance groups, namely the Spring revolution forces, the people and ethnic armed organisations.[24]



In November 2022, the SAC announced an amendment to the National Education Law that reneges on reforms that were to permit ethnic languages to be used alongside the Burmese language as the language of instruction in the classroom. Section (43), sub-section (b) of the amended Law states that all classes must now be taught only in the Burmese language.[25] While at the time of writing the reaction of the NCA signatories to the amendment was not known, the amendment goes contrary to the spirit of the NCA with its commitment to support “efforts to preserve and promote ethnic culture, language, and literature”.[26]

Meanwhile teachers operating under the NUG’s attempts to conduct parallel education systems during 2022 were increasingly a target of violence. U Saw Tun Moe, a teacher at a civilian NUG-funded school in Thit Nyi Naung village in southern Pauk Township, Magwe Region, was abducted by junta troops on Sunday 16 October. His body was found the next day, decapitated and leaning against the gate of a school in the nearby village of Taung Myint. His head was impaled on a spike on the school gate above his body, and three of his fingers had been cut off.[27] This followed the arrest of at least 30 teachers working for or suspected of being affiliated with a private online school with ties to the NUG in July.[28]


Legal developments

Aside from the education sector, other policy developments have been developed that will further shrink civic space as the SAC looks to consolidate authoritarian control. The SAC has pursued a draconian Cyber Security Bill which, on the face of it, would outlaw virtual private networks (VPNs), throttle access to social media networks, and force internet companies to hand over user data to the military, as well as prosecute critics and representatives of non-complying companies.[29]

In October, an Organisation Registration Law was announced that replaced the progressive 2014 Associations Registration Law whereby registration was voluntary and there were no prohibitions or punishments, largely seen as fostering the growth of Myanmar’s domestic civil society and facilitating cooperation with the government. Under the new law, however, running an unregistered organisation can now result in a prison term of up to three years, while members of an unregistered NGO can be fined up to 500,000 MMK (approx. 220 euro) or face a jail sentence of up to two years. Organisations were given a deadline of 60 days to register under the new legislation.[30] The law, aimed specifically at INGOs and NGOs, requires recommendations via the Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations and the Ministry of Immigration and Manpower, who submit their opinion to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As well as yearly auditing, registration and gaining approval for activities from local SAC administrations in any given area, severe penalties are incurred for directly or indirectly contacting or supporting organisations or individuals who have taken up arms against the State, punishable by five years in prison or 5,000,000 MMK (approx. 2,100 euro) or both.[31]

Given the ongoing implementation of the four-cuts doctrine[32] across the country, local civil society and grassroots organisations have played a vital and sometimes life-threatening role in the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need, particularly food, health care, shelter, safe drinking water, and sanitation facilities, and they are operating largely in contested areas and thus willingly or unwillingly interacting with resistance organisations. A spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Myanmar team was quoted as saying that this latest legal development will “diminish what operational space is left for civic organisations to deliver essential goods and services to a population that is struggling to survive.”[33]



The author and publisher of this article are well aware of the existing Myanmar/Burma name dispute; however, Myanmar is here used consistently to avoid confusion.

This article was produced by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO). CHRO works to protect and promote human rights through monitoring, research, documentation, and education and advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Chin people and other ethnic/Indigenous communities in Myanmar. The organisation is a founding member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Network of Myanmar, made up of over 20 non-governmental organisations engaged in Indigenous Peoples’ issues in the country.


This article is part of the 37th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

[1] “Coalition of Indigenous Peoples in Myanmar/Burma.” Joint Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review, March 2015, https://www.chinhumanrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Coalition-of-IPs-in-Myanmar_UPR.pdf

[2] Burma Citizenship Law 1982, Pyithu Hluttaw Law No 4 of 1982. Section 3

[3] “Myanmar´s Constitution of 2008 with Amendments through 2015.” Comparative Constitute Project, https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Myanmar_2015.pdf?lang=en

[4] Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup.” Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 2 January 2023, https://aappb.org/?p=23856

[5] Abdul Jalil, Zubaidah. “Myanmar: Military executes four democracy activists including ex-MP.” BBC News, 25 July 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-62287815

[6] Myanmar Emergency Update, UNHCR, 5 December 2022 https://data.unhcr.org/en/documents/details/97372

[7] Pyi Taw, Nay. “Note to Correspondents: Statement by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer.” United Nations, 17 August 2022, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/note-correspondents/2022-08-17/note-correspondents-statement-the-secretary-general%E2%80%99s-special-envoy-myanmar-noeleen-heyzer

[8] Figures relate to the period of May 2021 to November 2022: “Myanmar Regime Forces Torch Over 38,000 Homes Since Coup.” The Irrawaddy, 13 December 2022, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-regime-forces-torch-over-38000-homes-since-coup.html

[9] “Myanmar Regime Forces Burn 19 Villages in Depayin.” The Irrawaddy, 19 December 2022, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-regime-forces-burn-19-villages-in-depayin.html

[10] “Deadly Cargo.” Amnesty International, 3 November 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2022/11/myanmar-the-supply-chain-fueling-war-crimes/

[11] “Airstrike Kills at Least 80 During Outdoor Concert in Myanmar.” New York Times, 25 October 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/25/world/asia/myanmar-coup-concert-killed.html

[12] Fishbein, Emily, and Nu Nu Lusan. “‘Afraid of the gun’: Military coup fuels Myanmar resource grab.” Aljazeera, 14 December 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/12/14/afraid-of-the-gun-military-coup-fuels-myanmar-resource-grab

[13] Forest Policy Trade and Finance Initiative. “Myanmar’s Timber Trade One Year Since the Coup: The Impact of International Sanctions.” March 2022, https://www.forest-trends.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Forest-Trends_Myanmars-Timber-Trade-One-Year-Since-the-Coup.pdf

[14] Ibid.

[15] All Burma Indigenous Peoples Alliance. “Caught Between the Coup and Climate Change: Indigenous Communities In Burma Continue their Struggle for Justice Amid Unprecedented Pressures.” November 2022, https://progressivevoicemyanmar.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Briefing-paper-Eng.pdf

[16] Fishbhein, Emily., Jaw Tu Hkawing, Nu Nu Lusan, and Jauman Naw. “Kachin tycoon draws controversy over gold mining at Myitsone.” Frontier Magazine, 11 February 2022, https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/kachin-tycoon-draws-controversy-over-mining-at-myitsone/

[17] Fishbein, Emily., and Nu Nu Lusan.

[18]Cowan, Carolyn. “Myanmar communities decry disempowerment as forest guardians since 2021 coup.” Mongabay, November 2022, https://news.mongabay.com/2022/11/myanmar-communities-decry-disempowerment-as-forest-guardians-since-2021-coup/

[19] Ei Ei Tun, Naw Show., and Kim Joliffe. “Self-determination under an interim constitutional framework: Local administration in ethnic areas of Myanmar.” June 2022, https://research.kim/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Self-Determination-under-a-common-constitutional-framework_24-June-2022-25.pdf

[20] “Junta omits key stakeholders from Myanmar Union Day peace talks.” Radio Free Asia, 8 February 2022, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/talks-02082022204844.html

[21] “Ethnic Armed Groups Reject Myanmar Junta Chief’s Peace Talks.” The Irrawaddy, 25 April 2022, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/ethnic-armed-groups-reject-myanmar-junta-chiefs-peace-talks.html

[22] Wansai Sai. “Myanmar junta plays games with EAO ‘peace talks’” Mizzima, 3 October 2022, https://mizzima.com/article/myanmar-junta-plays-games-eao-peace-talks

[23] Ibid.

[24] An Open Letter From 567 Civil Society Organizations Calling For Leaders of the Ethnic Resistance Organizations not to Engage with Myanmar’s State Administrative Council, 26 September 2022, available at https://progressivevoicemyanmar.org/2022/09/26/an-open-letter-from-567-civil-society-organizations-calling-for-leaders-of-the-ethnic-resistance-organizations-not-to-engage-with-myanmars-state-administrative-council/

[25] “National Education Law, Amended by the SAC, is being Criticized as the Implementation of Chauvinism.” BNI Online, 14 November 2022, https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/national-education-law-amended-sac-being-criticized-implementation-chauvinism

[26] The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the Ethnic Armed Organizations. United Nations Peacemaker, 15 November 2015, https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/MM_151510_NCAAgreement.pdf

[27] “UN, Asean must take urgent action to hold Myanmar Junta accountable for atrocities.” New Straight’s Times, 22 October 2022, https://www.nst.com.my/world/region/2022/10/842862/un-asean-must-take-urgent-action-hold-myanmar-junta-accountable

[28] Thit, Han. “At least 30 teachers detained following data leak and arrest of NUG-linked school founder.” Myanmar Now, 22 July 2022, https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/at-least-30-teachers-detained-following-data-leak-and-arrest-of-nug-linked-school-founder

[29] Strangio, Sebastian. “Myanmar Junta Set to Pass Draconian Cyber Security Law.” The Diplomat, 31 January 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/01/myanmar-junta-set-to-pass-draconian-cyber-security-law/

[30] “‘We are facing a crisis’: New law puts Myanmar NGOs in ‘impossible’ position.” Frontier Magazine, 14 December 2022, https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/we-are-facing-a-crisis-new-law-puts-myanmar-ngos-in-impossible-position/

[31] “New Myanmar Law Registration of Associations Law Imposes additional requirements on non-governmental organisations.” Allen and Gledhill, 7 December 2022, https://www.allenandgledhill.com/mm/perspectives/articles/22817/mmkh_new-registration-of-associations-law-imposes-additional-requirements-on-non-governmental-organisations#:~:text=Perspectives%20Knowledge%20Highlights-,New%20Myanmar%20Registration%20of%20Associations%20Law,requirements%20on%20non%2Dgovernmental%20organisations&text=On%2028%20October%202022%2C%20the,(%E2%80%9C2014%20Law%E2%80%9D).

[32] “Collective Punishment: Implementation of "Four Cuts" in Mindat Township.” International working Group on Indigenous Affairs and Chin Human Rights Organization (IWGIA), 2022, https://www.iwgia.org/en/resources/publications/4615-iwgia-chro-four-cuts.html

[33]  “Myanmar: UN Human Rights Office deeply concerned by new NGO law.” United Nations Human Rights, News Release, 28 November 2022, https://bangkok.ohchr.org/ngo-law-myanmar/

Tags: Global governance



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