Shans

   (Tai)
   Burma's most numerous ethnic minority, comprising an estimated 9 percent of the total population (more than 4 million people). They call themselves Tai. The Burmese name for them, Shan, apparently shares a common origin with Siam, the old country name for Thailand. The Shan language belongs to the Tai-Kadai group. As members of the larger Tai ethnic-linguistic group, they share close affinities with the people of Thailand and Laos, as well as Tai minorities in Vietnam, China, and India. Although most Shans live in Shan State, where other minority groups have been assimilated to their language and culture over the centuries, they are also found in significant numbers in Kachin State, Kayah (Karenni) State, and parts of Burma Proper. There are important dialectical and cultural differences among them, particularly between those who live in western Shan State, where they have been subject to strong Burmese influences, and the Tai Khun of Keng Tung, whose location remote from the center of Burman power has resulted in closer ties to the northern Thais and Chinese. A community of Hkamti Shans lives in Kachin State's Hukwang Valley and the upper reaches of the Chindwin (Chindwinn) River.
   The history of Shan/Tai migration into Burma is unclear: It may have occurred as early as the first millennium CE, and involved the fortunes of the non-Han Chinese state of Nan Chao. By 1215, a Shan state had been established at Mogaung, in what is now Kachin State. The Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan's conquest of what is now China's Yunnan Province in the mid-13th century caused further waves of Tai migration.
   Apart from language, a number of features constitute the distinctness of the Shans: Their religion is a distinct variety of Theravada Buddhism, with its own Sangha, holy sites, and artistic/architectural expression; unlike the "hill tribes" with whom they often live in proximity, they are cultivators of wetland rice; their political organization, a hereditary "feudal" system under a prince or sawbwa (saohpa) who was based in a fortified city-state (möng), is unique, although it has been adopted by other ethnic groups, such as the Karenni; and their material culture includes distinct characteristics, such as the wearing of trousers rather than a longyi. From the 14th to the 16th centuries, the Shans were the most powerful group in Upper Burma, although after the rise of the Toungoo Dynasty they were driven out, and many Shan principalities fell under Burmese suzerainty.
   Since Burma became independent in 1948, the Shans have endured unbroken war and insurgency; the State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council has used a "divide and rule" strategy (cease-fires) in Shan State since 1988 that has weakened their armed groups and exposed them to major human rights violations and compulsory cultural "Burmanization." Many Shans have left Burma to become "invisible" refugees in Thailand, hoping to find employment and refuge from persecution.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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