Myanmar’s diversity is at risk as the government continues Burmanisation policy

Photo: Comune Parma/CC BY-SA 2.0

Myanmar’s government is imposing Burman culture on its country’s ethnic minorities. Its denials of the damaging policy do not stand up to scrutiny.


Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. There are 135 official ethnic groups in Myanmar. It is not easy to define these groups with accuracy. The government may have underestimated the numbers.

Instead of embracing this diversity, the government imposes Burman culture on ethnic minorities. This process of “Burmanisation” has been in place for decades.

The government denies it is imposing Burman culture on ethnic minorities

Today, schoolchildren learn about Burman heroes and read Burman literature. The government destroys non-Buddhist religious symbols. The government gives places and landmarks Burman names. Analysts such as Salai Za Uk Ling, from the Chin Human Rights Organisation, see what is happening. He described it as a “forced assimilation and indoctrination programme.”

The government claims the accusations are false. The United Nations has condemned Myanmar’s discrimination towards its ethnic minorities. Amnesty International says onlookers should not accept the government’s denials.

The ethnic groups in Myanmar are usually geographically distinct. In general, they tolerate each other. The military-driven government is behind Burmanisation. The government once promised some ethnic groups independence. It did not deliver on its promises.

Source: World Atlas

Source: World Atlas

Source: Minority Rights

The government now focuses on assimilation and identity suppression. In the most extreme cases, the military drives groups away. The Rohingya crisis is one example. The Rohingya is an ethnic group that Myanmar does not recognise. Recognition is no guarantee of security. The government has targeted recognised groups, including the Karen and Kachin people.

The government faces a huge challenge due to the scale of Myanmar’s ethnic diversity

Myanmar’s government faces an enormous task. Throughout its history, settlers arrived in Myanmar from many different locations. Ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity is the result.

Since 2016, ethnic minorities can broadcast radio programmes in their native tongues. Some took the opportunity to maintain traditions and educate their communities. When State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, she set up an ethnic affairs ministry.

It proved to be a false dawn. The government remained committed to Burmanisation. It has the constitutional right to impose Burman culture on the country. The government passed laws that give them the authority to carry out Burmanisation.

For many ethnic minorities, resistance is futile as they fear retribution

Those minority groups that expected independence now feel betrayed. Suu Kyi’s emergence might have heralded democracy and freedom. Instead, the government is promoting an even fiercer brand of nationalism and Buddhism.

Ethnic minority groups are ill-equipped to resist. Some armed groups have disbanded. Aware of the plight of the Rohingyas, they may value survival above resistance. That may cost them their identity, which is what the government wants.

Myanmar’s government ignored international condemnation for their actions towards the Rohingya people. Lawyer Ko Ni suggested giving Rohingyas citizenship and paid for it with his life.

The government may or not have ordered his assassination. Regardless, it sends a clear message to Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. As attorney Regina Paulose puts it, “Racism is legal and institutionalised in Myanmar.” She believes the government will remove those who resist “by whatever means necessary”.

Myanmar will become less diverse

The majority of the population (68%) belongs to the dominant Bamar group. That figure will only grow in the future. Elders lament the fact that their children are losing their cultural identity. It is too late for them to do much about it. It is far easier for the government to assimilate youngsters than older people.

Since 2012, the government has allowed schools to teach ethnic minority languages. Fewer youngsters are attending these out-of-hours classes. If the trend continues, the classes will shut down. That would be one less barrier in the way of Burmanisation.

The number of ethnic groups will decrease as more and more people adapt to Burman culture. If nothing else, the number of people identifying themselves as non-Burman will decline. The boundaries between the groups will become more blurred as the government has its way.

The government will push on with Burmanisation, but Myanmar may not benefit

The government views cultural diversity as a bad thing. It treats those deemed not to have strong links to Burman culture like criminals. The international community appears powerless to stop the spread of Burmanisation.

The government stands a good chance of furthering its goals. As it does so, it destroys the cultural identity of many of its ethnic minorities. It heightens tensions between them and ethnic groups. It eliminates any trust built up in the past. Ethnic groups may adopt Burman culture, but they are only doing so under duress.

The government is breaking down Myanmar’s rich multicultural heritage. The government is fooling nobody by claiming it is promoting and maintaining Buddhism. If Burmanisation serves the government’s purpose, it makes Myanmar a poorer country.