Shan people

"Tai Yai" redirects here. For other meanings, see Shan.
Total population
(4-6 million (est.))
Regions with significant populations
Burma n/a
North Thailand n/a
Yunnan province of China n/a
Laos n/a[1]
Shan, Burmese, others
Theravada Buddhism, Animism
Related ethnic groups
Kuki, Kachin, Karen, Chin, Mizo Kula, Thai, Lao, Tai peoples
1889 photograph of a Shan woman
Shan flag

The Shan (Shan: တႆး; Shan pronunciation: [táj], Burmese: ရှမ်းလူမျိုး; [ʃán lùmjó]; Thai: ไทใหญ่ or ฉาน; Chinese: 掸族 or 傣族; pinyin: Shànzú, Dǎizú) are a Tai ethnic group of Southeast Asia. The Shan live primarily in the Shan State of Burma (Myanmar), but also inhabit parts of Mandalay Region, Kachin State, and Kayin State, and in adjacent regions of China, Laos and Thailand.[2] Though no reliable census has been taken in Burma since 1935, the Shan are estimated to number between 4-6 million.[3]

The capital of Shan State is Taunggyi, the fifth largest city in Myanmar with about 390,000 people. Other major cities include Thibaw (Hsipaw), Lashio, Kengtung and Tachileik.


Major subdivisions

The major groups of Shan people are:

Other Tai Shan groups

There are various ethnic groups designated as Tai throughout Shan State, Sagaing division and Kachin State. Some of these groups in fact speak Tibeto-Burman and Mon-Khmer languages, although they are assimilated into Shan society.[4]


The majority of Shan are Theravada Buddhists, and the Shan constitute one of the four main Buddhist ethnic groups in Burma; the others are the Bamar, the Mon and the Rakhine.

Most Shan speak the Shan language and are bilingual in Burmese. The Shan language, spoken by about 5 or 6 million, is closely related to Thai and Lao, and is part of the family of Tai languages.[6] It is spoken in Shan State, some parts of Kachin State, some parts of Sagaing Division in Burma, parts of Yunnan, and in parts of northwestern Thailand, including Mae Hong Son Province and Chiang Mai Province.[7] The two major dialects differ in number of tones: Hsenwi Shan has six tones, while Mongnai Shan has five.[8] The Shan script is an adaptation of the Mon script via the Burmese script.[8] However, few Shan are literate in their own language.

The Shan are traditionally wet-rice cultivators, shopkeepers, and artisans.[9]

A Shan deer dance ceremony in the early 1900s
The Shan kinnara and kinnari dance.[10]
Nam ngiao, a Shan dish.


The Tai-Shan people are believed to have migrated from Yunnan in China. The Shan are descendants of the oldest branch of the Tai-Shan, known as Tai Luang (Great Tai) or Tai Yai (Big Tai). The Tai-Shan who migrated to the south and now inhabit modern-day Laos and Thailand are known as Tai Noi (or Tai Nyai), while those in parts of northern Thailand and Laos are commonly known as Tai Noi (Little Tai - Lao spoken) [11] The Shan have inhabited the Shan Plateau and other parts of modern-day Burma as far back as the 10th century AD. The Shan kingdom of Mong Mao (Muang Mao) existed as early as the 10th century CE but became a Burmese vassal state during the reign of King Anawrahta of Pagan (1044–1077).

After the Pagan Kingdom fell to the Mongols in 1287, the Tai-Shan peoples quickly gained power throughout Southeast Asia, and founded:

State Peak territory Duration Notes
Ava (Inwa) Central Burma 1364–1555[12] Burman kingdom
Shans also founded Ava's predecessor minor kingdoms of Myinsaing (1298–1310), Pinya (1310–1364) and Sagaing (1315–1364)[12]
Hanthawaddy Pegu (Bago) Lower Burma 1287–1539 Mon kingdom
Siamese (Sukhothai) vassal state (1294–1331)[13]
Sukhothai Central Thailand 1238–1448 First Siamese kingdom; Predecessor to Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya Central and Southern Thailand 1351–1767 Predecessor state to present day Kingdom of Thailand
Burmese vassal (1564–1587)[14]
Lanna (Chiang Mai) Northern Thailand 1292–1776 Burmese vassal (1558–1775)[15]
Lan Xang Laos 1353-1707 Burmese vassal (1574–1593)[16]
Assam Assam 1228-1822 The Ahom Kingdom was founded by prince Sukaphaa, which later expanded in the entire Brahmaputra valley. The Ahom dynasty reigned for 600 years (1228-1822). After British occupation of Assam, Purandar Singha, a prince of Ahom dynasty was installed as ruler of Upper Assam (1833-1838) before completely annexing it in their empire[17][18]
Shan States Northern Chin Hills, Northern Sagaing Division, Kachin Hills, Shan Hills, Southwestern Yunnan, parts of Vietnam c. 10th-16th centuries Largely absorbed into Chinese and Burmese kingdoms by 16th century
Shan States (Princely states) Shan Hills and a few outlying enclaves;
federated with the Karenni States
19th-20th centuries From the beginning of British rule in Burma until Shan rulers abdicated in post-independence Burma
Shan woman with embroidered banner. 1910

Many Ava and Pegu kings of Burmese history between the 13th-16th centuries were of (partial) Shan descent. The kings of Ava fought kings of Pegu for control of Irrawaddy valley. Various Shan states fought Ava for the control of Upper Burma. The states of Monyhin (Mong Yang) and Mogaung were the strongest of the Shan States. Monhyin-led Confederation of Shan States defeated Ava in 1527, and ruled all of Upper Burma until 1555.[19]

The Burmese king Bayinnaung conquered all of the Shan states in 1557.[20] Although the Shan states would become a tributary to Irrawaddy valley based Burmese kingdoms from then on, the Shan Saophas retained a large degree of autonomy. Throughout the Burmese feudal era, Shan states supplied much manpower in the service of Burmese kings. Without Shan manpower, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the Burmans alone to achieve their much vaunted victories in Lower Burma, Siam, and elsewhere. Shans were a major part of Burmese forces in the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1826, and fought valiantly—a fact even the British commanders acknowledged.[21]

In the latter half of the 19th century Shan people migrated into Northern Thailand reaching Phrae Province.[22] The Shan population in Thailand is concentrated mainly in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang, Mae Sai and Lampang, where there are groups which settled long ago and built their own communities and temples. Shan people are known as "Tai Yai" in north Thailand, where the word "Shan" to refer to them is very seldom used.[23]

After the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, the British gained control of the Shan states. Under the British colonial administration, the Shan principalities were administered separately as British protectorates with limited monarchical powers invested in the Shan Saophas.[24]

After World War II, the Shan and other ethnic minority leaders negotiated with the majority Bamar leadership at the Panglong Conference, and agreed to gain independence from Britain as part of Union of Burma. The Shan states were given the option to secede after 10 years of independence. The Shan states became Shan State in 1948 as part of the newly independent Burma.

General Ne Win's coup d'état overthrew the democratically elected government in 1962, and abolished Shan saopha system.

Shan nationalism

Shan nationalist emblem
See also: Shan State Army

The Shan have been engaged in an independence struggle that has led to intermittent civil war within Burma for decades. Currently two main Shan armed insurgent forces operate within Shan State: the Shan State Army/Special Region 3 and Shan State Army/Restoration Council of Shan State. In 2005 the Shan State National Army (SSNA) was effectively abolished after its surrender to the Burmese government. Some SSNA units joined the SSA/RCSS, which has yet to sign any agreements, and is still engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Burmese Army.[25]

During conflicts, Shan civilians are often burned out of their villages and forced to flee into Thailand. Some of the worst fighting in recent times occurred in 2002 when the Burmese Army shelled the Thai border town of Mae Sai, south of Tachileik, in an attempt to capture members of the SSA's Southern Faction who had fled across the Nam Ruak.[26][27] While in July of that same year, in the Shan Township of Mong Yawng, the killing of a member of an NGO by the Burmese Tatmadaw, and the subsequent closure of the border to Thailand, caused an evacuation of the surviving members across the Mekong River to Laos.[28] This evacuation was aided by members of the Shan State Army, and in turn brought tighter measures restricting foreign aid in the area as violence increased.

Whether or not there is an ongoing conflict, the Shan are subject to depredations by the Burmese regime; in particular, young men may be conscripted into the Burmese Army indefinitely, or enslaved to do road work for a number of months—with no wages and little food. The horrific conditions inside Burma have led to a massive exodus of young Shan males to neighbouring Thailand, where they are not given refugee status. Shan people in Thailand often work as undocumented labourers. Males typically find low-paid work in construction, while many Shan females fall in the hands of human trafficking gangs and end up in the prostitution business. Despite the hardships Shan people in Thailand are conscious of their culture and seek occasions to gather in cultural events.[29]

Although the Government of Burma does not recognise Wa State, the Burmese military has frequently used the United Wa State Army (UWSA) as an ally for the purpose of fighting against Shan nationalist militia groups.[30]

Communities in exile

Traditional Poi Sang Long novice ordination festival celebrated by one of the Shan communities in exile in Thailand

Following the arrest of Sao Shwe Thaik of Yawnghwe in the Burmese coup d'état in March 1962 by the Revolutionary Council headed by General Ne Win,[31] his wife Sao Nang Hearn Kham fled with her family to Thailand in April 1962 and Sao Shwe Thaik died in prison in November the same year. In exile, his wife took up the cause of the independence struggle of the Shan State. In 1964 Sao Nang Hearn Kham with her son Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe helped to form the Shan State War Council (SSWC) and the Shan State Army (SSA), becoming chair of the SSWC,[32] and taking the Shan rebellion that started in 1958 to a new phase.[33] Sao Nang Hearn Kham died on 17 January 2003 in exile in Canada at the age of 86.[32]

Prince Hso Khan Pha (sometimes written as Surkhanfa in Thai), son of Sao Nang Hearn Kham of Yawnghwe lives in exile in Canada. He is campaigning for the Burmese regime to leave the Federated Shan States and return to their own country, to respect the traditional culture and indigenous lands of the Shan people. He works with the interim Shan Government, with Shan exiles abroad, and the Burmese regime to regain his country.[34]

Opinion has been voiced in the Shan State, in neighboring Thailand, and to some extent in distant exile communities, in favor of the goal of "total independence for the Shan State." This came to a head when, in May 2005, Shan elders in exile declared the independence of the Federated Shan States, although as of June 2014 Burma still controls the area.

The declaration of independence was rejected by most other ethnic minority groups, many Shan living inside Burma, and the country's leading opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Despite the domestic opposition to the declaration, the Burmese Army is rumoured to have used it as a reason to crackdown on Shan civilians. Shan people have reported an increase in restrictions on their movements and an escalation in Burmese Army raids on Shan villages. The latest Burmese military offensive in Central Shan State has displaced thousands of Shan people, as well as Palaung, Lisu and Lahu people causing a new humanitarian crisis.[35][36] Shan civil society organisations are concerned about the lack of international response on the recent conflict.[37]

See also


  1. Migration and History of Tai Yai
  2. Sao Sāimöng, The Shan States and the British Annexation. Cornell University, Cornell, 1969 (2nd ed.)
  3. "The Shan People". The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved 2015-01-16.
  4. Edmondson, Jerold A. 2008. "Shan and other Northern Tier Southeast Tai languages of Myanmar and China: Themes and Variations." In Diller, Anthony, Jerold Edmondson, & Yongxian Luo, (eds.) The Tai–Kadai languages. London: Routledge.
  5. Taileng Nationalities Development Party
  6. Shan language page from Ethnologue site
  7. "Shan: A language of Myanmar". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2006-12-02.
  8. 1 2 Dalby, Andrew (2004). Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to More Than 400 Languages. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11569-5.
  9. Susan Conway, The Shan: Culture, Art and Crafts (Bangkok, 2006).
  10. Thai Yai cultural dance at Mae Hong Son, Thailand
  11. Nisbet, John. Burma under British Rule - and before. Volume 2. Adamant Media Corporation. p. 414. ISBN 1-4021-5293-0.
  12. 1 2 Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur P. Phayre (1967). History of Burma (2 ed.). London: Susil Gupta. pp. 282–285.
  13. Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur P. Phayre (1967). History of Burma (2 ed.). London: Susil Gupta. pp. 64–67.
  14. Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur P. Phayre (1967). History of Burma (2 ed.). London: Susil Gupta. pp. 111–121.
  15. Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur P. Phayre (1967). History of Burma (2 ed.). London: Susil Gupta. pp. 108, 207.
  16. Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur P. Phayre (1967). History of Burma (2 ed.). London: Susil Gupta. p. 116.
  17. E. A. Gait (1926). A History of Assam (2 ed.). Calcutta and Shimla: Thackar and Co. pp. 70–246, 296, 308.
  18. Hiteswar Barbaruah (1981). Ahomar Din or The History of Assam under the Ahoms (1 ed.). Guwahati: Assam Publication Board. pp. 19–341.
  19. Maung Htin Aung (1967). A History of Burma. New York and London: Cambridge University Press. p. 95.
  20. Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur P. Phayre (1967). History of Burma (2 ed.). London: Susil Gupta. pp. 108–109.
  21. Thant Myint-U (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps--Histories of Burma. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 123–124. ISBN 978-0-374-16342-6.
  22. The Shan "Tai Yai" People In north Thailand
  23. History of Lanna - From Dark Times to Modern Times
  24. Mackerras, Colin. Ethnicity in Asias. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-25816-2.
  25. Photos of Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) military outposts along the border of Thailand, Chiang Rai province
  26. ‘Mae Sai Evacuated as Shells Hit Town’, Bangkok Post, 12 May 2002
  27. ‘Mortar Rounds Hit Thai Outpost, 2 Injured’, Bangkok Post, 20 June 2002, p.1
  28. Desmond Ball. Security Developments in the Thailand-Burma Borderlands, Australian Mekong Resource Centre, University of Sydney. October 2003
  29. Celebration of Panglong Agreement Day in Loi Tai Leng
  30. The United Wa State Army's uncertain future
  31. Donald M. Seekins (2006). Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 410–411. ISBN 9780810854765.
  32. 1 2 Burma's first President's wife passed away
  33. Smith, Martin (1991). Burma - Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.
  34. source:Prince Hso Khan Pha
  35. Govt invasion of Shan state mocks ceasefire pact- Bangkok Post
  36. Attacks in central Shan State
  37. Shan CSOs blast ‘silence’ over conflict
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