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LOCATION: Myanmar (Burma); India; China; Laos; Thailand; northern Viet Nam
POPULATION: 5 to 7 million
LANGUAGE: Shan; Chinese; Burmese
RELIGION: Buddhism, with elements of Animism


A people known as the Tai have inhabited a vast area of Asia, including Thailand, Laos, and northeastern Myanmar (formerly called Burma.) The name for the Tai ethnic group of Myanmar is "Shan." The Shans migrated into Myanmar from China, to the north, many centuries ago, and settled in the valleys. They established kingdoms and expanded their territory, often in conflict with other ethnic groups such as the Burmese (Burmans). From the 15th century on, the Shan Plateau was their main homeland. The people were governed by hereditary princes called Sao-Phas in as many as 40 different principalities.

When the British Empire annexed Burma in the late 19th century, the Shan princes negotiated protectorate agreements which allowed them to continue to rule their domains, while acknowledging British supremacy. With time, the Sao-Phas became more educated and more willing to work together, and in the 1920s they formed the Federated Shan States. After World War II, the British granted independence to Burma, and Shan leaders participated in the Panglong Agreement with Burmese independence hero, General Aung San, ensuring a great deal of autonomy for the Shan aristocrats. The independent constitution of Burma created a Shan State and granted it the right to secede after 10 years.

Many Shans, including pro-democracy Sao-Phas, became disillusioned with being part of the Union of Burma. They felt that their culture was being suppressed by the majority Burmese and there were conflicts with central government troops. A military government took over Burma in 1962, and Burma's president—a Shan—— Sao Shwe Thaike, was put in prison, where he died. Burma's military rulers renamed the country "Myanmar" in 1989.

Armed rebel groups promoting Shan nationalism sprung up throughout the Shan state. The Shan rebellion was characterized by many factional splits and by "warlords" who took advantage of the State's lucrative opium trade to form their own narcotic-trafficking armies. In the 1990s, some armed Shan groups surrendered to Myanmar's central government or reached ceasefire agreements. Khun Sa, the notorious war-lord of one of the surrendered armies, died of natural causes in Myanmar in 2007. The Shan State Army led by Colonel Yod Serk has continued to fight a hit and run guerrilla war against the Myanmar government's army. Yod Serk has often spoken out against the narcotics trade.


Although there are no sure census figures in Myanmar, the Shan population there has been estimated at more than 5 million, perhaps as many as 7 million. There are Shan-related ethnic people in India's Assam, China's Yunnan Province (the Dai people), Laos, Thailand, and northern Vietnam as well. Myanmar's Shan State has a border with Yunnan in the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south. The region is often called "The Golden Triangle" and is associated with trade in opium, the raw material for heroin. In addition to the Shans, numerous other ethnic groups live in Myanmar's Shan State, mainly in the hills: Palaungs, Pa-Os, Was, Lahus, Akhas, and other tribal people, and the Kokang Chinese.

The Salween River flows from China down through the Shan State, and the Mekong River forms the border with Laos. Major cities include Taunggyi, Keng Tung, and Lashio. In the southeast of the state is Inle Lake, where the Intha people live in stilt houses above the water and grow vegetables on floating gardens. The Shan State has been green and fertile, but deforestation in recent decades, as Myanmar's military government sold off teak wood to neighboring countries, has badly degraded the terrain. Major population displacement took place in the Shan State during the late 1990s, as the Myanmar government's forces destroyed villages, confiscated or burned crops, and moved masses of civilians around for forced labor projects. These events and related rural poverty caused tens of thousands of Shans to flee to Thailand, where they sought work and safety in a land whose language and people were related to their own.


The Shans speak a language classified as Sino-Tai. It is distantly related to Cantonese and other Chinese dialects, and closely related to Lao and Thai. There are considerable regional differences in the Shan spoken in various areas. Throughout northeast Burma, Shan is used as a common language for trade among various ethnic groups. Many Shans speak some of the Yunnanese dialect of Chinese and some Burmese, as well as Shan. The traditional Shan alphabet has 18 consonants and 12 vowels; more letters have been added in a modernized version. The letters have a circular shape, like those of the Burmese language.

To say "Thank you very much," Shans say Yin lii nam nam. The usual greeting in a Shan village is Kin khao yao ha ? meaning, "Have you eaten?" The reply is probably yes, so the follow up question asks what you had for lunch or dinner. A popular expression is Am pen tsang —meaning "No problem," because the Shans value a relaxed lifestyle. Sometimes you'll hear am pen tsang even during a crisis, as Shans try to stay calm to deal with any situation.


Shans often believe in ghosts and demons who haunt forests, graveyards, and other lonely places. Shamans or Buddhist monks can be called on to exorcise such ill-intentioned spirits. The forest can be inhabited by animals which are actually ferocious human ghosts, such as were-tigers.


Shans, like most Tai peoples, are Buddhists. They practice a religion based on compassion for all beings and the search for enlightenment within a reincarnation cycle of birth and death. Buddhist monks, revered for their learning and self-discipline, are important to Shan communities. Some Shan monks are particularly well-known throughout Myanmar for their teachings, and Shan monks participated in the "Saffron Revolution" against Myanmar's government in 2007. The power that stems from keeping precepts (abstaining from violent acts, intoxication, and other negative forms of conduct) can prevent evil and bring good fortune. Shan Buddhism also incorporates many Animist elements, such as belief in a fertility goddess known as "the Rice Mother," and local spirits known as "the Lord of the Village."


The Shans observe Buddhist holidays and more animist-related ones such as an annual "repairing the village" ceremony called mae waan, meant to drive away dangerous beings. On holy days, everyone is expected to keep the five main Buddhist precepts: no killing, no stealing, no improper sexual conduct, no lying, and no use of intoxicants.

Because generosity, especially to the Buddhist monasteries, is an important virtue for Shans, gifts for the monks are a feature of many special occasions. Often a "money tree" will be paraded through the village, its branches decorated with banknotes and small household items for the monks to use. Dancers and musicians accompany the tree on its way to the monastery.

Shans sometimes hold a "Rocket Festival" in hopes of bringing on the rainy season to provide water for the rice and other crops. Large homemade fireworks are launched into the sky. Buddhist Lent occurs during the monsoon season, for three months. The monks stay at their monasteries, concentrating on their prayers and studies. Marriages and other festivities do not take place during Lent.


It was the old Shan custom for a mother to spend a month indoors, near a fire, after giving birth. When that month was over, the baby would be given a special bath in water that had coins and pieces of gold dropped into it.

Young boys usually become novice monks for one to three months. A colorful ceremony called Poy Sang Long is held as Buddhist Lent begins. The boys are costumed as little Shan princes. They are carried through the village on relatives' shoulders, or on ponies (sometimes even on elephants). Golden umbrellas shade them from the sun. At the monastery, the boys' heads are shaved, and they put on plain orange robes and begin learning the Buddhist scriptures.

In their mid-teens, many Shan boys get their first tattoos, usually from a sayah who uses a brass-tipped stick to inject magical ingredients in symbolic patterns. The chest, back, arms, legs, and tongue are common places for tattoos. The ink and designs can give the wearer various powers against illness, evil-doers, or weapons, or for cleverness. The tattooed person should keep Buddhist precepts of self-restraint to ensure the power. Men may continue to be tattooed, sometimes making their entire arms and legs blue-black from the ink. Shan women also get tattooed, but usually to a lesser extent than men. Other ethnic groups often seek out the Shan sayahs as the most powerful tattooists.

Death is considered the path to another existence, perhaps a better one. The dead are usually buried in a wooden coffin. Cremation ceremonies are held for monks and those who can afford to pay for the elaborate ritual. Musicians accompany the body to cremation site or burial grounds.


When visiting a Shan home, you remove your shoes to go inside. Traditionally this even applies to small shops. You also take your shoes off at Shan Buddhist temples and monasteries, and it is the usual practice to make an offering of money, flowers, or food for the resident monks. Shans treat the monks with respect, especially older monks or those known for their strict self-discipline.

Visitors to homes, or even offices or shops, are served tea. Shans are usually introduced using an honorific with their name, most often "Sai" for men and "Nang" for women, and it is polite to address them that way.


Currently there are many severe health problems among the Shans. There are few doctors or medical facilities, especially in rural areas. Malaria is prevalent, and children often die from it. Villagers suffer from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, and goiter (caused by iodine deficiency). Medicine is too expensive for most people, and traditional "spirit doctors" cannot keep up with the present health crisis. HIV/AIDS has spread through Myanmar's Shan State because of widespread injection of narcotics (heroin refined from the locally grown opium and locally manufactured methamphetamine) and because of the trade in young girls and boys to neighboring Thai-land and China for prostitution. Generally ignorant about the disease, these young people forced into the "sex industry" have a very high rate of infection.

Military rule in Myanmar has caused a decline in living standards for the Shans. Many have fled their original towns and villages because of forced labor, or have had their homes burned down by government troops seeking to secure the area. To get away from the conflict, they often settle in the hill country where it is hard to grow any crop other than opium, or find their way to a neighboring country, usually Thailand. There are no refugee camps for Shans in Thailand; instead the Shan migrants try to find any kind of work and attempt to fade in among the Thai population.

In peaceful times, the marketplace is a center of Shan life. The markets are held quite early in the morning, and men, women, and children go there to buy food for the day, drink tea, and exchange information. Most of the vendors are women. Another center is the Buddhist monastery, where many occasions are celebrated. Often the monastery is located on a hilltop overlooking a village or town. Larger settlements have several, with tall whitewashed pagodas.

Shan houses are traditionally raised up on stilts, with the area underneath used for storage or a cool, shady place to sit. The roofs are thatched with leaf material. Inside, the Shans sit on the floor, eat at low tables, and at night sleep on mats. Cleanliness is very important to Shans, so yards and village streets are swept often. In villages, Shans bathe in nearby streams or with buckets of rainwater.

The Shans like to travel a lot, visiting friends and relatives or trading goods from town to town, but few have their own cars or motorbikes. Ox-carts are used for carrying farm products, and mules or ponies still carry loads and riders up in the hills. There are some flights into the Shan State and railway connections to Taunggyi and Lashio. A more common way to cover long distances is to share a ride on a truck, which may be carrying goods from China or Thailand.


The Shans have monogamous marriages, although in the old times of the aristocracy the Sao-Phas often had more than one wife. A "bride-price" paid to the bride's parents was traditional. Horoscopes are still important for determining if a couple is really meant for each other, and if so, when the wedding should take place. Shan weddings are not Buddhist ceremonies, although monks may attend. Usually, village elders or other respected persons will tie blessing strings around the couple's wrists. A feast is then held for families, neighbors, and friends. Married couples live on their own with their children, but may be joined by aging relatives or others needing help. Divorce is permissible in Shan society, especially in cases of domestic violence.

Shan families in Thailand have an average of two children, with parents hoping for one boy and one girl. In Myanmar, where birth control is rare, six children or more is a typical Shan family size. Shan families keep dogs, cats, and birds as pets. The dogs are used to guard houses and for hunting. Shan Buddhist monasteries often have many cats living there.


Shan men traditionally wear baggy trousers, usually of indigo-dyed homespun. Called koon, the trousers have a huge waist-band which is gathered and knotted in front. Women wear sarongs, called phasin, which are striped cotton or fancy embroidered silk sewn in a tube and wrapped tightly at the waist. There are traditional jackets and blouses to go with these, but younger people often wear them with T-shirts and denim jackets for a comfortable mix of old and new. Blue jeans and other western clothing are gradually replacing wrapped trousers and sarongs in the wardrobes of younger Shans, with traditional outfits saved for festivals and other special occasions.

Large conical bamboo or straw hats called kup provide shade for Shan men and women working in the fields or walking in hot sunlight. Older Shan men and women often wear large turbans wrapped from long lengths of cotton or bright terrycloth towels.


Shans are fond of sticky rice, called khao niw. Eating with the right hand, they make a little ball of sticky rice and use it to soak up accompanying curry. Khao niw is also featured in the special treats the Shans make for seasonal festivals. In the cold season they cook khao lam, sweetened sticky rice, in bamboo tubes. A hot season specialty is khao yak ku, brown sugar-sweetened sticky rice with peanuts and grated coconut on top. As well as their fondness for sweets, Shans are known for their taste for sour foods, such as a spicy pickled cabbage similar to Korean kim chee.

Numerous varieties of fruit are grown in the Shan State, including temperate climate fruits like apples and strawberries not found elsewhere in Myanmar. Mango (mak muang) is a favorite fruit, both ripe and unripe, and is combined with meat such as pork for a Shan curry. Disks of fermented soybeans, called thoo nao khep, flavor many dishes. Corn and potatoes, originally from North America, are grown by Shan farmers.

Khao soi, Shan noodles with chicken-coconut curry, has become popular throughout Myanmar and Thailand. You can make a "fast-food" version of khao soi: prepare chicken-flavored ramen noodles according to the directions on the package. Mix in three tablespoons of canned unsweetened coconut milk, a half teaspoon of turmeric, a half teaspoon of paprika, a dash of hot chili sauce, and some diced cooked chicken. On top of the noodles put sliced green onion, chopped fresh cilantro, and some crunchy "chow mein" noodles; squeeze some lime juice before eating.


Being able to read and write in their native language has been a political cause for many Shans, who feel that the Burmese-dominated central government of Myanmar has deliberately suppressed Shan culture as a way to control Shan rebellion. Very little material is being published in Shan, as even Shan children's books and health pamphlets are considered suspect by the government. In many villages there are sayahs, men or women who can read old Shan texts on subjects such as astrology and herbal medicine, and use them to make predictions, cast spells, or treat illness. The sayah's power comes from book-learning as well as from the self-discipline needed to keep many Buddhist precepts.

Educational standards in the Shan State are low, with schools and teachers in short supply at every level. In many villages, the monastery is a source of education, at least for young boys. Children who do attend schools run by the Myanmar government are likely to learn in Burmese rather than Shan.


Shan literature has largely consisted of texts relating to Buddhist scripture, books of astrological and herbal lore, and histories of the aristocracy. "The Padaeng Chronicle" and "The Jengtung State Chronicle" are examples of such histories from the Keng Tung area which have been translated into English. In recent years, women of Myanmar's Shan aristocracy, including Sao Hearn Hkam and Sao Sanda have told their life stories in books published in other countries. Chinese-American author Amy Tan's 2006 best-selling novel, Saving Fish from Drowning was set around Inle Lake in Myanmar's Shan State.

Typical Shan dances include one in which two young men in a costume portray a lion or yak-like creature, and another in which children dance dressed as mythical birds. Solo dance is a part of ceremonies involving ghosts and other special occasions. A popular social dance is the ram wong, from Indochina. Couples move around in a large circle, using simple steps and graceful hand motions. Dance music can be played by musicians walking or dancing in a procession, and it features long drums, gongs, cymbals, and bamboo flutes. There is also the ensemble music of the old Sao Pha courts, which was influenced by Burmese classical music and is played by seated musicians. A framed series of gongs which can be hit all at once with a bamboo mallet is a particularly Shan instrument for such music.

Shan singers and musicians have had much influence on contemporary music in Myanmar. Their songs sometimes include political commentary disguised as love lyrics. Rock singer Sai Htee Saing died in 2008; his band The Wild Ones was popular throughout Burma and promoted Shan culture and a Shan point of view in urban settings. Popular Shan female singers include Nang Khamnong, who sings up-tempo pop ballads, and Nang Sara who belts out hard rock tunes.


The Shans have traditionally been an agricultural society, producing bountiful crops of rice and vegetables including soybeans, garlic, and corn. Villagers exchange labor to plant and harvest each others' rice fields. Government quotas, confiscation, and forced relocation of farmers have brought on a severe decline in agricultural productivity, however, and increases in cultivation of opium poppies for the heroin refineries.

In addition to farming, the Shans have been noteworthy traders. Men and women travel from village to village, peddling cloth, medicines, forest products, tools, and a great variety of other goods. Much of the trading stock is brought into Myanmar illegally from neighboring countries. Commodities including gemstones (rubies, sapphires, and jade), gold, cattle, and heroin, are smuggled out of the Shan State. Shans who cross the border to Thailand often find work on construction sites or as domestic servants. Some work in northern Thai-land's orchards, where there are health concerns about their exposure to agricultural chemicals.


Soccer and volleyball are popular sports in the Shan State, as is takraw, in which a lightweight woven rattan ball is kept in play with the feet. Many Shans learn Lai Tai, their indigenous martial arts form, or a traditional Shan martial art in which swords are held with both hands. A more sedate game is maknim, in which the large seeds of the mucuna vine are set up in rows. Players take turns trying to knock them down by shooting another seed like a marble, kicking it off the top of the foot or rolling it off their clothing.


The Shans, like other people of Myanmar, enjoy marathon theater and dance performances that often last long into the night. Sometimes a traveling movie show comes to a Shan village, projecting a film (usually from Thailand) on an outdoor screen for everyone to watch. In recent years, the larger villages and towns have mini-movie theaters, small shops with a DVD player set up to show foreign movies or locally produced videos. Radio is very popular in the Shan State, especially short-wave broadcasts such as the BBC or Voice of America programs in Shan or Burmese. Satellite television is available in some towns and cities, although the Myanmar government sometimes cracks down on owners of satellite dishes. Towns and cities in Myanmar's Shan State have computer shops where games can be played, but Internet access is extremely restricted.


In some areas, Shan women weave colorful silk fabrics. Embroidered cotton shoulder bags (useful, as Shan clothes usually don't have pockets) are made by Shans and used all over Myanmar. Silverware, including decorated knives and swords, and basketry are other Shan crafts.


While the Shans have a strong sense of themselves as a "free people" and the inheritors of a vibrant culture, they are also endangered by the breakdown of their society under military rule. In the late 1990s, tens of thousands of Shan villagers were driven out of their homes by Myanmar government troops, and the flow of refugees to Thailand from the Shan State has been steadily increasing for decades. Constantly under the threat of forced labor and caught in the crossfire of government troops, insurgent groups, and opium armies, normal life has been nearly impossible for Shan farmers. In Myanmar's towns and cities, Shan intellectuals and politicians have been imprisoned, killed, or exiled. The young people are in particular danger from the HIV/AIDS epidemic spread through the sex trade and narcotics injection. Drug abuse is particularly rife in ruby-mining areas of the Shan State.


In traditional Shan society, women had equal rights, although Buddhism viewed their status as somewhat inferior. Shan women took significant roles in commerce and family decision-making. Some Shan women, such as Sao Hearn Hkam, a member of parliament, were active in politics in Myanmar before the military government took over, and in rebel groups afterwards. Shan culture is usually tolerant of transgender, gay, and lesbian individuals.

During the time of military rule in Myanmar, the political status and security of Shan women has decreased and human rights organizations have documented a pattern of rape targeting Shan women and girls by the Myanmar government's army. In 2002 a group formed in exile, Shan Women's Action Network, released a report, "License to Rape," which brought international attention to the situation. One of the report's authors, a young Shan woman named Charm Tong, met with US President George Bush in Washington DC in 2005 to discuss human rights issues. Charm Tong received the Reebok Human Rights Award in 2005 and a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award in 2008.


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—by E. Mirante