As the second biggest ethnic group in Myanmar, after the Burmese, the Shan group makes up 9 percent of Myanmar’s population. The Shan people prefer to call themselves Tai, because of their ethnic, cultural and linguistic relation to the Tai people in the neighbouring region of Thailand, Laos and Yunnan Province, China. The Shan princes or sawbwas were recognised by the British in the 19th century in the process of annexation, but signed an agreement to renounce all heredity rights with General Ne Win’s government. However, some Shan groups have been engaging in years of military struggle to regain independent control of their area in Myanmar, which continues today.
The Shan are dispersed in mountain valleys in South China, Eastern Myanmar and Northern Thailand. Generally, the Shan group speaks Thai, but the dialects differ among the different Tai groups. Tai Lu and Myanmar-used Tai Khun is similar to Northern Thai, while Tai Long resembles Burmese; Tai Mao is a sharper version of Tai Long. All these Tai dialects have their own individual scripts. Since these scripts were mainly used in religious texts and court chronicles, the Shan people, mostly men, learnt to read and write when they were ordained as novices or monks.
‘Intha’ means ‘children of the lake’. The Intha people live on surrounding Lake Inle in the Shan State. They are excellent swimmers and fishermen, who are known to row their boats with one leg wrapped around the oar.like other small tribes, the Intha tribe has their own Burmese dialect, which resembles the language spoken by the Burmese, Dawei, Danu and Rakhine.
‘Wa’ means ‘people of the cave’, referring to the place of origin of these tough northeastern hill dwellers in the Shan State. There are an estimated 950,000 native Wa speakers in northern Myanmar and in parts of China and Thailand. The three regional variations are Parauk, Vo and Awa. The Wa language was first written using a version of the Latin alphabet by a Christian missionary, William Marcus Young. This older version of the Wa language is still being used to some extent, although the newly revised Wa adaptation is now being applied in official publications.
The Eng tribe is one of the numerous hill tribes in Myanmar who live in a village called Nant Lin Taung in the eastern Shan State. Divided between Buddhism and animism, the Eng people often prepare sacrificial offerings and drink toasts of traditional wines during festivals. The Eng people are most fearful of water spirits, hence their villages are built far from rivers and lakes. They are known as the ‘Black Teeth Tribe’ due to their love for chewing betel leaf combined with tobacco and areca nut.
The Palaung people reside chiefly in the northern Shan State, with a handful in Yunnan Province, China. Unlike most hill tribes, the Palaung people are very welcoming towards visitors who wish to gain special insights into their culture. The Palaung dialect, or De’ang in Chinese, is further split into Pale, Rumai and Shwe, Pinpointing the numbers who speak these three sub-dialects is challenging.
This ethnic group is found in Laos, Vietnam, China and Myanmar. Interestingly, the national dress follows the tribe’s distinct colours: Lahu Na (Black Lahu), Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu), Lahu Hpu ( White Lahu), Lahu Shi ( Yellow Lahu) and the Lahu Shehleh. The Lahu language is called Lahu Shi, a noticeably different dialect from other ethnic groups; however, another notable fact is that the written Lahu language uses the Latin alphabet.
Predominantly Buddhists, many of the PA-O people now live around the western Shan State. They grow and produce the thanapet leaf from cordia trees, used for rolling the cheroot, Myanmar’s traditional cigar. PA-O villages are noted for the beauty of the wooden monasteries they build.the PA-O dialect is classified into Northern PA-O and Southern PA-O, which can be understood by the speaking parties.
Among the poorest tribes in Myanmar, the Akhas are said to be divided into seven clans, representing seven brothers. They live isolated from civilisation on the rugged mountains, east of the Thanlwin River. Mini figurines of people and animals, known as lucky charms, are erected at the village entrance. The Akha language is completely different from Thai, Chinese and other Asian languages – every word ends with a vowel. An official writing system was inaugurated in the 1950s, when Paul Lewis, a missionary, developed the Akha writing system using the Roman alphabet. ag
Akha is completely different from Thai, Chinese and other Asian languages – every word ends with a vowel
Using the proper term of address is important in Myanmar. Address males and females below the age of 40 years old with ‘ maung’ or ‘ ma’ prefixed to their name, respectively. After age 40, use ‘ u’ (pronounced ‘oo’) and ‘ daw’ for males and females respectively.
This title is also used when addressing government officials or somebody of high social status.