Myanmar: A Land of Ethnic Affinity


[The 18th Anniversary of the Union Day 12 February 1965, was held in Pa-an, the capital of Kayin State of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, at the foot of Zwegabin Hill, a vast area of jungle was cleared for the celebration of that great event. The writer, then head of the Department of Modern History and Political Science, Mawlamyaing Collage, was chosen the master of ceremony and assigned to participate in the discussions of Myanmar ethnic nationalities and to contribute articles to the locally produced Dailies-The Guardian and the Working People’s Daily.
It has been five decades and 2 years [1965-2017], today that 18th Anniversary of the Union Day was held at the capital of Kayin State and the article “Myanmar: A Land of Ethnic Affinity” which the writer contributed to the then two English Language Dailies. For three year 1965, 1966 and 1967, the entire country was peaceful as all ethnic nationalities ceased fightings. The 19th and the 20th Anniversaries of that great day were held successively and successfully at Taung Gyi the capital of Shan State and Myitkyina the capital of Kachine State. But peace was not durable as armed conflicts re-emerged across the country. Therefore the next anniversaries of the Union Day could not be held by turn at the capitals of constituent states and divisions such as Loikaw, Mawlamyaing, Sittwe and Haka.
Today, we, all Myanmar ethnic nationalities are working relentlessly for a durable peace under the leadership of a new democratic civilian Government to accomplish the unrealized task of Ping Long Conference of 1947, started by Bogyoke Aung San and his A.F.P.F.L.Party [Anti. Fascist People’s Freedom League] at the present 21st Century Pinglong Conference.
The Article “Myanmar: A Land of Ethnic Affinity reproduced as follows was based upon the writer’s academic research and field studies in almost all constituent States and Divisions, with the assistance and co-operation of our ethnic national brethren. Though five decades and 2 years old, the Article is as relevant as it was in 1965.-The writer]
A Land of Ethnic Afinities
Myanmar has often been described by most casual visitors as “a rag-bag of races” or “as a hotch potch of nationalities”. To justify their metaphoric descriptions they tried to find out points of difference among its inhabitants so as to classify them under separate ethnic groups. But the more they study them the less clear becomes their racial distination and the criteria by which the identity of ethnic groups are to be established weaken in the face of linguistic semblances, likeness in physical features, similarities in social systems and overlapping of cultural habits. Even the most serious scholars of Myanmar’s anthropology often fall into a puzzlement in regard to the racial differentiation of her indigenous peoples. ”We shall never be able to trace the people who now inhabit Myanmar”, says C.C. Lowis, Superintendent of Ethnographical Survey of Myanmar in 1949, ”back fully to their original seats or say precisely where they had their beginnings as separate racial units and when they left their primeval homes…” Hence not infrequently theories put forward by the preceding generation of scholars are either partly amended or entirely overthrown by those of the succeeding ones, and generalisations of one school of thought are vitiated by the discovery of specific factors by another school.
Nevertheless nothing is more interesting than tracing the genesis and the line of ancestry of our Union nationalities as far back as possible into the past and to deduce out of the available data a conjecture at the whereabouts of the original homes of their progenitors. To start with, we have certain known factors upon which our enquiry into the known field has to be worked. These are geology, geography, philology, anthropology and folklores. Although not one of them can be relied upon as absolute standard test, they guide us in our quest for data, and assist us in corroborating our hypotheses. Geology of Myanmar has shown us that there had been human settlements in Myanmar long before the time of our ancestors. Certain strangely shaped stones believed to be the artifacts of the early man, excavated along the banks of the Ayayawady River in the Dry Zone are evidences upon which the archacologists established the theory of the existence of the historic Stone Ages, both Palaeolithic and Neolithic types, in Myanmar during the geological period between the early and middle Pleistocene Age. But more research is needed for better authority of this theory. As of regards the ethnic identity of these early settlers an opinion has been formed on the basis of certain anthropological data, such as negrito characteristics which sometimes reveal in the physical appearances of some highlanders and the existence till today of the negrito races on the Andaman Islands off the Myanmar coast, that the earliest inhabitants of Myanmar were of negrito race. To support this theory references are made to the ancient Chinese records which mentioned the existence in Myanmar of certain types of people with short and stout built, black skin and woolly hair. But without further evidences and stronger data, this theory seems far-fetched.
If there had been early dwellers, the inference is that the ancestors of the present inhabitants must be the new comers. If so, where they came from and why they came in to Myanmar are the logical questions to be answered. Geography of Myanmar provides us  some clues to the possible direction of the influx of the new comers. The physical features of Myanmar follow a single pattern running from the northerly to the southerly direction. Almost all mountain ranges, valleys, rivers, plains and the result that in Myanmar north means ‘upper portion’ and south means ‘lower portion’. These north to south directed rivers and valleys are the Nature’s gifts for Myanmar’s waterways and land routes. So it is not unreasonable to figure out the streams of human movements along the line of the physical pattern. This is not to say that there had never been human inflows, either from the east or the west. But such human inflows took place only at a later date after they had taken the usual north-to-south routes. The possibility of immigration from the direct south has been ruled out by the difficult barrier of the ocean in the prehistoric days. Had there been any comers from across the sea they would be too limited a number to be able to populate the whole of Myanmar. Hence the en masses influx must be from the north. ”There is every reason to believe”, opines John Stuart, who was a student of Prehistoric Myanmar,’’ that the numerous races inhabiting the country now known as Myanmar are aliens, who poured down from Western China, from Tibet and perhaps from North-Eastern India in prehistoric times. This influx probably began long before the commencement of the Christian era, and was continued through centuries…”
In support of the above view the pattern of ethnic distribution shows us traces of immigration lines  along the rivers, valleys and watersheds. Enclaves of human settlements which have ethnic affinities with the Kachins, Kayahs, Karens, Chins and Shan and Burmese are found in the upper reaches of the Ayeyawady, the Salween and the Chindwin rivers. They are the descendants of our forebears, left on the waysides of the movement lines, losing contact with the main body of the immigration waves, but have remained intact and unchanged through many centuries. We have been able to find out the remnants of these ancient human lakes and their ethnic connestion by the help of philology. Comparative study of their languages and those of our six main nationalities, the Kachins, the Kayahs, the Karens and Chins, the Shans and the Burmese not only reveals our basic linguistie similarities but also points out that the languages of our indigenous races are akin to those of Central and High Asia. Thus the conclusion, so far unchallenged, is that the original home of our ancestors must be somewhere in Tibet-China land. ‘’It is an undoubted fact that whenever we have a realiable clue of speech or tradition to follow, it leads us up northward in the direction of this prehistoric breeding ground which shed in the dim past its tribes… over the whole of South Eastern Asia. The chain may seem to break here and there, the treads may show signs of crossing and recrossing, but the general trend is eventually the same and the conclusion ever identical.”
So far it has not been able to form a specific idea the date and time of the coming of these tribes.
But as regards the causes of their immigration suggestions have been advanced by scholars such as a search for Lebensraum, wars in Central Asian plateau and sheer wander lust. Of these the first seems the most plausible, for ’ “through out world form congested areas or colder region men who are generally more virile and adventurous migrate to tracts more flourishing and sparsely populated. These migrations are due to more then one cause. It is sometimes cupidity, and sometimes ambition but generally it is due to economic pressure. “In ancient days the whole of northern Myanmar and a large part of southern Myanmar were vast wilderness of almost uninhabited forest country, an immense ‘Eldorado waiting for colonization, therefore quite naturally the envy of more populous neighboring states… The existence of these empty spaces facilitated large migrations from the earliest known times, out of the mountainous territory in the north into Myanmar 7” Folklores, songs and proverbs which most of our kinsmen share in common have many references to our quest for new land and constant move to “where water is clear and grass is tender”. Besides the system of shifting cultivation which our hill folks practice till today clearly explains the mobility of our ancestors. The immigrations were not continuous and speedy but intermittent and gradual. It took the immigrants centuries to reach inside Myanmar and on the way many generations were bred and human settlements were spilled over the immigration lines.
The ethnologists have first classified the people of South East Asia, including Myanmar, according to their physical features and skin and hair complexion, height, the size of skull, etc. and by grouping the affinities together they get three divisions:
1.    The Negriods- those with either too tall or too short in height and black skin and wooly hair.
2.     Austroloid- those with a medium height, high forehead, large jaw and wavy hair.
3.    Mongoloid- those with a medium height, yellow or brownish complexion, smooth skin and straight and soft hair.
The peoples of  Myamnar,  the ethnologists generally agree, belong to the third division ie. the Mongoloid, although some characteristics of the first two types occasionally appear in them. Even among the Mongoloids there are many variations due to the influence  of different climatic and environmental conditions. The same is true of other two types. So this classification does not seem satisfactory.
Philological method is then applied for identifying the races. By a comparative study of languages spoken in the South East Asian countries, factors which are generally common or basically common and close affinities are sorted out and classified into groupings. The conclusion reached is that almost all languages of South East Asia, including . Myanmar, belong to either (1) Austric group or (2)Tibeto-Chinese group. The Austric group has two branches, namely the Austro-nesian, that is, those languages spoken by the peoples living on the coast lines, islands and archipelago and the Austroasiatic, that is those languages spoken by the peoples in the main lands. The Tibeto-Chinese group also has two branches viz. the Tibeto-Myanmar and the Tai-Chinese. It is found that Myanmar has representatives of all these for branches of linguistic groupings. But the majorities are the Tibeto – Myanmar, the Tai-Chinese and the Mon-Khmer (the Austro-Asiatic group). Hence the indigenous races of Myanmar conveniently classified into these three linguistic branches of the same Mongoloid stock. Taking these three linguistic branches as the basis, the possible immigration routes taken by our ancestors are traced as far as reliable linguistic data permit and how far they journeyed together, where their ways diverged and where they first settled down in ‘Myanmar are also reasonably conjectured.
Research has established the theory that the native place of the Tibeto-Myanmar group was somewhere in the Eastern portion of the Central Asian Tableland. From there this group sent out its off shoots, century after century, along the valleys and mountain ranges into Indo-China and Myanmar. In the course of their long and difficult journey they diverged into two ways the one taking the western route and the other the eastern route. The parting point was at the foot of “a crescent of mountains” in the extreme north of Myanmar” “which forms the watershed between the Salween and the Bhramaputra, from the southern edge of which spring the sister streams, the N’maikha and the Malikha, which combine to form the Ayeyawady”.  That crescent of  mountains is practically an inpassable  barrier preventing a t line penetration into straight Myanmar. Therefore the Tibeto-Myanmar immigrants had either to come out east and follow the Salween River to continue their outward movement, or to turn west and take a circuit towards Assam and the Bhramaputra and from there to proceed pursuing their southerly course. They took both alternatives some following the east-turn and others the west-turn route. The present distributions of the Tibeto-Myanmar and the linguistic study have proved it.
We have thus a twofold classification of the Tibeto-Myanmar the Eastern (N’maikha-Salween-Mekong) Tibeto-Myanmar and the Western (Bhramaputra-Chindwin-Malikha) Tibeto-Myanmar Eastern Tibeto-Myanamr entered Myanmar by following  the valleys of the N’maikha the Taping the Shweli, and the Myitnge, which are the tributaries of the Ayeyawaddy  river and the Salween and the Mekong rivers. As they moved southward some of them settled down in the N’maikha – Salween region which now form part of the Kachin State. Some proceeded further south and settled down in the Salween-Mekong and Salween- Ayeyawaddy regions which are now partly constituted in the Shan State and partly in the Kayah State, and mostly the Ayeyawaddy plain lands. At a later date they proceeded from the plains to the Arakan coastal strip and settled there. Some moved to further south and settled down in the Salween-Sittang-Ayeyawaddy regions which now partly form Kawthoolei (Karen State) and partly the delta and lower Myanmar. The southernmost limit of the Eastern Tibeto-Myanmar movement in Myanmar is the Tenasserim Division. The Western Tibeto-Myanmar entered Myanmar mostly from the north-western corner where there are mountain passes and easily accessible mountains and valleys. Some crossed the Chindwin and the N’maikah rivers, transversing their regions castward to join their kinsmen of the Eastern branch. Some moved straight southward following the mountain ranges on the western bank of the Chindwin and in the course of their journey they left on their ways settlements of their folks. These mountain ranges now form the Chin Special Division [now Chin State].
The southernmost limit of Western Tibeto-Myanmar  movement in Myanmar is the Arakan Division [Rakhine State]. Some western Tibeto-Myanmar moved down to the plain land and settled down at a number of places on both banks of the Chindwin and the Ayeyawady.
The representative of the Eastern Tibeto-Myanmar living  in Myanmar may be classified into four major groups;
1.     The Pyu group who have now become totally extinct, but whose capital cities in ruins are now being excavated near Prome, Taungdwing and Shwebo;
2.     The Myanmar group in which are included the Lashis, the Maingthas and the Hpons of the Eastern Kachin State, the Marus and the Szis of the Northern Shan State, the Inthas, the Taungyoes the Danus of the Myelat area of the Southern Shan State, the Yaws of the Pakokku District, the Chaunthas of the southern part of the Chin State, the Arakanese of the Arakan State, the Tavoyams and the Merguians of the Tenasserim Special Division and the Burmese themselves;
3.     The Kayan group in which are included Kayari of both plains and hills, the Padaungs, the Pa-Os, of Taungthus, the Kayahs, the Bres etc, whose range of distribution covers  from. The southern part of the Shan State, the Kayah State, the Kayin State, the Delta, the Topngoo District and the Tenasserim Division. The classification of the Kayan group under the Eastern Tibeto-Myanmarwas  quite recent. It was Professor G.H Luce, a well-known research man in the field of ancient history of Myanmar, who after years of comparative study of languages of Myanmar has said with no uncertain voice that the “Kayan language is Tibeto-Myanmar”  but previous scholars from Sir Arthur Phayre, Mr. Taw Sein Ko, Sir J.G. Scctl, H.N.C Stevenson to C.C. Lowis & have placed the Kayan under the Tai-Chinese group. Since both Tilbeto-Myanmar and Tai-Chinese are the two offshoots of the same branch Tibeto-Chinese  the discrepancy  between  these two schools is one of degree rather than of kind;
4.     The Lolo group is which are included the Lisaws, Lisus or Yawyins of the Kachin and Shan States, the Lahus of the Kengtung District, Kokang and the Wa area, and the Akhas or Kaws of the Kengtung District, the Wa area and the Tachilek, area.
The representatives of the Western Tibeto-Myanmar  living in Myanmar may also be classified into four groups;
1.     The Sak or Thet group in which are included the Kadus of the Katha District, the Tamans of the Upper Chindwin District and the Sak or Thet of the Akyab District;
2.     The Naga group in which are included the Nagas of the Naga Hills in Myanmar;
3.     The Chin group in which are included all Chin nationals of the Chin State, the Chins of the Arakan State,  the Chins of the Pakokku, Magwe, Minbu, Thayet and Prome Districts and eastern side of the Pegu Yoma;
4.     The Kachin group in which are included Theinpaws or Singphos and Kachins of the Kachin State. The Rawans and the Darus are also inhabitants of the Kachin State.
It has been commonly accepted by scholars that the historic breeding ground of the Mon-Khmer was to the east of that of the Tibeto-Myanmar i.e.  in the region between Yunnan and Indo-China. From there waves of immigration spread out into North and South. The northern wave took the westward route via the Yunnan and Shan plateaus, crossing the northernmost of Myanmar until they reached the Assam and the Bhramaputra regions and the Ganges valley which was their westernmost limit. The southern wave on the other hand, moved down to North Vietnam and the delta of Tongking river from where they spilled over to the southern part of Mekong delta, and the Menan valley from where they moved westward leaving settlements all along the Salween and the Sittang valleys and deltas till they reached the Ayeyawaddy which was their westernmost limit. The representatives of the Mon-Khmers of the Northern wave living in Myanmar are the Palaungs and the Pales of the northern and southern parts of the Shan State, the Was or La Was or Las of Kokang and Kunlong Districts and Wa area, the Riangs of the southern part of the Shan State, the Miaotzus of the Kokaag, Kunlong and Kengtung Districts. The representatives of the Mon-Khmer of the southern wave living in Myanmar are the Mons of the Tenasserim Division, the deltas, valleys of the Salween, the Sittang and the Irrawaddy and the Kamus (Khmers) or Kamits or Lamets of the Thaton and Moulmein Districts.
Regarding the original homeland of the Tai-Chinese, no final authority can yet be established. But the most likely place is in South China. For some centuries there existed the powerful Tai Kingdom called “Nan-Chao” which occupied West and North West of Yunnan. From there the Tais or Shans spread out to the South and West. The south-ward move left their settlements all along the Menan, Mekong. Salween rivers up to laos and Siam. The westward move entered Myanmar from the North East corner via the Shweli, the Taping, the Myitnge and the Salween rivers. They then crossed northern Myanmar moving still westward until they reached Assam and Bhramaputra region which was westernmost, but their main Land in Myanmar being the Shan State. The representatives of the Tai-Chinese living in Myanmar are the Shans in which are included the Maw Shans of Sawel valley, the Khuns of the Lengtung District, the Lus and the Lems of the eastern bank of the Salween, the Yuns of the Tachilek and Mengsak areas, the Shan-Burmese and Shans, the Khampti Shans of the Kachin State and the Tai-Chinese and Chinese of Kokang in northern Shan State.
Besides these three linguistic branches mentioned above Myanmar has the representatives of the Austronesian branch. They are the Salons and the Malays (in very  limited numbers) of Beshoos of the Tenasserim coast and the archipelago. The Austronesians were sea-faring people who must have crossed the China Sea before they eventually came to settle down along the coast lines of the South East Asian main lands and the Indonesian archipelago. From Malay Peninsula they gradually moved into Mvanmar’s territory in the remote past.
The classification thus described shows a well balance between unity above and diversity below- the unity in the common Mongoloid origin and the diversity in the linguistic variations-a balance upon which “the Myanmar people many years ago were formed into a nation by the Union of Mongoloid tribes, who then occupied the land which is still the home of their race”. For centuries the Union races have chosen Myanmar as their home and lived in it, assimilating whatever is worth assimilating and retaining those which are worth retention, but sharing alike the common weal or woe that befalls them. No doubt there is difference among them but “much of this difference is due to the nature of the physical environment, since heavy jungle and mountainous country do not make for good communication and isolation has had its usual effect of enhancing regional development on individual lines. This development is for the same reason, along the lines of economic and social divergences rather than along the lines of racial division”. But now the trends are towards assimilation and with the speedy launching of the States’ Development Programme such divergencies will disappear soon and the gap of progress will narrow down. It is not racial identity that matters much for the making of a nation but it is the desire to live together and to aspire to the common goal that makes its sinews and spirit.
“A nation is a conglomeration of peoples whose interests coincide closely, who have experienced the same vicissitudes of life and history together and who regard . themselves as having been of the same kind for a long stretch of time. Although race, religion and language play a part, nationalism essentially is based on the tradition of living and the desire to live together in the same community of interests and experiences”-Bogyoke Aung San.

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