Myanmar has no fewer than 135 ethnic groups, grouped into eight “major national races.” The Bamar, from whom the country’s former name, Burma, is derived, account for about 70 percent of the total population.
The Bamar live predominantly in the central Ayeyarwady River Valley. Their distant origin is revealed by Burmese, the national language, which is closely related to Tibetan. When Gen. Ne Win seized power in a 1962 coup d’état, he tore up the post-independence Constitution and tried to impose the will of the Burmese military and its extreme socialist ideology on the country’s disparate peoples. As a result, elements of the Shan, the Kayin and the Kachin have been at war with the central government ever since, with sizable areas of the north and east still under rebel control. The harmonious coexistence of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, within some form of federal system, is a crucial priority for the new administration of Aung San Suu Kyi.