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Chilien Shan


[shahn, shan]
The Shan (ရှမ်းလူမျိုး; ; ) are a Tai ethnic group of Southeast Asia. The Shan live primarily in the Shan State of Myanmar, but also inhabit parts of Mandalay Division, Kachin State, and Kayin State, and in adjacent regions of China and Thailand. Though no reliable census has been taken in Myanmar since 1935, the Shan are estimated to number approximately 6 million.

The capital of Shan State is Taunggyi, a small city of about 150,000 people. Other major cities include Thibaw (Hsipaw), Lashio, Kengtung and Tachileik.


The Shan people as a whole can be divided into four major groups:

  1. The Tai Yai or "Shan Proper"
  2. The Tai Lue, located in Sipsong Panna (China) and the eastern states
  3. The Tai Khuen, the majority of Keng Tung
  4. The Tai Neua, mostly in Sipsong Panna


Most Shan are staunch Theravada Buddhists, and the Shan constitutes one of the four main Buddhist ethnic groups in Myanmar--the others being 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-Kadai languages. It is spoken in Shan State, some parts of Kachin State, some parts of Sagaing Division in Myanmar, parts of Yunnan, and Mae Hong Son Province in northwestern Thailand. The two major dialects differ in number of tones: Hsenwi Shan has six tones, while Mongnai Shan has five. The Shan script is an adaptation of the Mon script via the Burmese script. However, few Shan are literate in their own language.

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


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 Long (Great Tai) or Thai Yai (Big Thai). 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) The Shan have inhabited the Shan Plateau and other parts of modern-day Myanmar as far back as the 10th century AD. The Shan kingdom of Mong Mao (Muang Mao) existed as early as the 10th century AD but became a Burmese vassal state during the reign of King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044-1077). Note: the Mao people are considered a Shan subgroup.

After the Bagan kingdom fell to the Mongols in 1287, the Tai-Shan people quickly gained power throughout South East Asia, and founded:

  • Ava (and its predecessor minor kingdoms Myinsaing, Pinya and Sagaing) by Burmanized Shan kings
  • Pegu or Bago by Monized Shan kings
  • Lan Xang (Laos)
  • Lanna (Chiang Mai)
  • Ayutthaya (Siam)
  • Assam
  • Shan states--Minor kingdoms in the Shan hills, Kachin hills, Yunnan and parts of Vietnam

Many Ava and Bago kings of Burmese history between the 12th and 16th century were of (partial) Shan descent. The kings of Ava fought kings of Bago for control of Ayeyarwady valley. Various Shan states fought Ava for the control of Upper Myanmar. The Shan kingdom of Mohnyin (Mong Yang) defeated Ava in 1527, and ruled all of Upper Burma until 1555.

Burmese king Bayinnaung (1551-1581) conquered all of the Shan states in 1557. Although the Shan states would become a tributary to Ayeyarwady valley based Burmese kingdoms from then on, the Shan Saophas retained a large degree of autonomy.

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.

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 Myanmar. 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.

List of Shan States and rulers

See List of Shan states and rulers.


The Shan have been engaged in an intermittent civil war within Burma for decades. 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 SSNA was effectively abolished after its surrender to the Burmese government, some units joined the SSA/RCSS, which has yet to sign any agreements, and is still engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Burma Army.

During conflicts, the Shan (Thai Yai) are often burned out of their villages and forced to flee into Thailand. There, they are not given refugee status, and often work as undocumented laborers. Whether or not there is an ongoing conflict, the Shan are subject to depredations by the Burmese government; 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 no food. The horrific conditions inside Burma have led to a massive exodus of young Shan males to neighboring Thailand, where they typically find work in construction, at daily wages which run about 100-200 baht. However unsatisfactory these conditions may be, all of these refugees are well aware that at least they are being paid for their work, and that every day spent in Thailand is another day that the Burmese government cannot impress or enslave them. Some estimates of Shan refugees in Thailand run as high as two million, an extremely high number when compared with estimates of the total Shan population at some six million.

Independence and exiled government

His Royal Highness Prince Hso Khan Fa (sometimes written as Surkhanfa in Thai) of Yawnghwe) lives in exile in Canada. He is campaigning for the government of Myanmar to respect the traditional culture and indigenous lands of the Shan people, and he works with Shan exiles abroad helping to provide schooling for displaced Shan children whose parents are unable to do so. He hopes to provide Shan children with some training in life skills so they can fend for themselves and their families in the future.

In addition, opinion has been voiced in Shan State, in neighboring Thailand, and to some extent in farther-reaching exile communities, in favour of the goal of "total independence for Shan State." This came to a head when, in May 2005, Shan elders in exile declared independence for the Federated Shan States.

The declaration of independence, however, was rejected by most other ethnic minority groups, many Shan living inside Myanmar, and the country's leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite this dissenting opinion, the Burmese Army is rumoured to have conducted a crackdown on Shan civilians as a result of the declaration. Shan people have reported an increase in restrictions on their movements, and an escalation in Burmese Army raids on Shan villages.




  • Susan Conway, The Shan: Culture, Art and Crafts (Bangkok, 2006).

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