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.
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.
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.
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.