Ethnic Groups

Burma is a multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural society. There are no current or reliable statistics on the population in Burma. Hence, no one knows precisely how many ethnic groups live there.

However, it is known that there are more than 135 different ethnic groups in Burma, each with its own culture, values, history and language. The seven largest minority nationalities are the Chin, the Kachin, the Karen (sometimes called Kayin), the Karenni (sometimes called Kayah), the Mon, the Rakhine, and the Shan. Burma is divided into seven states, each named after the seven ethnic nationalities, and seven regions (formerly called divisions), which are largely inhabited by the Bamar (Burmans).

The majority Bamar (Burman) ethnic group comprises two-thirds of the population. The Bamar controls the military and the government. Other ethnic groups make up the remaining one-third of Burma; they live mainly by the borders and hills. Many of these ethnic groups have been forced to leave their homes and they face persistent discrimination by the military regime.

They are victims of unpaid-forced labor campaigns, destroyed farmlands and fields due to scorched-earth policies, and relocation programs that require whole villages to leave in an instant. The lands where their homes reside are used for development projects and to exploit resources. As a result, millions of people from the ethnic nationalities become internally displaced people (IDPs) in Burma or refugees in other countries (United States, Thailand, and Australia).

Three main ethnic minority groups from Burma live in Minnesota: the Karen, the Karenni, and the Mon. We estimate that there are 15,000 Karen, 1,500 Karenni, and 1,000 Mon. Learn more about the Karen.


The Karenni people are known as the “Red Karen” and live in a small, mountainous region to the north of Karen State and west of Thailand. There are over a dozen ethnic Karenni subgroups, but they all speak the same language (with only small variations in dialect). They speak Karenni language, also called Kayah Li. The most known Karen subgroup is the Paduang. Over their life time, Paduang women extend their necks using brass rings. Some people call them the “Longneck Tribe.” This subgroup only comprises a small part of the population of Karenni people, however. Traditionally, Karenni people are Animist and Buddhist but many have converted to Christianity (mostly Catholic). In Minnesota, Karenni people mostly live in St. Paul and Austin. The most important celebration for Karenni people is Kay Htoe Bo. This festival reflects the story on how the earth came into being. During the celebration, Karenni people dance around a pole in order to maintain good health.


The Mon people are originally from Southwest China who eventually settled in the Irrawaddy valley with Karen State to the east and the Andaman Sea to the west. The Mon people are known to have brought Theraveda Buddhism and written language to Burma. In the past, the Mon language and culture spread widely throughout Burma. However, their influence was greatly diminished due to the rise of the Burmese. Many Mon people do not speak their own language now, but many Mon leaders are determined to preserve it through teaching at Buddhist monastery schools. Mon people commonly wear red longyis to signify bravery and purity. In Minnesota, most Mon people live in St. Paul. The largest community of Mon in the U.S. reside in Fort Wayne, IN and Akron, OH. The Mon people celebrate Mon National Day every year honoring the the ancient founding of Hanthawady, the last Mon Kingdom.

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