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The Shan have probably the most fascinating history of any of Burma's indigenous peoples. They have lived in the area that is today the Shan State of Burma for over a thousand years. Shan State comprises about a quarter of the land mass of Burma. In the early part of their migration out of today's Southwest China the Shan ruled over "Shan states" that are in today's China, Laos and Thailand as well as other parts of Burma. While the geographic spread of these states encompassed many ethnicities, the majority of both the population and the rulers was Shan. Only in the late Nineteenth Century did the Burmese Shan States fall entirely to British imperial rule.
Shortly after World War Two ended, post-war negotiations between the British and the Chinese created a unified Shan State in Burma. Ten years later the same Shan State was due to gain its own independence from (the then newly-independent country of) Burma. But subsequent fighting between the Chinese, newly formed pro-Shan insurgent factions and Burmese military rulers, along with the emergence of the area as a major opium growing and trafficking base, thwarted the emergence of a truly independent Shan State.
The Shan have historically lived alongside ethnic Bamar, Intha, Kachin, Mon, Palaung, Pa-O, Rakhine, Taungyo, Wa and other peoples for much of this history. But Shan State has always had a majority population of ethnic Shan — numbering today between four and six million people. Many Shan continue to desire a Shan State with full political independence from Burma. To this end the Shan State Army continues to wage guerrilla warfare against the Burmese Tatmadaw military government. In one sense this is already a moot conflict because today it is de facto the Chinese who have won the historic battle for economic and, via economic, political control of much of traditional Shan land — particularly in eastern Shan State where it borders China.
Most Shan people live today in much the same way as they always have. The majority live in small, rural villages where they farm subsistence and cash crops such as rice and tropical and sub-tropical fruit and vegetables. Tea is also an important cash crop for the Shan. Outside the larger towns trade is conducted at local markets that are held every few days. A visit to one of these markets is a fascinating experience. Shan State has also historically been an important source of timber — especially teak — and metals such as silver and lead.
It is often reported that the Shan also make their living from growing opium poppy. The reality is that most Shan have little or no involvement in the cultivation, the narcotic processing or the trafficking of opium poppy — all of which is controlled by a small number of regional druglords.
Many Shan are skilled artisans. Their crafts range from making fans out of bamboo to making jewelry out of the metals and the precious and semi-precious gemstones that are mined in many parts of Burma. These crafts have been practiced by the Shan for many generations and will continue to be a part of their livelihood for many generations to come.
Yet, even in an isolated country like Burma, the Shan people are beginning to experience the changes brought about by the impact of the modern, globalized world. The Baw-gyo Festival is an annual event held in the small town of Hsipaw in eastern Shan State. As Buddhism spread east from India, this area of Burma was one of the first to which it was exported, and the Shan, among others, adopted its ceremonies — of which the Baw-gyo Festival was one. The festival survives to the present day and is one of the largest events in the Shan calendar — but its religious origin now plays a very small part. It has been replaced by Shan artisans who now sell, alongside their traditional crafts, the same mass-produced trinkets from China that are available worldwide.
While some Shan people resist this change and attend the festival for religious reasons, others embrace the change. When I visited, one of the newest attractions was this Ferris wheel. It is turned entirely by the weight of local Shan men who climb around inside it.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2023, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
Sai Aung Tun, (2008) History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962. Chiangmai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.
Koehler Johnson, B., (2009) The Shan: Refugees Without A Camp — An English Teacher in Thailand and Burma. Paramus, NJ: Trinity Matrix Publishing.