Hill Tribes in Shan State

Hill tribes living around Kalaw

The Inn Tha

Known as the son of the Lake, live in numerous small villages along the lake’s shores, and on the lake itself. The entire lake area is in Nyaung Shwe Township. The population consists predominantly of Intha, with a mix of other Shan, Taungyo, Pa-O, Taungthu, Danu, Kayah, Danaw and Bamar ethnicities. Most are devout Buddhists, and live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo on stilts; they are largely self-sufficient farmers.
Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved out of necessity as the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants, making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds.

The Taungyoe

Descended from Tibeto-Burmese group live around Pindaya, Kalaw, Pinlaung, Taunggyi and Nyaungshwe townships.

The Danu

Danu people, belong to “Tibetan-Himalayan” group, live within Shan State, in the townships of Taunggyi, Yak Sauk, Pindaya, Ywa Ngan, Ye Oo, Aung Ban, and Kalaw. Speak a nonstandard variety of Burmese and are fishermen and farmers. Almost all of the Danu people are Buddhists but some outreach is being done among them by local evangelists and missionaries from other people groups within Myanmar. Unlike other tribes in Shan State, Danu are indigenous can only be found in Myanmar. Danau (often called Danaw) is of Mon–Khmer descendent and are a little known ethnic group in Myanmar, the most divergent member of the Palaungic branch. Population about 1000 who live near Aungban, Kalaw Township, Shan State. Danau is the Burmese pronunciation of the ethnonym but themselves pronounce the name of their ethnic group and language with tonal language with four tones. It is common for people to confuse this group with the local Danu majority. The Danau, speak a completely different Austroasiatic language, which nevertheless has numerous words borrowed from Burmese.

The Palaung

Palaung also known as Ta-ang, hill people of the Shan region and adjacent areas of eastern Myanmar, as well as southwestern Yunnan province of China. They speak dialects of the Palaungic branch of Austro-Asiatic languages. The Palaung’s language is quite distinct from the Shan, with whom they live closely intermingled. Their area has a long history as a center of tea production. Some Palaung groups are organized in patrilineal lineages similar to those of the Kachin, their neighbors to the north, elsewhere their organization is more like that of the Shan. Shan-type Buddhism coexists with various local cults based on ancestor worship. The Palaung language resembles that of the Wa farther east, but there is otherwise no close cultural connection between the two groups.

The Pa-O

The Pa-O are a branch of the Kayin, and migrated with them from central Asia. They have their own script and language, with six tones. Unfortunately, all their written records are lost, but it is probable that after their migration they established their first kingdom in Thaton, east of Yangon, through many dynasties, they lived alongside the Mon. Following wars with the Myanmar, Pa-O fled north and settled in and around Inle Lake area till today. Pa O are easily recognized by their striking costumes – the women’s dresses and blouses are black or dark blue with fine, bright-colored embroidery, and both men and women wear colorful turbans of toweling on their heads. The men’s jackets and trousers are also dark blue or black.

The Shan

Another fascinating feature of this area is the number of different ethnic peoples that live in the state. The ethnic majority here is the population of four million Shan, though they actually call themselves Tai or Dai, the word ‘Shan’ having been derived by the British from Siam. Their close relatives, the Thais, often refer to the Shan as Tai Yai (‘big Thai’), and the Shan call their land Muang Tai rather than Shan State. Like many other ethnic peoples, the Shan were driven out of their home in South and central China by the Tartars, and they migrated to South-East Asia. They settled in Myanmar, but later Myanmar kings and the Kachin drove them out of the north to the northern mountains. The Shan also settled in the north of Thailand, the Hanoi region of Vietnam, India’s Assam and the Chinese province of Yunnan.

The Shan Saophas

Until the mid-19th, the present Shan State was divided into principality. The Shan had a feudal system, with princes and princesses who lived in beautiful teak palaces (haw), from which they ruled over provinces of various sizes. The prince was called Saopha, which means ‘lord of the sky’. He was highly respected by the people, but if he himself broke the law he could be driven from office. Like their neighbors the Myanmar, the Shan also had a supreme monarch, the king, and at various points a Shan king even ruled over Bagan. However, there were frequent conflicts between the rival kingdoms in Myanmar. In the mid-15th century, some princes in the lowlands were forced to accept the authority of Myanmar kings, but the Shan peoples in the eastern plateau were virtually unaffected by this and were able to keep their traditions. During British colonial rule, the Saophas were generally allowed to stay in power, but between 1922 and 1935 they gradually ceded their authority to a democratically elected parliament. Today only the Palace of Nyaung Shwe, a few kilometers north of Inle Lake, is open to the public.

The Akha, Lahu and Lisu

The Akha, Lahu and Lisu are smaller ethnic groups who also live in the mountains of the Shan Plateau and speak a Tibeto-Myanmar language. The Akha belong to the lolo people, and there are more clans living in China, northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They have a strong belief in the spirits, have shamans, and build so-called ‘spirit gates’ outside every village to ward off the demons of the forest. The Lahu and Lisu live in Thailand, Laos and China as well as Myanmar, and, like most of the other smaller ethnic groups in Shan State, are for the most part animists.

The Wa

Today with the Shan, there are a large number of Wa, Pa-O, Palaung, Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Kokang and Intha living in this state. The second largest population is that of the Wa, who belong to the Mon-Khmer people and speak various dialects of the Wa language. The British adventurer Sir J. George Scott undertook the first perilous expedition to the Wa region in 1893, and until well into the 1970s the Wa were known to stick human heads on poles in order to improve their harvests.

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