The valleys and tableland are inhabited by the Shans, who in language and customs resemble the Thais and the Laos. They are largely Buddhists and are mainly engaged in agriculture. Among the Shans live Bamar, Chinese, and Karens. The hills are inhabited by various peoples, notably the Wa, formerly head-hunters, who are numerous in the north and along the Chinese border.
The Shans dominated most of Myanmar from the 13th to the 16th cent. In the 19th cent., long after their power declined, they were distributed among more than 30 petty states; most of them paid tribute to the Burman king. Under British rule, the Shan States were ruled by their hereditary chiefs (saophas or sawbwas) as feudatories of the British crown. In 1922 most of these small states were joined in the Federated Shan States, under a commissioner who also administered the Wa states. This arrangement survived the constitutional changes of 1923 and 1937.
A single Shan state, including the former Wa states, was established by the 1947 Burmese constitution. In 1959 the saophas relinquished much of their power to the Burmese government. Shan State's autonomy was further eroded by increased federalization of the Burmese government in the 1970s. Generally, the Shans remain committed to the preservation of their distinct ethnic heritage; Shan groups have fought for an independent state since the late 1950s. A number of Shan rebel groups have signed cease-fires with the government since 1989, but one of the largest Shan rebel armies revoked its cease-fire in 2005 when Shan leaders were arrested and charged with treason. A peace agreement was reached in 1989 with the United Wa State Army, a large Wa rebel group, and ethnic Chinese rebels in Kokang, a region in the state's northeast. In 2009, after Myanmar abandoned a 20-year truce, there was fighting between Kokang rebels and the military; some 37,000 refugees fled across the border in China. The Wa rebels also became involved in the fighting; in 2013 they signed a new peace agreement with the government. Fighting with the Kokang rebels flared again in 2014, leading to a new surge of refugees across the Chinese border.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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