50. Memorandum From the Director, Far East Region (Heinz) to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Nitze)0



  • Dissident Ethnic Minority Groups in Burma

The political issue of “Federalism” was a decisive factor in the decision of the Burma Army to overthrow the Government of U Nu. General Ne Win, leader of the coup d’etat, stated that the deteriorating situation and the impending danger of disintegration of the Union of Burma, brought on by the demand for Federalism, compelled him to act in the manner that he did. General Ne Win also stated he had proof that the Shans were in contact with SEATO and planned to join it after seceding from the Union of Burma. It is believed that Gen Ne Win, when he used the word SEATO, was indirectly accusing Thailand of interference in Burmese affairs. In Burma, Federalism can be considered synonymous with the demands of the ethnic minority groups for political, religious and cultural equality.

In political structure, the Union of Burma consists of Burma proper and five semi-autonomous states representing the country’s main ethnic minorities, e.g. the Special Division of the Chins, the Kachin State, the Shan State, the Kayah State and the Karen State. The Shan and Kayah States have the right to secede under the constitution of Burma. Burma, similar to many other nations of Asia, has large ethnic minorities within her borders. There are an estimated 21 million people living in Burma of which 13 million are Burmans while the other 7 million are varied minority groups. The more important of the ethnic minorities are the Kachins (360,000 people), the Chins (420,000 people), the Shans (a close kin to the Thai), who number 1,500,000 and the Karens including the Kayah who constitute 3,000,000 people.

In recent years many of the ethnic minorities have resorted to insurgency to rectify their many grievances and throw-off Burman rule. Of all the insurgent or discontented minority groups in Burma, the largest and the best organized is the Karen group. After World War II the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) emerged as the insurgent military arm of the Karen National Union (KNU) group. This Group’s present [Page 106] ent armed strength is approximately 4,500 to 6,000 men. It is well led and experienced in jungle warfare; it has fought against Burma for 12 years. Karen-Burman antipathy dates back to the pre-British era of the Burman Kings who treated the Karens harshly as an inferior subject people.

The newest of Burma’s ethnic insurgent forces is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). It is believed to be gaining in strength. The KIA forces are well trained and well armed with personal weapons. The basic causes for the Kachin insurgency are similar to those of the Shan and Karens: dislike for the arrogance of the Burman particularly the military. Additional grievances include the ceding of three Kachin villages to Communist China in the recent border settlement and the adoption of Buddhism as Burma’s state religion. The great majority of Kachins are animist or Christian rather than Buddhist. Present Kachin unrest is also traced to dissatisfaction with the Burmanization of Kachin units in the Burma army.

The original aim of the Shans who are Burma’s second largest indigenous minority was to set up an autonomous state within a federated Burma. However, in 1959 certain Shan rulers (Sawbwas) signed over their hereditary rights to the Burmese government and received money payments in compensation. This action was deplored by certain Shans who formed the Shan State Independence Army. Its present strength is estimated to be approximately over 3,000 men. It is believed that this insurgent group has the moral support of the Thai Government and possibly some Thai logistical assistance as well.

Red China’s interest in the ethnic minorities along her southern border is well established. The creation in Yunnan of a Thai autonomous state seems not only aimed at the Thai and Lao peoples but also at the Shans who are ethnically Thai and who refer to themselves as Thai Yi (Big Thai). In the past, Peking also has urged the creation of a greater Kachin State which would be composed of the 400,000 Kachins in Burma, the 70,000 in India and the 400,000 in Red China.

Prior to the coup d’etat the Burmese Armed Forces were planning a counter-insurgency campaign primarily directed against the dissident ethnic minority groups. Their military plans called for an all-out offensive in mid-1963 against the insurgents and the FY 62 U.S. Military Assistance Program is geared to assist in this program. However, the new Burma Army regime may be forced to deal with these insurgent groups earlier than they had planned as there exists today the possibility of open rebellion in the Shan States. Strong military repression of the Shans could provoke increased rebellion by other minority groups and the defection of Kachin and Chin units from the Burma Army.

The 87,000 man Burma Army could have serious difficulty in defeating these insurgent groups. The possibility of the various dissident ethnic groups banding together in a common cause against the Burma [Page 107] Army could prove militarily and politically disastrous for the Union of Burma. How the new regime of General Ne Win handles the contingency of the dissident ethnic groups may very well determine the political fate of his new government.

It is entirely possible that if the new regime mishandles this ethnic minorities problem they may call upon Communist China for assistance in suppressing the rebellions. Also Communist China on its own motion could use the rebellions as a pretext for extending her influence into the strategic border areas of Burma which she has long coveted.

On the other hand Red China could decide that her interests dictate aiding the ethnic dissident minorities as she has in past established autonomous areas in China that could politically absorb these minorities—particularly the Shans.

It is also possible that the Shans may appeal to the Thais for open assistance in their rebellion against the Burmans and this would further complicate an already complex situation. KMT irregulars in the Thai Lao border area could also become involved in the conflict.

L. C. Heinz

Rear Admiral, USN
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OASD/ISA Files: FRC 65 A 3501, Burma 0001–121, 1962. Secret. Sent through William Bundy. A note on the source text indicates that Nitze saw it. An attached map showing border peoples and non-Burmese concentrations as of November 1961 as well as centers of dissident activity is not printed.