6 Minutes To Read

Internal migration in Myanmar: Security trumps economic incentives

6 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Sai Phyoe Zin Aung reflects on reasons for internal migration out of northern Shan State.

    Internal migration, the phenomenon of moving from one part of a country to another, is an important component of economic and social life. Scholars argue that internal migration impacts culture, politics and economics in host (receiving) and home (sending) communities  (Griffiths & Ito, 2016). In 2019, it was estimated that the number of internal migrants around the globe was more than three times the number of transnational migrants (UNDESA, 2019).

    In Myanmar, drivers of internal migration include earning differentials, employments, impacts of development interventions and infrastructure construction, natural disasters, shock responses and conflicts (Maharjan & Theingi Myint 2015, Pattison et al., 2016; Boutry, 2017; Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, 2018; Oh, 2019). Yet, because Myanmar is an extremely diverse country, these drivers can vary according to environment, political situation, geographical location and socioeconomic conditions in home and host communities. My research focuses on migration out of northern Shan State, where human security concerns are an important, but overlooked, driver for internal migration.

    Internal Migration in Myanmar

    Internal migration is not a new phenomenon for a developing country like Myanmar, where economic and opportunity gaps between major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay and other areas of the country are entrenched. There was no nationwide census for over three decades, between 1983 and 2014, but there is data highlighting some migration flows between 1991 and 2007. Nyi Nyi’s (2013) survey found that 14 percent of surveyed people in 2007 had migrated internally while only 10 percent of those in 1991 were moving around, a modest increase over time. In 2014 it was reported that 19.3 percent of the population was moving internally (Department of Population, 2016). But even though internal migration is growing rapidly and has changed the makeup of urban and rural societies in Myanmar, scholars still tend to focus largely on transnational migration at the expense of internal migration.

    Nyi Nyi’s claim that the dominant domestic migration pattern in Myanmar was from less developed to more developed parts of the country is echoed by Maharhan and Theingi Myint (2015). In their study of the dry zone, specifically Mandalay and Magway Regions, they found that migration motivations centre on income and job prospects—economic reasons. Clearly economic incentives are important in migration decisions, but we should not conclude that migration is always, or most directly, a result of them exclusively. This is especially true in countries where there are striking political and security disparities between major cities and remote states and regions. Therefore, in addition to economic incentives as pull factors, political and security issues should be taken into account as push factors for migration.  Myanmar is one such country and the migration pathway from Northern Shan State to Mandalay displays these disparities.

    I am a Shan and from northern Shan State myself. I migrated to Mandalay and studied at the University of Mandalay from 2014 to 2020. During that time, I rarely went back to my hometown because my guardians discouraged it. They were worried about my security. Over the course of my time in Mandalay, I became aware that there were more and more people moving there from Northern Shan State. Their stories were in some ways similar to, and in others, different from my own. I was drawn to study this migration pathway and make these people visible in policy and scholarly discussions on migration. I began interviewing migrants for my studies, ending up with twenty key informant interviews. These people’s generosity made my research possible and informs what follows.  Interviewees’ names in this text are pseudonyms.  Hence, this article is based on the author’s interpretation and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the interviewees or affiliated institutions. 

    In northern Shan State, there are several active ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), such as Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).  There are regular armed clashes between EAOs and the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, as well as between individual EAOs. Recent examples in 2021 include fierce fighting for territory between the armies of the RCSS and the SSPP, and combined forces of the TNLA and MNDAA defeating Tatmadaw incursions. These armed conflicts have long threatened the security and livelihood of local people. Ceasefire attempts rarely bear fruit and civilians are often displaced into camps or monasteries following military movements and armed conflicts. Since the 1 February military coup, fighting has intensified in Kyaukme, Namhsan, Kutkai, Muse, Lashio and Namhkan townships in Shan State, with over three hundred “security incidents” reported by humanitarian agencies.

    Reasons for Migration: Displacement, Taxation and Forced Recruitment

    People’s personal security in northern Shan State is threatened in multiple ways. The most prominent threats are death, injury and displacement. Wars do not only affect soldiers, or people with arms or certain political positions – they affect all civilians unlucky enough to be in a conflict area. Clashes between armed organisations result in many injuries and deaths among civilians, especially when indiscriminate artillery fire is used – a common tactic used by the Tatmadaw. In addition to injury and death, wars also damage civilian homes, shelters and farmland. Honest hardworking people become homeless overnight, being forced to flee from their ancestral villages. As most villagers in northern Shan State are agriculturalists who depend solely on their cash crops as their source of income, crop failure or displacement directly affects their livelihoods.

    One Shan migrant to Mandalay named Pa Hla[1] said, “Sometimes, we have to run away from our village and stay at monasteries or temporary camps in nearby villages when there are clashes in our area. Although the war is not happening right in the village, we are afraid if there is artillery fire that we will get hurt or killed. Sometimes we can escape on time, but our houses are damaged. If the artillery shells fall on our farmland, we lose our crops and we have no income that year.”

    Another major threat to personal security is the looming specter of forced recruitment by EAOs. Up until now, people in Shan State are threatened by EAOs such as forced recruitment and taxation (Nandar & Mendelson, 2021).  This directly pushes young men in particular, out of conflict areas and into big cities. Most EAOs have no means of maintaining their armies without forced recruitment. They conduct household surveys and collect boys from villages, with mandatory enlistments from households with two male siblings. While some young boys are willing to serve, most are hesitant to get involved in EAO conflicts. Although there are avoidance strategies other than migration––such as getting married or ordaining as a Buddhist monk––migration tends to be the most enabling option as they can pursue their education and improve their career prospects.

    One informant, Sai Lao,[2] said, “It is not because I do not want to serve my ethnic army … I am just afraid that my future will disappear. My parents also do not want me to join as they worry for my safety. So, they sent me to an apartment here in Mandalay to stay in.”  

    A third determinant causing people in Northern Shan State to move from the area is coerced taxation. High-income households are frequent targets for taxation by EAOs and others, but large and increasingly, small businesses are also affected. In areas where there are several active EAOs, people have to pay tax to each of them individually, creating a severe financial burden. Moreover, in cases where agriculturalists’ crops fail due to armed clashes and displacement, it puts even more of an encumbrance on local people. As the situation has deteriorated in recent months, extortion of small businesses by unknown actors has become common. People are impersonating various EAOs and threatening to kill people unless they pay a sum of money. On top of this, Tatmadaw and other troops regularly demand food from villages they pass on their patrols and troop movements.

    Determinants and Decisions

    There is no denying the role of economic factors in internal migration. Several Shan migrants explained to me that they moved to Mandalay solely for economic reasons. However, in my research and my own experience, the vulnerability of communities in Northern Shan State and threats to personal security trump economic aspirations. While economic incentives may be important for choosing where to move, the first choice of migrating away from Northern Shan State is fundamentally one of personal security. Physical danger, displacement, taxation and forced recruitment all play roles in the predicament.

    My work has convinced me that more theoretical studies and empirical research should focus on how non-economic factors fuel internal migration in Myanmar. Through my research, which focused on people’s broad nation-state identity (Shan) and their geographic origins (northern Shan State), I also identified a clear need to analyse more deeply how migrants’ experiences of personal security and consequent migration intersect with culture, class and gender.

    The full paper based on this research will be published soon in the volume Moving Around Myanmar: Migration in, from and back to Burma by Chiang Mai University Press. As a young researcher, I hope to continue working on migration, development, social inequality, resistance, and vulnerable communities. In a part of the world with such entrenched and complex conflicts, this is a challenging, but important task.

    Sai Phyoe Zin Aung is a first year Masters student specialising in development studies at Chiang Mai University, Thailand.  He was raised in Northern Shan State and migrated to Mandalay for higher education seven years ago, where he became particularly interested in the struggles of Shan migrants. As an early career researcher, he hopes to continue working on migration, development, social inequality, resistance and vulnerable communities.  This piece is partly based on research for his chapter in the volume ‘Moving Around Myanmar: Migration in, from and back to Burma,’ being published by Chiang Mai University Press later this year.


    [1] Pa Hla (pseudonym) is a 56-year-old Shan migrant who is working as teacher in Mandalay.  She has been living in Mandalay for more than 10 years. She was contacted to participate in the research as an informant as she and the author have known each other personally from a Shan Festival in Mandalay. 

    [2] Sai Lao (pseudonym) is a 25-year-old photographer and event organizer who moved to Mandalay five years ago.  He was contacted via Pa Hla and was interviewed by the author for conducting the research. 

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