Shan Youth: Between Shan State and Thailand

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

This past summer, the International Alliance of Research University (IARU) held its inaugural field research program, titled, "Borderlands," in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In addition to doing field research with BEAM, a local NGO focused on integrating refugees into Thailand's education system and workforce, I produced a research proposal that discussed the cosmopolitan nature of Chiang Mai and the effects it has on refugee identity formation. The following is an excerpt of that proposal.


“Mai Soong Ka!” “Sawasdee Ka(b)!” For the Shan people of Burma, the difference between these two greetings is clear-cut: the first is Shan and the second is Thai. However, for Shan migrants in Thailand, linguistic and cultural boundaries have transcended traditional barriers and blended themselves into migrant lives – blurring the line between what is Shan and what is Thai. The similarities between these two cultures has made Shan integration in Thai society somewhat smooth, as the Shan have adapted their cultures to those of Thailand and have even created their own ethnic enclaves (“Brokers of Nostalgia”). Today, there are not only ethnically Shan neighborhoods, but also Shan radio stations, festivals, and shops sprinkled throughout the city (“Brokers of Nostalgia”). However, the fluidity between cultures has created – for some Shan migrants – a multicultural hybridity of sorts and sometimes even a complete transition from Shan-ness to Thai-ness. (For this proposal, I will be using the term, ‘Shan-ness,’ to refer to an identity that is mainly Shan-oriented).

Shan identity and pride have played prominent roles in the Shan ethos for well over half a century, as conflict between the Burmese state and ethnic minorities has continued for the last several decades. Although Shan culture is prominent in Shan-dominated communities, there is little research about how Shan identity progresses in areas in which the border between Thai and Shan is more permeable. The city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is, therefore, is a fitting environment to study this Shan-Thai fluidity and its effects on Shan migrants’ own identities. Chiang Mai has not only one of the largest Shan migrant populations in Thailand, but it has also historically been a hotspot for Shan-Thai interactions (“Forever Transnational”). Furthermore, it is important to study identity and identity development, as it is a sizable part of migrant culture, allowing migrants to not only develop who they are as individuals, but also come to terms with their newfound socioeconomic positions in the new country, in regard to assimilation, adaptation, and more.

Thesis Statement and Research Questions

I want to investigate the cultural identity formation of Shan migrant youth in Chiang Mai (those who came from Burma to Chiang Mai between the ages of 6 and 12), taking into consideration, elements including, but not limited to, social networks and socio-economic status, that affect identity formation. I hope to understand how various social networks and socio-economic statuses of Shan migrants account for identity formation – especially in a culturally fluid environment as Chiang Mai, where the intermingling of the culturally similar Shan and Thai social spheres in everyday life may cause confusion and conflict in identity development.

Research Questions: Issues I am considering include, but are not limited to:

A. How do different social networks and exposure to different cultures affect Shan identity? a. How does the presence/absence of a clear external distinction between Thai and Shan affect one’s life? (i.e. Shan household, but Thai school). i. Why and in which contexts does the individual deploy one ‘aspect’ of themselves (either Shan or Thai) over the other? ii. How does the individual think? As a Shan migrant living in Thailand? As a Thai citizen/resident? Both?

1. Why and in which contexts does the individual deploy one ‘style’ over the other? What factors may account for this? b. How might familial pressure to act a certain way affect self-identity? c. How do the local living environment’s (household, neighborhood, city) values affect identity development? d. What is the role of social media in Shan identity formation? i. What kind of social media is being used and what information is being conveyed or consumed? ii. How does exposure to and use of social media affect one’s perception of Thai/Shan culture? e. How does participation in cultural activities and events (i.e. Shan New Year, the Water Festival, Shan concerts) affect ones’ understanding of Shan culture?

B. How does socio-economic status affect Shan identity? a. How does legal status affect the visibility of Shan-ness in an individual? b. What implications does “acting thai” have on Shan-ness? c. How might gender roles affect identity? d. How does level of education play into one’s knowledge about and connection to Shan society? e. Does amount of income have a correlation to Shan-ness? f. How are interactions with Thai people and what does it mean in terms of migrant positionality and identity?

Literature Review

Literature pertaining to Shan migrants in Thailand does exist; however, it is scarce. Much of the literature focuses on cultural negotiations between Shan ethnic enclaves and the greater Thai society with emphasis on the identity formation of whole enclaves as they attempt to assimilate into Thailand. As a result, most research is on the establishment of ‘home-lands in exile’ (“Negotiating Identities”), Thai pressure for assimilation, and transnationalism as an identity influencer.

As studies have pointed out, Shan enclaves in Thailand establish clear distinctions between Thai culture and Shan culture. This strong concentration of Shan values in migrants’ lives results in many growing up to also identify as Shan. Susan Oliver’s “Contemporary Issues Facing Shan Youth and Their Families,” and Frida Bjørneseth’s “Vision, Visibility, and ‘the Art of Acting Thai,’” discuss how the predominant Shan populations in Thong Mak San and Pai, respectively, establish strong Shan communities that heavily shape youths’ Shan-ness, or, Shan self-identification. This Shan-ness embeds itself into youth identity so that, even as adults, these people still identity as Shan and prefer Shan enclaves.

In addition, “Vision, Visibility, and ‘the Art of Acting Thai,’” brings the issue of semi-forced assimilation. The paper mentions how Shan people in Thailand often have to ‘hide’ themselves and act Thai in order to draw attention away from themselves and escape the watchful, discriminatory eyes of Thai authorities. Although many are legally allowed in Thailand, migrants are nonetheless afraid of how Thai authorities would act should they discover the true identities of these ‘Thai’ Shan. As a result, many migrants leave their Shan-ness and temporarily embrace Thai-ness to escape scrutiny (Vision, Visibility, and ‘the Art of Acting Thai’).

Furthermore, much of the literature refers to the idea of transnationalism as well as the “myth of return.” The rise in telecommunications has made it easier than ever to stay connected to communities back in Burma, creating a sort of transnational system that allows Shan migrants to essentially be in two societies at once. Extending from this, the “myth of return” keeps migrants rooted in their home culture, as they believe that they will eventually return and that it is paramount to maintain their original culture as to not be alienated when they return. (Forever Transnational).

As seen above, there have been studies that investigate Shan identity in Thailand, and how it can be affected by factors such as ethnic enclaves, social media, societal and familial pressures (from both Thailand and Shan State), and transnationalism. There are also discussions about how socio-economic status can affect migrant experiences in Thailand – the more disadvantaged a migrant is, the more scrutiny and harassment he or she tends to face for being Shan (“Vision, Visibility”).

However, there is little mention of how Shan migrant youths deal with the transnational nature of Shan life in Thailand – especially in cities such as Chiang Mai, where there is quite an overlap between Shan and Thai culture. The Shan in Thailand are in a unique position when it comes to identity formation, because the Shan-Thai dynamics that come into play as a result of cultural and physical proximity can cause confusions and conflicts for identity development. Researching how Shan youths develop identity in Chiang Mai may not only provide a greater insight on the various factors that affect identity formation, but also add to the literature revolving around Shan migrants’ experiences and conflicts.

Method and Design

Demographics: I will investigate cultural identity formation of Shan youth in Chiang Mai through interviews of at least 20 youth. For the purposes of this project, I will look at Shan migrant youth who came from Burma to Chiang Mai between the ages of 6 and 12, and have been living in Chiang Mai for at least 10 years. I chose this demographic, because I believe that this age range gives them enough time to somewhat establish a Shan identity but keeps them mentally pliable/impressionable as to allow the multicultural nature of Chiang Mai to further affect their development. The youth should have lived in Chiang Mai for at least 10 years as to give them reasonable exposure to Thai culture. The study, “Is Adolescence a Period of Identity Formation for All Youth?” conducted by Osaka Prefecture University and Hiroshima University found that early-mid adolescents (~13-16) tend to be at a time in their lives of identity exploration while mid-late adolescents and onward tend to be more affirmative and confident in their identities (“Is Adolescence a Period”). This provides the opportunity for the individuals to have comparative reflections on their experiences pre-and-post migration and adolescence, and have their identities more-or-less settled, helping me with more concise and effective answers that I can utilize.

In addition, the cohort I am engaging with will consist of 2 different kinds of individuals: half who are often active in Shan communities and half who have not been much exposed to other Shan – outside of their families. I will also try to get a balanced gender ratio to investigate what function, if any, gender roles may play in identity development. I believe doing so would give me the chance to identify which elements play a role in shaping identity as well as provide the data needed to compare various factors.


In order to build up my interviewee base, I will talk to NGO’s in Chiang Mai that interact with Shan migrants to some extent (BEAM – Bridging Educational Access to Migrants, SSSNY – The School for Shan State Nationalities Youth, etc) in the hopes of being able to tap into their local networks and find people suitable for my inquiries. Furthermore, as I start gathering individuals, I will also see if they can refer their peers and so on, allowing me to expand my base and find people more effectively than going through NGO’s. A potential issue I may encounter with this is the human connection - individuals may be either naturally shy or unwilling to openly talk with me as they may perceive me as an outsider, creating problems as I will not be able to engage with them to the extent that I may want to. I propose to address this issue by conducting the interviews with context, making interviewees comfortable with me by providing a reasonable introductory period in which I make myself more well-known and integrate into the local culture in the hopes that this will allow the subjects to be more open.


Regarding data collection, I will conduct one-on-one in-depth, but open-ended and semi-structured, interviews – as this will allow me to guide conversations, but not load questions or dominate topics. Leoandra Rogers and Niobe Way discuss in their, “Using Semistructured Interviews to Examine Adolescent Racial-Ethnic identity Development,” that research done with semistructured interviews aids to reveal not only subjects’ identities, but also the implications of that identity and its relationship with other aspects of daily life (“Using Semistructured Interviews”). The open-ended discussions allow me to not only obtain the information I need, but also keep the conversation open so that interviewees may bring up issues that are relevant but that I may not have considered. In addition, making these interviews casual and open may allow me to build rapport with the interviewees, allowing them to become more comfortable around me and possibly provide more in-depth answers and data. Furthermore, I plan on recording all of the discussions with a recording device and take notes sparingly, as to not detract from the conversation or be too off-putting with notetaking.

© 2023 by The Artifact. Proudly created with