ALTERNATE NAMES: Burmese, Myanmar
LOCATION: Myanmar (Burma)
POPULATION: 30 million, estimated.
LANGUAGE: Burmese (also called Myanmar)
RELIGION: Theravada Buddhism
The country known today as Myanmar or Burma is a multiethnic entity, formed in colonial times from Burman, Rakhine, and Mon kingdoms; Karenni and Shan principalities; Chin, Kachin, Naga, and Wa chiefdoms; as well as Karen and other communities. Burmans are the largest ethnic group, with an estimated 68% of the population. Myanmar is an ancient name for the land of the Burmans, Burma (or Bama) is a less formal name. Burma was used as the name of the entire nation during the British colonial period and following independence, but the military government officially renamed the country Myanmar in 1989. The Burmese democracy movement, U.S. government, and BBC News continue to use Burma while the United Nations uses Myanmar. The Burman people are also called Bamar or Burmese.
Like many other peoples of Myanmar, the ethnic Burmans descended from western China. During the 7th century, they migrated to the dry areas in the valleys of the Irrawaddy River and the Chindwin River. Originally a hill tribe, they learned the art of wet rice cultivation from the indigenous Pyus and converted themselves to Buddhism, which flourished then among the Pyus. From the dry zone of Burma, the Burmans migrated to what is now lower Burma. In British colonial times, many Burmans moved to lower Burma, outnumbering the Mons in their own land. In the country's largest city, Rangoon (also spelled Yangon), much of the population is of mixed descent from China, India, and Europe.
King Anawrahta founded the first Burman kingdom in 1044 at Pagan. There were three Burman dynasties: the Pagan, Ava, and Konbong. Most Burman kings were aggressive towards their neighbors and attacked Arakan, Mon, Thai, Manipur, Shan, and Assam kingdoms whenever they were confident and militarily strong enough. Loot, slaves, and white elephants were the main attractions.
Burma's sovereignty ended in 1885 when the British annexed Burma for the final time and colonized the region. During World War II the Japanese invasion force was initially backed by ethnic Burman leaders and most of the Burman population, while other ethnic groups supported British and American forces. Although the Burman leadership under General Aung San switched sides later in the war, the wartime ethnic conflict continued after the war was over. The Burmans and other ethnic groups had grown to distrust each other.
In 1947 the Burman leader General Aung San negotiated with the British for Burma's independence. In the course of the negotiations, Aung San met with the leaders of the people bordering the land of the ethnic Burmans. The Chin, Kachin, and Shan agreed to join the Burman union. In 1948 Burma gained independence together with the Chin, Kachin, and Shan. General Aung San and his cabinet were assassinated right after independence. Since gaining independence the ethnic Burmans have built the governments that have ruled Burma, first replacing the British with the democratic government of the Union of Burma. Burma remained democratic until 1962, when the head of the military, General Ne Win, took over in a coup d'état, in order to crush ethnic and Communist insurgency. Ne Win's military dictatorship introduced "The Burmese Way to Socialism" and the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), which ran the affairs of the country. A prosperous country under the British, Burma became one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. General Ne Win dissolved the BSPP in response to a mass civil disobedience uprising led by students against the government in 1988. After killing several thousand peaceful demonstrators, another military government—the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—took over in September 1988 and was still in power as of 2008, although its name was changed to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The most powerful of the generals is the SPDC junta's head, Gen. Than Shwe.
Rebellion by non-Burman ethnic groups continued on a small scale into the 21st century and the regime was notorious for its human rights violations against civilians in the non-Burman areas, including Karen and Shan States. Repression also extended to the Burman population, with Gen. Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, an extremely popular democracy movement leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, held under house arrest for many years. Her party, the National League for Democracy won 1990 elections in a landslide, but was never allowed to take office. In 2007 Buddhist monks led tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets of cities and towns, peacefully calling for change, but the "Saffron Revolution" was violently suppressed by the regime. On 2 May 2008 Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma's Irrawaddy Delta region, killing at least 80,000 people in Myanmar's worst recorded disaster, and leaving millions with their homes and farms destroyed. The Delta's population is mostly Burman and Karen and had been the major rice producer for the nation. The military regime was strongly criticized by the international community for rejecting immediate relief efforts from the outside world.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The population of ethnic Burmans is estimated at around 30 million, but a true census has not been taken since the 1930s. Burma is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Tibet, Laos, Thailand, and the Indian Ocean and it is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. Most of the Burman people live in central and southern areas, including the cities of Rangoon (Yangon), and the former royal capital, Mandalay, which is considered the cultural center for the Burman people. There are also many Burman refugees and emigrants in many other countries, although the bulk of overseas populations from Myanmar are of other ethnic groups.
The Burmese language (also called Bamar) belongs to the Tibeto-Burman subgroup of the Tai-Chinese group of languages. The Burmese language has affinity to Tibetan and the Lolo tribes in China. The Burmese script was taken from Sanskrit and is similar in that way to Urdu, Hindi, Thai, and Cambodian, although its rounded letters are very distinctive. Because of the colonial influence, English is widely spoken as the second language of the Burmans, especially among the older generation.
Burman names are equivalent only to a first or personal name. The Burmans usually have no family names. Burman names have meanings. For example, "U Nu" (former Prime Minister) means "uncle young," or "uncle tender." "U" means "uncle" but is used in the same way as "Mr." in English. "Ma" is equivalent to "Miss" and "Daw" (aunt) for women. The Burmans stress age in social and human relations. An elder must be addressed as "uncle" or "aunt" or, if the ages are not far apart, as elder brother ("ako") or elder sister ("ama"). Most Burmese names consist of two or three words (e.g., Ne Win or Khin Maung Gyi.) Infrequently, a Burmese person will add a family name to their own, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, whose name contains the name of her father, Burma independence hero Gen. Aung San.
The Burmans fear and respect spiritual beings called the Nats, which they celebrate in their ritual plays, prayers, sacrifices, and dances. These beliefs coexist with Buddhism in Myanmar, but are not part of the Buddhist religion. The Nats are believed to be very clever and possess immense power. They have human bodies and can exist in the trees, on top of mountains, in the ocean, and anywhere else. The 37 major Nats have distinct personalities, usually based on real people who died terrible deaths. The people give offerings to the Nats out of fear, so that they will protect them. Thagyamin, considered to be
a god, hears all and knows all, and is usually honored during the New Year Festival. The Burmans also honor the Naga, divine serpents that live at the bottom of rivers, seas, and oceans in palaces built from precious stones and pearls. They are the protectors of the water and land. The Naga serpents have the advantage of being able to take the form of human beings, whereby the female Naga can become beautiful women and marry powerful men in order to influence them. The Burmans also believe in Bilus, monsters who live in hidden places.
The Burman people are close to 100% Buddhists of the Theravada type, which originated in Sri Lanka and emphasizes the wisdom of ancient scriptures to show how humans may overcome suffering. Before the Burmans came to Burma, the Pyu and Mon people were influenced by the Buddhism of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka.) Burman kings invaded their neighboring countries and brought back slaves and artisans to build pagodas or temples and captured religious teachers, such as the Mons. Burma has over one million Buddhist temples. Old Burman cities, such as Pagan, Ava, Sagaing, and Mandalay, remember past Burman glories with their numerous pagodas. Rangoon is the site of the magnificent gold leaf covered Shwe Dagon Pagoda. In cities, towns and villages, Buddhist monasteries are centers of community life, culture, and learning. In the morning, lines of monks walk along the streets, accepting offerings of food and blessing the households. Many Burmans practice meditation every day, as a way to gain insight into life and achieve a calm state of mind.
Although Buddhism is supposed to be tolerant, Myanmar's military regime has been accused of trying to impose the majority religion on non-Burman, non-Buddhist ethnic groups. Buddhist monks have often been a political force in Burma and marched against military rule in 2007's Saffron Revolution. They are highly respected by the Burmans, but many were beaten, arrested, and even killed by the military at that time. After Cyclone Nargis in 2008 Buddhist monasteries provided sanctuary for storm victims and organized local relief efforts.
The Burmans have two major holidays. The New Year, combined with the Thingyan (or "Water Festival"), takes place April 13–16; April 17 is the New Year. During the Water Festival, at the height of Myanmar's hottest season, everyone sprays each other with water from cups, buckets, or water-pumps. Respect is shown to elders, who have water poured gently on their hands, but everyone else (including foreign tourists) is fair game for getting completely soaked by the water splashing. Young Burmans take this opportunity to express their secret love to girls or boys by throwing water on them. Song and dance performances and satirical skits also take place at this festive time. The other major Burman holiday takes place on the full moon of Tasonmon in November and is called the Light Festival. Like Christmas in the Western world, at that time the Burmans decorate their houses with lights, mostly candles. Wearing their best outfits, young men and women walk the town streets, which are filled with people.
Myanmar's national holiday commemorates independence from Britain on the fourth of January with military parades, speeches, and gun salutes. Union Day, observed on February 12, celebrates the signing of the Panglong agreement, in which the Shan, Kachin, and Chin agreed to join the Burmans to form the Union of Burma in 1947. Martyr's day (August 12), the day Aung San, the founding father of the Union of Burma, was assassinated, is also observed.
RITES OF PASSAGE
As soon as a baby is born, the mother avoids eating meat, especially fish. From birth, boys and girls are treated differently. Names are usually given immediately after birth, but it is not unusual for the baby to be unnamed for many months. The initials of the names reflect the day of the week on which the baby was born, and that day is important in Burmese astrology, with an animal or symbol for each day of the week. For a girl, ear-piercing is an important event, meant to beautify her. When a boy is born, a learned man is invited to wash the baby's hair. The learned man places gold and silver coins in a cup, which is used to wash the baby's hair so that he will grow up rich.
One of the most important duties of the parents of a boy is to send him to the Buddhist temple to train as a novice monk. The boy can be anywhere between 9 to 13 years old, depending on whether the boy believes he is able to survive without food from noon until night, when the monks fast. The celebration starts with the boy's dressing up as a prince and being carried on a platform to the temple. He is not supposed to touch the ground. On reaching the temple, the parents bring out a special cloth, on which the hair of the boy is to drop without falling on the ground. After the boy's hair is shaved, he officially becomes a novice monk with prayers and Buddhist chanting. The duration of the monkhood can last from three days to a week. Some novices stay on to become monks, in which case the monkhood lasts a lifetime. Grown men sometimes go back to the monastery as monks for a limited period. Girls and women may become Buddhist nuns, sometimes in later life if they are widowed. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks wear robes of a dark red color, and Buddhist nuns wear pink robes. Their vocation is to know and teach the Buddhist scriptures, but the monks and nuns provide support to their communities in many other ways.
A deceased person may be buried or cremated with a coin in their mouth so that the deceased can pay for boat and bus fares in the afterlife. The family brings leaves from the funeral ground back home so that the dead relative will know the way home. Seven days after death, a monk is called to tell the deceased that he can go anyplace he or she wishes to go from that day on. Most Burmans believe in ghosts and haunted houses.
Burmans greet each other by asking "Have you eaten?"—they do not have a specific "good morning" or "good evening" greeting. If the person is visiting and replies in the negative, the host is obligated to serve food. If the answer is in the positive, then the next question will be, "What did you have for your meal?" Meeting on the street, they tend to ask, "Where did you go?" or "From where did you come?" These greetings are more a formality than an actual question. In the morning they may say to each other, "Are you up already?" There is also an expression, "Mingalaba," which means "Welcome" or "Hello."
Burman men and women hold hands in public only if they are already engaged or married. However, men often hold hands with each other, and women may hold hands with each other, just as friends. Kissing is still regarded as a Western custom, and kissing in public places is regarded as uncultured. As would be expected, nodding the head means "yes," and shaking the head means "no."
Because telephones are very expensive, people visit each other at home whenever they have time. They visit each other in the very early morning or at night, usually unannounced. The Burmans are very friendly and are always open to visitors.
Parents often play a role arranging their children's marriages. Astrologers match their birth day of the week for a man and woman; for example, two people are a good match if they are born on a Wednesday and a Saturday. Nowadays, a boy and a girl might meet more casually and go to see a movie or have dinner together. If a boy likes a girl, he may walk in front of the girl's house a thousand times until the girl and her family notice him. He may also give her a love letter, which she might refuse or reluctantly accept, which does not mean complete rejection. In traditional Burman society, a girl's acceptance of admiration is a serious commitment and indicates that a wedding is not far off. More casual relationships have become normal in urban areas and universities, however.
Myanmar's health care system has gotten worse and worse under military rule, and malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV/AIDS are among the common diseases. Malnutrition is also widespread, particularly among children. Most people live on one dollar a day or less, and own very few possessions. They have only necessities, such as two or three cooking pots, a few plates, wooden spoons, and some articles of clothing. Radios and books are cherished possessions, and only the elite own cars, telephones, computers, or TV sets. Even for well-off people in the cities, electricity is unreliable, so they must use generators to keep lights and appliances running.
Burma is an agricultural country and therefore about 80% of the population lives in the countryside. Most Burman farmers have a pair of oxen or water buffalo for wet rice cultivation, a hoe, and a cart. Chickens, goats, and pigs are raised for food. Burman farmers do not own horses, but some towns still have horse carriages for transportation. Houses of the Burman rural people are made mostly from bamboo and have two partitions; one side is for cooking and storage, and the other half is used for sitting and sleeping. In urban areas, brick and concrete buildings, often dating back to colonial times, contain small apartment spaces.
Burmans' means of transportation include ox carts, bicycles and motorbikes. Trucks and jeeps take passengers between towns. River ferries, buses, and trains link towns and cities, and are usually very crowded and slow. There are also domestic airlines, which fly between Rangoon (Yangon), Mandalay, and a few other airports, but they are used mainly by government officials and tourists.
Usually a Burman family has at least five children. The family also includes grandparents and the extended family members. When a Burman man marries a woman, it is most likely that he will live with the woman's family. The grandparents of his wife and possibly the parents of his mother-in-law all live in the household. The brothers and sisters of his wife might also live in the house. The man goes to live with his in-laws because he is expected to go to work all day and be absent from the home. He has very little contact with his mother-in-law. On the other hand, if the wife went to live with his family, she would be in constant contact with her mother-in-law, and they may experience difficulties. Young couples also live together with their parents because the babies can be better taken care of by aunts and grandmothers. Burmans are expected to look after their elderly, so it possible that parents may stay with their children their whole lives.
Dogs are the most common pets, but are kept outside to guard the house. Cats are also a common pet. Many Burman farmers keep cows and water buffalo for plowing their fields and pulling carts.
Both Burman women and men wear sarongs, called htami for women and longyi for men. The sarong is a long tube of cloth that is wrapped and tucked in at the waist for women, knotted at the waist for men. The designs on the longyi and htami are different according to regions and fashions. Men traditionally wear collarless shirts with their longyis and women wear short, fitted blouses and jackets. The traditional clothes are made of cotton, but for special occasions they are woven of silk. Wealthy people adorn themselves with gold jewelry and the gems produced in Myanmar: rubies, sapphires, pearls, and jade. Farmers wear big conical hats as sunshades, and people often carry umbrellas as shelter from sun or rain. Burman women and children use a fragrant wood paste called thanaka as a cooling sunscreen on their faces and women also pin flowers in their hair.
Because the sarongs don't have pockets, a cloth shoulder bag is an essential accessory for men and women. Among younger Burmans, jeans have become popular. Sometimes jean jackets or t-shirts are worn with sarongs by younger people. The Myanmar school uniform is a green sarong and a white shirt for boys and girls, with a cloth shoulder bag for carrying books. Everybody wears flip-flops outdoors and goes barefoot inside the house.
The staple item of Burman food is white rice, eaten with a curry of fish, pork, beef, or chicken, plus vegetables, garlic, and ginger. Fish sauce, chili, and dried shrimp are used for flavor. Ngapi, a pungent fish paste, is eaten at almost every meal. Burmans do not eat meat in large quantities. Meat is usually cut into small pieces, about one-half inch on all sides, and fried with lots of oil. The two most common Burman noodle dishes are Mohinga and Ohnokhaukswe. Mohinga is rice noodles mixed in a thick fish soup. Ohnokhaukswe is a chicken stew cooked in coconut milk, also served with noodles. Burmans love to eat sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy snacks. Unripe mangoes and limes are a must for the meal to be properly served. Fruit is usually served for dessert or a snack and may include ripe mango, pineapple, watermelon, or mandarin oranges. Tea, either plain or with milk and sugar, is the most common beverage. A salad called laphet thoke is made of pickled tea leaves with garlic and peanuts. Beer and soda pop are produced in Myanmar and imported beverages are very expensive.
Burmans eat rice and curry with their fingers and soup is eaten with a spoon from a shared bowl. Most restaurants in Burman areas are run by Chinese or Indian ethnic people; Burman food is normally available in homes or at temple fairs. Burmans normally eat two times a day, once in the morning, which could be considered brunch, and the other meal in the afternoon. They may start and end the day with tea or coffee and a few cookies. As the country has become more impoverished, many Burmans subsist only on watered-down rice soup, instead of rice and curry.
The literacy rate among the Burmans was traditionally quite high because Buddhist monasteries served as the center of learning, where the monks functioned as teachers. After independence, with public schooling, Burma had one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. However, education steadily lost funding and declined under military rule. Because university students led the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the regime closed down educational institutions nationwide for several years. Myanmar's educational system is highly controlled, with university students assigned their major fields of study instead of choosing for themselves. Teachers are underpaid and often work second jobs. Access to books and computers is very limited. In spite of the many problems, Burmans seek educational opportunities for their children (girls as well as boys) as their highest personal priority. Many overseas Burmans have advanced degrees and are medical doctors or university professors.
Burmese classical music is performed by orchestras at Pwes or concerts, usually in open-air theaters. It uses a gong and drum percussion ensemble for complex rhythms, accompanied by stringed instruments and horns. Some Burmese music has also been adapted for the piano, an instrument imported by the British. Vocal music uses the orchestral compositions or a harp as background.
Burmese dances are very graceful movements of the whole body and feature hand gestures combined with fast, skilled footwork. The classical dances are performed by learned professionals with years of strict training. Burmese dance dramas, with an orchestral score, mostly are romantic love stories and are accompanied by an orchestra.
"The Glass Palace Chronicle," written in the 19th century, recounts the history and mythology of the Burman monarchy. Although the Burmans have a rich literary history, often with Buddhist themes, literature has been very limited under military rule by strict censorship. It is extremely hard to get serious fiction or any nonfiction published, but popular magazines feature romantic stories and poetry. Books in Burmese and English are considered very valuable and are shared by many readers.
Most Burmans are farmers, going to work in their rice and vegetable fields very early in the morning, before dawn. When the sun becomes hot they go home to rest and eat. They go back to the fields when it cools down until darkness. Part of the rice crop is often confiscated by the military.
People with education often work as civil servants. Office hours are from 9:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. In 2005 the SPDC moved the capitol of the country from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, in a remote area 200 miles to the north. Government workers were compelled to move there and a new complex of office buildings was built for them. Many government workers, and even teachers and doctors, must take second jobs to support their families.
Myanmar has some manufacturing of goods for local use and garments for export, although factory wages are low. Many Burmans work in small craft workshops, making lacquer ware, baskets, pottery, and tobacco cheroots. Burman men and women run shops, market stalls and street carts, selling a great variety of goods in rural and urban areas. Extra farm produce is brought to markets for sale, usually early in the morning. Children work on farms and in other occupations, including manufacturing and construction.
The army in Myanmar is very large, with almost half a million mostly Burman troops. Most soldiers join voluntarily in hopes of a better living standard; however, many are forced to join, and Myanmar's army is known for its thousands of child soldiers, who are raised with the military as their parents.
Burman refugees have tried to continue their education in exile, although most take any work available so they can survive in a new land. Some have careers in journalism or work for human rights organizations. Other exiles are professionals in the arts and sciences and Burman doctors can be found around the world.
Chinlon, a typical Burman sport, resembles hacky sack. A cane ball about 6 inches in diameter is kicked by people standing in a circle, passing the ball from one to the other. This sport can be played by two or more people, on flat ground anywhere. Soccer is the favorite spectator sport of the Burmans, attracting large crowds. Other popular sports include volleyball, badminton, and Burmese kickboxing.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
The most common live entertainment for the Burmans is the Pwe, in which music and dance dramas are played along with comedy skits, usually outdoors and lasting all night as part of a temple fair. Traditional puppet shows use a set of characters portrayed by large wooden marionettes.
Myanmar's television stations, like newspapers and other media, are completely controlled by the military regime, so satellite TV is a popular alternative. Burmans watch local or foreign movies in theaters, or on disc at video parlors. Hollywood movies set in Myanmar include Beyond Rangoon and John Rambo, both of which are banned by the regime.
Satirical comedy performances are a Burman tradition but often land the performers in trouble with the regime. Myanmar has an underground hip hop culture, whose rappers have ended up in prison as politically suspect. The SPDC controls the Internet servers, but young Burmans find ways to communicate with the outside world through Internet cafes. Burmans also enjoy karaoke singing and video games.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Myanmar's Burman areas are replete with pagodas and monasteries. The prayer pavilions of the pagodas are decorated with elaborate wood carvings. Most Burman homes have a Buddhist shrine with Buddha images set on wood carvings resembling the thrones of Burman kings. Painted wooden statues of the various Nats are also made by the Burmans. Lacquer ware, in which layers of shiny shellac form a colorful coating on a bowl, tray, or box, is a popular Burman craft. The lacquer items often are carved with scenes or painted in gold. Burmans are also known for their silk weaving and for kalaga tapestries of royal or mythical scenes, which are embroidered with velvet and sequins. Charming toy tigers, elephants, and owls, handmade of paper maché or wood are still sold in the markets of Myanmar.
Myanmar is one of the world's poorest countries despite many natural resources. Corruption is pervasive, usually involving military officials and rich business owners. Narcotics are easily available, and drug abuse affects a large section of the population, especially young people. Many people are unemployed and seek sanctuary in the power of drugs to forget their daily miseries.
In Burman areas the regime often demands that each household or family must supply laborers to work in the construction of railroads, roads, government buildings, etc., calling it voluntary work. However, these people are never paid and must bring their own food for the duration of their assignment. If a household is unable to supply a laborer, the household is fined a large sum of money.
While human rights violations are most severe in non-Burman areas of Myanmar, repression is also pervasive in Burman regions. People are often arrested without any reason given and jailed without trial for many years. Family members may be imprisoned if a dissident relative has escaped from arrest. Freedom of expression is almost completely nonexistent in Myanmar, although ties to the outside world through underground Internet and cell phone networks are increasing. Overnight house guests must register with the authorities and travel is highly restricted. Decades of repression and poverty for the Burmans and other people of Myanmar have led to a psychology of fear, depression, and resignation, which Aung San Suu Kyi, the Buddhist monks, and student activists try to overcome with messages of hope and by examples of courage.
Traditional Burman society was distinguished by rights for women in property ownership, marriage, and divorce. While women are considered to have less status than men in Theravada Buddhism, they have always played an active role in Burman society. Women are vital participants in health care and education. Burman women sell goods in markets and shops and own small businesses. In the family, the wife has the duty to look after what her husband earns. The husband delivers his total paycheck to the wife, and the wife administers the household budget. Burmans are usually as eager to educate their daughters as their sons.
Contradicting the social and economic status of Burman women is Myanmar's military rule, which is entirely male-administered, with no women holding important office, although the main opposition party is headed by a woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is greatly respected throughout Myanmar and around the world. Burman folk beliefs also express a suspicion of women, who are thought to have powers that can weaken men. Many Burmans believe that these powers can contaminate men if they come into contact with women's sarongs or undergarments. Women and transgender people can become mediums to the world of the Nat spirits, a respected role in Burman society. Although its emphasis is on male/female marriage, Burman society is usually very tolerant of gay, lesbian and transgender people.
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—revised by E. Mirante)
ALTERNATE NAMES: Myanmar
LOCATION: Myanmar (Burma)
POPULATION: 30 million
1 • INTRODUCTION
The country, Union of Myanmar, is known by two names: Myanmar and Burma. The Burman people pronounce the name of their country as "Bamah." In 1990, the military government of the Union of Burma named the country "Myanmar" (which the people pronounce as "Myanmah"). Outside Myanmar, people refer to the country as both Burma and Myanmar, mainly depending on whether they support the military government or not.
In 1885, the British annexed Burma and colonized the region. In 1947, the Burmese leaders negotiated with the British for Burma's independence. The neighboring areas of Chin, Kachin, and Shan became part of independent Burma. Burma functioned as a democracy until 1962, when a military dictatorship took over. This started a decline in the country's economy. By the late 1990s, Myanmar had become one of the ten poorest countries in the world.
2 • LOCATION
3 • LANGUAGE
Burman people have only a first name, and all names have meanings. Burmans have no family names. It is impossible to trace one's ancestors by name. For example, U Nu means "uncle young" or "uncle tender." U means "uncle" but is used in the same way as "Mr." in English. Ma is equivalent to "Miss." Daw means "aunt" and is used to refer to women in the same was as "Mrs." or "Miss."
|how are you?||nei kaun ye la?|
|how do you do?||ma-ye la?|
The Burmans stress age in social and human relations. An elder must be addressed as "uncle." If the ages are not far apart, as with an elder brother, then ako is used; for an elder sister, ama is used. Most Burman names consist of two or three words (for example, Ne Win or Khin Maung Gyi ).
4 • FOLKLORE
The Burman revere spiritual beings called the Nat, which they celebrate in their ceremonial plays, prayers, sacrifices, and dances. The Nat or Nathami (female) are believed to be very clever and possess immense power. They inhabit human bodies and exist in the trees, on top of mountains, in the ocean, and everywhere else. The Burman cannot imagine what the Nat look like, but they fear them. The people give offerings to the Nat so that they will protect them. Thagyamin, a Nat considered to be a god, hears all and knows all, and is usually honored during the New Year Festival.
The Burman also honor the Naga, spirits that live at the bottom of rivers, seas, and oceans in places built from precious stones and pearls. They are the protectors of the water and land. The Naga have the advantage of being able to take the form of human beings, whereby the female Naga become beautiful women and marry powerful men in order to influence them. The Burman also believe in Bilus, the loner cannibals who are said to live in hidden places.
5 • RELIGION
The Burman people are almost all Buddhists. To promote Buddhism, Burman kings invaded their neighboring countries and brought back slaves to build pagodas or temples. They also brought back religious teachers. Myanmar has over one million Buddhist temples. Despite being devoted Buddhists, the Burmans still believe in their traditional spirit beings.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
The Burman have two major religious holidays. The Burman New Year, combined with the Thakyan (Water Festival) takes place April 13 to 16; April 17 is the New Year. During the Water Festival, loved ones splash each other with water from cups or buckets. Young Burmans take this opportunity to express their secret love to girls or boys by throwing water on them.
Another Burman holiday takes place on the full moon in November and is called the Light Festival, which is celebrated like Christmas in the Western world. The Burman decorate their houses with lights (mostly candles because electricity is not widely available). Wearing their best clothing, young men and women walk the town streets which are filled with people.
The Burman celebrate Independence Day on January 4 with military parades, speeches, and gun salutes. Union Day, observed on February 12, celebrates the signing of the Panglong agreement, in which the Shan, Kachin, and Chin agreed to join the Burman to form the Union of Burma in 1947. Union Day is usually celebrated with sporting competitions among the ethnic nationalities. Each ethnic group has its own costumes, making the Union Day celebrations very colorful. Arjani nihor Martyr's Day (August 12) commemorates Aung San (1914?–47), the father of the Union of Burma, who was assassinated.
Myanmar has many more holidays, far outnumbering the usual holidays celebrated in the United States.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
The birth of a child is not a particularly important event because the Burman usually have many children. As soon as a baby is born, the mother avoids eating meat and fish. She also does not use soap. From birth, boys and girls are treated differently. Names are usually given immediately after birth, but it is not out of the ordinary for the baby to be unnamed for many months. When a boy is born, a learned man is invited to wash his hair. The learned man places gold and silver coins in the cup that is used to wash the baby's hair so that he will grow up rich. Girls consider ear-piercing an important event to make themselves more beautiful.
One of the most important duties of the parents of a boy is to send him to the Buddhist temple to train as a novice monk. Although it costs money, a parent who sends his child to monkhood is believed to have secured a place in paradise after death. The boy can enter the temple anytime between the ages of nine and thirteen, depending on when he feels ready to go without food from noon until night. The celebration marking the beginning of Buddhist training starts with the boy's dressing up as a prince and being carried on a platform to the temple. He may not touch ground. On reaching the temple, the boy's head is shaved and the parents bring out a special cloth to catch his hair before it drops to the ground. He then officially becomes a novice monk. Prayers and Buddhist chanting celebrate the moment. The duration of a boy's Buddhist training is usually from three days to a week. Some novices stay on to become monks for the rest of their lives.
At death, it is believed the deceased will travel in the afterlife. Therefore, the corpse is buried with a quarter in its mouth to pay for boat and bus fares. The family brings dirt from the funeral ground back home so that the dead know the way home. Seven days after death, a monk is called to tell the deceased that he can go any place he or she wishes to go from that day on.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Burman greet each other by asking "Have you eaten?" They do not have a "good morning" or "good evening" greeting. If the person is visiting and replies in the negative, the host is obligated to serve food. If the answer is in the positive, then the next question will be, "What did you have for your meal?" Meeting on the street, they tend to ask, "Where did you go?" or "From where did you come?" These greetings are more a formality than they are actual questions. In the morning they may say to each other, "Are you up already?"
Burman men and women seldom touch each other in public. They hold hands in public only if they are already engaged or married. However, men often hold hands with each other, and women may hold hands with each other. Burman do not traditionally shake hands. A young man may touch the head of a girl without holding it to express his closeness to her. Hugging is not practiced, although people may hug each other in private. Kissing is regarded as a Western custom, and kissing in public places is not allowed. As in the United States, nodding the head means "yes," and shaking the head means "no." If a Burman is hungry, he may touch his stomach.
Because telephones are rare, people visit each other in their homes whenever they have time. They visit each other in the very early morning or at night, usually unannounced. The Burman are very friendly and are always open to receiving visitors.
Parents play a role arranging their children's marriages. Because the Burman traditionally do not date, it is difficult for young boys and girls to meet. Nowadays, though, a boy and a girl might go to see a movie or have dinner together. Before a boy and a girl go together, they match their birth day of the week according to Burmese superstitions. For example, Burmans believe two people are a good match if they were born on a Wednesday and a Saturday. If a boy likes a girl, he may walk in front of the girl's house a thousand times until the girl and her family notice him. He may also give her a love letter. The girl might refuse the letter or reluctantly accept it. A girl's acceptance of admiration is a serious commitment and indicates that a wedding is not far off.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Sanitation is very poor because there are no sewer systems and therefore most houses do not have bathrooms. Sewage washes down into streams and rivers, which also serve as the drinking water supply. Therefore, many diseases are common. Malnutrition is also widespread among children.
People have very few material goods. They have only necessities, such as two or three cooking pots, a few plates, wooden spoons, and very few articles of clothing. Because it is a warm climate, they rarely have blankets.
Myanmar is agricultural and about 80 percent of the population lives in the country. Most farmers have two oxen or buffalo for wet rice cultivation, a hoe, and a cart. Burman farmers do not have horses. Rural houses, including the floors and walls, are made mostly of bamboo. The houses are actually small huts and have two partitions; one side is for cooking and storage, and the other half is used for sitting and sleeping. There is no furniture in the houses. In urban areas, brick and concrete buildings offer very small living spaces.
For most Burmans, the only means of transportation is the cart. Public transportation systems are hopelessly overcrowded and are often unsafe and dirty.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Usually a Burman family has about five children. The family also consists of grandparents and the extended family members.
Under Buddhism there is no limitation on the number of spouses one can have at the same time. A person can marry as many women or men as they want to, although this practice is rare today.
When a young Burman man marries a young woman, they will live with the wife's family. The brothers and sisters of the wife might also live in the house. The man goes to live with his in-laws because he is expected to go to work all day and be absent from the home. He has very little contact with his mother-in-law. On the other hand, if the couple went to live with the husband's family, the young wife would be in constant contact with her mother-in-law, and they may experience difficulties. In the family, the man is expected to earn a living and the wife's duty is to look after what her husband earns. Thus the man delivers all his paychecks to the wife and she administers the household budget. Grandparents also help the young couple take care of any babies that are born. If a farmer has only a son, the son must stay in the parents' household to take over the farm. Thus the bride must live in the groom's home. Burman are expected to look after their elderly, so it possible that parents may stay with their children their whole lives.
Dogs are the most common pets of the house. Cats are also a common pet. Many families keep cows and buffalo.
11 • CLOTHING
Both Burman women and men wear htami or longyi, a long tube of cloth that is wrapped around and tucked in at the waist. No matter how poor a Burman may be, he or she will still own a Burmese jacket and a silk longyi or htami to wear on important occasions. The designs on the longyi and htami are different according to personal tastes. Men wear collarless shirts with their longyis and women wear short, fitted tops. For special occasions they wear silk shirts or blouses. They may own only one or two shirts or blouses. Burmans do not wear underclothing.
12 • FOOD
The staple of the Burman diet is usually rice, eaten with a lot of curry (but not as much as in Indian food), garlic, and ginger. Fish sauce and dried shrimp are used for flavor. Ngapi, a stong-flavored pickled-fish paste, is eaten at almost every meal. Burman do not eat meat in large quantities. Meat is usually cut into small pieces and fried with oil. Onions, garlic, and spices such as curry and salt are mixed and slowly cooked. The two most common Burman dishes are Mohinga and Ohnnukhaukswe. Mohinga is slightly fermented rice noodles mixed in a thick, fish soup. Ohnnukhaukswe is a chicken stew cooked in coconut milk, also served with noodles. Underripe mangoes and limes are typically served with meals. Burman eat hot, sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy snacks. The Burman commonly eat with their fingers. Soup is eaten with a spoon shared by two or more people.
Green tea is one of the most common drinks, next to water. Alcohol is frowned upon and very few people drink it regularly. Food is a favorite topic of conversation among the Burman. That is why they greet each other by saying, "Have you eaten?" or "What did you have for lunch?" The Burman normally eat two times a day, once in the morning, which could be considered brunch, and the other meal in the afternoon.
13 • EDUCATION
The literacy rate (ability to read and write) among the Burman is usually quite high because Buddhist monasteries serve as the center of learning, where the monks function as teachers. Since the introduction of schools by the British, learning in the monasteries is becoming less popular since the British schools offer more subjects. Monastery education only consists of reading and writing. Because Burma was a colony, people looked at the colonial officers with envy, so they encouraged their children to get a good education and become civil servants. Students are, however, allowed to quit public schools at any time.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
There are different types of Burman music, classical and modern. Classical music is performed at Pwes, or concerts, in open-air theaters. A traditional Burmese instrument is the saung gauk, a harp-like stringed instrument. Modern Burman music shows strong Western influence, especially from country music.
Burmese dances are very graceful movements of the whole body. Hand gestures are combined with skilled footwork. It is said that Burman dances were copied from Thailand, and indeed, they have many similarities. Burmese dances are performed by learned professionals, and therefore do not offer the average Burman a chance to participate in the dancing.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Most Burman are farmers, who go to work early in the morning, long before dawn. When the sun becomes hot they go back to their huts to rest, eat, and possibly sleep. They return to the fields when it cools down and work until dark. People with education are likely to work for the government.
16 • SPORTS
A typical Burman sport is the chinlon, a cane ball that is kicked by people standing in a circle, passing the ball from one to the other. This sport can be played by two or more. There are no losers or winners. This sport can be played on flat ground anywhere—on the streets or in the yards. Soccer is the favorite spectator sport of the Burman, attracting large crowds.
17 • RECREATION
The most common entertainment for the Burman is the Pwe, a comedy drama with music and dance. Puppet shows are also popular. There are no plays in established theaters, as there are in the West. Pwes and puppet shows are street theaters. Movies have become the most popular entertainment.
Television was introduced to Myanmar recently. Videotaped Burman plays are becoming very popular. The most popular recreation is, perhaps, gossiping.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
The dry zone of Myanmar is full of pagodas and monasteries. Prayer pavilions of the pagodas are decorated with elaborate wood carvings. Almost all Burman homes have a Buddhist shrine with beautiful wood carvings of Buddha sitting on an elaborate throne. Lacquerware is a popular Burman craft. Bowls, trays, betelnut and cigarette containers are the most commonly made lacquerware.
News in the papers or on radio or television is controlled by the government. People gossip to such an extent that news about people, especially the ruling elite, reaches everyone.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Myanmar's social problems are the result of political and economic isolation, which have been brought on by the government during the last thirty years. Myanmar is one of the ten poorest countries of the world. Crime is growing, and public corruption and theft are prevalent. Myanmar is also the largest opium producer in the world. Opium and heroin are available on every corner of Myanmar and affect a large section of the population, especially young people. Many people are unemployed and seek relief from drugs to forget their daily miseries.
The government demands that each household or family supply laborers to work in the construction of railroads, roads, government buildings, and the like, calling it voluntary work. These people are never paid and must bring their own food for the duration of their assignment, usually two weeks. If a household is unable to supply a laborer, the household is fined a large sum of money, which is impossible for most families to pay. The military also forces villages to supply porters to carry army supplies to their operations. According to the government, these are voluntary works that were common under the colonial administration.
The United Nations has declared Myanmar as among the worst human rights abuses in the world. People are often arrested without any reason and jailed without trial for many years. There is fear in the mind of every citizen. There are no civil or human rights in Myanmar—only the government has rights. Because the Burman are the majority in a multi-ethnic society, they control every branch of the administration and oppress the smaller minority groups.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
American University. Burma: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983.
Herbert, Patricia M. Burma. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1991.
Orwell, George. Burmese Days. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.
Silverstein, Josef. The Political Legacy of Aung San. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1993.
Steinberg, David J. The Future of Burma: Crisis and Choice in Myanmar. New York: Asia Society, 1990.
Wright, D. Burma. Chicago: Children's Press, 1991.
Interknowledge Corp. Myanmar. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/myanmar/, 1998.
World Travel Guide. Myanmar. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/mm/gen.html, 1998.