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Myanmar

 

A Very Brief history.

Situated between the two great nations India and China the cultural heritage of the people of Myanmar is not to be underestimated. Often overlooked in history or drawn into the history of others (i.e. British India, The Japanese Empire) it is in fact a place where a multiplicities of histories lives.

Since around 1500 BC people have lived in what the current borders define as Myanmar. People who were turning copper into bronze, domesticating chickens and pigs, growing rice and were some of the first people in the world to do so.

Since the early century AD walled cities and kingdoms of various ethnicities and customs ruled the land. Albeit, the Burmese enjoyed a hegemony of about 2000 years of being the greatest kingdom amongst many others. Between 30 – 40[1] different ethnic groups and even more sub-groups and languages co-exist here today (although not all of them peacefully).

The three greatest kingdoms in Myanmar history include the Arakan kingdom (1287-1785), Mon kingdoms (which include three kingdoms that ruled from ca. 800-1757), and the Burmese kingdoms (which furthermore include various dynasties and kingdoms from 849-1885)

The borders of a ‘united’ country originate largely from British colonial times when Burma (as it was then called) was considered a part of British India. Albeit, even the Shan kingdoms enjoyed a great deal of autonomy.  Places such as the Shan states can only truly be considered a part of the union since the Panglong agreement in April 1947 when the various ethnic groups got together to ask for independence as a union (an agreement the Karen ethnic group boycotted as they wanted full independence not an interdependence resulting in civil war for which they are still fighting today).

This border was clinched with the military coup in 1962 where all autonomy that had remained was taken by the military. The military feared dissolution of the union and from thenceforth with force has given defined borders to Myanmar as a nation-state and histories of several kingdoms and people groups written into a unified one: that is the history of Burma.

Furthermore, the 1962 military coup resulted in a secluded and sealed Myanmar for the next 50 years to come. Especially in the 1990s Myanmar was not encouraged as a tourist destination and Aung San Sui Kyi (the leader of the National League for Democracy and daughter of the national hero Aung San, who is known as the father of the 1948 independence) promoted restrictions and sanctions be placed on Myanmar in order to pressure the government.

In 2010 a bicameral parliament was elected (although still with the military aka. Tatmadaw guaranteed 25% of the seats). Since 2012 people enjoy freedom of speech. 

 

Myanmar or Burma and the significance of a name

In 1989 Burma changed its name to Myanmar and the former capital Rangoon became Yangon. This was part of a military campaign to promote a better outward self-image.

There are about as many types of cuisines as there are ethnic groups. Whilst rice transcends them all as a staple there are also differences. Whilst Shan food is also known for its noodle dishes Burmese stick mostly to rice and Chin have included potatoes. Burmese food has a reputation of being extremely oily whilst the Kachin use no oil at all in their cooking.

There are more languages than there are ethnic groups and different New Year’s celebrations for almost all of them. Due to this beautiful and great diversity which exist here most people prefer the name Myanmar as it is considered more inclusive. The Burmese are just one group amongst many. In addition, many people seem to have accepted Myanmar as a classification and will tell you. “I am Myanmar. However, there is no Myanmar language as such and the dominant linguistic group remains Burmese.  People of a different mother tongue often learn Burmese in school.

 

Religion

Religon is everywhere and religion is overt: Hanging as emblems from rear view mirrors. Every house and every shop has their own mini temple, “Nat” (Spirit) shrines are everywhere.

Although 90% of the population professes to Buddhism,  take a walk around town – especially Yangon a and you will find Churches, Sikh temples, mosques, Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples, Chinese Hindu temples, Nat Shrines (a reserve from Animism), hand readers and astrologers all occupy the cityscape. Yangon even has a Synagogue. 

It is not taboo to ask someone their personal belief, rather Myanmar people would find it strange if you confess that you believe in nothing as everyone here believes in something.  Religion in other words is a strong part of not only people’s beliefs but their identity, an identity they often wear visibly.

People in Myanmar are friendly and welcoming ready to help you OR try to help you OR find somebody who can help you – as long as they get to help you. Attention to people of a whiter skin is unavoidable.  Even if they only know a few sentences of English they will use them:

“Hello-how-are-you-where-you-from-where-you-go”?

… and often in one breath too.

It should not be assumed that because they are talking to you it also means they want to sell you something (of course sometimes that is the case too).
Oftentimes, they are just curious people who are interested in striking up a conversation and practising their English.

 

Clothes

Orwell, Sargent, Kipling, Neruda upon visiting Burma all comment on Myanmar’s richness in colour evident in the way people dress in radiance. Mostly, everyone still wears traditional clothes although amongst the younger population you will see jeans as well. Women wear longyis in various patters and men the same but tied differently and with chequered pattern often more in shades of dark green and blue or brown.

Women wear the yellow Thanaka paste made from bark that has been used for more than 800 years. Thanaka is make-up, considered aesthetically pleasing and has the practical function of being a natural UV protection. There is a strong preference for gold jewellery and for special occasions they will set their hair with flowers. The orchid is the national flower.

In any holy place you need to wear clothes that cover both knees and shoulders. If you want to take off the edge of the attention given you, you should avoid tank tops and shorts. However, if you prefer shorts and tank tops no one will give you the evil eye but forgive any clothes on account that you are a foreigner (except of course if you wear it in a pagoda area).

 

Celebrations

Thingyan:

Myanmar’s biggest celebration takes place in April when the temperatures peak over 40 degrees Celsius and even for summer- loving people it is too hot. During this time you have to clean yourself both physically and spiritually before you can enter into the Buddhist New Year. It’s called Thingyan or in English aptly named Water festival. In this period all the shops close down, the country goes on vacation and is turned into a nationwide water fight. If you step outside you will be drenched and must accept the drenching too as it is all kept in a good spirit of getting cooled down so you can become “Happy-Happy” as they say.

Others include full moon festivals, Chinese New Year, Eid, Martyrs day, Union day, Independence day just to mention a few.

 

Fast facts:

  • 90% of the forest left standing in Asia is in Myanmar
  • Yangon has the best preservation of colonial architecture in all of Asia.
  • Capital: Naypyidaw (since March 2006)
  • Largest city: Yangon – 6 million inhabitants
  • Population: estimated to be 60 million people (more than the last census)
  • Burmese is the official language and it is estimated to be spoken by 32 million people
  • Other indigenous languages include: Shan, Kachin, Chin, Mon, and Karen.
  • Climate: monsoon tropical   
  • Best time to visit: October – February (also high season for tourism)
  • Largest Ethnic groups: Burmese (Bamah), Shan, Karen (Kayin), Chin, Kachin, Mon, Arakanese.
    • Besides that Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi minorities have resided in the country for several hundred years.

 



[1]This goes against Myanmar’s own statistic but this text here agrees with other renowned writer, such as Bertil Lintner, suppision that the number 135 is founded on astrology that 1+3+5 is 9 and 9 is an auspicious lucky number. It is more realistic that there are between 30-40 ethnic groups. This is still an astounding number considering between 53-60 million inhabitants. 

 

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