Myanmar 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.

The Burman people originally came from western China. In the Myanmar capital city of Rangoon, at least half of the population is of mixed descent from China, India, and Europe.

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.

There are an estimated 30 million people in Myanmar. Myanmar is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, Thailand, and the Indian Ocean.

The Burman language is similar to Tibetan and tribal languages in China. The Burman script was taken from the Sanskrit and is similar to Urdu, Hindi, Thai, and Cambodian. 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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 nih or 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Culture Heritages
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.

Craft & 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. Lacquer ware is a popular Burman craft. Bowls, trays, betel-nut and cigarette containers are the most commonly made lacquer ware.

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.