By Kyaw Myaing
Myanmar is a country steeped in culture and traditions. For example, the temples of Bagan built during the 11th Century stand as testimony to the organizational skill of the Myanmar kings, the skills of Myanmar craftsmen and the architectural skills of the architects of those days.
There is a Myanmar saying ” shay htone lei me pei hint, zay thone lei me lwei hint”
As Myanmar is a union of different ethnic nationalities, it is the duty of each ethnic nationality to preserve and protect their cultures and traditions. Preserving our culture is like preserving our self- respect, because all our values and beliefs are represented in various ways in our arts and crafts. For once we lose our self-respect, there is nothing else to lose. To maintain our Myanmar cultural identity, it is the duty of every Myanmar citizen to preserve the culture of all our ethnic nationalities.
All the respective nationalities such as Bamar, Shan, Mon, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Karen, Kayah have their own customs and traditions which they hold dear and which they do their best to preserve. The strength of our Union depends on the strength of each state and division and culture plays a very important role in fostering Union spirit and economic development.
Modernization does not mean doing away with our traditions and letting go of our culture. We need to be very clear about one thing. To become a modern nation we can study and learn all the latest skill sets, techniques and methodologies of Western countries. However, that does not mean we have to embrace western culture “lock stock and barrel” and try to imitate everything that westerners do. That would indeed be a disaster for us.
When we look at the culture of a society or of an ethnic nationality, we may see that there are two aspects. One is physical and tangible and the other is intangible. Our culture developed in our country over many decades. Culture is handed down from generation to generation by our parents.
For Buddhists, it is ingrained in our culture to pay respects to the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, Parents and Teachers. In Burmese culture this is known as the “the Anandaw Ananda Ngaba” or the “Five Infinites”. This is one aspect of our culture which we should not forget and which is very valuable for us.
Most of our Myanmar people are Buddhists. If you visit the home of a Buddhist, you will notice that children pay respects to their parents. (This is not to say that children do not respect their parents in other religions). This helps both the parents in their task of teaching their children how to behave towards elders, teachers, Buddhist monks and Buddhist nuns.
When the children grow up and when the time comes for them to leave their country to study in a foreign country, the son or the daughter will make it a point to kneel down in front of both parents to do the traditional “kadaw”. This is done with both palms touching each other and the person who pays respects has to bow down three times with both palms touching the ground. At this moment, it is the duty of the parents to give their blessings and to wish their children good health, happiness and success. This custom of doing the “kadaw” is a sign of humility and respect. During the time of Thadingyut ( Festival of Lights ) and Tazaungmone, Myanmar families go around visiting their grandparents, uncles and aunties to pay respects by performing the traditional “kadaw”.
In Myanmar culture, students organize annual ceremonies to pay respects to their teachers. This wonderful tradition gives a very good opportunity for the students to meet their former teachers who are now retired and advanced in years. On these occasions, the students pay their respects and also present special gifts such as cash donations, medicines or religious books. From the side of the teachers, it gives them great joy to meet their former students doing so well in life. Some may even be very senior officials in government service or senior executives in the private sector.
Another good tradition in Myanmar culture is the way young people behave in the presence of their teachers and elders. A young person always bows his or her head when walking in front of a teacher, parents or elders. This is also true in the government departments and in the private sector companies as well.
When we speak of culture language, literature, art and crafts, dance and music come to mind. In Myanmar culture we have the “Pan Sae Myo” namely: blacksmith, woodcarving, goldsmith, stucco relief, masonry, stone carving, turnery, painting, lacquerware and bronze casting.
We need to be able to take an objective look at ourselves and get rid of our weaknesses and try to strengthen our strong points. For example, we need to see that the “pan sae myo” or the ten traditional arts and crafts do not vanish because we have failed to give proper encouragement to these artisans and their crafts.
Another delightful tradition that I have found in Myanmar is the custom of offering laphet -pickled tea leaf salad and Burmese tea when visitors arrive at a house. From the health point of view, the hot tea is a refreshing drink when a visitor enters the shade of the house after being in the hot sun. The pickled tea leaf salad is appetizing as well as nourishing. The dried prawns, the peanuts, fried beans, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions, garlic and sesame seeds are all designed to give different kinds of nutrients.
As we march towards the development of a modern democratic federal Union, we all need to be very clear in our mind’s eye what aspects of modernization we are going to embrace and what aspects of our traditions and culture we wish to retain.
In my opinion, I firmly believe that it is the responsibility and duty of each State Government to build cultural museums (if they have not yet been done). These cultural museums could also serve as cultural centers where the traditions and cultures of each state could be preserved and given the encouragement they rightly deserve. Our history, our beliefs and our tastes in art are all reflected in our culture so by preserving our respective cultures and giving them the proper encouragement that is needed, we will in fact be supporting the building of a strong and stable Union rich in culture, traditions and diversity where peace and justice prevails.
By Kyaw Myaing