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April 19, 2019

The ever shining light of charity in the hearts of Myanmar people

It is indeed a source of pride and delight to learn that although Myanmar is not on the list of top developed or developing countries, it has topped the list of world giving index based on a survey in 135 countries of 3 categories, namely, charitable giving, volunteering, and willingness to help others, conducted by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), a British based foundation. Myanmar tied for top honours with the richest country in the world, the US. The result of the survey may surprise people from some countries, but it may not cause a great deal of amazement to the people of Myanmar. The reason is, whichever part of the country they live, whatever religion they follow, however poor they may be, it is the innate nature of Myanmar people to share whatever they have with those who are less fortunate than themselves. This accounts for the fact that the people of Myanmar are very reluctant to say no, especially when it involves a matter of somebody requesting assistance.
There are three main kinds of assistance that the people of Myanmar provide others – cash, kind or labour. If one does not have the means to donate cash or in kind, equally valued is volunteering to do something that benefits others, such as, taking part in constructing religious buildings, cleaning pagoda and monastery precincts, repairing roads and footpaths, helping in cooking and serving food at a food donation ceremony. Traditionally, people with valuable expertise, such as doctors and teachers, have also provided volunteer services, wherever they are needed.
Like other religions, Buddhism encourages the regular practice of good deeds and helping others. As a good Buddhist, one is expected to adhere to Sila, keeping of the Buddhist precepts or the code of conduct, give Dana, charity and practise Bawana, meditation, in order to reach a better plane of existence. Not every Buddhist makes the effort, or finds the time to practice meditation, but the average Myanmar Buddhist tries to uphold the five basic precepts, of the ten precepts, which are abstaining from taking the life of any living thing, abstaining from taking things not given by others, abstaining from sexual misconduct, abstaining from untrue speech and avoiding intoxication. Similarly, he/she tries to perform as much charity as possible. The first priority is to donate to religious causes, making donations in kind, cash and labour for construction and maintenance of pagodas, ordination halls, monasteries and other religious edifices, giving alms to monks and nuns, supporting them with the means to learn the scriptures and promote the Sasana, holding sermon delivery ceremonies by monks for the public, etc. In addition to donation of religious buildings, Myanmar people are also fond of donating rest houses for travelers, ponds, artisan wells and drinking water for public use.
Many Myanmar people, rich or poor, dream of holding an ahlu pwe, a donation or alms giving ceremony  accompanied by a feast to which one’s relatives, friends and neighbours are invited, and they fulfil this dream it as soon as they have the means. People living in villages holding an ahlu would invite the whole village, meaning all the members of every household, regardless of status or familiarity, in addition to their relatives and friends living in other villages.  The ahlu would be held to donate something, or it could be held to mark an occasion, the ceremony to novitiate one’s sons, celebration of one’s birthday, or marking an anniversary, like the death anniversary of one’s parents, spouse, etc. On the other hand, the ahlu may be held for no special reason, other than a person having some extra money in hand, due to a bountiful harvest, or the winning of lottery. Similar to the ahlu is the satuditha, the offering of food to all comers. Satudithas are usually held by individual families, groups of relatives, associations, or residents of the same ward, at pagoda festivals, or during the Myanmar New Year festival. The food can be a full meal, cold drinks to quench the thirst of people, or some Myanmar snacks to relieve the hunger of merry makers. Goodwill is also extended to animals. Some people regularly feed birds, fish and stray cats and dogs. The Myanmar New Year is also an occasion to buy and set free captive birds, fish and also cattle which are taken to sanctuaries especially set up for them.  Donation ceremonies for special groups are also held to mark various occasions. I still recall the 1000 children and 1000 stray dogs feeding ceremony held by a family in my neighbourhood annually during my childhood days.
With the establishment of homes for the aged poor, orphanages, schools for the handicap, public libraries, free monastic schools, hospices, charitable associations that offer assistance for funerals, some people prefer to celebrate their weddings and birthdays by making donations to these institutions in place of holding lavish celebrations. It is also delightful to note that that more and more young people are donating part of their earnings to good causes and holding fund raising events to help needy groups, at their own initiative. In times of natural and man-created disasters too, Myanmar people including young people, join together to make donations and provide assistance, as recent events have shown. It is also to be welcomed that the business community have now become more conscious of their corporate social responsibility and are carrying out such activities as donating schools, clinics and hospitals, furniture and equipment, and setting up scholarship funds for needy and outstanding students and mobile libraries, etc, in addition to donating religious buildings.
There is no doubt that the government and the people of Myanmar are more aware of the need to help less fortunate persons, and they are providing more assistance to those in need of help than ever before. However, there are still many people who require assistance, as in many other parts of the world. The number of abandoned and orphaned children in orphanages continues to grow. There are many street children waiting to be rescued. There are many children from poor families waiting for assistance to attend schools. There are many decrepit schools that remain to be renovated. There are many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds waiting to develop their vocational skills. There are many youths needing counseling regarding the problems they are facing. There are many needy people who require medical assistance. There are many people, like small-scale vendors, who could vastly benefit from a small financial loan.  There are many indigent old people who have no family support. There are many areas, especially in the arid zone, waiting to get potable water. There are many parts of the country that lack electricity. There are many historic buildings waiting to be preserved. There are many cyclone prone regions that need more storm shelters.
It is hoped that more attention will be given to the groups and areas mentioned above, as well as to those that traditionally do not receive much attention. As will be noted from the survey conducted by CAF, the spirit of giving in kind, cash and service is already deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of the Myanmar people. The only thing needed is to draw more attention of those who have the means and the expertise to help, by persons and organizations already involved in assisting such groups and areas.

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