Today is the start of Thingyan, Burma’s traditional New Year’s water festival. Thingyan originates in Hinduism, with the new year signified by the Princess Devi passing on the Brahma’s head to the next Devi. Thingyan in Burma became a purification ceremony, where people sprayed each other with water to wash away last year’s sins and get ready for the new year. Recently, Thingyan has become a rowdy commercialized holiday, with major companies sponsoring pop concerts, DJs, dances and water-throwing events. Burmese people also visit pagodas and monasteries, pay respect to the elderly and do charity work. Thingyan celebrations are community parties featuring singing, dancing and traditional food.
This year, however, the junta has increased control over the holiday and has laid out strict laws governing the water festival celebrations for the common people of Burma. The junta announced 39 rules governing water festival participants, including limiting the location of pavilions. The pavilions must have Burmese names, must show Burmese art, guests must wear traditional Burmese clothing, eat only Burmese food and dance in a way reflective of Burmese culture. Of course, the junta and those associated with the junta are free to break those laws. Senior General Than Shwe and his business cronies will be are celebrating their own festivities in Naypyidaw. Than Shwe’s grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung, will host his own pavilion with the rich children of businessmen and other offficials. The new pavilion laws do not apply to them.
Last week, US Campaign for Burma teamed up with Georgetown University’s STAND to celebrate the Thingyan Water Festival and to raise awareness about the political situation in Burma. Students celebrated the Burmese new year with their peers and chalked the quad to spread the word about the struggle for democracy in Burma.
One important aspect of Thingyan is Thangyat, a traditional Burmese protest song which contemporary Burmese use to voice their grievances. Since 1988, the military junta has outlawed any form of protest and has banned Thangyat as a result. This hasn’t stopped exiled Burmese around the world from performing protest songs, selling CDs and even broadcasting them back into Burma for citizens to listen to in secret. Burma’s military regime can make laws limiting Thingyan, banning Thangyat and upholding sham elections, but Burmese in exile will use their traditions to attack the military regime and expose their charade to the world.