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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma #24

Mainichi Daily News, Monday, May 6, 1996


"Water Festival (1)"

Letter from Burma (No. 24) by Aung San Suu Kyi

	Poets who have known the disturbing beauty of spring in temperate lands
write about the month of April with a quivering nostalgia, fascinated, and
perhaps a little frightened, by its uncertain glory.  April in tropical
Burma is of a totally different order from "... the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, stirring Dull roots with spring rain."
	The cruelty of April in Burma lies not in the pain of returning life but in
the searing heat and brassy glare of the sun that saps strength and energy,
leaving people as parched and exhausted as the cracked earth.  It is during
this hot and draining month that the Burmese New Year falls.  And fittingly
the New Year is celebrated with a water festival.
	The name of the festival is /Thingyan/.  Thingyan denotes a changeover and
the suffix /maha/, great, is often added to indicate the major change from
an old to a new year which the festival celebrates.  We also use the suffix
/ata/, ending, as the festival actually takes place during the last four
days of the old year and the ata water that we pour on each other as part of
the festivities symbolizes peace and prosperity and the washing away of
	The form of the Thingyan festival has changed perceptibly over the last 200
years.  An Englishman, Captain Symes, sent by the Viceroy of India on an
embassy to the Burmese court at Ava in 1795 left a description of the water
festival in which he took part:
	"To wash away the impurities of the past and begin the new year free from
stain, women on this day throw water on every man they meet, and the men are
allowed to throw water on them in return.  This permission to throw water on
one another gives rise to a great deal of harmless merriment, especially
amongst the young women, who, armed with large syringes or squirts and
vessels, try to wet every man that goes along the street, and in their turn
receive a wetting with the utmost good nature.
	"The slightest indecency is never shown in this or in any other of their
sports.  Dirty water is never thrown.  A man is not allowed to lay hold of a
woman, but may throw as much water over her as he pleases, provided she has
started first."
	The age of chivalry when only women were allowed to start throwing water
first have long gone by.  And these days water hoses fitted with nozzles
that spurt out strong jets of water have largely replaced syringes and
squirts and dainty vessels.  And many Burmese, especially those belonging to
the older generations, would sadly admit that it can no longer be claimed
that "the slightest indecency is never shown" during the festival,
especially since alcoholic excess has come to be associated with thingyan.
In modern times it has become the practice to set up temporary buildings for
the purpose of throwing water and provide entertainment in the form of songs
and dances on the sides of city streets.  Carloads of merrymakers go from
street to street getting wetter and wetter and in some cases getting more
and more intoxicated.
	But there is more to thingyan than throwing water and having fun.  It is a
time for taking stock of the past year and using the last few days before
the new year comes in to balance our "merit book."  Some people spend the
period of the water festival in meditating, worshiping at pagodas, observing
the eight precepts, releasing caged birds and fishes and performing other
meritorious deeds.  Children are told that /Sakya/ comes down from his
heavenly abode to wander in the human world during the days of thingyan,
carrying with him two large books, one bound in gold and the other bound in
dog leather.  The names of those who perform meritorious acts are entered in
the golden book while the names of those who do not behave properly are
noted down in the dog leather tome.  It is especially important not to get
angry during thingyan or to make others angry.  It is therefore considered
wrong to throw water at anybody who is unwilling to be doused.
	There are special foods associated with thingyan.  One of the most popular
of these are small boiled rice dumplings with a stuffing of palm sugar,
eaten with a sprinkling of shredded fresh coconut.  Often hot chilies are
put in place of the palm sugar in a few dumplings and there is much good
humored laughter when some unfortunate bites into one of these lethal
sweetmeats and vociferously expresses his chagrin.  Because it is such a hot
time of the year sweet, cooling drinks made from coconut milk, swirling with
bits of rice pasta tinted a pale green, saga, seaweed jelly and other
garnishes are served as part of the festivities.
	A traditional part of the water festival has disappeared in recent years:
the /thingyan thangyat/, rhyming choruses that provide pungently witty
commentaries on topical subjects, particularly on the government.  It was a
way of allowing people to let off steam healthily once a year and also a way
of allowing sensible governments to know how the people truly feel about
them.  But the SLORC is incapable of coping with criticism.  Members of the
NLD who sung such choruses in 1989 were imprisoned.

* * *

This article is one of a yearlong series of letters, the Japanese
translation of which appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or the
previous day in some areas.