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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma #25

Mainichi Daily News, Monday, May 13, 1996


"Water Festival (2)"

Letter from Burma (No. 25) by Aung San Suu Kyi

	This year /thingyan/, the water festival that takes place at the end of the
Burmese lunar year, began on the 12th of April.  On that day, in the midst
of a flurry of activities connected with the ceremonies the NLD was planning
for the 14th, we arranged an /ata/ pot.  This is an earthenware vessel
filled with symbolic leaves and flowers for the purpose, some hold, of
welcoming /Sakya/ when he comes down for the water festival.  Others see it
as an insurance against ill luck, particularly for those who were born on
the day of the week on which the last day of thingyan falls, as such people
are held to be highly vulnerable to misfortune during the year to come.
Whatever the original purpose may have been, placing the ata pot in an
auspicious part of the house is generally seen as an indispensable part of
the preparations for thingyan.
	The flower especially associated with the water festival is the /padauk/
(the Indian or Malabar Kino), bright yellow with a very sweet but light
fragrance.  It usually blooms at this time of year after a shower of rain
but as the second week of April was quite dry we had resigned ourselves to a
thingyan without the enchanting sight of frothy golden blossoms adorning all
and sundry.  However on the day of our NLD water festival somebody brought
some padauk which had been found in bloom on some eccentric tree and I was
able to tuck a happy spray into my hair.
	In Arakan on the western coast of Burma thingyan is celebrated in a
particularly refined and charming way.  Therefore we arranged our water
throwing somewhat along the lines in which it is conducted by the Arakanese
although we could not observe all their beautiful thingyan traditions.
Three long wooden boats were filled with water and young women stood behind
the boats armed with bowls in which they scooped up water to throw at the
young men who queued up to stand opposite them, behind a barrier of bamboo
poles.  To throw back water in their turn the young men had to try to catch,
in small cups provided for them, the water thrown by the young women.  Of
course the whole arrangement was blatantly in favor of the young women who
were able to keep up a relentless deluge.  Whoever ducked his head or turned
away his face or wiped it or shielded it in any way was held to have
surrendered.  It must be admitted there were very few surrenders although
the young men were barely able to collect enough water in their cups to
enable them to return fire.  Each water battle lasted for one minute.  A
whistle would be blown to indicate that time was up and one dripping and
bedraggled batch of water warriors would make way for another.  Those who
were not content with a single bout of water throwing would go straight out
to stand in queue for another round.  There were many indefatigable spirits
who spent most of the day by the water boats, taking a rest only at the
hottest time of the afternoon when play was stopped for a short period.
	At the same time as the water throwing was going on there was an almost
continuous program of songs and dances for the entertainment of those who
wanted to sit and dry out.  Most of the dances had been hastily rehearsed by
amateurs and could not have been described as examples of choreographic
perfection.  But imbued with the generous spirit of the season, the audience
were quite determined to be pleased and even the most fastidious of them
willingly overlooked the flaws.
	The main purpose of our thingyan celebrations was to collect funds for
political prisoners.  There was a stall where NLD souvenirs were sold, a hot
drinks stall, a stall selling pickled tea and ginger preparations and stall
where a substantial Burmese meal could be bought at a very reasonable price.
A Burmese meal basically consists of what the Japanese would describe as
/kare-raisu/, although our curries are considerably different from the kare
that is served in Japan.  During the days of thingyan many Burmese eat
vegetarian food as an act of merit so a variety of both vegetarian and
nonvegetarian curries were provided at our food stall.  The exercise
involved in wielding bowls, buckets and syringes and the sheer exhilaration
of a good drenching when the temperature is in the nineties give a sharp
edge to one's appetite.  It was little wonder our food stalls made very
brisk trade and sold out early.
	There is a lovely Burmese custom known as /satuditha/.  This is a Pali
expression meaning the four directions and satuditha is the charitable act
of offering free food or drink to those who come from the four points of the
compass, that is to say, to all comers.  For our thingyan celebrations NLD
members from various townships in the Rangoon division had provided seasonal
sweets and cool drinks as satuditha.  It was a pleasure to watch the faces
of those at the satuditha stall; their expressions were such a striking
illustration of mutual joy and satisfaction.  We believe satuditha results
in spiritual benefits not only for those who offer it but also for those who
accept the offering because by accepting they help the others acquire merit.
Moreover, it is held that partaking of satuditha offerings during thingyan
brings good health in the new year.

* * *

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.