“Thingyan Festival” – the sad side

by Mungpi
Sunday, 12 April 2009 09:43

New Delhi (Mizzima) – Even as Burmese people across the country, swathed in a festive mood, look forward to the Burmese New Year and the rejuvenating water festival, a resident in Laputta town of the Irrawaddy delta said things are grim for him.

“I cannot think of having fun, when I do not even have enough to eat,” he said.

The miseries in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the steadily deteriorating economic situation in Burma laced with the global economic meltdown have hit people hard.

The town of Laputta is among the worst-hit in the Irrawaddy Delta, by Cyclone Nargis when it lashed Burma in May, last year.

Despite nearly a year having elapsed, residents in the town, like many others in the cyclone hit areas, continue the struggle to reclaim their lives.

“There is not much festive mood in the town,” said the resident, adding while New Year is a festive time, most of the townsfolk are struggling to re-build their lives.

Normally, he said, people in Laputta town offers donation during the Thingyan festival, as a good deed to bring luck and prosperity for the next year.

“However, this year the number of people offering donation has drastically gone down,” he added.
He said, while there have been efforts to rebuild lives, many survivors of the disaster, continue to suffer from lack of clean water, sufficient shelter and are finding it difficult to return to their normal livelihood.

But when asked, the resident refused to narrate his bitter experience of the storm, saying, “I would appreciate if I am not asked to re-tell my experiences.”

Cyclone Nargis, which crashed into Burma’s coastal region of the Irrawaddy and Rangoon division on May 2, 2008, left at least 130,000 people dead and missing. It devastated more than 2.4 million peoples’ lives and left a permanent scar on the survivors, who are now reeling under its aftermath.

Laputta Township, located in the Irrawaddy River delta in southwestern Burma, fell directly in the path of the Nargis and suffered severe damages and casualties of up to 80,000 people.

Efforts by the international community, including the United Nations agencies to help survivors cope with the situation has in recent months stepped up. Several aid agencies said they were committed to provide middle-term assistance for rehabilitation and reconstruction of the lives of the survivors.

The Tripartite Core Group, formed with the UN, the Burmese government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has said it is working on a mid-term recovery and reconstruction, which will take at least three years and a funding of nearly USD 500 million.

However, the assistance is just not enough, the resident said.

“How can I forget my past and concentrate on my job. I have lost everything…,” he said.

The hardship of the resident, however, is not shared only by people living in the cyclone-hit areas. A local shop owner in Maupin Town of the Irrawaddy division, where there were no reports of severe damage by the cyclone, said the festive mood of Thingyan had lost its essence.

“Here, I did not see people enthusiastic for Thingyan,” the vendor said.

In earlier years, she said, her little shop, where she sells basic commodities, such as rice and beans etc, was busy attending to customers before and during the festival.

“But this year, particularly this season, the sales have dropped drastically,” she added.

While the impact of the cyclone has influenced the lives of people living in the delta, other parts of the country are reeling under severe economic hardships, so that the celebrations of Thingyan festival have minimized.

In Mandalay, known as the most enthusiastic town in Burma on Thingyan, economic hardship has practically stopped several people from enjoying the festival.

“I will be locked inside my house during this Thingyan. I cannot afford to enjoy,” a government employee, working at the local Township Peace and Development Council office said.

She said the cost of enjoying the festival would be enough for her and her five year old son to eat for a month.

Even as Thingyan traditionally is a celebration to welcome in the New Year, where people spray water in a symbolic manner to cleanse their sins, the festival has largely been commercialized.

Cost of Enjoyment

In modern Burma, during the Thingyan festival, people group together and build stages – Mandaps – along the roadside from which they spray water to revellers.

The typical scene of Mandalay during the festival, in earlier years, was enthralling with tens of stages being constructed along the old Palace Moat. Hosts of the stage would invite popular singers or entertainers to attract people to their stage, where they would spray water on each other.

But people interested in joining the stage are required to pay a certain amount of money per day, through which the host earns and can cover up for the cost of constructing the stage, which also needs bribing of authorities to get permission.

“This year some stages asked for about 40,000 Kyat [USD 30] for four days of the festival,” a local resident of Mandalay said.

“Since it is too costly, we are planning to hire a vehicle and roam around instead of joining the stage,” he added.

While several people join the stages to enjoy the festival, others will hire vehicles and would roam around from stage to stage and enjoy the shows that are being put up on the stages.

The local said the cost of hiring a vehicle for this year is approximately about 120,000 Kyat [USD 100 approximately]. He added that while the cost of joining the stage or hiring a vehicle has not changed much from last year, economic hardships have discouraged people from spending for the festival.

“For us, our life time’s savings would be spent if we want to enjoy the festival,” the government employee said.

Impact of Economic crisis

While Thingyan is originally a Burmese tradition, it has also been a strategic festival for companies to advertise and promote their brands, by sponsoring stages and hiring popular bands to play on it.

In previous years, companies rushed to stages in strategic locations, for sponsorship; this year however, most companies have contracted their sponsorship, as business has drastically dropped.

A marketing manager from a Coffee Mix company in Rangoon said their company was only able to sponsor three stages – two in Rangoon and one in Mandalay. Last year, they were able to sponsor more than five stages.

“We are sponsoring as we feel that it is necessary for promoting our brand name. We have not been able to set aside a huge amount of money for this year,” she added.

With fewer companies ready to sponsor, the cost of building stages has largely been shared by individuals, who then garner money from people by asking them to join them on the stage.

The impact of the economic down-turn was not only felt by revellers in the lack of sponsorships from companies, it also had an adverse impact on hotels and resort beaches.

While several people enjoy the festival in towns by roaming around the streets and spraying water, a few people, including companies plan holiday trips to quieter places such as resorts and beaches.

A hotel manager in Chaung Thar beach in the Irrawaddy division, a popular resort in Burma, said the number of bookings for Thingyan holiday has been fewer than usual.

“Last year at this time, we had our hotel packed with people coming from all over the country, but this year it is just the opposite,” she said.

Although there are still a few individuals and people from companies, the number has drastically dropped and the hotel is only half occupied, she said.

Rare Opportunity

Despite the fact that people are reeling under severe economic hardships, a youth in Mandalay said, people are still looking at the bright side of things and are finding reasons to enjoy the festival.

“I still see a lot of stages, more than 50, in town. And I feel people are really looking forward to the festival because this is a-once-in-a-year festival, where people can enjoy recklessly,” he added.

Burdened by economic hardships, restrictions imposed by the ruling junta on almost every field, Burmese people see Thingyan as a rare opportunity, where they can enjoy themselves.

“We Burmese really seem to like festivals, may be because we have too little freedom to enjoy in normal times,” he added.

Memories in the Wind

However, the local resident in Laputta said his festival would be mainly remembrance of the past, when he used to recklessly enjoy the festival.

“I just want to forget that Thingyan has come, because this memory brings back the past for me,” he said.

Additional information provided by The The

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