Revitalizing the Burmese harp tradition

It’s no surprise that classical performing arts in Burma have seen a steep decline, a process that has undoubtedly been hastened through increased exposure to the rest of the world, combined with growing disinterest and dwindling demand at home. A potential casualty? The Burmese harp. The very future of this national symbol may be at stake.

Continue reading


The origins of ‘laphet’

I’ve always wondered why Burmese is an outlier among many languages in the world when it comes to tea. Not simply the concept and tradition of eating tea leaves, but the Burmese word for “tea” itself. Turns out there’s an explanation.

Continue reading

Alcohol in the Theravada Buddhist context

This is the second installment on Alcohol and the Theravada Buddhist World.


Theravada Buddhism is often dubbed the most orthodox of the Buddhist sects, especially as it is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism. The word Theravada, of Pali origin, literally means “doctrine of the elders.” As with other Buddhist practitioners, Theravadins tend to be relatively fluid in terms of devotion and practice. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see a Theravadin devotee make offerings to a Mahayana Bodhisattva like Guanyin.

Continue reading

Part 2: Burmese personal names – Miscellany

This is the 2nd in a 4 part installment on Burmese personal names
[1] Introduction
[2] Miscellany
[3] Male Names
[4] Female Names

Burmese personal names: Miscellany

I recently got a hold of a small but useful trove of data, a 2014 exam roster of nearly 600 Burmese university students (in their early 20s). Using Excel, I began parsing the data, segmenting the names by word (not syllable) and categorizing by gender, to discern patterns in naming preferences. Given that there’s not much out there regarding Burmese names (statistically-speaking), I thought I’d take a stab at this and present some simple findings.

I’ve been able to shed some light on the top name choices and discern some naming patterns. However, I have to admit, given that almost every single name on that roster was one-of -a-kind, it’s difficult to really assess the complete picture and see conclusive patterns.

In light of the ongoing nationwide census, the first in Burma since 1983, it’s gotten me thinking. How useful would it be for the government to release the raw data to the public to manipulate? Of course, the accuracy of this census is debatable, as are many of the questions being asked..

Continue reading

Part 1: Burmese personal names – Introduction

This is the first in a 4 part installment on Burmese personal names
[1] Introduction
[2] Miscellany
[3] Male Names
[4] Female Names

Burmese personal names: An Introduction

Burma is unique among mainland Southeast Asian countries in that Burma does not legally recognize surnames, as the overwhelming majority of Burmese do not possess surnames, only given names (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam all have surname systems in place). And Burma is rare in that it has never even attempted to institutionalize a family name system, despite being administered by the British for 124 years.

All of which raises the question, how all these folks with the same name distinguished from one another? How are different family lineages tracked?

Continue reading

Some thoughts on the construct of race

The Burmese government has been very successful at propagating the myth of the 135 ethnic groups in Burma, or the myth of the 8 “national races.” Anybody who delved into the actual list would realize how arbitrary this “counting” is.

Yet this myth continues to be propagated by international media and the Burmese alike. It’s pure ignorance.

The Economist’s article “The idea of Myanmar”:

Ever since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, the country, which has more than 100 recognised minorities, has faced secessionist rebellions on its periphery from a score of mostly ethnically based insurgencies. These people are much more than a few recalcitrant hill-tribes. Huge tracts of the country, holding perhaps one-third of its population, are “minority” areas. Many have a long history of bitter war with the army and some are heavily involved in producing narcotics.

A lot of Burmese folks have argued that DNA tests to prove that the Rohingyas aren’t native to Burma. But this is in spite of the fact that “race” is a purely social construct, not one based on genetics or science. Genetics can offer only a possibility of ancestry. I remember swabbing myself for a genetics course in college and found that my ancestry was “Indian” for 9 out of 10 markers.

History has shown time and time again that an ethnic identity can be constructed by an tiny elite. In pre-colonial Burma, ethnic consciousness wasn’t a prevalent idea. Localism prevailed. For instance, “I’m a native of Bago” had a more powerful meaning than “I owe allegiance to the Konbaung dynasty” or “I am Mon.”

As late as the 1800s, lower Burma, especially the delta region, was not populated by Burmans. It was when lower Burma was subsumed as a part of British India that large-scale migration southward occurred, with Burmans leaving central Burma by the droves because of the Burmese monarchy’s sheer incompetence (high taxation, forced enlistment, etc.). This merging of the migrant Burman population and the indigenous Mon and Karen populations inevitably led to assimilation of the latter groups. It’s also one of the major reasons the Mon language has all but vanished from its former heartland.

Also, the formation of the “national races” as we know it today is a fairly recent invention. Take the case of the Karens (Kayins), who, until the 1800s, were a disparate group of tribes speaking a mutually unintelligible languages (they still do). However, British colonialism and policy nursed into being a Karen-speaking elite (still deeply divided at the local level, because of linguistic and cultural differences) who gained an ethnic consciousness that prevails to this day. By using their newfound pan-ethnic identity, they were able to consolidate political power. In this sense, the construct of “Karen” is just as artificial as that of the “Rohingya.”

This silly piece of propaganda, entitled “National races never ever think of hatred” by Weekly Eleven is just one example of how this myth continues to thrive.

National races who remain faithful to the land for thousands of year could not demand the loss of their rights over 50 years. However, illegal migrants are bursting out and some foreign sources are beseeching on behalf of them for their unreasonable rights by exaggerating the recent issue. Well! I have no idea what to say more.

While I do believe this article (“Burma’s Misled Righteous“) is a bit sensationalist, it does reiterate my own views:

The government will see the flood of nationalist sentiment as a gift. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that officials may have had a role in whipping it up, as they did prior to the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 and the bouts of communal unrest involving Rohingya in 1978 and 1992. According to a Human Rights Watch report, security forces are actively persecuting ethnic Rohingya during this most recent bout of violence. The current riots serve to distract from ongoing ethnic conflicts in the north, public anger at rising electricity prices, and industrial workers’ strikes in Rangoon, all of which have threatened the government’s standing in recent months.

Today, both Burmese and non-Burmese no longer understand the nuances that shaped the “ethnic” identities of the Karens, Kachins, and a variety of other ethnic groups. Many Burmese see these 8 “national races” as having existed since time immemorial, which is far from the truth. It’s shameful.


Immigrant Buddhists in a resolutely non-Buddhist America

In meditation at the Shwedagon Pagoda. From Wikipedia.

I think it’s difficult to raise children Buddhist in the United States. In college, one of the major shared experiences among a lot of my Buddhist friends was that we had been pressured at one point or another to convert to Christianity. For me, it elicited feelings of frustration but actually strengthened my resolve to have a greater understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

In high school, I think that religion was very much invisible. Perhaps it was because I went to a public school, nobody was pushed toward or away from a certain religion. Most of my friends grew up in Buddhist or Taoist households, and I vaguely knew that a few were Christians. But these distinctions weren’t so discrete.

However, in college, I noticed that Christians asserted themselves much more openly. They were much more well-organized, well-funded and had a much stronger theological foundation than Buddhists. When pressed about our own faiths and values, we didn’t have much to offer, much less “defend” ourselves. We weren’t armed with apologetics courses at Bible study and weekly discussions to dissect and understand the faith. And therein lies one of the major problems.

To start off, my parents are pretty much secular Buddhists. They keep an altar at home and perform merit-based activities on a regular basis. My mom meditates with the rosary every night. But their own understanding of Buddhism is marked with some dissatisfaction, not with doctrine, but with practice. They deride the luxuries of American Buddhist monks and believe money could be much better spent on “helping those who actually need it.” I think my parents wanted to pass on tradition and culture much more than religion. They simply used religion to support their traditional values, not the other way around.

I think that’s one of the major deficiencies of the Burmese Buddhist system: its overemphasis on ritual and merit. A lot of it, in my opinion, is wasteful spending and ostentatious. Pakasana (ပကာသန), to use the Burmese/Pali word. I think merit is best received when done humbly and anonymously, not for the sake of credit or pressure.


The stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth scene I was referring to.


The bodhi tree planted to house the “spirit” of the deceased monk.

Also, this generosity is sometimes misguided. I remember a few years back, my entire family paid for the construction of an enormous (and costly) marble carving depicting the Buddha’s birth (ဖွားတော်မူခန်း), partly because of yadaya, after consultations with a family beidin saya (astrologer). At that same monastery, monks guided the planting of a sacred banyan tree at a spot believed to be haunted by a deceased monk (he was unceremoniously murdered in 1987) to “house” his wandering spirit, which was creating mischief at the Dhamma hall. Needless to say, stories like that scared me straight as a child.

An example of the astrological drawings, used to ‘calculate’ predictions.

I think yadaya practices are more pervasive than nat worship (indigenous spirits). In my observations, a lot educated Buddhists shun the latter while still practicing the former. (That’s why I find it dumbfounding when Western media ridicules the Burmese military junta as a bunch of uneducated and pre-medieval soothsayers, because astrology is VERY pervasive in Burma, spanning across all classes and religions. For instance, my Catholic nanny was a firm believer in astrology, especially those elephant drawings.) Okay, moving back onto topic.

My parents never directly imparted much Buddhist knowledge on my sister and I. We learned most of the basics through interactions with others. My dad never sat us down to explain the Middle Path to us. Heck, the first time I read the Dhammapada was for a  Buddhist writing course I took in college. I remember my mom telling us Buddhist stories of Angulimala and Kisa Gotami among others when we were younger, but she never taught us how to chant or recite Pali verses, like the Three Jewels, the Five Precepts or the Awgatha prayer (ogasa), let alone what those meant. All of my cousins and I simply waded through the dense Burmese and incomprehensible Pali like the blind.

These are probably the greatest barriers for first generation immigrant Buddhists: language, deemphasized social engagement (by the same token, overemphasis on ritual) and lack of community or guidance.

One of my friends covered his own experiences as a first generation Asian American at the Dharma Folk blog. It’s worth a read. He comes to this conclusion:

Sure, my parents can’t name the Four Noble Truths and explain the idea of no-self to me. They seem slightly obsessed with burning incense and playing a chanting tape 24/7 without meditating or going to temple services regularly. And yet, I remember as a child my parents teaching me morals – kindness, appreciation, generosity, honesty – through the devotional practices of Buddhism. Maybe that’s what is important.

Incomprehensible Pali scriptures written in Burmese.

Language is a big barrier. Speaking from my own experiences, I had no clue what I was saying when I sought refuge in the Three Jewels. (Theravada Buddhism uses a liturgical language called Pali, similar to how Catholicism uses Latin.) I could translate some stock words and phrases, like dutiyampi or Buddha, but not much beyond that. And I found it hard to pick apart a monk’s sermon because the Burmese was so dense. But I was also a strange kid–I had an inherent interest in Buddhism and religion from a young age, so I sought knowledge through books and monks. But a lot of my cousins simply became outcasts, nominal participants with no tangible ties to their household’s religion. Alienation undoubtedly loosens one’s ties to a religion.

I’m sort of envious of my younger cousins in this respect. The Burmese American community has grown tremendously in the past decade, and weekend monastic schools have sprung up, with instruction led by monks and laypersons. My younger cousins attend “Buddhist culture” courses at a local monastery, learning the basics, doctrine and concepts and a few suttas. This is an admirable cause, because it strengthens one’s religious identity and gives them a clearer understanding of their family’s practices. I think this is vital to sustain Buddhism within immigrant communities.

Also, a common thread of discontent is that Buddhists are often disparaged as not helping one another. Christians have successfully capitalized on immigrant resettlement needs, whereas Buddhists simply try to replicate the merit-based activities they performed in their home countries. In the Burmese American community, there’s a prevailing sense of “that’s their own business” and a hands-off approach to people in need like refugees or the poor. That’s saddening.

Similarly, I find it hard to justify many “Buddhist” practices, like the Burmese concept of ah-hlu pwe (or donation ceremonies) as it is done in the US. For those who don’t know, it’s essentially a huge and costly feast inviting everyone on a monastery’s mailing list. Its purpose is primarily a social one. Sometimes I wonder if that food would be better spent on feeding the homeless. Does that not generate merit as well?

My family altar at Chinese New Year, replete with traditional offerings like fruits, ti-ke (glutinous cake), huat-ke (prosperity cake) among others.

Maybe the experiences of my cousins and I are analogous to those of my parents, who have for the most part, shed their ties to Chinese folk religion and Taoism generation by generation. (As I’ve mentioned previously, my parents are technically second generation Sino-Burmese, but my grandfathers on both sides of the family have Burman ancestry as well). Within my family, Chinese “traditions” are observed during one major holiday: Chinese New Year. Even my grandmother’s death anniversary is observed in a simple Burmese manner (offerings to the monks and a sermon). My parents don’t even house any Chinese deities except for Guanyin (in the altar) and the 3 Immortals (basically dining room decorations).

Perhaps this is just another casualty of immigration..

Documentary on Harvard’s Burmese American basketball player

I came across a trailer for No Look Pass, a documentary on a Burmese-(Chinese)*-American basketball player by the name of Emily Tay, who plays for Harvard. The twist: she’s a lesbian, who’s caught in between her parents’ traditional views and her own aspirations.

Perhaps (heterosexual) marriage is a more pressing issue in the Burmese Chinese community than in the Burmese community in general. In college, I read some papers (12) on the unprecedented percentages of unmarried men and women in the country, as compared to other Asian countries. What forces are shaping these behaviors and marriage delays? It’s an intriguing question to ask. The UN reports that Burma’s mean age of marriage in 2000 was 27.5 for men and 26.4 for women, simply unparalleled among countries of similar economic standing (e.g. Cambodia and Laos).

The documentary certainly caught my attention. Sexuality is rarely discussed and little understood within the Burmese community. I know for a fact that many Burmese Buddhists use the 3rd Precept (abstaining from the vaguely termed ‘sexual misconduct’) as a way of justifying their homophobia. When I was temporarily ordained as a monk, I was specifically asked whether I was a male. Then, the ordaining monk clarified, and asked if I were gay (being gay apparently means one is not a “complete” man, in line with traditional Burmese views, even though it’s not based on Buddha’s direct teachings or the Vinaya).

To many Burmese, there exist only 2 kinds of homosexuals (simply put, their understanding of homosexuality is that it is essentially transsexuality): men who want to be women and women who want to be men, without understanding that one’s attraction to members of the same sex does not dispose one to transsexuality. Sexuality cannot be understood in terms of black and white.

Certainly, the issue of homosexuality is not talked about in the Burmese American community as well. The only time I’ve ever discussed homosexuality with my parents was when the campaign for Proposition 8 in California (which sought to eliminate gay marriage) was in full swing. My parents voted against Prop 8 only because they thought what happens behind closed doors and in private homes (in marriages and families) has absolutely nothing to do with them. But my own parents are vehemently opposed to homosexuality, in principle and practice. It’s been interesting to tread this fine line, as both my sister and I support such rights, along with the majority of folks in our generation.

Growing up, I didn’t even have the sufficient Burmese vocabulary to adequately describe homosexuals. (By the way, New Mandala has a nice article on gay slang in Burma). FYI, it’s lein-thu chit-thu (လိင်တူချစ်သူ), literally “same-sex lover.” I only knew of these slang terms:

  1. For gays: mein-ma-sha (မိန်းမလျှာ), a-chauk (အခြောက်), or gandu (ဂန်ဒူး)
  2. For lesbians: yauk-ka-sha (ယောက်ကလျှာ)

There’s a review at Hyphen Magazine. Anyway, I’m excited to see this movie sometime, if it screens in the LA area.

What are your thoughts on homosexuality’s place or role in Burmese society?

*I made the assumption that her family is Burmese-Chinese, because Tay (鄭) is a Hokkien surname, and because they’re seen worshipping at the Thien Hau Temple.

Burma VJ, a review

Burma VJ press kit photo

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country

I have just returned from a screening of Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, a documentary on the 2007 fuel protests in Burma, directed byAnders Ostergaard. First off, I really enjoyed the film. Its realism (despite a few obvious reenactments) blew me away. It’s incredible how all this, the crackdowns, the raids, the protests, everything could have been captured on home video by some truly brave people, dubbed ‘vj,’ short for video journalist.

The movie was, to put it simply, raw and real. There’s no other way to describe it, from the shaky camera angles to some escape scenes as the cameramen run away from gun-wielding soldiers. Although the film doesn’t really go into any depth on how and why the protests started (because of a two-fold increase in gas prices), it really struck my chords. Also, the movie devoted most of its time to Rangoon, where the bulk of the protests were and didn’t even mention Pakokku by name, the town where monks were brutally repressed by monks and the place that sparked countrywide protests later that month.

Continue reading

The world of wizards

A photograph of a weizza, a supernatural being in Burmese religion.

Burmese traditional religion is very intricate. Weizzas are supernatural beings (a rough English equivalent wouldbe belonging to an esoteric cult that probably predates Buddhism in Burma.

I don’t know much about weizzas, but this website might offer more information.

How to pronounce “Aung San Suu Kyi”

Coming across an op-ed from here, I came to the conclusion that most of the time, Burmese names are not done justice.

The op-ed states this:

Bush continued making us proud by thinking and saying that he was addressing an OPEC summit instead of the APEC summit. He thanked the Austrian army for providing security. Yes, of course, it was the Australians who provided the security in Australia not the Austrians. He got lost on stage and couldn’t find his way off and couldn’t pronounce the name of Myanmar’s democratic opposition leader; all grade A Bush material for late night comics everywhere.

Continue reading

Living in superficial harmony

'National Tribes of Burma'

A 1970s tourist souvenir from Burma (oddly enough, Burma was closed to the outside world during this time). From left to right: Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Shan, Padaung, Naga, Kachin.

Burma, despite its wealth of ethnic diversity, has largely neglected the issue of multiculturalism. Burmese may be the national language, but more than 10 million people (25%) within the country do not speak it. Burma, as most people know it today, is an artificial creation made by the British, who colonized territories (Burman-dominant Ministerial Burma and ethnic minority-dominant Frontier Areas) in modern Burma and tied them together during independence.

Continue reading

43 years since the death of Burma’s foremost man of letters

Kodaw Hmaing

Kodaw Hmaing, one of the most influential literary figures in modern Burmese history, died on this day in 1964. His life is worthy of being known. Ba Zan Lin has a wonderfully detailed post on Kodaw Hmaing’s life, although it is in Burmese. In the introduction, he describes Kodaw Hmaing as “the foremost literati and poet in Burmese history to whom the country owes thanks.”

Continue reading