by Amy Cooper
Burma, known as Myanmar since 1989, is approximately 261,220 square miles. It is bordered on the north by China, on the west by the Bay of Bengal, India and Bangladesh, on the east by Thailand and China, and on the south by the Indian Ocean and Thailand. A tropical climate, it experiences monsoon rains for six months of the year (from May to October), a cool season (from October through February), and a hot season (from February through May). The name of its capital, Rangoon, is an English corruption of the Burmese name, Yangon, meaning "End of Dangers," given by King Alaungpaya in 1755. Myanmar's population is divided primarily into seven separate administrative states, in addition to the Burmans: the Chins, the Kachins, the Karens, the Kayahs, the Mons, the Arakenese and the Shans. There are more than 125 separate ethnic groups represented by the Burmese. An accurate count of its population has not been taken in years, but in 1996 its population was estimated at 47.5 million. About 68 percent of its estimated population are Burmans. The official language is Burmese.
Myanmar's coastal areas and river valleys have been inhabited since prehistoric times and as early as the ninth century A.D., city-kingdoms were being formed by people known as the Pyu. Northern Myanmar became popular as part of a trade route between China and India. The Mon and Pagan peoples established large cities and gained power and, in 1044, the king Anawrahta took up residence in Pagan and began the first unification of Myanmar. By the mid-eleventh century, the core of modern Myanmar had been formed. The Pagan state represented Myanmar's classical age, during which government, art, and religion flourished. Temples were built and scholars studied Theravada Buddhism. This age ended in the late thirteenth century and in the early fourteenth century, Ava became the seat of power. The Ava period has been noted as a great period of learning and literature. In 1531, the ruler Tabinshwehti brought the kingdom to Toungoo and was able to conquer both the Shan peoples in the north and the Mon in the south. Seeking to capitalize on renewed interest in coastal trade, Tabinshwehti moved the capital to the port city of Pegu. This precipitated rivalries that split Myanmar once again. After several decades of unrest, the kingdom of Ava was resurrected in the sixteenth century, and Myanmar was reunited by 1613. Myanmar gained power and territory during the next 200 years, conquering several armies and repelling four attacks from the Chinese between 1766 and 1769.
The first Anglo-Burmese War was fought from 1824-1826, provoked by Myanmar as they met the British in India. Myanmar lost both the war and consequently the territories of Assam, Manipur, Arakan and Tenasserim. A second Anglo-Burmese war in 1852 was instigated by the British and once again resulted in the British gaining territory in Myanmar. Finally, in 1885, Britain declared war for the final time and gained control of Myanmar, which became a province of India and thus a British colony. The British eliminated the monarchy and reduced the power of the church by declaring a separation of church and state. The Buddhists had always been supported by the monarchy in the tradition of maintaining the s angha (the religious community ) ; the new arrangement weakened the church and the education system, which had been the role of the sangha. While the British improved the transportation systems and encouraged the production of rice, rubies, oil and timber, these industries had little impact on the people of Burma, who remained largely poor.
The Burmese began to develop a nationalist outlook in the early 1900s, and in the late 1930s the Burmese peasants rebelled, fighting British and Indian troops for two years. Aung San became a leading force in the nationalist movement in 1936, and in 1937 the British separated Burma and India and granted Burma its own constitution. In 1939, when World War II broke out, Burmese leaders did not immediately support the British. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Aung San, who escaped to Japan. The Japanese offered help to secure Burmese independence and Aung San helped form the Burma Independence Army in 1941. However, the Japanese occupied Burma by the end of 1942, and the Japanese army ruled Burma until Aung San and the re-named Burma National Army joined the British and defeated the Japanese in May of 1945. After the war, the British military administration was withdrawn, and Burma and Britain began discussing a transfer of power to Burmese officials. The British agreed to Burma's independence in January, 1947 and a constitution was approved on January 4, 1948.
Burma's first government was a parliamentary system. However, the country was riddled with strife and the communists were the first group to rebel. In the late 1940s, Chinese Communists defeated Chinese Nationalists and Myanmar stopped accepting all foreign aid, including aid from the United States. Nevertheless, by 1958 the country was approaching internal peace, but conflict within the ruling party, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), resulted in U Nu, the army chief of staff, inviting General Ne Win to take over the premiership. Ne Win stabilized the country's security and military and won the first general elections, which took place in February of 1960. In 1962, Ne Win led a coup d'etat and arrested several government officials including U Nu, claiming he wanted to keep the state together. He suspended the 1947 constitution and placed the country under the rule of a Revolutionary Council with the purpose of making Burma a socialist state. He nationalized much of the country's industry and commerce, but because the investment was in industry rather than in agriculture, the economy failed. U Nu went into exile in India in 1969.
With representatives from a committee made up of people from Burma's several ethnic groups, Ne Win drafted a new constitution in 1971. This was ratified in December of 1973 and elections were held in early 1974, and Ne Win was elected president. In May of 1980, Ne Win offered amnesty to political insurgents, inside or outside Burma. U Nu returned from his exile to enter a Buddhist monastery. Ne Win left the presidency in November of 1981, but remained in power until July of 1988. Student and worker protests took place throughout the 1980s, and in September of 1988, General Saw Maung and the armed forces took control of the government, imposing martial law and replacing the government with the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC.
The SLORC killed thousands of protesters during the suppression of demonstrations. Their repression of religious minorities and military rule continues to draw condemnation by the United Nations and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Upon protests by the people, the SLORC called for multi-party elections in 1990. These elections resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), lead by U Tin U and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, who had been placed under house arrest in 1989. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991. It was not until after Saw Maung was replaced in 1992 by General Than Shwe that the SLORC permitted the new government to convene. Nonetheless, the SLORC continues to rule Myanmar.
It was not until after 1962 that the Burmese began to immigrate to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed primarily to exclude Asian immigrants. Between 1924 and 1965, there was little Asian immigration to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1965 took off the quota cap imposed by the 1924 law and allowed for a much greater volume of Asian immigrants. Burmese immigration began after military rule was established in 1962 by Ne Win. Professors and students fled Myanmar when the government shut down the universities, and doctors and other professionals came to the United States to pursue better economic opportunities.
The Burmese population within the United States remains extremely small. Though Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States, representing 2.8 percent of the total population, there are only about 7,196 Burmese Americans. The majority of these are first-generation immigrants who have settled in large cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
Burmese culture incorporates a number of folk traditions that include drama (called pwe ) based on stories of the former lives of the Buddha, highly percussive traditional music and dance influenced by that of southern India. Traditional hand crafts include wood carving, lacquerwork, gold work, silver work and sculpture.
The Burmese food consists primarily of rice, vegetables and fish, but also borrows from both Indian and Chinese traditions. Burmese use ngapi, a preserved fish paste, to accent meals, and include garlic, ginger, fish sauce and dried shrimps as flavorings. Popular dishes include mohinga, which is fish soup with rice noodles, and khaukswe, which are noodles often served with chicken stewed in coconut milk. The Burmese enjoy spicy foods and they favor fruits over processed sweets. Green tea and regular black tea are the most popular drinks.
Burmese holidays are primarily Buddhist, with the exception of Burma Independence Day, celebrated on January 4. Burma was under British control for over a century, and was captured by the Japanese during World War II. Japanese control ceased in 1945 with the end of the war, and Burma eventually declared independence on January 4, 1948, refusing to join the British Commonwealth. To celebrate, Burmese wear their traditional costume, the lorgyi, which is a tube of cloth worn by both men and women, tucked in at the waist.
The Buddhist holidays celebrated by the Burmese include the Kasone Festival, also called the Watering of the Banyan Tree. This is celebrated on the day of the full moon during the month of Kasone (April-May) and marks the enlightenment of the Buddha at the foot of the Banyan tree. On this day, people make pilgrimages to monasteries to offer food and gifts to monks. Tazaungdaing is held during the full moon day of the Burmese month of Tazaungmone (October-November) and celebrates the night that Siddhartha's mother spent weaving the Buddha's yellow garments. It is celebrated with balloons and lanterns. Thadingyut begins Robe Offering Month, when Buddhists bring food, gifts, and robes to monks in monasteries. Celebrated in September/October, on the full moon day of Thadingyut, this holiday marks the day on which the Buddah completed his preaching of Abhidhamma. A centuries old celebration takes place in mid-April, during the three day feast of the new year. Thingyan, or the Water Festival, is marked by people throwing water on others, symbolizing the washing away of bad luck and sins of the old year. Vesak, the holiest of Buddhist holidays, celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. Generally, this takes place on three separate days, with the most common days being April 8 for the birth, December 8 for the enlightenment and February 15 for the death. Activities for these center
Because Myanmar was under British rule and therefore required instruction in both English and Burmese, many Burmese immigrants are bilingual, speaking fluent Burmese and English. English ceased to be the official language after Myanmar achieved its independence, but knowledge of English is still encouraged. Though Burmese is the primary language used by immigrants at gatherings in the United States, there is little opportunity for American born Burmese Americans to formally learn the language. Burmese is only taught in four places in the United States: Northern Illinois University in DeKalb; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI) summer language program, which takes place at a different university every two summers; and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).
Besides Burmese, over a hundred languages are spoken in Myanmar, all of which belong to three basic groups. The majority of these languages, including Burmese itself, are classified as the Burmic branch of the Tibeto-Burmese group, a subcategory of the Sino-Tibetan languages. Moving west and south from China for many generations, Burmese reached its current locale around the ninth century A.D. Yi, a language still spoken in southern China, is closely related to Burmese. Halted in its southward move by the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, Burmese encountered the Mon language. In the course of the next two centuries, this Mon-Kmer offshoot of the Austro-Asiatic linguistic group mixed with Burmese, becoming to some extent the source of its writing system. The Pali scriptures of Buddhism completed the crystallization of classical Burmese during this period, adding ideological organization to the language.
Like other languages of the Sino-Tibetan group, Burmese is monosyllabic. Each root is a single syllable, uninflected. Most words remain mono-syllabic, differing from European languages in that respect. There are, however, many polysyllabic word/phrase combinations, such as nya.ne.saun , "afternoon," compounding nya , "night," ne , "sun," and saun , "to lean."
Significant tonality is another feature of Burmese common to Asian languages of this group, of which Mandarin Chinese is a part. This means that a word may vary in meaning according to whether it is pronounced in a high or low tone, or scales up or down between these tones. In Burmese, there are three tonal types: the level, the heavy falling, and the "creaky" tones. These cadences are not used merely to indicate differences in emphasis; tonal variation has lexical and even grammatical significance. For example, myin —the verb "to see" when spoken in a level tone, becomes the noun "horse" in the heavy falling accent.
These changes are represented in the written language by various diacritical marks. Four-syllable set phrases are common, produced by adding a rhyming word to the key word and then duplicating this double syllable, as in ke.pya.ke.ya , "hurriedly."
The Pali alphabet used for written Burmese is made up of eight vowels, three diphthongs, 32 consonants, and several tones. In graphic form, this beautiful script consists largely of circular marks variously arranged. It is said to have developed originally as a means of writing with a stylus on palm leaves, which would split if incised with a straight line.
Burmese Americans are largely employed as professionals in academia, business and technical work. Most are middle class. They consider the family to be very important, and show great respect for their elders. In Myanmar, a person's position may indicate the amount of respect shown him or her as well as the means of addressing him or her; however there is no rigid class system. Because their numbers in the United States are so small, Burmese Americans tend not to settle in large groups, but maintain contact with other Burmese Americans in a fairly large geographical region. They may travel several hours to gather with people in their geographical area for celebrations at a Theravada Buddhist monastery, also called a pongyi-gyuan.
According to Aung San Su Kyi, Theravada Buddhism has been single greatest factor affecting Burmese culture and civilization. More than 85 percent of the population of Burma is Buddhist. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion that claims that suffering is unavoidable, and that the root of suffering is attachment, greed and desire. Freedom from suffering can be obtained by following what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Buddha's teachings are known as the Dharma, and they are given to a collective body of followers or a religious community called the Sangha. Buddhists strive to follow the Five Precepts: not to take life, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to tell lies, and not to take intoxicating drinks. They also pledge to take refuge in the "Three Jewels:" the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Theravada Buddhism is one of several sects of Buddhism and means "Teachings of the Elders." Theravada Buddhists prescribes individual religious striving. Lay people follow the moral and religious teachings of the Buddha, but do not undergo the same rigorous renunciations that are called for in other traditions. They gain merit to help them achieve a better re-birth by supporting monks and nuns.
Buddhism was first brought to America in 1848, during the Gold Rush. Chinese came to California and, in the 1850s and 1860s, came to Hawaii. The immigrant population quickly made its presence felt — the first Buddhist temple was built in San Francisco in 1853, and by the 1890s there were fifteen temples. Japanese settled in Hawaii in the 1860s and brought a more organized form of Buddhism to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924 ceased Asian immigration, however, and it was not until after 1965 that Asians began to immigrate to the United States in greater numbers.
The immigration wave after 1965 brought a greater diversity of Buddhists to the United States. Buddhism was an influential religion throughout America by the 1970s, with Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism greatly influencing immigrants. The National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI), a 1990 telephone survey conducted by the Graduate School of the City University of New York, determined that there were 401,000 Buddhists in the United States, including converts and immigrants. This estimate has been said to be low, and other estimates range from 500,000 to one million. Buddhists are a growing segment of the religious population.
Because of the small size of the Burmese American community, there is very little information published about them. In addition, there are no American newspapers or periodicals published in Burmese.
Voice of America (VOA), Burmese Service.
This segment of the International Broadcasting Bureau provides information about programming broadcast to Myanmar and America. VOA's International Broadcasting Bureau broadcasts several programs with a Burmese focus from 6:00 to 6:30 AM and 6:00 to 7:00 PM.
Address: 330 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C., 20647.
Telephone: (202) 619-1417.
Online: http://www.voa.gov/burmese .
American Burma Buddhist Association.
The American Burma Buddhist Association runs both the Mahasi Retreat Center in New Jersey and the Universal Peace Buddha Temple in New York City. The website includes links, discussions, newsletters and other information about Buddhism in America.
Address: The Universal Peace Buddha Temple of New York, 619 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, New York 11238.
Telephone: (718) 6228019.
Fax: (718) 6228019.
Online: http://www.mahasiusa.org .
Burma America Buddhist Association (BABA).
Serves as a religious, educational, and cultural resource center to promote Buddhist (Theravada) thought, beliefs, and practices.
Contact: Ashin Kelatha, Executive Officer.
Address: 1708 Powder Mill Road, Silver Spring, Maryland 20903.
Telephone: (301) 4394035.
This organization provides information about human rights in Burma. The website includes links to other related sites, news and human rights information.
Address: 400 West 59th Street, 4th Floor, New York, New York 10019.
Telephone: (212) 548-0632.
Online: http://www.soros.org/burma.html .
Burmese American Association of Texas (BAAT).
This group is a non-profit social organization that serves the cultural and social needs of Burmese American families in Texas and surrounding areas.
Contact: Robert Chan, Treasurer.
Address: 165 North Hall Drive, Sugar Land, Texas 77478.
Online: http://www.indoinc.com/baat .
Burmese American Professional Society.
Members are scientists, engineers, technologists, professors and students from Burma. Fosters professional and social cooperation among its members.
This is a network for professionals and others devoted to development and Myanmar issues, encouraging grassroots participation and friendly discussion.
Online: http://www.myannet.org .
Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, edited by Michael Aris. New York: Viking, 1991.
Burma, compiled by Patricia M. Herbert. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Press, 1991.
Fredholm, Michael. Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.
Levinson, David. Ethnic Groups Worldwide: A Ready Reference Handbook. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1998.