Transitions

Happy Burmese New Year!

The Burmese New Year Festival has begun. Thagyamin, King of the Celestial Bodies, has come down to Earth. The day of his arrival is known as the Day of Descent, which was on April 13 of this year according to the Western calendar. There is the day of his departure from Earth, the Day of Ascent (April 16), and the day in between (sometimes two days, like this year), the Day of Sojourn. The day after his departure marks the first day of the Burmese New Year (April 17).

Khin Myo Chit, a leading writer of postcolonial Burma, tells us that Thagyamin is "responsible for seeing that people live in accordance with Buddha's way." His name is cited frequently in everyday conversation: To prove their honesty, the Burmese commonly say, "Thagyamin knows I'm telling the truth." During more desperate times, they may utter "May Thagyamin help me out of this."

The New Year Festival, known as "Thingyan" or "Thingyan Pwe," is not, strictly speaking, a religious event. Neighboring Southeast Asian peoples such as the Thai, Lao, Cambodians, and the Dai people of Yunnan Province in China also celebrate similar New Year Water festivals. People throw water on one another to wash away the sins of the previous year. At the same time, the festivities serve the practical purpose of relieving people from the heat, since April is the hottest month of the year in tropical Asia.

What's really worth noting, though, is that the Burmese version of the festival is changing. Over the past few years Thingyan has grown wilder. Crony-run businesses sponsor free outdoor concerts, and the water hoses used to shoot at roving revelers seem to be getting more powerful all the time. Observers have noted that the water festival, increasingly marked by binge drinking, revealing clothing, and street fights, has been the only outlet for the people to vent their frustrations after decades of military rule.

This year the country has undergone a rapid political thaw, and that, too, is having an effect on Thingyan. The most notable sign is that the government has removed a 23-year-long ban on thangyat chanting, rhymed couplets that are sung to the beat of a traditional drum on festive occasions. Thangyat chants are the heart and soul of the New Year Festival. The performance criticizes and makes fun of the foibles of society, a sort of verbal version of cleansing by water. Done properly, thangyat jokes are fun and fairly light, and the whole genre can be regarded as a particularly entertaining form of traditional performance art. Some famous political activists, such as former student leader Min Ko Naing, were thangyat performers in the 1980s. The ruling junta that seized power in 1988 did not find their satirical criticisms amusing, however, and banned the performances. Thangyat chanting survived only in exiled dissident communities.

The return of thangyat troupes boosts the legitimacy of the nominally civilian government, which has just received a big gift from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised the suspension of sanctions during his historic visit to Burma this past Friday. The most popular troupe for this year's festival chose to express a collective appreciation of the reforms by naming itself the "Well-Done-Indeed Thangyat Troupe."

The Burmese believe that when Thagyamin comes down to the human realm, he brings with him two books, one bound in a dog-skin parchment, the other in gold. In the dog-skin book he records the names of those who have committed bad deeds during the course of year, while in the gold one he writes the names of those who have performed acts of merit. He must be happy this time around, since this year he's presumably got a lot of new names to add to the gold book. Happy New Year, everyone.

KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Another surreal turn in Egypt's presidential election

Egypt's presidential elections will take place less than four weeks from now and we still don't know who's running. As I've said before in this column (this sentence is fast becoming a fixture of my assessment of Egyptian politics): if it sounds ridiculous, that's because it is.

So far the list of candidates being served up by the Electoral Commission seems as changeable as the menu du jour of a capricious chef. The Commission's website, with no irony whatsoever, is displaying a blank candidate list on its homepage with the date "26 April 2012" in small characters below it, the date the final list is to be announced.

Over the weekend, the electoral commission disqualified 10 of 23 presidential candidates for not fulfilling the conditions to run for election. The commission gave them two days to submit appeals. By law, the decisions of the commission are final.

The three critical candidates to be disqualified are:

Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's intelligence chief, chief enforcer and vice president during the last days of his reign, was disqualified for failing to achieve the required geographical distribution of his signed declarations of support. He was short one governate. (He's shown in the poster held by one of his supporters in the image above.)

Hazem Salah Aboul Ismail, a niche television preacher who skyrocketed to the rank of a serious contender thanks to fiery religious rhetoric that sharply attacked both the West and Egypt's current military-dominated government, was disqualified because his deceased mother turned out to have acquired U.S. citizenship before she died. The electoral law requires that the candidate and both of his or her parents should be Egyptian nationals.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Khairat El-Shater was removed for having served a criminal sentence under Mubarak. It's widely believed that the charges in question were trumped-up, just the sort of thing the old dictatorial regime used to discredit its opponents. But the crime still counts as a crime, and so it falls under the election law prohibitions.

Two days before the commission made it decision, a new law was passed banning Mubarak-era officials from running for office, which would affect both Suleiman and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, who is also running in the elections. (In order to come into force, however, the law needs to be approved by the ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is unlikely to approve it.)

While none of the disqualified has conceded, we're now left to puzzle out the rest of the field. Just to be clear: the three disqualified candidates were the front-runners in the election, so now we have to sort out the most likely contenders from the second-rank figures who are left. Chief among these are Amr Moussa, former Arab League secretary general and Mubarak's Minister of Foreign Affairs for a decade; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a long-term Muslim Brotherhood leader who was expelled last year for deciding to run again the organisation's wishes; then, bringing up the rear, are Khaled Ali, lawyer and activist, and Hamdeen Sabahy, a Nasserite journalist.

And already the Muslim Brotherhood is scrambling to put forward its backup candidate, Freedom and Justice Party President Mohamed Morsi -- earning him the moniker of "the spare wheel" in social media circles.

Now what? With the three frontrunners gone (pending appeal, of course), voters and political groups are scrambling to identify their second-best choice. Amr Moussa, who dominated opinion polls in 2011 but whose thunder was stolen by Islamist and army candidates, emerges as the most likely beneficiary of the disqualifications. He'll probably be making an effort not to seem too giddy in the coming days. Abdel Moneim Aboul Foutouh, who despite his decades-long membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is widely seen as the closest thing to a "revolutionary" candidate as we're going to get, will have to work diligently to try to poach some of Shater's and Abou Ismail's supporters, especially since the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be dragging its feet with regards to Morsi's nomination.

The entire process looks remarkably haphazard, a bit like an election for class president. Minus the well-developed electoral programs, of course.

There is one thing to be said in favor of the electoral process, though: for the first time in decades, we don't know who will win the elections months before they've taken place.

Mohamed blogs at eldahshan.com. His twitter handle is @eldahshan 

AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/Getty Image