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
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.