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When Songkran arrives, people flock to buy bus and train tickets to go back to their hometowns, to the places they come from. The holiday means different things to different people: water fights; ritual cleansing of Buddha statutes; bringing sand to temples; paying respect to elders. Regardless, people yearn for the holiday because it is a time when those who left loved ones for education or work can “go back home.”  It is sad if they cannot.

Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word sankranti. It means “transition of the stars.”  The holiday is not only observed in Northern Thailand but throughout mainland Southeast Asia. It marks the beginning of a new year in a region populated by Theravada Buddhists, including the Thai, Lao, Burmese, Mon, Shan, Khmer and many other ethnic groups.

In Myanmar, the holiday is called Thingyan.  Local myth says the festivities, which span 5 days from 13-17 April every year, originated with an argument between the gods Indra and Athibrahma over a mathematical problem. They agreed that the winner would cut off the loser’s head. Unable to solve the problem on their own, they went to another god Kavalamine, who determined that Indra was correct and should cut off Athibrahma’s head. The head was so hot that if it fell into the sea, the sea would dry out and if it fell into the human realm, the world would go up in flames. To avoid both outcomes, seven goddesses took turns holding Athibrahma’s head on a tray.   

During Thingyan festivities, people splash water on each other, pay respect to their elders, stage music festivals and meet with friends. In addition, they make and share mont lone yay paw, a snack made of glutinous rice, sugar and coconut. The arrival of the holiday was traditionally heralded by the blooming of Burmese Rosewood flowers, padauk in Burmese. These yellow flowers, a symbol of both love and the nation, used to bloom with the coming of rains in the hot season. However, climate change has taken its toll and in recent years padauk flowers have not bloomed unless people water the trees in the cool of the evening.   

In the aftermath of the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, tens of thousands of young people from the country sought refuge in Thailand, primarily in major cities. This influx led to the opening of numerous Burmese restaurants across Thailand, particularly in major northern provinces like Chiang Mai, over the past two to three years. (Photo: Visarut Sankham)

Last Thingyan festival, many people could not go back to their homes because of war and conflict. Some worried that it might not be safe. Some no longer have homes to go back to. A number have had to flee to Thailand because of conflicts between the Burmese army, ethnic armed forces, and anti-dictatorship groups. Conflicts erupted in 1948, when Myanmar, formerly known as the Union of Burma, gained independence from British rule. Earlier British administrative practices gave rise to tension among the country’s different ethnic groups.  The subsequent establishment of a centralised Burmese state created problems within an ethnically-diverse population.

In the past, conflicts between the Burmese military government and ethnic armed forces in Karen, Karenni, and Shan states, led to the establishment of refugee camps along Thai-Myanmar border. In 1988, a coup and the formation of an oppressive military dictatorship produced a massive wave of refugees. The same thing happened in 2021 after a coup was staged by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Civil war spread in all regions of Myanmar and people have had to flee for their lives to the border areas Thailand. Their homes are no longer safe places.   

Thingyan: homecoming, friends, local food and Paduak flowers

“I have never missed going back home for Thingyan even once.” Thu (pseudonym) from Dawei, aged 34, was born and grew up in Dawei. After graduating from the university in 2012, he set out to work in Yangon, the capital. He later came back to work in his hometown. Despite the buses being full of passengers, he tries his best to go back home.

“The best memory I have about Thingyan is the time I was very busy and delayed booking a ticket. The bus was full but I knew the driver so when I asked, he put a plastic chair in the aisle for me to sit on and ride home.”

He recalls that Thingyan songs have been playing in town shops since March.  “The festival atmosphere is relaxed and fun.  Everywhere in town is crowded and joyfully chaotic with people making preparations.”

Tents with food and snacks were everywhere. People also rode around in decorated pickup trucks looking for water fights, gathering with friends to eat tasty things and use water to ‘battle’ with other groups.

For Thu, what mattered most was being together with friends and family; eating “home cooking” and being in a familiar place full of warmth.

Photo from Hwan’s mobile phone showing a Thingyan activity he joined.  Last February, he had to seek refuge in Thailand.  (Photo: Hwan)

As for Hwan, a 34-year-old Mon ethnic, he was born and grew up in Palaw Township in the Tanintharyi Region but in 2012, he went to work as an engineer in Yangon. His favourite Thingyan memory is the tradition of donating money to elderly people in the community. On the last day of the festival, members of the community take elders aged 70 and over to the temple and give them money in exchange for blessings.

Although Hwan and Thu are from different towns, they share similar recollections of Thingyan celebrations: the food tents; the musical performances; people playing with water along all the streets; people going to temples to make merit and practice mindfulness. Hwan, who doesn’t really like crowded and noisy places, thinks that the important components of the holiday are the flowers and the chance to meet friends and family. The activity that he likes the most is the tradition of young people cooking together with friends to offer food at the temple in the morning.   

Thingyan is more than a festive holiday

Photo: Khun Lek’s Thai-language tattoo - “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity.” He explains that he got this tattoo to remind himself of the values he admires, the values that make humans different from animals. (Photo: Visarut Sankham) 

Apart from water fights, cultural festivity and events, Thingyan is a time for Myanmar people to engage in political expression.  Plays called Thangyat are staged in which a lead singer and chorus use poetry to tell a story.  The content is usually political satire in which participants express dissatisfaction and call for a better society. “Thangyat is all about freedom of expression,” explains Khun Lek, a 54-year-old Burmese national from Yangon who join a mass uprising against the military dictatorship in 1988 and now lives in Thailand.      

According to Khun Lek, Thingyan is a festival for freedom of expression. It is a time when people are free to speak out, free to tease and jest with each other without getting angry. He believes this is especially true of Thangyat plays that are performed alongside other amusements. He notes that these have been performed ever since Burma was a monarchy, adding that the King would listen to Thangyat critics, never punishing performers. He says the same was true during the military dictatorship period.  For this reason, he feels Thangyat is central to Thingyan celebrations and that “without Thangyat, Thingyan is soulless."

Thingyan without Padauk blossoms

Thingyan festivities have been disrupted for four years.  With the Covid pandemic of 2020, people were not allowed to celebrate. In 2021, the festival returned but the coup led to military dictatorship and an on-going civil war.  People have been subjected to murder, torture, and detention.  The economy has all but collapsed. Inflation is high. Some areas are experiencing famine. Millions of people have been displaced. All of this has changed the feelings of people toward Thingyan.   

“I cannot go back to my village because there are 4 battle areas to go through,” said Hwan. He fled into Thailand after the Burmese army announced conscription last February 10.

The situation in Hwan’s hometown is concerning. Young people are gradually leaving the country. The inflation rate has trebled along with the price of basic commodities. Battles are coming ever closer to the village where his sisters and mother still live. Since the coup, the Thingyan festival has lost much of its appeal.

Burma Padauk trees bloom in April after the first rains and is seen as one of Myanmar's national symbols. Thu explained that Padauk flowers typically bloom around the water festival, and if they haven't by that time, locals will playfully throw water on the trees, symbolically urging them to blossom and mark the start of the festivities. (Photo: Visarut Sankham)

“No one wants to join celebrations organised by the military,” said Thu, who fled to Thailand in 2022. He feels the coup changed people’s feelings.  Most are full of insecurity and uncertainty. Most have to struggle all the time. “The feeling is not the same. There is no freedom. I feel like I am in a cage.”

Although Thu can see his home country, he cannot cross back there. For the moment, he is safe.  He can talk about politics, can sleep well, but there is still something missing. He wants to go home. “We didn’t have plans to stay in other country for a long time. Not being able to go back home - its traumatising.”

This story is produced with support from SEA Junction's Staying Resilient Amidst Multiple Crises in Southeast Asia initiative in partnership with CMB Foundation.


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