Thingyan! Burmese celebrate their New Year

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 23 May 2016

New Zealand’s Burmese celebrate Thingyan or New Year in April, a month that is very hot in Myanmar - so it’s customary to throw buckets of water over each other in the street as part of this water festival.  “But maybe not here” laughs Yin Yin Htay, a former news reporter from Rangoon who immigrated to New Zealand in 2005, “It’s far too cold here to get so wet!”

Yin Yin Htay is Burmese, one member of a large and diverse Myanmar diaspora in New Zealand, made up of immigrants from dozens of the more than 100 ethnic groups of Myanmar; but regardless of their religious and ethnic spread they come together for Thingyan. I was lucky enough to join them over two days to taste the culture and hear the stories.

The first half of the Auckland festival is a day of cultural performances, food stalls and youth led activities at the Tamaki Christian Centre in the heart of Glenn Innes.  The second day recognises Thingyan’s religious aspect and takes place at the Ratanadipa Buddhist Temple in New Lynn for first, the Sangha Dana Ceremony (offering requisites to Venerable Monks), and Catudisa (a public feast).

The venue for day one is a cacophony of activity, music and preparation. A young Burmese rock band perform on a stage profusely decked with brightly coloured yellow flowers; a simulation of the yellow padauk which blooms for only one day each year during Thingyan and is popularly known as the Thingyan flower. The band belt out contemporary pop-songs in Burmese, competing with cries of greeting, one family to another. It feels like everyone knows everyone in the Burmese community.

Dr Benjamin Soe, a G.P. from Mangere explains that there are seven main minority ethnicities, each with an eponomous state; the Shan, Kayin, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Rakhine and Mon. And there’s a predominant ethnicity, the Burmah people.  But at Thingyan ethnicity is less important than culture. “The fact that the majority of people at Auckland’s festival are Burmah and Mon doesn’t matter. Even though I’m a Christian I still celebrate this Buddhist Festival.” Benjamin explains that although there are other festivals throughout the year (Myanmar celebrates all religious festivals be they Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Chinese or Hindu and has no lack of public holidays), Thingyan is the most popular and widely recognised.

Hwte Hwte Myint is an early childhood teacher and volunteer who originally hails from the Shan State and arrived here in 1992. Each Thingyan she performs traditional songs and dances on stage dressed in a long red, black and white longyi. She sings Tu-po Tu-po for me, a short song popular during this festival for its “rhythm and joyful sentiments.” There is a strong cultural thread to the festivities. This is a community that has kept its art and identity strong, even amongst the second generation. Youth leader Tin Ma Ma Oo says that many young people will actively participate in Thingyan in order to help raise funds for their families back in Myanmar.

A lot of the ceremonies are youth focused, we’ve been keeping the culture alive - Tin Ma Ma Oo, Youth Leader, Burmese Community

Tin Ma Ma guides me past the exuberant young rock band to the kitchen where traditional dishes are being prepared and introduces the “Aunties” manning the large cooking pots. One Aunty is grating coconut to coat sweet palm-sugar dumplings. It’s a superb treat but one that can come with an optional twist. Tin Ma Ma warns that a little hot chilli might create a spicy surprise for the unsuspecting. “It’s a cheeky thing - to create fun with our food.”

Offerings to the monks, Sangha Dana ceremony

Offerings to the monks, Sangha Dana ceremony Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Day II: The Sangha Dana Ceremony

The next day is an early start at the Ratanadipa Temple; every family attending has prepared food and offerings, brought as requisites to Venerable Monks. The rest of the food is shared as a public feast afterwards. Around three hundred are gathered, the main prayer room is almost as packed as the kitchens downstairs; with people in their best, long sleeved garments and longyi, wrap-around skirts that are worn by both men and women.

Dr Iris Nyo Nyo Aye is Sino-Burmese and a retired physician, here since 1995. For Iris attending the Sangha Dana ceremony is vital. She’s one of many who wish to “do meritorious good.”  She tells me that Chief Abbot U Panna Vansa is the special and revered guest of honour, flown in from Penang, Malaysia and is the patron of many temples across the world including this one in Auckland.

The monks eat before midday and then begin a fast before the rest of the community eats. Having taken a vow of chastity the monks cannot be touched so the food is respectfully offered at arm’s length by all in the community.

Dr Hla Shan Pru McCann introduced herself as ‘Arakanese’ - the anglicised term for the Rakhine ethnicity. Pru is a doctor at the Family Planning Clinic in Counties Manukau. She says that the ultimate Buddhist goal is to purify the mind and reach Nirvana; “After the New Year’s festival I have dedicated myself to a three month retreat in Myanmar, three months of intense meditation is my goal for this year.”

Community leader Stanley Saw says the Burmese community has been growing slowly in New Zealand for a long time. “A few [mainly Anglo] Burmese families migrated to New Zealand before Burma’s independence in 1948. More followed after 1962 when the country became a dictatorship. There were approximately 30 Burmese families residing in Auckland by the mid-80s, which increased following the 1988 student uprising. This was through asylum as refugees and through the immigration point system. NZ started to accept Burmese refugees as part of its annual quota in 2000. The Burmese migrants settling in Auckland number around 3000 today.”

Education, births, deaths and marriages all happen here at the temple - Stanley Saw, Community Leader

Stanley Saw introduces me to the temple’s “smiling monk”, Abbot Reverend U Sumanasiri, the chief abbot at Ratanadipa. The monks are the heartbeat of the community. “The services that the Buddhist Monasteries provide for the community is immense - because we do not have a welfare system in Burma. It works beautifully for families, for businesses, and they also have the moral authority. Education, births, deaths and marriages all happen here at the temple.”