Burmese New Year Marked

(Photo by Kinue Weinstein for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Kinue Imae Weinstein for Voices of NY)

Approximately 3,000 people celebrated the Annual Burmese New Year Water Festival at the playground of P.S. 9 in Manhattan on Sunday, July 27. The “Rakhaing Thingyan” Festival drew mostly first-generation Burmese living in the New York area, together with their children.

Visitors enjoyed viewing traditional Burmese folk dances and eating at the Burmese food court. Following the Burmese tradition of respect for the elderly, the performance began with a special dance dedicated to them. At the northeast corner of the playground, a water-filled boat, called Rakhaing Laung, was set up for traditional water play. Behind the boat, children ran around happily under the hot July sun, splashing each other with plastic water guns.

“July weather in New York is similar to that of April in Burma (currently Myanmar) when the New Year Water Festival is celebrated according to the Burmese lunisolar calendar,” explains Mr. Kyaw Tha Hla, executive director and co-founder of ThinGyan Association, the event’s sponsor.

The Buddhist festival is celebrated with water at the height of summer heat all over the country as a symbol of the flow of time, washing away past misdeeds to provide spiritual renewal, and greeting the upcoming monsoon season to bring a good new beginning.

Myanmar has seven administrative regions with 135 ethnical groups, 89 percent of whom are Buddhists. Mr. Kyaw Tha Hla (there is no first or last name in Burmese) is a Buddhist from the Rakhaing region. “While each region celebrates the New Year Water Festival slightly differently, I miss the Rakhaing celebration,” he says.

(Photo by Kinue Imae Weinstein for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Kinue Imae Weinstein for Voices of NY)

There, water play is a part of a mating game between boys and girls. Boys and girls do not mingle much and the three days of the New Year Water Festival provides an opportunity for a boy to look for a girl whom he likes. The girls stand in front of the water-filled boat and boys ask the girls to play with the water. If the girl likes the boy, she gives him a silver bowl of water. If she doesn’t like him, she splashes the water, meaning he should get lost. “It is a matriarchal society and girls have absolute choice,” said Mr. Kyaw Tha Hla.

The Burmese New Year Water Festival was started in 1992 by ThinGyan Association, a nonprofit organization established 23 years ago in New York. The association is non-political and was created as a Burmese-American social organization for the purpose of preserving Burmese rich multiethnic heritage and to pass it on to their U.S.-born children and grandchildren so that they would know who they are and to be proud of their heritage, according to Mr. Kyaw Tha Hla.

The Rakhaing region of Burma, in the western part of the country, has been the site of serious ethnic conflict recently. There have been violent clashes between Buddhists and the minority Muslim group in the region, and Muslims have faced expulsion. Mr. Kyaw Tha Hla is critical of the media and NGOs (non-governmental organization) which, he feels, blow the tension between the Muslims and Buddhists in the Rakhaing region out of proportion.

“We fought from time to time historically but we always found a solution and continued our businesses,” he says. “In the U.S., we are all Burmese and there is no tension.” At the festival there was a food stand run by a Muslim woman, who was selling biryani and rose water drinks. All the food stands were run by volunteers who offered their homemade traditional cuisines.

(Photo by Kinue Weinstein for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Kinue Imai Weinstein for Voices of NY)

The festival also attracted non-Burmese guests. David Lieberman, who lives in the neighborhood, stopped by with his son out of curiosity. He has never been to Myanmar but he liked the music and food. Larissa, who biked from downtown, visited the event because she likes Burmese food. She enjoyed a bowl of “Mohinga,” a popular Burmese breakfast, and a few fried snacks.

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