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What You May Not Know About Myanmar



Shwe-chi-doe or a wall hanging illustrating from the Ramayana


I first heard of the Hindu epic tale, the Ramayana during my visit to the British Museum last summer. The gist of the story is essentially about King Rama embarking on an adventure to save his wife, Sita, who was kidnapped by Ravana. The British Museum recently launched a special exhibition titled “Burma to Myanmar” and strangely enough, the main poster featured a shwe-chi-doe, a wall hanging illustrating episodes from the Ramayana. It especially piqued my interest to see a tale from ancient India to be featured in an exhibition about Myanmar, given that both countries have quite a different religious stance. During the Konbaung dynasty, the Ramayana became popular at the Burmese court after the relocation of Thai theatre troupes there in 1767 and was performed around the country.


Well, I hope this intro hasn’t bored you yet because you may find this to be ripped out of a page from our Sejarah textbook but I swear it’s not! I can assure you that you will learn more about our neighbour in Southeast Asia after reading this. This article will entail a recount of my visit to the exhibition and conclude what I have learned from this experience.


The Golden Letter from King Alaungpaya of Myanmar to King George II of Great Britain


Upon stepping into the exhibition, one of the very first artefacts that entered my vision was a letter engraved on a gold sheet that was decorated with 24 rubies. This striking piece of exhibit was written by King Alaungpaya to George II in 1756 to allow the British to trade in the country. The artefact exemplified the nation's abundance of natural resources and raw earth to the visitors. Apart from gold, silver is the most important precious metal mined and traded in Myanmar. Possession of silver objects traditionally indicated a person's rank at royal courts and silver was also traditionally used to pay tribute to a king or leader. There was a silver bowl from central Myanmar displayed in the exhibition and it was decorated with zodiac motifs. The Burmese zodiac has eight signs representing each day of the week, except Wednesday which is split into morning and afternoon. Other resources such as lacquer, teak, opium, rice, and gemstone mining industries have made Myanmar a land of extraordinary natural resources.


A bowl decorated with zodiac motifs


The country borders Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand and the vast ocean consists of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. With such geography that is positioned within major sea trade routes, trading activities, diplomacy, religious networks, and warfare have been occurring in the region. What follows are cross-cultural exchanges that have been reflected in many exhibited pieces. One of the many examples is a silver tanka coin inscribed in 3 different languages - Bengali, Persian, and Arakanese. The royal minted coin eased the trading transaction between merchants and it was issued by a king with a Buddhist title and a Muslim name. This demonstrates the multicultural background of the kingdom. Another interesting thing I learned is that the Southeast Asian rulers would employ Portuguese people for their military skills in the 1700s. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw an illustration with a guard wearing a black European hat in the guardhouse’s murals!


Mural art on a guardhouse's wall


Apart from the foreign cultural inputs, the region consists of a plethora of different ethnicities that have their own languages and traditions as well. As of present, there are a total of 133 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country and eight major national ethnic races with Bamar being the largest ethnic group, making up more than two-thirds of the country’s population. One of the main ways that ethnicity was ascribed was through the classification of clothing, and a set of wooden carved and painted figurines of different ethnic groups displayed in the exhibition described exactly that. Each figure has its unique attires and items with their ethnic name in multiple languages inscribed at the bottom. I was fortunate to see artefacts from other ethnic groups such as a Kachin bag featuring a curtain of red cotton ribbons, a Shan skirt weaved by velvet, silk, and gold-wrapped fibre, and a Karen woman’s headcloth that is normally placed on a bride’s head at her wedding.


A curtain of textile with silverwares


After more than 120 years of British rule (1826-1948) and just over a decade of independence (1948-1962), General Ne Win’s 1962 coup d’etat propelled Burma into a downward spiral of authoritarianism, isolationism, and censorship. The exhibition showcased some of the artworks by the country’s modernist artists who used art as a medium to portray their lived experiences. European modernism is normally associated with freedom and radical creativity. However, Myanmar’s term of modernism took a different course as its society’s freedom has been politically circumscribed. A notable work from the exhibition is San Minn's Express 2. It is a painting of a car with tank treads that exposes the corruption where cars, housing, education, and modern healthcare became available only to those with military connections. The colour red was often censored in art for its allusions to violence and rebellion, as it does here.


The semi-civilian government established in 2010 has brought hope for the Burmese society to erase its socialist past. Although the National League for Democracy party won the 2020 election, the military declared the vote invalid and seized control again in February 2021, bringing the country to another cycle of military rule and suppression. Moreover, in the last six months, the northern part of Shan state has fallen into civil unrest with a war broke out between the Three Brotherhood Alliance and the military units. This series of events has thus thrust the country into an uncertain and turbulent future.


While I was exiting the exhibition, I was taken aback by how much I had not known about this country. What we all know mostly about Myanmar these days is the coverage of the political turmoil in the country. However, this well-curated exhibition showcased how linguistically and culturally diverse this country has to offer. I am praying for the country to escape from the grip of ruthless military rule and regain its freedom to pave its own way for a better future. 


The unofficial national dish of Myanmar - Mohinga


If you are someone living in London, you can visit this exhibition from now until 11 February 2024. Otherwise, if you are not in the town, feel free to try out some Burmese dishes from restaurants in your city. Mohinga could be your best bet as it is unofficially known as the national dish. Lahpet thoke is a pickled tea salad which is another must try too!


All images were taken by the author


By,

Ronin Lim,

Journalist,

Charisma Movement 23/24.

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