MARRIAGE AND ENGAGEMENTS IN MYANMAR
Couples in Myanmar are married by registering at the registrar of marriages or by going through a ceremony conducted by a respectable couple at a grand hotel or by sheer mutual consent with no ceremony at all. Marriages have traditionally been monogamous but not sacramental. There traditionally has been no such thing as a Buddhist wedding. Often couples would simply live together for a period and then announce to everyone they were married. The union was formalized when they announced this to a senior person or respected member of the community. Today a couple is considered married if they have lived together and are recognized as a couple by their neighbors. Some couples formalize the union by signing a contract before witness or attorneys or a judge in a court.
According to the Joshua Project: The Burmese do not recognize clans or lineages. Marriages are monogamous, and rarely arranged by the parents. Young couples generally live with the brides' parents for the first few years after they are married. They will set up their own homes after two or three years.
According to Countries and Their Cultures: “ Individuals usually find their own marriage partners. Arrangements for the marriage may be made by the parents of sometimes an intermediary is employed. If the parents oppose the union, often the children elope and later the parents condone the marriage. When a man asks a woman's parents for their consent, it is common practice for him to bring a gift for the woman. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]
Engagement parties are common. It is customary to invite couples who have had long, happy marriages while divorcees, widows and widowers are excluded. The families of the bride and groom have traditionally invited a couple each that serves as the guest of honor. The central event is when the groom-to-be formally asks for the hand in marriage of the bride-to-be. During an engagement party the male guest of honour will give a speech to extol the virtues of the bride-to-be on behalf of the bridegroom’s parents. If you are invited to an engagement party you may or may not bring a gift.
Honeymoons are not a custom in Myanmar. Often no dowry is paid by the bride’s family to the bridegroom when a couple marries.
Arranged Marriages to Foreigners in Myanmar
Marriages have traditionally been arranged by families upon the request of the marriage partners. However, Burmese women have traditionally had the right to refuse the offer of being betrothed to the parents' chosen partner for her. At present, young Burmese women can choose to marry someone for love. In the old days marriages were mostly arranged. Couples were matched by intermediaries based on background, wealth and education. Marriages were often seen as a way of solving property disputes in the future. In urban areas love matches are more the norm today. Parental approval is necessary for a marriage to take place. Myanmar women, by tradition, must seek the approval of their parents and guardians before accepting a marriage proposal.
The close bonds of Myanmar family life become clear when a daughter or son enters the teens and start to show an interest in the opposite sex. A growing daughter makes the father fidgety and he looks on all boys as: "swine among the pearls—they marry little girls". But when the son shows an interest in girls, the Myanmar father, like all fathers, preens himself and thinks "Oh! chip off the old block." On the whole, especially in middle class educated families, an offspring is free to choose his or her mate, within reason. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]
Sometimes there is a runaway marriage. If it is a daughter, a mother will beat her breast and shed oceans of tears. But then the boy's parents come along with downcast eyes and apologies and assurances that they will put things right, that is, hold a wedding feast to declare to all and sundry that their son has chosen his bride. If however the son of the house has brought home a wife, then the boot is on the other foot. The boy's parents have to take the girl back to her parents and give assurances of their good will. Sometimes of course things go sour, but it's rare. And when a grandchild comes along all is forgiven. All focus is now on the newcomer who will be showered with love from grandparents, parents and uncles and aunts plus a horde of relatives. =
In 1958, Daw Mya Sein wrote in The Atlantic: “ The "arranged marriage," customary in so large a part of Asia, is still to be found in some segments of our society, but with this essential distinction: that the parents cannot choose a partner for their daughter without offering her the right of refusal. Most of our young people now marry for love — or at least choose their own partners — and a girl can insist that her parents accept her betrothal to the man she prefers. Even after her marriage a girl can decide, if she wants, to remain in her own family for a while. The marriage itself continues this principle of independence and equality. The wedding is not a religious ceremony but a civil contract — in fact no ceremony is necessary at all; a man and woman can simply make known their decision to "eat and live together." [Source: Daw Mya Sein, The Atlantic, February 1958 <<]
Marriages were previously allowed between Burmese women and male foreigners provided that the divisional courts in Burma were informed within 21 days of advance notice. However, in May 2010, the government of Burma disallowed conducting of marriage ceremonies between Burmese women and male foreigners. One of the suggested reasons was to avoid human trafficking. Burmese women become victims of human traffickers and traded for the sex industry in Pakistan and Thailand. [Source: Wikipedia]
Dating in Myanmar
Dating practices are often very strict within the Burmese family as couples sometimes only date if the girl sees the boy as a potential marriage partner. Under these circumstances young adults must be supervised at all times and both sets of parents must give permission for a couple to wed. In the old days, boys used to court girls by sending them love letters. These days boys and girls often go out in groups to eat, shop, sing at a karaokes or go to movies.
In 1958, Daw Mya Sein wrote in The Atlantic: “As the girls grow older, it may seem to a Westerner that they lead a rather restricted life. It is not customary among us for a girl to go out alone after she is sixteen or seventeen. She will go out with her aunt or her mother, or she may go to the pictures with her friends, but there will be no question of "dating" in the Western sense. In the universities the boys may pay calls on the girls in their dormitory, or a group of them may go for a walk together, but even this is considered a Western institution. However, in our own terms, a Burmese girl has a good deal of freedom before marriage and we have no form of purdah for our women. Naturally there would not be the high percentage of love marriages that we have in this country if the boys and girls had no opportunity to meet and get to know each other. [Source: Daw Mya Sein, The Atlantic, February 1958 <<]
“In the old days — before we had clocks — we used to have special names for different moments of the day. The early morning was "the cock-crowing time," or we would speak of "the sunset time." In the same way the late afternoon was "go courting time." It is clear from this that the courting system is an old one in Burma, and, as in just about everything else, the Burmese woman has, by tradition, been accorded certain rights and privileges n this matter too. Even now it is a custom to go courting. Two or three boys will go together to a girl's house where she will receive them. They will eat some fruit and sweetmeats, or have tea and a smoke — and talk. Then they may go off to call on another girl in the same way. Introductions can be made in this manner and friendships can grow. Besides this, there are plenty of appropriate occasions in Burmese social life for boys and girls to meet. There are pagoda festivals and big picnics, there are family visits to other houses and there are sports. Apart from foreign sports like tennis and golf, and international sports like swimming, there are many Burmese games. In the villages, particularly, you will see boys and girls playing together the old games such as Phan-gon-dan, a kind of leapfrog, or Gonnhyin-tho-de, which is played with a big seed. After they have outgrown the childhood games they continue to meet at the kind of sport that we have specially for full moon nights when the groups divide into two sides, draw lines on the ground and then try to catch each other whenever anyone steps into "neutral territory." <<
Weddings in Myanmar
Most weddings are marked by a ceremony, feast or party at the bride’s house, a hotel or a hall of some sort. The bride usually wears a decorated silk dress and has her hair drawn into a coil and has rings on all her fingers. Men usually feast first and then women take their turn. The money that the groom brings to marriage is placed in an earn next to offerings of fruit.
For a Buddhist wedding, a senior, respected man or monk chants some Buddhist scripture. The groom enters and sits on a cushion. The bride does the same to the left of the groom. The couple leans forward with flowers in their hands and bows as Buddhist scriptures are read by elders and monks to show their reverence to the Triple Gems and to their parents. The monks are offered alms. The ceremony ends when the couple places their right hands together in a container of water. The couples bedroom is decorated with silk and paper flowers. Guest walk through it and admire it.
Wedding ceremonies are relatively simple except among wealthy families. After speeches by the parents, members of the families and guests share pickled tea. Big weddings are usually held at hotels. There is often music, and singing and dancing troupes to entertain the guests. The ceremony, presided over by a Master of Ceremonies, climaxes hen the couple’s hands are tied together with silk and placed in a silver container filled with water. Conch shells are blown and silver coins and confetti are thrown. Cakes, sandwiches and ice cream are served at the reception.
Suitable wedding gifts depend on the couple’s station in life. If they are young and are not financially stable a cash gift in multiples of a hundred (to symbolise a long life) is suitable. Otherwise. functional items such as crockery, electrical appliances, and pieces of cloth make excellent gifts. Gifts that are taboo include scissors, knives and anything black in color. Among office colleagues a collection will normally be made to buy a gift for the couple or give the cash collection outright.
Traditional Burmese Wedding
According to the Myanmar government: “When a boy and a girl come of age and love one another and will want to marry and live happy ever after a wedding ceremony will be performed for them. Parents, relatives, honourable guests and friends are invited. so that they will be recognized as a newly married couple. As marrying is a once in a life time occasion Myanmar women regard the wedding ceremony very seriously. You can be sure the bride will be having cold feet, butterflies in her stomach and perspiration on her forehead as she faces this very special day of her entire life. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]
On the wedding day it is a customary for the bride's family—parents, brothers and sisters—to dress her up in the finest of attire and bedeck her with the best jewelleries they can afford. With her hip-length jacke—long-length silk or satin “ htain-me-thein”—the bride looks somewhat like a princess of the Royal Court in the olden days of the Myanmar kings. And the bridegroom surely looks elegant an handsome in this traditional Myanmar men's attire which consists of a head-dress called “ gaung baung” (a long sleeve stiff collared shirt), a double length men's silk longyi called a “ taung shay longyi” and a traditional men's jacket and velvet slippers. =
It is customary for the friends and relatives who attend the nuptial ceremony to shower the couple with gifts such as household items and personal affects that will help the marrying couple get on their feet with their life-long journey. Parents of the bride and bridegroom heartily welcome their guests with smiles and handshakes and wedlock couple gives away thank-you cards. In the old days, as wedding hall filled up, guests were entertained with a traditional glass- mosaic-embedded, gold-gilded Myanmar Orchestra. Nowadays, due to time changes, guests are entertained with modern musical instruments. =
Traditional Burmese Wedding Ceremony
“The Master of Ceremony, the person who consecrates the marriage, announces the beginning of the wedding ceremony. He recites a special poem directed at families of the bride and groom and showers praise on the bride and groom, wishing them a life-long union and prosperity. Then the most experienced singer from the band begins to sing a classical auspicious song, praising the occasion and the participants. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]
A flower-girl dips her hand into the silver bowl she’s holding and gently scatter the flowers with the nuptial couple following behind. Walking on the flowers is meant as good omen for their life-long union as husband and wife. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for. Now everyone’s attention is drawn towards the couple who are walking down the carpeted aisle of the hall. This is the auspicious moment! The bride and groom enter the ceremonial hall, attended by the best man and bridesmaids, and followed by their parents. Upon reaching the stage and before seating themselves they turn towards the guests and, with hands clasped together, pay their respects with their heads bowed. The garlanding of the auspicious couple is one of the auspicious customs in Myanmar weddings. In ancient days it was the custom for the bride and groom to garland each other, but nowadays a couple with a long martial standing, and who have only been married once, bestow the garlands—and wedding rings—on the couple.
After the wedding rituals are completed the guests are treated to refreshments offered by the couple. The married couple warmly greets and thanks the guests who have attended their wedding. The guests in return bestow on the couple their best wishes for prosperity and a long and happy married life! After the wedding ceremony, when the married couple arrives home, they pay their respects to parents of both sides according to traditional Buddhists customs. In turn they are blessed by their parents.
The “ gei-bo” negotiating begins once the couple tries to enter their bridal chamber which by then is blocked by rows of friends and relatives, holding gold chains asking for “ gei-bo” which is pocket-money. A lot of boisterous bargaining and negotiating follows until both sides agree to a negotiated amount. After passing through this last obstacle the married couple will carry on with their life in building a long lasting and happy marriage for themselves!
Another part of the wedding is offering food and alms to the Sangha (monks), The bride and groom work hand in hand untiringly to prepare food and other alms for the Sanghas. Elders from both sides of the family offer sumptuous food and snacks to the monks. The bride and groom offer food, robes and other alms with the firm belief that it is the harbinger of auspicious and happy life for the future. The couple to be married also prepare and stuff a silver bowl with cash and confetti for the ceremony. The monks grace the new home by reciting Parittas to ensure good luck and happiness. The monks deliver sermons to the gathering, blessing the newlyweds and sharing their meritorious deeds. To commemorate the successful wedding ceremony cash and confetti are strewed among the attendees. The guests happily pick up the cash to keep as amulet, which are believed to ward-off the bad and bring in good fortune.
Court (Legal) Marriage Ceremony in Myanmar
There are also court marriages usually performed by judges ranging from township to Supreme Court Justices, depending on the wish and accessibility the partners. Wherever the wedding is performed, the couple wants to show and receive acceptance from society that they are eligible and duly married before respectable personages. These too can be joyous occasions with a large number of guests.
Court marriages require judges as well as witnesses. The wedding ceremony is usually presided over by a judge and witnessing law officer, both of whom are accompanied by their wives. Firstly the bride signs her name to two copies of the marriage documents and the groom follows suit. After the witnesses sign the document the judge gives his blessing and best wishes and signs the document and the court register. Thus. the couple become husband and wife legally. With the successful conclusion of the ceremony the invited guests are given refreshments offered by the newlywed couple.
Divorce, Polygamy and Mistresses in Myanmar
Polygyny is rare. Far more common is the practice of wealthy and powerful men having an informal second wife. Divorce is relatively common and usually involves the couple ceasing to live together and dividing their property.
Divorces are easy and informal to get but generally rare after children have been born. If a couple divorces common goods are usually divided equally and the wife retains proceeds from her commercial activities.
In 1958, Daw Mya Sein wrote in The Atlantic: “If, by any chance, either partner of a marriage should wish to terminate their contract in divorce, this, too, is possible and acceptable under Burmese law. If there is mutual consent to the divorce, if the husband and wife both decide — for whatever reason — that they cannot live together, they simply announce the end of the marriage to the headman of the village or to the heads of the two families. But even without this amicable arrangement, a woman can divorce her husband for cruelty, serious misconduct, or desertion, regardless of his consent. If she leaves him for a year and takes no maintenance from him during that time, he can claim a divorce. A man, on the other hand, must leave his wife for three years before she can get an automatic divorce. The reason for this difference of time is, of course, that business or professional duties are more likely to keep a man away from his family for long periods, but Burmese women often joke about how this just shows that a woman can make up her mind two years faster than a man. [Source: Daw Mya Sein, The Atlantic, February 1958 <<]
“As in many parts of Asia, polygamy is accepted by Burmese society—but with one important difference. A man cannot marry for a second time without the consent of his first wife, and he must abide by her decision because otherwise she can sue for divorce and a partition of the property. Polygamy is not practiced very much nowadays, especially among educated people, but I remember hearing about the days of my great-grandparents and how government officials who were sent on a tour of duty to the provinces would keep one wife up-country and one in town. Now one seldom hears of such things on that level of society, though the practice still continues in the lower economic groups. My cook's husband, for instance, has three wives, and another of my servants two. Sometimes, in the villages, if a farmer has enough property, he will take more than one wife, but in the towns and among people with a higher standard of education polygamy is increasingly rare. <<
969 Movement and the Proposal to Ban Interfaith Marriages in Myanmar
In July 2013, Radio Free Asia reported: “Nationalist Buddhist monks in Myanmar have collected 2 million signatures in support of a proposed law restricting interfaith marriage, a prominent anti-Islamic monk who is leading the campaign said. The monk, Wirathu, who heads Myanmar’s anti-Islamic “969” movement, said the signatures would be used to back a proposal to parliament aimed at curbing marriages between Buddhists and Muslims in the wake of sectarian violence in the country. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 17, 2013 <>]
“Under the proposed “national race protection law,” Buddhist women wishing to marry non-Buddhist men must first receive permission from their parents and local government officials. Non-Buddhist men wishing to marry Buddhist women must first convert to the faith. Rights groups and women’s groups have spoken out against the proposal, which follows several bouts of anti-Muslim violence in the Buddhist-majority country that have killed at least 43 people this year. <>
Buddhist monks have been collecting the signatures since the proposal was first unveiled at a conference in Yangon on June 27. The signatures will be sent to the head monk of the Ywama Monastery in Yangon, who will present them to parliament along with the draft law they are proposing, Wirathu said, after the nationwide signature campaign wrapped up Wednesday. “As of today, I have received over 970,000 signatures from Upper Myanmar and Ashin Pyinnya Wara has received over 1.5 million from Lower Myanmar,” Wirathu told RFA’s Myanmar Service, referring to a fellow senior monk. “So the total number of signatures we have collected so far is over 2 million.”
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy, has blasted the bill as a violation of human rights and the country’s laws, saying it discriminates against women and runs contrary to Buddhist principles. But the National Democratic Front, a political party that split from the NLD in 2010, has lent its support to the campaign and is planning to submit to parliament this month a draft law similar to the one proposed by the monks, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported earlier this month. NDF leader Khin Maung Swe has said the law is aimed at protecting poor Buddhist women from non-Buddhists who “take advantage” of their impoverished circumstances, according to the report.
Wirathu, 46, from Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery, has previously said that the bill is tied to of concerns that Muslims are spreading their faith by marrying Buddhist women. His “969” movement, the name of which refers to the various virtues of the Buddha, calls on its followers to boycott Muslim businesses and social circles.
Monks Vow to Push for Interfaith Marriage Ban
Aung Ko Oo wrote in the Mizzama Times, “Thousands of Buddhist monks at a meeting in Mandalay have vowed to campaign for a law banning interfaith marriage until it is enacted by parliament. The pledge was included in an 11-point statement agreed by an estimated 30,000 monks at a meeting held at Mandalay’s Maha Ahtulawaiyan monastery. The meeting also resulted in the creation of the Upper Myanmar Organization for the Protection of Nation and Religion (UMOPNR). [Source: Aung Ko Oo, Mizzama Times, January 16, 2014 >]
“In their 11-point statement, the monks pledged to strive for the protection “of defenceless Myanmar men and women” until a draft law banning interfaith marriage was enacted and called for the enforcement of the 1982 Citizenship Law “in the interests of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and its citizens”. The statement said constitutional reform should focus on the long-term interests of Myanmar and its people. It said the monks objected to the activities of “internal and external elements” who were providing encouragement to organizations and groups that are not included in the list of national races named in the 2008 Constitution. >
“The statement said there should be a review of members of parliament who are not on the list of national races and that voting rights should be withdrawn from those holding temporary national identification cards. It expressed thanks to members of the government who had attended the meeting and expressed support for forming the UMOPNR. The statement also called on the media “as the fourth pillar of the democratic state, to report accurately and fairly in line with their ethical responsibility not to harm the interests of the nation and religion” and urged all citizens to refrain from speech and actions that may hurt the feelings of those of different faiths. >
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014