CHILDREN IN MYANMAR

CHILDREN IN MYANMAR

Is is considered very odd for a couple not to to want to have children. Couples with no children are pitied. A birth itself is not celbrated per se perhaps due to the high mortality rate in Burma. . There is often a “naming day” feast or “100 day old” celebration.

Young children undergo several rites of passage. Traditionally, all boys of eight to ten years of age attended school in a Buddhist monastery. Girls used to have an ear piercing ceremony but that is not widely practiced any more. When a child is a few years old, a ceremony is held to give the child a name. Children in rural areas grow up surrounded by the implements that they will use when they grow up and watch adults performing domestic, agricultural, and artisanal tasks. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

See Education, School

Monk Initiation Ceremony

Shinbyu, or the monk initiation ceremony, a rite that mimics the Buddha’s renunciation of secular life and marks transition from worldly to spiritual, is an important rite of passage for young boys. After a feast hosted by his family the boy's head is shaved. He is then given a robe and it is off to the monetary for several weeks or months.

In Myanmar, boys undergoing initiation are introduced to the tenets of Buddhism during a feast that includes bitter bean soup and pork curry for as many as 700 guests. The Shinbyu ritual begins in the morning, when the boy is dressed up in a white robe and gilded crown and is made the center of attention. In the afternoon he and all of the other boys going through the ceremony are taken to a monastery where they are dressed in saffron robes and have their heads shaved.

At the initiation ceremony for novice monks at Shwe Dagon Pagoda, boys between six and ten don silk clothes, golden rhinestone-encrusted crowns and yoke-like shoulder plates and then begin a week or more of special religious training.

The ceremony of ordination and novitiation is one of the noblest ceremonies for Buddhists in Myanmar. It has traditionally been held in Waso month, the fourth month in Myanmar calendar which coincide during July and August and the rainy season in much of Myanmar. Becoming a Buddhist novice involves three steps: 1) shaving the hair, 2) wearing the robe and 3) believing in Buddha. A key part or a monk’s training is studying the Dhamma (Dharma)—the Teaching of Buddha.[Source: Myanmar Travel Information **]

Of the three steps shaving the hair and wearing the robe are straight forward enough. It is more difficult to ascertain a belief in Buddha. As it is difficult to pronounce the Dhamma chants perfectly a novice has to study and practice them for at least one month ahead of initiation ceremony. In the ceremony the novice has to correctly ask for the robe from the presiding monk and properly pronounce the “Three Venerables” with correct syntax in the Pali language. **

Buddhists in Myanmar believe that if their sons have been initiated into novice-hood at least once in their life their parents will not suffer in hell in their next life. Males have become novice monks are regarded as men in a more noble life and thus should be accorded proper respect. These days, Nowadays in Myanmar, the ceremonies of ordination and novitiation are often held especially in the hot months between March and May. **

See Buddhism Under Religion

Challenges and Improving the Conditions of Myanmar’s Children

According to UNICEF: Today in Myanmar, some inroads are being made in advancing children's rights and improving the provision of basic social services for children. Nevertheless, disparities remain pronounced throughout the country, with children and women in remote areas often being particularly underserved. While progress has been made in improving children's health through child immunization and nutrition initiatives, Myanamr continues to have high infant and under-five mortality rates, with 50 percent of all child deaths attributable to preventable causes. One in three children under five years of age are still malnourished, and youth are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. [Source: UNICEF }{]

Although water and sanitation coverage has substantially increased in recent years, many households still lack access to safe water and sanitary facilities, and water-born diseases remain a major killer of children under five years of age throughout the country. Parasite infections resulting from impure water are exacerbating child and infant malnutrition, and poor sanitary conditions are providing breeding grounds for disease.}{

Today, primary school enrollment rates are high, and more schools are being constructed. However, less than half of all children in Myanmar currently complete primary school. Many school expenses must be borne by students' families, presenting an insurmountable financial obstacle for many improverished households. Classroom facilities are often poor and under-equipped, and attrition rates among teachers are high due to low pay, poor working conditions and long separations from their families. }{

In recent years there has been a growing recognition of the importance of child protection intiatives. Nevertheless, high primary school dropout rates and widespread poverty have had the effect of rendering large numbers of Myanmar's children and youth vulnerable to various forms of exploitation. Despite these challenges, there is reason for hope. UNICEF in Myanmar is working with its partners to help children and their families surmount the problems that they face, and more fully realize their rights to health, education, equality and protection. }{

See Child Labor Under Labor

Infant Care and Pregnant Women Customs in Myanmar

There are many taboos and superstitions surrounding pregnant women and childbirth. Pregnant women are not supposed to eat too much chili, bananas or glutinous rice. They are not supposed to attend funerals or weddings or visit cemeteries. Clothes are left unsewn and unfinished due to the belief that being overprepared will invite misfortune. After a child is born you are not supposed to praise him or her as it is believed that such acts draw the attention of evil spirits.

When a woman has given birth it is usual for her friends and colleagues to give gifts such as feeding bottles and clothes. Gifts should never be given before the baby’s birth as some women are superstitious that this will bring misfortune to the baby. When the baby is 100 days old. a name-giving ceremony is usually held. Monks will be invited to chant prayers and bless the baby and in turn meals will be offered to all participants. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Young children receive a great deal of attention. Newborns are placed in very carefully made cradles. A mother keeps her baby with her when she leaves the house. Burmese women carry babies on the hip, while most hill-dwelling peoples hold them in a sling on the back. Young children are pampered, given considerable freedom of movement, and allowed to handle virtually anything that catches their attention. Weaning usually takes place when a child is two to three years old. Relatives or friends may nurse an infant. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

Child Rearing in Myanmar

Adults take a great deal of interest in children, including those who are not their own. In the refugee camps, children were allowed to roam and play freely. Parents who immigrate to other countries may continue this practice, not realizing the dangers of busy streets. To Myanmar people all children are "Yadana" that is treasure. but there is play on the syllables that admonishes them not to be "Ya - dar - nar" that means "unfortunate to have had you".

Myanmar people as parents are usually indulgent with children. No self-respecting mother will let her infant child cry; rather she up the child at the first whimper. But by school age they have been taught the basics of discipline and morality. Mother sees to that. But. there is also a lot of fun and laughter that helps to strengthen the bonds of love. Father on return from work is greeted joyfully by the children. They run to him. clamber over him and ask for goodies. A small daughter is quite capable of running into the bedroom and come out trailing a "pasoe" (men's nether garment) for father to change into. Another older child might run to fetch a glass of cool drinking water or a fruit juice. All this goes on till mother shoos them away for father to have a bath and relax a bit. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Myanmar children are taught to love and respect their parents. But they may like all children. sometimes "talk back" to parents and be cheeky. When the parents are in a good mood they get away with a mild rebuke. If not they may be in for a spanking. But the children do not fear their parents. They are wily enough to know how far they can go.

There may be some form of corporeal punishment in poorer homes where the parents are ignorant and under some financial stress but downright physical or mental abuse of children is rare. And if there is the neighbors will see to it that it doesn't happen too often. There may be tears but there is also humor and affection.

Myanmar Handymade Toys

According to Myanmar.cm: “Though a great variety of modern toys have made their way into Myanmar toyshops especially in the cities partly due to globalization and trade liberalization, a number of Myanmar traditional handmade toys still win the hearts of young children in both urban and rural communities. Myanmar children have been enchanted by those handmade toys for centuries and they are truly Myanmar in their essence and characteristics. Most Myanmar handmade toys reflect the way of life and way of thinking of Myanmar people and their history. Although toys are made from several materials such as paper, wood, bamboo, metal and clay, the most common material is paper in the form of papier-mâché. [Source: Myanmar.cm ::]

“To make papier-mâché toys, a mold carved out of wood is covered with scraps of paper covered with glue, allowed to dry in the sun, and then cut free. The toys are painted in bright colors with swift strokes, and with the eyes drawn in classical lines. Hence the toys have a whimsical look that has existed for decades. Toys made this way are usually animals familiar to the children in daily life or through tales, animals such as oxen, tigers, or elephants. A common papier-mâché toy is Po Wa, or Little Fat Boy, the favourite figure of a pageboy serving in the palace. Another popular papier-mache toy is Pyit-taing-daung, or a knock-about egg-shaped toy with a smiling and serene face. This toy is weighed down with clay stuck inside the base. It is fun for the kids to roll them about and see them always stand upright. ::

“To make wooden toys like owls, the figures are carved out of softwood and then covered with gold paper. Cute facial aspects are then drawn or painted on the owls. These golden owls are the favourite not just of children but also of adults who proudly display them in their living rooms. A variety of stringed puppets in the forms of princes, princesses, royal officials and horses are also made of wood as toys for children and souvenirs for appreciative tourists. ::

“Myanmar children also enjoy playing with small traditional instruments such as drums, xylophones, clappers and flutes that are made of wood, leather, metal or bamboo. Such toys not only entertain children but also help develop their musical sense. Children also like miniature cooking utensils and animals made of clay, baked and beautifully painted or glazed. They are ideal toys for the kids especially girls of quiet nature, who can nurture their desire for housekeeping. Toys reminiscent of the monarchic era include papier-mâché helmets, wooden swords in sheaths and spears, and replica armor and weaponry of ancient warriors. These are usually sold at pagoda festivals and fun fairs. ::

Children’s Games in Myanmar

Children often play chinlon , a hacky-sack-like game in which participants try to keep a woven bamboo ball in the air without using their hands. Children also play with sticks and cans and use water to draw hopscotch squares. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

Htote Si Toe (“border-crossing game”) is a traditional Burmese game played by young people of both sexes. It originated long ago in rural areas but has been enjoyed by both rural and urban children alike. A table has to be drawn on the ground marking in it borders such as top, middle, axis and diagonal. The players are divided into two teams, with the players of one team staying on, and moving along, the borders while those of the other team try to cross the lines without being caught or touched by the opposition players. The winning team is decided by whether it can successfully protect the borders or cross every line from start to finish then back to the starting point. The game involves much physical activity as one team of players has to block the border lines while the other team members have to run across them. Sharpness of eyesight, smart decisions and rapid movements as well as team spirit are crucial to the game. [Source: Myanmar.cm]

Kyak Hpa Khut (cock-style fighting) is a Myanmar traditional game that originated in rural areas and is mostly played by young children especially girls. The game resembles real cock-fighting, hence the name, and the players act like gamecocks themselves.Players have to stand and raise each foot alternately while chanting a verse in chorus. At the end of the verse, they squat on the ground, extending and retracting each foot alternately with the hands resting on the waist. When the match is in full swing, fans cheer or sing out verses to encourage their player sand discourage the others. The contestants continue to move until one of them tires and gives up. Like many Myanmar traditional games, this has crept into obsolescence among urban communities due to lifestyle changes and the influence of modern technology. ++

"Kyay thar" is a sort of rural base ball game played with a short cylindrical bat (which is about 3 inches in diameter at the most) and a wooden peg sharpened to a point at both ends that was the missile to be hit. One can either dig a small hole about the size of an apple—balancing one pointed tip of the peg on the edge of the hole—or find a brick on which to balance the peg with one end protruding beyond the edge of the brick. Then holding the cylindrical bat firmly in the palm, a player taps the point of the peg, which flies up, and then aims and hits the peg as far as he can. There is no pitcher, only you and your opponent. The distance covered by the projectile is measured out with the bat which is is only about a foot long. The one who can hit the peg the farthest is the winner. There is always the risk of the peg flying up to hit your face or if very unlucky, your eyes. Needless to say, adults have traditionally thoroughly disapproved of this game. But it was exciting and the implements required could be hewn out of any piece of wood lying around. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Traditional Burmese Kites

One now rarely sees children flying kites in Yangon: what with the increasing high-rises and heavy motor traffic. It is prohibited in downtown areas because it has become highly dangerous for children. Even in the olden days there was some risk involved. The traditional Myanmar kite is a thing of beauty and cannot be bought ready made like the small square Indian kite. The Myanmar kind has to be made with what we call "his-sein" (oil-treated) colored paper that is rather opaque small, smooth flexible bamboo sticks and glue. If glue is not easily available then mashed sticky rice can be used. And of course yards and yards of string. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The kite is like an isosceles triangle with a curved top. It may have a short forked tail or a long sweeping one with multi-colored squares strung along close together on a string. It is huge, about three feet long and a foot at its widest. It needs a lot of strong twine and skill to get it aloft. But once it gets high up in the sky it stays there swaying majestically among the clouds. It fascinates small children about four or five years old, and can keep them quiet while they watch its every movement. ~

The small square Indian kite is less expensive and meant for older and more adventurous kids who challenge each other to kite fights in the sky much like fighter planes in air battles. They try to cut away the other’s kite string and if one succeeds in doing so, there is a chase with much yelling and noise to retrieve it, finders being keepers. The string, wound on a large wooden reel, is rubbed with glass shards to give it a cutting edge. It can make quite a deep cut in the skin if one happens to slide the palm of the hand along it accidentally. When a kite has been severed, boys run headlong after it with long bamboo poles or cut tree branches to pull down the runaway kite if it should get caught in the branches of a tree or electrical or telephone wire. ~

It is indeed a competition fraught with danger as the boys run heedless of traffic and scramble up trees or wireless or electrical wire poles. It is a game played when the winds are strong round about March and April. It is a popular sport even for grown men especially in rural areas. It was a seasonal fad in the in big cities too and one used to see kite flyers on roofs of apartment houses. ~

Traditional Burmese Tops

One elderly Burmese woman wrote: “My favourite toy was always the top. The true Myanmar top is made entirely of wood right down to the single leg on which it spins. Here again there is the cheaper Indian variety available in any small shop with a single nail hammered in head first into the narrow tapering bottom of the pear shaped globe. to form the spinning leg. But the Myanmar top is a lovingly crafted piece, exhibiting the skill required in wood-carving and turnery. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The wood of the leg and the pear shaped globe are all made from a single piece of wood, the whole top tapering ever so gracefully into a leg as in a human body. It is known as a "kalatt gyin". A "kalat" is a circular serving tray with a stem. The Myanmar top has been so named because between the globe and the leg is an indented rim with the edge curling up decoratively. The size of this top is usually about as large as a man’s fist but it varies with the age of the player. The wood of the tamarind tree is said to be the most suitable, but actually any hard wood will do. ~

In the old days it was said that the twine from fibres of the palmyra tree was the best. One winds the twine, beginning from the lower tip of the leg right up to the bulging mid portion of the top. At the end of the string is a small knot which one places between the ring finger and the pinky. While holding on firmly, one lets go and throws the top down with speed. The force unwinds the string and the top spins beautifully. My uncle had such a beautiful top but we were allowed only to touch it, not play with it. One of the games played in rural villages was to try and hit a spinning top with one’s own and crack the wood. A better game was to draw a small circle and try to aim one’s top so that not only would it land within the circle. but stay in it until its momentum was lost and the one whose top could spin the longest was the winner. ~

I regret to say that even when I was a child, Myanmar wooden tops had become a rarity. There were those with an iron nail hammered into the bottom for us to play with. Nevertheless. We had a lot of fun. There are two ways to spin a top. One way is to let loose the string—after winding it around the top from the leg up to the middle—by throwing it down from about shoulder level. That was for the boys. Girls were supposed to crouch down and push the hand holding the top forward and pulling it back at speed to unleash the string. This is actually harder. A skilled top spinner is one who can throw a top down and whip it up again to make it land on one’s open palm and let it spin there. ~

Toys and Childhood in Old Time Burma

An elderly writer with the Myanmar Travel Information wrote: “The surprising spectacle of my ten-year old granddaughter struggling to spin a wooden top a few days ago brought back a nostalgia for my own childhood when I was the champion top spinner in our neighbourhood. My granddaughter is a quiet. gentle girl who usually plays with cuddly toys, jigsaw puzzles and Barbie dolls as most little girls do these days. So seeing her with a top and string in her hands pleased me no end. Some days later she compounded my surprise by bringing home a paper kite – the usual square one, which in our days was known as the "Indian kite" as opposed to the large fancy "Bamar kite." I mused on whatever had got into her, but seeing her with a top and a kite reminded me of the traditional Myanmar toys that had given us so many happy and carefree child hood days. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

“We led a simpler life those days with little or no "foreign-made" toys except for one or two celluloid dolls. Most of our playthings were home made or bought from pagoda stalls. The highlights of our recreation were visits to the Yangon Zoological Gardens, very rare visits to the cinema to see Shirley Temple movies and cartoon features like Snow White and Mickey Mouse and, last but not least, to pay our devotions at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Not surprisingly, we looked forward to visits to this sacred pagoda...because we were allowed to buy a whole lot of toys after devotions. We went with our parents. often accompanied by my grandmother. ~

After everyone had finished their prayers “the highly anticipated time for us had at long last arrived – the delight of choosing and buying toys from the shops lining the long steep stairways. This was our treat and reward for being well behaved. My parents allowed us to buy quite a large number of toys because they were fairly cheap and the total cost for each of us would come up to about three or four rupees only. The toys would mostly be papier-mache. but oh! so colorful and attractive. Our first choice unerringly used to be the "pyit-taing-htaung" which means " that which always rights itself when thrown down." It is a tumbling kelly or billiken. In Myanmar. a person who rises up again and again in the face of all vicissitudes of life is likened to a "pyit-taing-htaung." Our next choice was the "Thu-nge-daw", a fat jovial character with hair hair tied in two trailing tresses. He represents a royal page [a favorite character in traditional Burmese marionette shows]. ~

My sisters’ favourite toys were small marionettes of princes. princesses (or dancers) and horses. I remember them staging "pwes" (stage shows) with their other dolls and myself as audience. But I was not too welcome because I would turn their show into a farce with my rude and unflattering remarks. My favourite toys were of a different kind altogether. I liked the masks best – masks of tigers, monkeys, kings, soldiers, necromancer and, most of all, the fearsome green ogre. The ogre was gorgeous. (my favourite character in the Ramayana Drama is still "Dasaghiri" the ten-headed ogre), but my grandmother would not let me keep an ogre mask for long. She never overruled my father’s indulgence, but would go on for days hinting darkly at catastrophes that could befall the family because of its presence. ~

“My mother not being able to take this any longer would then confiscate my cherished toy and throw it out much to my dismay. Then there was the Bandoola helmet (warrior’s helmet) and painted wooden Myanmar long swords. Alas! these were also denied me as not being fit for a girl. There were other attractive toys such as the earthenware miniature cooking utensils and other kitchenware like the mortar and pestle used for pounding chili, onion, garlic, ginger and dried prawn. Some were of glazed pottery and very attractive. They are produced in Kyaukmyaung, Shwebo Distirict. These toys were not made to last. After much handling they would disintegrate. Maybe it was an early lesson for Myanmar Buddhist children of the impermanence of all things.

These were the simple things that we amused ourselves with. There are better and more sophisticated toys today - toys that are educational as well as toys for amusement. We did not have such sophisticated toys but we not only had fun. we learnt to improvise with materials at hand. We learnt to socialize and learned many a lesson in getting along with others and the consequences of cheating on one’s friends. The toys we had served us well at very little cost. There are still papier-mache toys in the stalls at the Shwedagon Pagoda and earthenware and glazed pottery toys at pagoda festivals. But, sign of the times. there are also many ugly plastic toys. “ ~

Teenagers and Young People in Myanmar

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. =

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “ For a moment the loquacious DVD vendor is at a loss for words. Tom and his two young friends have been chatting in the dark about the glories of Yangon—its ethnic diversity, its hip-hop scene, its crumbling colonial architecture—when the subject turns, inevitably, to the future. "I'm sweating bullets," Tom finally says. It's not just a new expression he's trying out. Recent power cuts have hurt the meager profits he brings in for his wife and daughter—about $50 a month—and having a black market job makes him jittery. Even with the protection money he pays the cops, he barely escaped a recent police sweep. Were it not for his fleet feet, he might have wound up in jail and lost his inventory, including a prized Tom Cruise compilation disk. The Top Gun star, he says, is "the apple of my eyes." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011++]

“Later, chewing on a wad of betel nut, Tom confides his great ambition: He wants to go abroad. In this desire he is not alone. Each year tens of thousands of Burmese laborers head to Singapore and Malaysia, where they can earn upwards of $300 a month. Dick, an underemployed English teacher, says he may try to find a sales job in Singapore. Tom has the U.S. in mind. "It is the land of milk and honey," he says. "And Angelina Jolie." ++

“Even with his ebullient English, Tom's lack of higher education and financial assets dims his chances for a U.S. visa. But he seems so intoxicated by the idea—or is it the betel nut?—that he loses his inhibitions. "Under this dictatorship we live like pigs snorting in the dark!" The outburst unnerves his friends. "He's shooting off his mouth," Dick whispers when Tom goes off to deal with a customer. "He shouldn't be airing his dirty linens in public." At the end of the evening, Tom packs up his DVDs, and the three friends walk down the deserted street to his bus stop. "Things are getting a little better here," Harry says. "We've all got mobile phones and email now, so we can keep in touch with the outside world." Tom doesn't seem to be listening. As he hops onto the bus, he offers—with a devilish grin—a seditious farewell: "See you after the insurrection!" ++

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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