Rare Myanmar parties for Buddhist New Year

Hindustan Times, April 18, 2007

Yangon, Myanmar -- Punks, rockers and scantily-dressed youths thronged the streets of Yangon at the weekend for a raucous Buddhist New Year party, despite warnings from Myanmar's junta against any subversive behaviour.

Celebrated solemnly in other parts of Southeast Asia, the Thingyan festival, as it is known here, offers the people of this isolated military-ruled state the rare chance to gather in public en masse and truly let their hair down.

"This period is the free time for all. Friends can gather happily, and lovers can meet freely with the excuse that they are celebrating Thingyan," said 38-year-old Tin Tin.

Revellers sporting flamboyant punk hair-dos in red, blue and yellow gathered under tight security at small stages across Yangon where bands played and water flew as partygoers engaged in traditional water fights.

Some dressed as rappers or rockers, while others wore as little as possible, with mini-skirts, bikinis and skimpy tops on rare display throughout the country's commercial capital.

The culture ministry warned the population ahead of the festival not to wear indecent clothes that were "contrary to Myanmar's traditions". Myanmar is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia where the majority of people still wear traditional clothing every day, with most men donning a traditional sarong called the longyi and women wearing demure long skirts.

But 24-year-old Mu Mu said no one had been punished for wearing revealing outfits, saying the surprising sartorial statement was not about provocation, but just good, clean fun.

"Many youths want to out-do each other -- that's why they wear these clothes," Mu Mu said.

The four-day celebration, which ends on Monday, seemed to pass without incident.

However, the nose and lip rings and gravity-defying spiked hairstyles will likely be removed Tuesday as life returns to normal in the former Burma, which has been ruled by military dictatorships since 1962.

In a country where you can be jailed for holding a public gathering or criticising the junta, people are usually at pains to conform or risk trouble from the authorities.

A small protest in Yangon in February against economic hardship and rising commodity prices prompted the junta to arrest 20 people, including the protest leader and journalists covering the event. All have since been released.

For Thingyan, the authorities warned partygoers not to shout any political slogans or create unrest during the water festival -- one of the rare moments in Myanmar when citizens are authorised to march in the streets.

Nevertheless, Myanmar's pro-democracy activists are planning to use the holiday to cast the spotlight on their cause.