The Irrawaddy

Bringing Myanmar Puppetry Back to Life

YANGON — Sitting in his makeshift theater at his home near downtown Yangon, U Khin Maung Htwe is dreaming big.

“I want to have a museum or center focused on Myanmar puppetry,” he said, caressing a stringed wooden white horse, one of the figures from a set of 28 Myanmar marionettes.

As well as running a theater, U Khin Maung Htwe is director of the Yangon-based marionette troupe Htwe Oo Myanmar. “Here in Myanmar, there’s no place to go for anyone, locals or foreigners, who want to learn about the arts,” he laments.

When he established the troupe in 2006, the one-time sailor’s ambition was more humble: He wanted to showcase Myanmar’s traditional performing arts to tourists in a fitting environment.

“I did it because I wanted to see people enjoy our puppetry in the way it is supposed to be enjoyed,” he said, explaining that hotels and expensive restaurants offer so-called traditional puppet shows to attract foreigners. “They treat puppetry like a side-dish to tourism.”

After struggling for seven years to get his idea off the ground—including making 10 overseas trips, from Thailand to Austria—Htwe Oo Myanmar has gained popularity internationally. Visiting Europe, he says, opened his eyes to the importance of opening a center to preserve the art form.

“After visiting puppet museums [in Europe], I have a burning desire to have a center for teaching, preserving and showcasing our puppetry here,” he said. “It would be very convenient for us to pass the arts on to younger generations.”

Myanmar puppetry, known as Yoke Thay, has a long history dating back more than 500 years. In a similar fashion to other folk plays around the world, Yoke Thay functioned as both royal entertainment and mass media, spreading stories of current events.

But Myanmar’s tradition of puppetry is also unique.

“Our tradition is unlike any other puppetry from neighboring countries. Ours has its own unique styles in every respect, including the way to manipulate the puppets and their design,” said U Chit San Win, the author of “Yanae Myanma Yoke Thay Thabin” (“Myanmar Puppet Theater Today”). “In our Yoke Thay you can enjoy all the Myanmar arts, like dancing, music, sculpture, sequin embroidery and painting.”

U Chit San Win says Yoke Thay is not on the verge of extinction due to a number of puppetry courses taught at universities. But in general, he says, the traditional arts are unfashionable.

“Young people find it very boring and difficult to understand because even today the Myanmar puppet performance is still very traditional and using old Myanmar [language],” he said. “This means Yoke Thay has seen a serious decline in local patronage and it survives on tourism.”

This could explain why Htwe Oo Myanmar has battled for years to recognition at home, even as it has found interest abroad. When Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008, causing tourist numbers to fall, the troupe was forced to move to U Khin Maung Htwe’s living room, now hastily converted into a stage when tourists arrive.

While neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam are attracting international visitors with their puppetry, the Myanmar government does little to promote its traditional performing arts, “because they are paranoid about being labeled a ‘puppet government,’” U Khin Maung Htwe said.

More than two years after Myanmar’s military junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government, many still wonder if the current administration isn’t just a puppet of former military strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

“Instead of what they are doing now, the government should have more concrete plans for our Yoke Thay,” U Khin Maung Htwe suggested. He sees a puppet museum or center becoming a focal point for puppet masters in the country to collaborate with each other to preserve and promote the arts.

“It would help us generate ideas about how to breathe new life into our dying arts, too,” he added.