RANGOON — In just a few days, Rangoon will be transformed into a chaotic seething mass of gyrating dancers and pulsating music, as residents take to the streets to bring in the New Year.
Water cannons and hoses at the ready, revelers will drench anyone who comes within range during the Thingyan water festival that starts on April 14.
Platforms known as pandals will double as both dance stage and a launch pad for the hosing.
For more than a week now, locals have been preparing the stages for Thingyan. Teenagers are bubbling with excitement, busy making plans for the festivities ahead.
“We have been setting up this pandal since the first day of the month. Now we are making some finishing touches,” said Thura Soe, one of the organizers of the Black Culture pavilion stationed near Kandawgyi Lake in Rangoon.
Each pandal can hold 500 people who will be assaulted with ear-shattering music, while they in turn can assault any passer by with a cool blast from the water cannon.
Myo Lwin, the deputy head of the Yangon City Development Committee, the municipal body that manages the festival, told The Irrawaddy there would be 40 stages approved out of more than 100 applicants.
“We can give one-fourth of the proposed applications because of land space situations in town and we can only give the permission within our capability of controlling the pavilions,” he said.
Setting up the pavilions does not come cheap.
“We’ve spent around 30,000,000 kyat (US $37,500) so far for our 120-foot-long long pandal,” said Hein Aung Soe, an organizer for Black Culture Pavilion.
Hein Aung Soe, 26, got together with four of his friends to share the cost of building the pavilion.
“After adding the other costs of fuel bills, decorations and hiring a DJ and sound system and so on, there’s no wonder setting up a platform costs that much,” he said.
To try to break even, the pandal organizers collect admission fees.
“We charge 35,000 kyat [about $40] for one person to join our pavilion throughout the festival. Free lunch and drinks are included,” Thura Soe said.
In its last heyday in the 1990s, when Rangoon was the government’s seat of power, the former capital saw a more vibrant Thingyan. Government ministries had to set up their own water throwing pavilions to celebrate the festival, while foreign companies also took part in Thingyan.
But as sanctions hit even as Rangoon became a business hub for Burma and the capital moved to Naypyidaw, the energy went out of Thingyan.
Teenagers like Hein Aung Soe or Thura Soe came in to revive the city’s Thingyan spirit.
But many complain now that the festival has become about money.
“Nowadays Thingyan is a money-making festival, said Hla Tun, 68, a retired headmaster. “In the old days it was all about having fun and you could join any pandal without charge.”
In Mandalay, about 40 pavilions have been set up around the city’s moat.
Chein Soe, 22, from the Mandalay Youths group, told The Irrawaddy that he and his friends would be celebrating for four days.
“We were saving our pocket-money and wages since January 1 to participate in Thingyan,” he said, “for us, it will be a blast to dance in water to the beats of DJ’s songs,” he said.
But there is another side to Thingyan, one darker and more sinister.
“No one knows exactly if we make any profit by setting up a pavilion. You could call it ‘a risky business.’ If something bad happens, like bomb explosion, we will be in big trouble,”said one of the organizers, referring to a deadly bomb attack at a pandal near Kandawgyi Lake in 2010.
Since the explosion, the government has ordered pavilion organizers to set up at least four CCTV cameras and hire private security guards.
Since the Anti-Muslim riots broke out in March, concerns have been raised that extremists might target the festival.
“The one sure thing is we Burmese and Thingyan are inseparable. We want fun during the festival, so we are just looking for the way to have it. We beefed up the security by hiring more than a dozen private security personnel” said Hein Aung Soe and other youths.
“We are preparing a security group of 40 security professionals. It is important to be prepared for violence during the festival,” he added.