Tradition Takes a Back Seat at Burma's First 'Free' Christmas

By Lawi Weng 25 December 2012

RANGOON — After decades of repressive military rule, young Burmese are finally getting a chance to enjoy this year’s festive season in freedom—by riding around town in a nightclub on wheels, listening to hip hop music and watching scantily clad young women sing and dance.

This may not be most people’s image of Christmas, but in a country that until recently rarely had a chance to really celebrate the occasion, some see this as yet another sign that Burma has finally rejoined the world beyond its borders after decades of isolation.

“We’re tasting political change in our country now, so we want to have fun like the rest of the world this year,” said Maung Maung Aye, the organizer of a promotional event by Tiger Beer that involved driving around downtown Rangoon in a bus made to look like a dance club.

“We want to be happy and we also want the people to know that we have the right to create our own happiness,” he added.

The brightly lit, open-roofed bus, covered with Tiger Beer advertisements and carrying around 50 mostly male passengers, set off from in front of Traders Hotel at around 10 pm on Christmas Eve. Inside, dancers wrapped themselves around poles, while outside, onlookers took in the spectacle as the bus made its way around the city.

For those not lucky enough to get a spot on the bus (which came complete with free beer), there was no shortage of other options.

For many, the best way to spend the night was simply wandering from bar to bar, dropping in to listen to the latest hip hop hits with friends, in some cases wearing Santa hats as a reminder of why they were in such a festive mood.

Others looking for a more upscale event could find it at the Chatrium Hotel on Kandawgyi Lake, in the heart of Burma’s largest city.

At the Chatrium’s “Miss Christmas 2012,” around a thousand people, including well-known movie actresses Tun Eindra Bo and Eaindra Kyaw Zin, gathered to watch 30 models strut their stuff on a catwalk. The entertainment also included dancers in skimpy skirts—something that would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

“Before, we could only sing, but this year, because of the political changes in the country, we were also able to dance,” said Htike Htike, a member of the “Me N Ma Girls” dancing group and the winner of a Melody World 2008 award.

The 24-year-old dancer told The Irrawaddy that she was very happy to take part in the Miss Christmas 2012 show because she wanted to show that Burma could meet the same cultural standards as other countries.

Another dancer named Boat Boat, from the “Here and Now Dance Crew,” also said she was proud to be a part of the event, as it raised the bar for Burmese dancers.

“Now I want to attend an international dancing school and participate in competitions in the other Asean countries,” she said.

She acknowledged, however, that many older Burmese don’t approve of the way she dances, as it is not in line with traditional Burmese culture. But she added that not everyone rejects the introduction of more modern dance styles.

“We have to change the way we dance, just as we have changed politically,” she said. “Some people understand this, but others don’t.”