CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Not only are the Shan New Year celebrations in Chiang Mai at Wat Ku Tao the biggest outside of Shan State, they also raise about 300,000 Baht (about US$10,000) for underprivileged people in eastern Burma.
San Ya, a director of the Chiang Mai branch of the Tai Literature and Culture Society, which organizes the event, said that the festivities get bigger each year as more Shan people have been moving to the area of Chiang Mai over the last decade.
“Before, Shan people used to live mainly in the countryside and work in agricultural jobs, and the Thai government would not really let Shan people come to Thailand and work. But since about ten years ago, it has become much easier ,” San Ya said.
Prior to that, there was no large Shan population in any one area, making large congregations difficult. Smaller celebrations in Chiang Mai used to be held at Wat Pa Pao, a small Shan temple on the moat surrounding the historic old city. Following a steady influx of Shan arrivals in Chiang Mai eventually caused celebrations to outgrow the venue.
Sometime around 2004, coordinators of the New Year event suggested a change.
“About ten years ago,” said Prakruba Jantarangsri, the abbot of Wat Ku Tao, representatives of the Tai literature and Culture Association, “came and asked me if they could hold their New Year celebrations here and I said yes.”
The abbot, whose name translates as Moonshine, explained that Wat Ku Tao is not a Shan temple, but a 650-year-old Lana, or northern Thai temple. He said that although he could speak Shan, had been to Shan State many times and was sympathetic to the ethnic minority, the main reason the Shan representatives chose his temple was that it was next to a sports stadium with ample parking facilities.
Jantarangsri said that the first New Year celebrations at the temple attracted about 1,000 people while the most recent celebrations from Nov. 21-23 this year attracted more than 10,000.
San Ya said that unlike previous generations of Shan immigrants who lived and worked in rural areas, newer arrivals lived in towns because they came to work in factories and construction. Chiang Mai is particularly popular as it is the nearest large Thai town to Shan State.
According to San Ya, there is another reason so many Shan people have been coming to Thailand.
“Because of land grabs in Shan State, people have no work so they come to Chiang Mai. Soldiers take the land,” he said. “There are many people in Chiang Mai this has happened to.”
Another difference between new arrivals and previous Shan immigrants is that many migrants have had children who were born, educated and raised in Thailand. Their distance from Shan customs has left many of them more culturally Thai, having lost some of their traditions and language. Because more recent arrivals grew up immersed in Shan tradition, they often speak Shan language and lead a culturally distinct lifestyle.
This is immediately obvious at New Year celebrations at Wat Ku Tao. Most people are wearing traditional clothing and headwear. Some instead wear Shan New Year tee shirts sold at one of the many stalls selling clothing and other goods.
Also on offer are traditional Shan foods rarely seen in Chiang Mai, such as tofu products, many varieties of Shan noodles and buffalo jerky. Alcohol, however, is not on the menu inside the temple grounds.
The yellow green and red of the Shan flag is everywhere, and most of the younger revelers have a small Shan flag sticker on one or both cheeks. Also very popular is a temporary Shan cultural museum with old photos from Shan State.
Probably the most popular attraction is the stage where Shan singers perform. One of the highlights was a performance by Nong Nairn, a young Shan woman who originally came to Chiang Mai as a migrant worker and made it big. She went on to become a model and now is a famous actress in Thailand, having appeared on television and in films.
With attendance of more than 10,000 people over three days, San Yai said that this year’s celebrations were the biggest in the world outside of Shan State.
Everyone who attends the celebrations is charged 60 baht (roughly $2) and vendors also pay a fee. San Ya said that this year he expected to raise about 300,000 baht, which would go towards helping orphans and other disadvantaged people in Shan State.
He explained that the Tai Literature and Culture Association also has branches in Shan State that help to identify people and projects in need of funding, and distributes the money raised over New Year.
“All the money goes to Burma. The association gives money to people who have problems, poor people, orphans, people in troubled areas, people in [displacement] camps and refugees. It helps to buy them food,” he said.
But beyond providing basic assistance to those in need, the funds also help to preserve a vital part of Shan identity.
“Some money also goes toward paying for the teaching of Shan language in schools, [and] Shan study books,” San Ya said.