RANGOON — Hundreds of ethnic Shan people celebrated their New Year in Rangoon on Monday evening, in an event involving traditional dances and songs at a Shan Buddhist temple in Mayangone Township.
One night every December, the Shan, who are the dominant ethnic group in eastern Burma’s Shan State but form a small minority the former capital, gather to see in the New Year. On Monday evening, a large crowd congregated at the Chan Myint Thar Yar Shan temple off Prome Road.
They spoke in the Shan language, wearing small Shan flags stuck to their cheeks, traditional Shan silk dresses for women and baggy Shan trousers for men, and traditional brightly colored headdresses.
Sai Leang Han, the secretary of Shan Literature and Culture Association, told The Irrawaddy, “Our main intention in celebrating our Shan New Year is we want to promote our literature and culture.
“Another reason is our Shan here [in Rangoon] are too far from their mother land, I mean they are far from the atmosphere of their motherland. All our Shan people can gather at one place for this celebration.”
Shan people celebrated the New Year at midnight, singing a traditional New Year song, and all dancing together. The Shan calendar turned over to the year 2108, which for the Shan is the year of the horse.
In Shan State, the people celebrated their new year with fire crackers, but in Rangoon they did not have permission to do so. “I did not like to ask permission to use fire crackers. We will have group songs and welcome the New Year with our performance of old Shan instruments,” Sai Leang Han said.
He said it was not easy to put on the celebration in Rangoon since the Shan minority living in or near Rangoon is scattered around. People were brought in from far away by bus, he said. And although many of young Shan in Rangoon have joins which meant they could not join the celebration, he said, the event was a success.
“I have the same feeling of happiness either celebrating in here or Shan State. I feel it is no different,” said Sai Leang Han. “I feel very pleased to see our Shan dress and Shan entertainment.”
At the celebration, stalls sold Shan traditional garments and Shan food. The Shan Literature and Culture Association collected money for the celebration from the Shan residents living in Rangoon, with volunteers going door to door and performing Shan songs to garner funds.
The ethnic Shan population in Rangoon Division is estimated at between 40,000, and 50,000 people, concentrated in Kamaryut, Daik Gyi and Twan Tay townships.
It is traditional on Shan New Year’s Day, Tuesday, for Shan people to donate food to Buddhist monks or to pray at pagodas, for good luck in the coming year. “Our Shan people went to pray at pagodas during on New Year’s Day, and we had a food donation celebration,” said Shan community leader Hkun Htun Oo.
Two ethnic Shan groups—Shan State Army-North and Shan State Army-South—are still armed, alongside a number of other ethnic groups in fighting in Shan State. Since a quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011, both groups have signed individual ceasefire agreements with the government and are both involved in ongoing talks for a nationwide ceasefire.
The Shan Literature and Culture Association’s Sai Leang Han said one benefit of the recent political reforms in Burma has been that it is now easier to organize events like Monday’s New Year celebrations, which in the past may have been held up by difficulties obtaining permission from authorities.
“We found that one thing changed after having reforms in country, which is it is easy to apply and get permission for a celebration,” said Sai Leang Han.
He said Monday’s event gave him hope that Shan culture—which like all non-Burman ethnic groups in Burma was suppressed under the former military regime—would flourish once more.
“I found here that our literature and culture will continue to grow, unless they restrict us,” he said.