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Rural Life in Myanmar

Children with traditional Thanakha bark paste on their cheeks.

Children with traditional Thanakha bark paste on their cheeks. Photo: Ma Thanegi

In many respects, a Myanmarian farmer and his wife still live in the way their forefathers did, working with oxen yoked to ploughs.
A village by the river with paddy fields beyond.

A village by the river with paddy fields beyond. Photo: Ma Thanegi

A novice doing chores.

A novice doing chores. Photo: Ma Thanegi

Myanmar has a landmass of 261,789 square miles and a population of 60 million people divided into over 130 ethnic races. Eighty percent of its people are Buddhist and three-quarters of them live in rural areas. Before 1885, the country was ruled by a xenophobic monarchy, after which it suffered under colonial rule, and was occupied by Japan during World War II. Once it gained independence in 1948, much of the country endured communist and ethnic insurgencies and, from 1962 to 2011, a long period of extreme poverty under the oppressive rule of two consecutive dictatorships.

In many respects, a Myanmarian farmer and his wife still live in the way their forefathers did, working with oxen yoked to ploughs. In the upper part of the country, they still face frequent droughts; in the delta, heavy rains still regularly decimate their crops. Yet while lacking material wealth, they reach for happiness by drawing on spiritual resources, maintaining a faith in Buddhist teachings and aiming to lead a harmonious life of goodwill and contentment. They revel in the warmth and support of their compact communities, take pride in their hard work, and manage to find laughter even in the face of disaster. This last ability, fueled by the idea that while we may lack control over destiny, we can at least determine our own reactions to it, is also characteristically Buddhist.

Farmers in Myanmar live in villages, their fields spreading out from these central cores. Farmlands are not fenced in since even the children know which field belongs to which family. The interest they take in each other’s lives typically extends beyond mere inquisitiveness into complete disregard of privacy, which in turn keeps in check any thoughts of bad behavior. Kids who get caught skipping school or swimming in the creek are roundly scolded by adult passersby, while older transgressors suffer public ridicule—nothing is considered more important than prestige and good standing in society. For those hardened and usually drunken sinners who have abandoned their dignity altogether, the village abbot will typically recommend a stretch of community service.

The ideal life in the Buddhist Order is spent in study and meditation, but all abbots at village monasteries are generally busy looking after their devotees, a task that includes teaching children when there are no government schools in the area, taking in orphaned boys as novices, acting as negotiator between quarreling neighbors or couples, and, more happily, advising on the organization of the annual festival of the village pagoda or a feast to commemorate a religious day. Their male devotees become novices or monks for as short or long a period as they prefer, as many times as they want, so there is no rigid divide between the religious and secular communities.

With more than 12 festivals in a year, the community life of the rural Buddhist revolves around discussing the last event, preparing for the next one, and looking forward to bigger dates in the months further ahead. Family celebrations such as weddings or initiation of young sons into the Order involve the whole village, informal teams handling the preparation and serving of food first to monks and then to hundreds of guests from their own and neighboring villages. Each village is a small universe with shared history and family connections, and a comfort zone of warmth and support. Even the young tend to shy away from the bright lights of cities, abhorring the stress of urban living and mistrustful of the “townies” who might take advantage of their lack of sophistication.

However, with progress comes refinement, and in time the rural citizen may come to value material things over spiritual well-being. Right now, he stands at a crossroads as Myanmar’s development accelerates. The things that define them—his sense of fatality, his resilience, and his quirky sense of humor—are rooted so deeply in his being that perhaps, with luck, they will prevent him from responding too eagerly to consumerism’s siren call.

Ma Thanegi is a painter, contributing editor at the Myanmar Times, editor of travel magazine Enchanting Myanmar, and the author of several books on the country.

Do ways of life governed by religious tradition preclude the making of contemporary art?

  • MichaelJWilson

    Underlying this question is another: What is “contemporary”? Should artwork produced along traditional lines—especially, perhaps with a religious function in mind—in a society without ready access to or interest in global bleeding-edge trends, even be compared with its hypermodern urban equivalent? Or would to do so be to compare apples and oranges? Does contemporaneity necessarily entail an awareness of the (or an) art historical canon and the succession of movements and tendencies therein, or can it arise, if not spontaneously, at least under specific local conditions?