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Culture & Identity of Myanmar

Introduction

Burmese Culture - Monks
Monks in Bagan

Many countries in this world have lost numerous aspects of their culture and traditional way of life due to advancements in communication, technology, transportation, and globalization. However, Myanmar has been essentially sealed off to foreigners for years so these outside influences have only begun to arrive. These influences are arriving quickly though and the country has been in a constant state of change for the past few years and these changes will likely continue into the foreseeable future.

Burmese Culture - Monks
Children Monks

Yangon, the country's former capital is already beginning to look and feel like a modern world city, but hidden around many corners is the traditional culture and way of life, often times in complete contrast to that of modern society, such as a pagoda (Sula Pagoda) from thousands of years ago standing in the middle of a busy traffic round-about.

However Yangon may appear to the visitor, this city symbolizes the future of the country more than it represents the majority of the present day country. Most of the people in the country live in rural areas and 70% of the working population is still employed in agriculture. This way of life is what most of the Myanmarese know and this is the root of the culture.

Being isolated for so many years, many of the people in Myanmar know nothing more than this agricultural life. In these towns, villages, and fields life is based on the sun, the weather, and the seasons. But work is difficult, especially considering few farmers have modern equipment. This has led to a reliance on family and neighbors for work, building houses, and anything else that must be done throughout the year. Additionally, as communicate and transportation in many areas is lacking now and in the past, these communities were the center of the world for most people and even today local community is much more important than nation, or really anything else.

Burmese Culture - Locals in Old Bagan
Locals in Old Bagan

Even in cities community is important and many cities seem almost divided into neighborhoods that cling to history, tradition, and friends, some of whom may date back generations. Of course the cities are also home to young educated Myanmarese seeking an education or jobs. Internet cafes are appearing everywhere in the cities and often times there are long waits to get a computer. This is the growth of the modern country and one of the most obvious signs of change.

No matter the way of life or setting in Myanmar, life in the country still revolves around these small communities and family. School is of utmost importance to many people and sending their children to school and even tutoring or voluntary classes when school is off is seen as an important step for most children. Many families also send their children to become a child monk for a few months. Although this is an expensive undertaking, it is a great source of pride for families (this doesn't make the children permanent monks). Families want the best for their children and, although incomes and wages are low, many families see the cost of bettering their children as being a worthy expense. In this way, Myanmar is a country looking towards its future, but in no hurry to get there as life seems to move slowly.

Identity

Most people of Myanmar primarily identify with their ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of the people are ethnic Burman or Bamar and identify as such. This identity is based first on their ethnicity, but is also somewhat reliant on their language and culture. Like this identity, most of the country's ethnic minorities also first identify with their ethnicity; there are dozens of small ethnic groups in northern Myanmar and the ethnic Chinese also make a large minority group in the country.

In the past the country was called Burma, so the name Burmese was used as an identity; this term was commonly used in more of a political sense to define any citizen of the country, no matter their ethnicity. Due to a recent name change from "Burma" to "Myanmar," the term (in English) most often used to refer to a citizen of the country has shifted from Burmese to Myanmarese. However, like the name Burma, the name Myanmar is also a reference to the country's majority, the Bamar people, so is indirectly tied to an ethnicity. Despite the origins of the country names, both of these political terms are arguably politically-defined terms that are all inclusive.

This page was last updated: November, 2013