The Dangers of Thingyan

YANGON // The beginning of the annual New Year festivities has been marred by many protests and warnings this year. Thingyan is the traditional Burmese New Year celebration and a water play festival held in the month of Tagu, which corresponds to April, in most Southeast Asian countries. 

“For three or four days in April, usually the hottest month, people pour, sprinkle, splash or throw water onto each other, to symbolically wash away their bad karma of yesteryear and to welcome the New Year.  Additionally, people celebrate Thingyan by chanting slogans or singing jingles meant to poke fun, take swipes or toss gibes at society’s ills.” explains U Win Htein in his memoirs. The NLD spokesperson has been arrested and detained by the military in an unknown location since February 5th, 2021.

This festival has not been held for the past two years due to the COVID-19 and then the political instability following the coup d’Etat. But this year, the military junta is trying to hold a Thingyan festival throughout Myanmar to create a sense of normalcy.

As a reaction, some groups such as the Bhamo People’s Defence Forces (PDF) and civil society organizations like in Mandalay are calling for a boycott of the Thingyan festival activities that are held by the military council and warn of potential retaliation.

“Such warnings should be made so people know that participating in the Thingyan festival this year will carry risks. It should be like this, because we are in a revolution” said a young woman living in Yangon. On April 12th, a group of protesters marched against the “fake propaganda Thingyan” with the slogan “Revolution Is Not A Festival”. 

On the other hand, the military council is doing a lot of work to make the official Thingyan festival feel organized and safe. More inspections are being carried out in cities than ever before and Mandalay is currently classified as a red zone with many check-points in place. Boatmen near the U Bein Bridge were also forced to organize a Thingyan festival to be held on the shores of the lake around Mandalay against a small payment by the military.

The junta is also planning to hold a Thingyan night market at Myanmar Plaza, a high-end shopping mall in downtown Yangon. “Parents are not allowed to celebrate Thingyan with water play but they are worried that children will be forced to play by the military.” said a woman who lives near the planned festival place. 

The plan seems to backfire as two small explosive devices detonated at the Myanmar Plaza branch of Harry’s Bar on the evening of April 11th, according to the DVB. “No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack and no casualties were reported but the bar’s exterior was damaged. Soldiers and police conducted security checks around the perimeter of the center shortly after the bombings. The bar, the franchise of which is operated by the western-sanctioned sons of infamous crony Tay Za, was added to a boycott list of military businesses after the coup.”

Myanmar Plaza has already been the target of anti-coup ire. On November 25th, two young pro-democracy protesters were violently put down by security guards, with one girl being punched in the face. The next day, Myanmar public and student unions called for a boycott of the mall run by HAGL (Hoang Anh Gia Lai), a prominent Vietnamese company accused of massive land grabs in Laos and Cambodia. International franchises Bonchon and Gloria Jean’s Coffee and LG announced that they intend to stop the activities of their branches in the mall. Most shops closed the next day and the place was hit by a months-long boycott.

On social media, Yangon PDFs warned that they could not guarantee the safety of shoppers visiting Myanmar Plaza anymore, and on Google Maps, Myanmar Plaza was renamed PDF YGN HQ (PDF Yangon Headquarters).

Despite this situation, many beach resorts in Myanmar, and especially Ngapali beach in Rakhine state, are overcrowded, with most of the holiday-makers coming from Mandalay and Yangon. But most foreigners who still reside in Burma are refraining from participating in the festival out of precaution and the US Embassy in Burma has urged its citizens to leave the country or avoid gatherings as much as possible. 

From April 17th, the junta has announced the reopening of cinemas as well as international commercial flights to welcome potential tourists in Myanmar. But they will be required to buy insurance from the regime’s owned Myanmar Insurance and will likely be monitored, with no guarantee of safety. On the morning of April 9th, a rocket attack on Mingaladon air base, the military side of Yangon International Airport, exploded near staff housings.

“These highlighted the risk of collateral damage on civilian airliners using Yangon airport. Even the landing or taking off are at risk now. 

There were three rocket attacks today, one at the air base, one at a city golf course and another one at a junta ration packing factory, part of a new operation by Yangon guerrilla PDF” explains a Burmese Twitter user quoting Khit Thit media.