Myanmar is a country of extraordinary ethnic diversity, with 135 officially designated ethnic groups. From the formerly nomadic people of the islands on the Andaman Sea, to the hardy hill tribe minorities in the foothills of the Himalayas, the country is rather more like several countries crammed together — a sometimes uneasy accord, as the faltering peace process will attest.
While the number of 135 ethnic subgroups is somewhat disputed, owing to the fact that it was based on a cursory British colonial-era taxonomy which overblows the size of some groups and atomizes others, each ethnic block has distinct cultures and traditions. The central Bamar Buddhist majority is the largest group (estimated at some 80 percent), and the dominant culture is often imposed on the peripheries through government institutions. The push for mother-tongue education in ethnic regions is a fairly recent phenomenon.
In each of the seven states and regions and of the six self-administered zones, there exists a mix of ethnic groups and subgroups. Many parts of the country operate under mixed administration, with influence from both the centre and rebel groups that control vast swathes of territory and in some cases act as de facto state governments.
The ethnic minority groups speak their own distinct languages and dialects, which have often lacked a written form. Oral storytelling tradition is strong. Younger members of some groups have sought to consolidate traditional knowledge by bringing it online, making it available to a newer generation. Others have had their cultures and customs documented by independent media and researchers, such as the Kite Tales project.
For example, in Kachin State, Jinghpaw is the dominant language. Many Kachin are Christians. The church has taken on a major role underpinning Kachin life. However, the Kachin tradition of the Manau Festival (which has its roots in animism) involves traditional dance. The state’s influence on the Manau detracts from the event’s authenticity in some cases, which raises the ire of the Kachin people. A similar case can be found in the Naga self-administered area, where the central government has sought to impose more conservative values on the tribal gathering (including compelling the participants to wear bike shorts under the traditional, rather more revealing outfit.
The belief in Nat spirits, mischievous ghosts caught between realms, is a pervasive one across the Bamar heartland and further-flung areas. The Nat folklore is widely taught and ties in with the dominant Theravada Buddhist tradition. As such, Nat Pwe festivals are held around the country on auspicious dates, in keeping with the Buddhist calendar and lunar cycles. Nat Kadaws are men who dress in ornate women’s clothing, and are considered to be able to channel spirits. Nat Pwe often involve offerings being made, as the crowd cheers the convulsively-dancing Nat Kadaw.
Myanmar has a strong tradition of dance, puppetry and theatre, as well as of more modern forms of communication, such as subversive comedy and cartooning.