October 29, 2008

Myanmar comes to Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

If someone asked you to find Myanmar on a map of the world, would you know where to look? Before going to the Myanmar cultural event at Centre 2000 recently, I knew only a few things about the country (known as Burma until 1989).

I remember U Thant, the Burmese diplomat who was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971. I have read about Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who has been kept under house arrest by the military government, since her party won an election in 1990.

And of course, most people have heard about the terrible cyclone there, which left more than 140,000 people dead or missing last May, and about the government’s initial reluctance to accept foreign relief aid.

That’s not really a lot to know about a land of 50 million people, which was conquered and named Burma by the English in the 19th century. It is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, located east of India, south of China and west of Thailand.

As so often happens, the controversies that make it into the news shed very little light on the everyday people and customs of a country.

Kim Terzi of Erin organized the event at Centre 2000, with members of the Myanmar Cultural Association of Brampton (MCAB), featuring crafts, dance and cuisine. (I can highly recommend the curried beef and mango salad.)
“I wanted to help people know about the culture – it is a very peaceful country,” she said.

Erin residents, including Mayor Rod Finnie, were entertained with a series of graceful dances, including the Candlelight Dance of the Rakhine State, part of the Festival of Lights, which pays respect to elders in the community.

The Brampton association has been prominent at that city’s Carabram festivities, with more than 4,000 people visiting their pavilion this year. They also won an award for their booth at the CNE. More information can be found at www.mcab.ca.

The association is helping three villages back home recover from the cyclone, raising money for medical supplies, tillers, seeds, food and clothing. Many communities in the severely-damaged rice-growing region near the Bay of Bengal are not accessible by road, making relief efforts especially difficult.

Myanmar is primarily a Buddhist nation, and is known for its golden pagodas, or temples. The environment ranges from mountains in the north, to tropical jungle, to the vast Irrawaddy Delta to the south, near the capital city, Yangon.

MCAB Secretary Bessie Terzi helps operate a family business, Mya Yadanar, which imports handcrafted treasures directly from artisans in Myanmar.

“It is called The Golden Land,” she said.

The country is famous for its lacquerware, elaborate bamboo bowls and containers with a high-gloss finish inlaid with gold or other elements, often presented as gifts by the country’s kings.

Then there are the creations in Amboyna Burl Wood, an aromatic hardwood with spectacular grain patterns, the intricate hand-painted umbrellas and the gold-embroidered scarves and tapestries, many featuring images of the elephant. Find out more at www.myayadanar.com.

The country is also a major producer of gemstones, especially jade. The Unites States has imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar because of the poor human rights record of the military government, including a ban on importation of gems. Gems are still sold, of course, mainly to Chinese and Thai merchants, with a recent auction raising about $175 million, according to an Associated Press report.