There are many ethnic groups that come from Burma (now Myanmar) and there is only one Burmese ethnic group. These distinct communities have a combined Minnesota population of over a thousand now, with each holding their own cultural, spiritual and political holidays events.
It was quite a site for the few hundred guests that attended the first-ever Burma Multi-Ethnics Culture Show last Saturday, at the Boys & Girls Club of St. Paul. In what is planned to be an annual event, the communities wanted to create day where all ethnic groups of Burma could get together for an event that showcases each distinct culture, while also celebrating their common Burma heritage. The event takes place about the same time as Union Day occurs in Burma. That date signifies independence from Great Britain in 1947, but the Minnesota event is not meant to be political, just cultural.
Most people from Burma in Minnesota are refugees and asylees that have escaped the murderous and torturing hands of the Myanmar military regime, only to live a nomadic life along the border, or a peasants existence working in the factories of Thailand. Their events in Minnesota are often political, to call attention to the plight of the people of Burma, and to their imprisoned president, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other National League for Democracy party members that swept the elections in 1988 – only to have the military regime refuse to relinquish power.
The event on Saturday was an opportunity to celebrate the cultures that have thousands of years of history in Burma, earning them the reputation as the jewel of Southeast Asia. The resource rich country has some of the most beautiful geography, temples, pagodas, cities and people on earth. The last fifty years has isolated Burma from the world, and the local community wanted to share their culture, entertainment, food and stories with each other and to the mainstream community.
“We plan to do this event every year,” said Aung Koe, event organizer and secretary of the Theravada Buddha Sasana Nuggaha (www.tbsnm.org), the nonprofit organization that runs the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara, the first Theravada Buddhist monastery in the Twin Cities at 1519 County Road C East, Maplewood, said the event is intended to educate the community about the several ethnic groups of Burma, that now make Minnesota their home. They intend to build unity, improve relationships and understanding among and with all different communities in Minnesota.
“I hope that all of you had a good time and had fun and enjoyed our presentation and food,” said Aung Koe. “Our objective was to share our traditional costumes of all ethnic groups in Burma, to educate our young generation, to introduce our various ethnic foods to all of you, to improve friendships, unification, understanding and loving kindness among all ethnic groups and others communities.”
Ashin Ma Ho Saw Pandita, Buddhist Monk and Temple Abbot of the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara, and fellow monk, Nayakalankara were also present to greet guests and to bless the event.
Woei Eng, M.D., a physician who is just completing his residency at the University of Minnesota Medical School, provided a PowerPoint presentation on the peoples and other features of Burma.
He explained that Burma is comprised of seven states (Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhaing and Shan) and seven divisions (Mandalay, Magwe, Bago, Ayeyarwady, Sagaing, Yangon, Tanintharyi).
What was more fascinating was to learn that Burma’s eight ethnic groups (Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhaing and Shan) each have several distinct subgroups within each ethnicity. Only the Mon has just one ethnic group, which the Chin has 53, and the Karen (Minnesota’s largest Burma ethnic group) has 11 different sub ethnic groups.
Burmese is the official language of Burma, and most all ethnic groups speak their own languages and regional dialects. As a former British colony, English is also widely spoken in Burma.
Following the presentation, children and young adults representing the several ethnic groups of Burma in Minnesota, provided a fashion show, along with music and a performance of the Karen Don dance. Dinner followed with food from all parts of Burma.
The Burma community of Minnesota held a similar event, the first Burmese Food Festival last September at Keller Regional Park shelter in Maplewood. There was a downpour, but the event went on under the shelters and was still successful. It was also another event to inspire unity among ethnic groups, and drew Buddhist, Christian and Muslim peoples of Burma, together for an event “to get past the politics of the ethnic communities and in support of the temple and to celebrate community,” said Aung Koe.