Myanmar’s Tepid Thingyan New Year

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Myanmar’s Tepid Thingyan New Year

Like much else, the country’s normally raucous new year festivities have become a political battleground since the 2021 coup.

Myanmar’s Tepid Thingyan New Year

A man takes part in a water party during the Thingyan New Year Festival in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Credit: Photo 56376846 | Myanmar Thingyan © Presse750 |

Mid-April marked Thingyan, the traditional Burmese new year. Normally a time for energetic water throwing, leisure travel, and raves, the water festival has lost much of its cheer since the coup of 2021. Along with COVID-19 measures in 2020, this year marked the fifth consecutive “dry” Thingyan, as most people in Myanmar refrained from the wild revelry of previous decades.

Like most aspects of life in post-coup Myanmar, the traditional new year has become entangled with hyper-polarization, pervasive politicization, and violence. Thingyan is now a propaganda tug-of-war between the State Administration Council (SAC) junta and its many opponents, with different armed groups organizing celebrations as manifestations of their territorial control. As the warring sides held their own celebrations and jostled to dictate how people spend Thingyan, violence continued unabated and this year’s holiday period also saw some interesting incidents.

Regime Revelry

Since seizing power, the SAC has organized Thingyan celebrations to claim a return to normalcy and to tap into the festival’s symbolism of washing away misdeeds and allowing for a clean, new start. It is one of the biggest manifestations of the regime burying its head in the sand as conflict spreads ever closer to the capital Naypyidaw. In his 2024 Thingyan speech, SAC leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing doubled down by blaming opponents for the spiraling civil war.

For 2023’s celebration, the junta rolled out co-opted celebrities including those who had participated in anti-coup protests or fled into the jungles. This year, it flew in Korean entertainment personalities to spruce up festivities and deployed “safe” celebrities to regional cities. State mouthpieces and local platforms showed crowds thronging festivities held across major regime-held cities and scaled-down events in places such as Loikaw and Sittwe.

Following the coup, the military and government ministries have ordered staff and family members to participate in official celebrations to pad the numbers. Appearing on regime newsreels, the tension on attendees’ faces is often visible, as such events have become prime targets for resistance attacks. Senior officials evacuated from Loikaw were reportedly made to return for celebrations even as the city remained contested. There were also reports of communities and businesses being forced to donate to support celebrations organized by government departments or military garrisons.

On the international front, attendees of the SAC’s diplomatic Thingyan events showed the regime’s short roster of bedfellows. Notably, the Russian embassy debuted its own pavilion in Yangon this year and brought in Russian performers in signs of the deepening embrace between the two international pariahs.

The SAC released 3,303 prisoners in this year’s Thingyan amnesty, the number leading to numerological speculation and Yadaya rituals meant to address the regime’s tenuous situation. Activists contend that such amnesties cover petty and violent criminals and rarely include political prisoners. Notably, Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint were moved to house arrest while Kachin religious leader Dr. Hkalam Samson was pardoned and released only to be re-arrested just a few hours later, with the regime claiming that he was being consulted for peace issues.

Taw-lan Thingyan

Since the coup, resistance organizations have adopted the term Taw-lan Thingyan, or “Revolutionary Thingyan,” declaring the festival canceled and urging people to boycott celebrations. Leading resistance personalities and influencers have shared ways that the public can support anti-coup activities during the holidays in place of the traditional revelry. Activists promise that once the junta is overthrown, everybody can celebrate Thingyan and other festivals with “accrued interest.”

Another term, Thway-Soon Thingyan, or “Blood-stained Thingyan,” aims to remind the public of the turmoil by asking if those celebrating had a clear conscience. Last year’s Pazigyi massacre just before Thingyan served as a strong rallying cry against festivities. Anti-regime platforms shared photos of deserted city streets to showcase the general mood and to drive home their point that celebrations are an affront to the revolution.

In “liberated areas,” protest groups and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) have organized celebrations, performances and political events to rally supporters and request donations. Diaspora communities also organized Thingyan events to raise funds for resistance efforts, inviting political leaders, activists, and exiled celebrities to frontline such events. In his New Year wishes, the National Unity Government (NUG)’s Acting President Duwa Lashi La congratulated the public on overcoming the post-coup challenges and urged all to renew their vows to uproot military dictatorship.

Meanwhile, youth groups and student unions continued the tradition of Thangyat. Inherently political, these troupe performances have been used often to convey commentary through rhyming, satirical verses in order to rally the audience, wish success on resistance forces, and highlight various issues. The SAC is the butt of most such skits, though the NUG now finds itself being mocked as well, reflecting mounting frustration with the parallel government.

On the heels of its stunning victory across northern Shan State, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army organized a number of religious ceremonies followed by celebrations in captured towns, though one event was briefly interrupted by explosions. In Rakhine State, where the Arakan Army (AA) is poised to seize the entire state from the regime, the group warned people against participating in this year’s celebrations and religious events, saying it was to prevent potential mass casualties. This was in stark contrast to the huge celebrations that the AA organized in previous years.

Violence Unabated

As one of the main Burmese holidays, some might have hoped for a Thingyan truce. This was never an option as both the regime and its opponents ramped up attacks in the lead-up and during the festive period. Junta columns continued burning and bombing villages and firing heavy ordinance, and its opponents also launched attacks. In Rakhine, the Rohingyas found themselves increasingly trapped between the regime and the advancing AA.

On April 6, an explosive-laden drone crashed at a site near Mawlamyine as it was being inspected by one of the SAC’s deputy prime ministers, Gen. Mya Tun Oo. A drone attack in the same city on April 8 reportedly injured Junta No. 2 Vice-Senior Gen. Soe Win, who was supervising the regime’s operations around the key border trade hub of Myawaddy. With the apparent resistance capture of Myawaddy, supporters remarked that the developments meant the regime wouldn’t be around for next year’s Thingyan. The pièce de resistance was on April 15, when rockets struck both civilian and military targets in the garrison town of Pyin Oo Lwin while Min Aung Hlaing was visiting, killing at least four people.

In the lead-up to Thingyan, armed resistance groups often issue warnings to the public against participating in regime-linked festivities that are backed up by actual bombings. This year, two bombs near the Mandalay mayor’s pavilion on April 14 injured at least ten persons, while another went off near Taungoo’s main pandal. Last year, more than a dozen civilians died and many more were injured across various attacks on regime-linked celebrations including car bombs in Lashio and drone attacks in Loikaw and Sagaing Region. Other times, bombs exploded at pavilions at odd hours, causing no harm.

Such tolls are minor compared to the daily carnage of battles and junta atrocities, but Thingyan’s symbolism amplifies their impacts and dispels the SAC’s claim of normalcy. The regime is quick to parade what it says are apprehended resistance saboteurs who were intending to target festivities, while netizens vacillate between cheering on the bombings, blaming victims, and denying the resistance’s role when civilian deaths occur.

Other Developments

This year’s number of Thingyan pavilions and revelers has unsurprisingly remained low compared to pre-coup years and resistance supporters have shared photos of celebrations to mock the SAC’s efforts. Yet news platforms reported that celebrations in junta-controlled cities were seeing more civilian participants than before. Away from the spiraling conflict, there were relatively more children throwing water in neighborhood streets. Businesses, neighborhoods, donors, and celebrities distributed Satuditha free meals to passers-by and the ever-growing crowd of destitute persons.

As a workaround to threats of social punishment as well as security concerns, hotels and clubs have organized private Thingyan parties and raves that were packed to the brim. In the context of expanding conflict and the exodus following the regime’s conscription enactment, a good chunk of attendees likely celebrated as a swan song with friends before making difficult life decisions. Those with bigger wallets flew to Thailand to escape the insecurity and constant power cuts. With conflict spreading across the country, people who could still afford to travel had fewer domestic options, either crowding out the handful of remaining destinations or opting to stay home.

On April 15, the Facebook account of a person named Ye Yint, a member of the controversial anti-junta Kawthoolei Army, uploaded a two-minute video. In the clip, now seen over 3.7 million times, he tearfully pleads to somebody assumed to be his commander, offering to trade himself for his wife and child. A few hours later, his commander’s account uploaded a video of Ye Yint being buried, his death attributed to suicide. Netizens alleged that the commander had accidentally killed a number of PDF fighters in a friendly fire incident near Myawaddy and that Ye Yint supposedly reported the incident, leading to his wife and child being detained by the enraged commander. They also began airing other dirty laundry, including allegations that the same unit had hunted down and executed a female fighter after she blew the whistle over the rape of a comrade. Subsequently relieved of duties over a separate incident, the commander denied having any role. The details and veracity of the incidents are impossible to verify, complicated by pro-regime accounts jumping onto the outrage bandwagon.

Just before Thingyan, Chinese ambassador Chen Hai met with former military strongman Senior Gen. Than Shwe and former President Thein Sein, among other figures. Although the Chinese embassy stated that it was an annual well-wishing visit to mark Thingyan, the photos led to speculations about China’s intentions concerning the civil war and Min Aung Hlaing’s future. Lastly and on a lighter note, U.S. President Joe Biden’s wish for Asian communities celebrating the mid-April new year elicited chuckles and winces when he used the much-ridiculed term “Myanmarese.”

Whither Thingyan?

Symbolizing the washing away of misfortunes and a fresh start, Thingyan used to be a period of revelry, hope, merriment, and community. More than three years into the post-coup chaos, with the social fabric torn to shreds, there is little to celebrate. The water festival has lost its soul and is now sullied by violence and awash with fear. With neighboring Thailand’s Songkran gaining more international recognition, Burmese cultural experts and netizens could do very little but sigh with despondent envy as Thingyan fades away.

Only time will tell when Myanmar’s perpetual strife will truly be washed away and when all its inhabitants can actually experience a fresh start.