Burmese names are often very confusing to foreign visitors because we do not necessarily hand down family surnames from generation to generation and Burmese wives seldom use the names of their husbands. Thus U Sein Tun’s son might be Maung Saw Tin, and his wife might be called Daw Mya Aye.
The titles prefixed to a name are also a bit difficult at first. A boy will be called “Maung” (“young brother”) till he is about twenty, and a girl “Ma.” But Maung and Ma are also common personal names, as with the well-known writers Dr. Mauing Mauing and Ma Ma Lay. An older man will address a much younger one as “Maung,” while a landowner or a businessman would address a tenant farmer or laborer as “Maung.” A little further up the age and status scale comes “Ko” (“elder brother”), and, finally, “U,” the form for a man who has made his mark in life. Yet, no matter how successful, he would always be too modest to sign himself as “U,” and if his personal name is a single word he will prefix it with “Mauing.” For a married or an older woman the title is “Daw,” but in conversation this is often dropped and affection or respect is indicated by doubling one of the syllables of her name. Then there is “Bo” for an army officer or someone who distinguished himself in our struggle for independence.
One or more of a Burmese child’s names is almost certain to show the day on which he was born—a survival from our belief that human destiny is linked with the stars. Certain letters of the alphabet are ascribed to each day, so that a “Thursday’s child” would have one name beginning with our P, B, or M.
Burmese is a monosyllabic language, and each part of our names is an actual word that means something, or even several things, depending on how it is pronounced. Thus I am “Little Mother” (Mi Mi) “Branch of the Tree” (Khaing) (though “khaing” can also mean “firm”), and our Prime Minister, U Nu, is “Mr. Tender.” Naturally enough, parents try to select for their children names denoting desirable qualities, beautiful things in nature or some form of worldly success. A merchant I know was aptly named “Surmounting a Hundred Thousand,” while the Rector of Rangoon University, Dr. Htin Aung, is “Distinguished and Successful.”
Being so handsomely named is not embarrassing, however, because we become so used to our names, and those of our friends, that we only think of the person and remember their names by their sound. And then too, a great many people have exactly the same names—as with U Mya Sein, the writer-diplomat, and Daw Mya Sein, the historian. And a few Burmese who were educated in British-type schools also have an English name which they still sometimes use among close friends.
“What’s in a name?” the saying goes, and perhaps Burmese feel this more than other peoples, for, if one of us in dogged by bad luck or ill health he won’t hesitate to choose a new one, simply putting an announcement in the paper that he has done so.
THE PEOPLES OF BURMA
Our country takes its name from that of the largest ethnic group in our Union—the Burmans—but to understand Burmese society today it is important to bear in mind that our State is a federal union of many different peoples, most of them with their own languages and
distinct, if sometimes related, cultures.
About three-fourths of the Union’s total population of roughly eighteen millions are Burmans. Burmese is their home language, they are almost all Buddhists, they wear Burmese dress, and inhabit the central part of the country (see map on last page).
Except for slightly over a million Chinese, Indians, and Pakistanis, the rest of our population are minorities, long indigenous to Burma, who inhabit an elongated horseshoe of hill country encircling the Irrawaddy and Sittang river valleys. Our constitution has provided semiautonomous states for the Shans, Kachins, Karens, and Kayahs, and a Chin Hills Special Division, while these and many other of the fifty-odd tribes and subgroups are proportionally represented in the house of Nationalities, the upper house of our parliament.
The Shans, who number about a million and a half, have dominated the high plateaux of east Burma since the thirteenth century, but they and their kinsmen, such as the Thais, are found in great numbers all over Southeast Asia. Buddhists in religion and practicing wet rice cultivation, the Shans early developed a strong social system, based on small feudal principalities ruled by hereditary sawbwas, who are only now gradually surrendering their powers of local government. Most of the Shans are farmers who work the small valleys, with colorful and far less advanced peoples such as the Pa-os and Palaungs living on the hills.
The Karens, over a million strong, are scattered all over southern Burma, and only about a third of them live in the Karen State which they fought to obtain in 1954. Many of the Karens were converted by Christian missionaries and won distinction as soldiers. They are mainly agriculturalists, although a number have moved to the cities.
Some 300,000 Kachins have lived in northern Burma since the fifteenth century. The Kachins are animists, with a complex social structure based on clans, chieftainships, and small villages. They usually farm small hilly tracts cut from the forest. The Chins, of whom there are some 200,000 living in the hills on the western side of Burma, have a simple existence at about the same cultural level.
Neither the Mons in the south nor the Arakanese on the western coastal strip have a state of their own, but both groups have developed high cultures in the past, supplied many leaders to the Civil Services, and are proud of their identities.
To blend so many heterogeneous traditions into a single nation is no easy task, either socially or politically, but all of us are keenly aware of the need for protecting minority interests and correcting economic and educational inequalities. In this spirit of tolerance and mutual assistance we are creating a happy and cohesive Union of Burma.
This article available online at: