World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia - Vol. 5

By Paul Bernabeo | Go to book overview

Family and Society

Modern Burmese society is shaped by many factors, including tradition, the Buddhist religion, ethnicity, and the effects of decades of authoritarian military rule. The society of the ethnic Burmese, who form 68 percent of the population of Myanmar, is different from those of the nation's diverse minorities.

Burmese society is traditionally hierarchical. Great respect is shown to those perceived as socially superior; the young respect the old, and peasants their landowners. There is a firm belief in Buddhist virtues—karuna (compassion), dana (generosity), and mudita (joy). These are the virtues toward which members of Burmese society aspire. However, overriding Burmese society is the concept of hpoun. the idea that power or social position derives from merit that has been earned in previous incarnations. The greeting [May you have a great hpoun] is regarded as the greatest blessing a Burmese Buddhist monk can bestow, judged by some as fatalistic, hpoun implies acceptance of society as it is and promotes the view that an individual deserves her or his position within society. This acceptance, interwoven with Buddhist belief, has suited the military dictators who have ruled Myanmar for the greater part of its modern history.


THE FAMILY AND KIN

Myanmar's society is built upon unequal relationships that are justified by hpoun. The ethnic Burmese have power over the minorities; the authorities control the powerless; and, despite legislation, women have fewer rights than men. Family relationships are similarly governed by status conveyed by hpoun. Within the home, a man is referred to as the [guardian spirit of the house,] while another common Burmese saying is [The son is the master; the husband is the god.] Male family members have a superior position because of their perceived hpoun.

The family is at the center of Burmese society. Kinship ties extend into the past, with words to describe seven generations of ancestors, and into the present and future, with other words to describe seven different degrees of descendants. Despite the importance of ancestors in Burmese life, ethnic Burmese do not recognize clans; the family is the principal social unit. Young people chose their own marriage partner, and after marriage, couples often live with the bride's parents for some time.

The Burmese language includes terms to describe family relationships that are not recognized in English or most other Western languages. Khe-ma is a man's wife's younger sister or his younger brother's wife. Khe-oh is a woman's husband's elder brother. Ba-htwe is the younger brother of a person's father, while ba-gyi is the husband of the elder sister of a person's mother. There are many other Burmese words to describe intricate relationships.

The Burmese also use kin terms in social dealings. An elderly man who is not a relation may be called Apa (father) or Ahpo (grandfather) as a sign of respect. Older adult males are routinely addressed as U (uncle), while the courteous form of address for an older female is Daw (aunt). Thus, the Burmese secretary general of the United Nations from 1961 through 1971 was known as U Thant (1909–1974), while supporters of the leader of the Burmese democracy movement commonly call her Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (born 1945).


THE ROLE OF WOMEN

In theory, women and men in Myanmar have equal rights, and historically, women in Burma had a higher social status than women in some neighboring societies. Burmese women do not change their name when they marry. At primary and high school level, there is little discrimination against girls, although the literacy rate is somewhat lower for women than for men. However, some higher education courses are not available to women, and there is considerable gender inequality in Burmese society. Although many women are in paid employment, there are few women in top jobs, and the senior levels of the professions are, in effect, reserved for men. Most women are lowwage earners. Women are, however, in a majority in nursing and education, and about one-half of the doctors in Myanmar are women. The power of Burmese women to control their own lives is diminished by poor access to birth control facilities.

The authorities permit forced marriage of women from ethnic minorities to soldiers in the name of [Burmanization.] In many villages in states where minorities conduct secessionist guerrilla warfare against government forces, the men may leave the community to fight with the guerrillas, leaving the village defenseless. Women are left to care for their families, the sick, and the old, and to work the land to feed their dependents.


THE EFFECTS OF THE
MILITARY DICTATORSHIP

A worldview based on belief in incarnation and accummulated merit helps support nonegalitarian tendencies. It has been argued that the junta faces fewer challenges than a similar regime would in many other countries. The character of the

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World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia - Vol. 5
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Country Locator for Volume 5 Myanmar and Thailand i
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Geography and Climate 580
  • The Land of Myanmar and Thailand 582
  • Geology of Myanmar and Thailand 590
  • Climate of Myanmar and Thailand 594
  • Flora and Fauna of Thailand and Myanmar 598
  • History and Movement of Peoples 602
  • Sukhothai and Ayutthaya 604
  • Later Burmese Kingdoms 608
  • British Intervention in Burma 610
  • Peoples of Myanmar and Thailand 612
  • Myanmar (Burma) 614
  • Government 618
  • Modern History 620
  • War and Independence 623
  • Independent Burma 626
  • Modern Myanmar 628
  • Cultural Expression 630
  • Art and Architecture 632
  • Music and Performing Arts 636
  • Festivals and Ceremonies 638
  • Food and Drink 640
  • Daily Life 642
  • Family and Society 644
  • Welfare 646
  • Yangon (Rangoon) 648
  • Naypyidaw 650
  • Mandalay 651
  • Moulmein 652
  • Pegu 653
  • Economy 654
  • Thailand 662
  • Government 666
  • Modern History 668
  • Siam in Transition 670
  • The Age of Reform 672
  • War and Military Rule 674
  • Modern Thailand 676
  • Cultural Expression 678
  • Art and Architecture 680
  • Decorative Arts 683
  • Music and Performing Arts 684
  • Festivals and Ceremonies 687
  • Food and Drink 688
  • Daily Life 690
  • Family and Society 693
  • Health, Welfare, and Housing 695
  • Education 697
  • Bangkok 698
  • Chiang Mai 703
  • Nakhon Ratchasima 704
  • Udon Thani 705
  • Economy 706
  • Further Research 716
  • Index 718
  • World and Its Peoples 722
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