Myanmar’s Tamil community works to maintain their culture


Tamils celebrate Thaipusam in Yangon. Photo: Katri Heinamaki

Folk history holds that the names Burma and Myanmar come from the name of the deity Brahma, a nod to the country’s early connections with the Indian subcontinent.  

Cultural links to India such as this grew more and more sparse over the centuries, until the events of the latter half of the 20th century saw a much smaller Indian community that now walks a narrow path; trying to preserve their culture while maintaining acceptance in the larger Myanmar community.

Preserving Language

The most pressing challenge for the Tamil community of late has been preserving their culture in a school system and society dominated by Bamar society and language.

Tamils in the country had to learn Burmese, and it has become the preferred language to use at home for many. Most have taken on Burmese names which they use outside their community, while they reserve their Tamil name for home or temple life.

U Ha Tin, the owner of one Tamil restaurant, said that his parents came from India, and while he speaks the language fluently, his children do not. In his daily life, he said, his language is losing out to Burmese even within his community.

26-year-old Ko Myo Tun runs a publishing house for Tamil-language material in Yangon, and said that there is still a steady niche demand for Tamil material, especially for religious purposes. He said that even in his profession, he doesn’t read or write fluently, but instead relies on a team of older editors and proofreaders to correct his work. 

Many temples and organizations organize Tamil classes on evenings and weekends, but time can be hard to come by for Burmese students, with classes swelling only during school breaks. 

One such school is the Tamil Education Development Centre, which runs language classes in Yangon, Mandalay and Mon State. One of the school’s leaders, U Zaw Min Lat, said that the number of students has been steadily growing, up from 2,500 in 2015 to 3,500 at the start of this year.
 
Tamil has had somewhat of a revival in recent years, owing to better access to Tamil-language films, TV, and movies. According to one man, “Before, we had to drill language, but now they can pick it up from pollution,” referring to what in claimed was the poor quality of TV, damaging the minds of kids.

Other traditions are harder to hold on to. There are no schools for southern India’s Karnatic music in Yangon for example, only occasional teachers who pass through and give classes.

Community and Cohesion

In late January, the Tamil world celebrated the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, in which participants carried heavy pots of milk and occasionally pierced their flesh as an act of devotion. Yangon’s processions occurred around the city, involving hundreds of worshipers and untold gallons of milk.

One attendee was octogenarian U Aung Myint, who holds a perspective that spans the decades of change for Myanmar’s Tamil community. He was born a child of the British Empire, and still holds on to a few anachronisms, occasionally saying Dalhousie Street instead of Mahabandoola. 

He managed to stay in India throughout the wars and expulsions, and was one of the last to receive a degree before universities shut down in 1962, and has worked as an engineer and civil servant up to the present day, now an executive officer, presidential advisor, and occasional speechwriter at UMFCCI. 

There are approximately one million ethnic Indians living in Myanmar, mostly south of Mandalay. The largest group is the Tamils, but estimates as to the relative size vary greatly. 

Tamils, native to southeastern India and northern Sri Lanka, are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a nation, a total of 77 million people worldwide. U Aung Myint said because of this, there are few outside sources of funding for temples, and most are maintained with funds within their community.

“We try hard to organize, to create a sense of commitment. People come to ceremonies and gatherings of their own will, but it takes money,” He said, “between the food and the flowers and the pots of milk that people donate, it can cost 20,000 kyat per person, a lot of money for some.”

He continued that some people try to visit India to see distant relatives or go on pilgrimages, but again, money can be a problem for such an insular community.

Merchants of Rangoon

Relations within the community have managed to remain tight, but Myanmar’s Tamils struggled for decades to overcome a damaged reputation, stemming from prominent money lending within the community under British rule.

During British rule over India, Tamils were pressed into service throughout the empire from South Africa to Malaysia, and some took up residence in Yangon. One group, the Chettiar caste, brought over and expanded the traditional Hundi banking system, allowing remittance and credit in places without access to the lumbering British banking system.

However, this led to simmering tensions between local farmers on the ‘Rice Frontier’ and their foreign lenders Chettiars would often secure loans with land deeds, and when farmers couldn’t pay up, the land was redistributed within the Indian community.

Economist Sean Turnell argued in a 2005 paper  that despite their reputation, Chettiars played a positive role in modernizing Burma’s agriculture; that they acted as a bridge between the local community and European finance, creating the importation of machinery and bringing greater mobility to the local population.

The Bamar population, though, saw their land slowly slipping away, and by the onset of the Second World War, one quarter of land was in their hands.

 “The Chettiars made mistakes; they were too aggressive enforcing loans, and they distanced themselves from the Bamar,” said U Aung Myint, “The same problem of money lending and land grabbing still exists today, but it is not as exposed because the lenders are of the same community.”

This system came crashing down following the Japanese invasion in 1942 when many Indians fled back by road to Assam, at least 80,000 dying along the way. Those who stayed or returned after the war were then left as scapegoats for the ruined economy. 

Citizenship was further restricted after Ne Win’s 1962 coup d’état, and Tamils were increasingly pushed to the margins of society with their businesses confiscated and community largely exiled. Yangon, a city that was at one point majority South Asian, was left with only few pockets of Indian-Burmese who held onto citizenship. 

According to U Aung Myint: “People didn’t care enough about their citizenship. Many Indians were farmers or workers and didn’t know better. Those without citizenship couldn’t get jobs, and they had to leave their land and their businesses.”

Now the Chettiar caste is all but gone in Myanmar. Most have gone to India or passed away, and U Aung Myint said that most temples only count a few left among their congregation. 

Renewed Integration

Publisher Ko Myo Tun said that he didn’t feel Tamils were particularly alienated within Yangon. “We are discriminated against, but less than other minority groups because we are Hindu, but partly Buddhist. It is all very similar.”

While Tamils maintain their separate temples in Yangon, Buddha worship is quite common as a part of their religion, and Buddha images are often prominently displayed in Hindu processions. 

In the past few decades, there have been fewer problems with integrating with the Bamar community, U Aung Myint said. “When a [Buddhist] monk comes to my family’s door, we give them money. We are working to achieve harmony.”

After decades of laying low, lower Myanmar’s Indians gravitated back towards business when the economy began to open up in the 1990s, and have once again become a prominent force in society. 

“In my opinion, [Indians] became interested in business because many felt they wouldn’t be treated equally if they joined government service,” U Aung Myint said. “We are a hard-working people. We have always been bankers and traders. There was a time when you could look around and see every bank filled with Indian faces, but now people are hesitant about large institutions.”

In the end, it may have been the decades of mutual hardship that is bringing the Indian community back into the fold.

“It is hard to say that the jealousy and mistrust is gone, but relations have greatly improved,” he said, “We lost everything, then we regrouped, and now all we can do is look to the future.”

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