Myanmar, formerly Burma, in Southeast Asia, is a country consisting of 100 ethnic groups (Burma, 2001). There are many cultures of various ethnic groups scattered across Myanmar. With the cultural diversity that exists in Myanmar, then the existing culture must be preserved because the culture is a very important element in representing the personality of a country. There is a tendency that young generation is Myanmar do not recognize their cultures. Performing art is a culture developed to introduce Myanmar culture to the young generation. This paper consists of various parts. First, the introduction describes culture heritage and its importance. Then, the paper describes various approaches that are used to Preserve The Cultural Heritage. In the end, benefits and challenges of preserving cultural heritage are discussed.
Definition and importance of cultural heritage
Cultural heritage refers to the collection of “cultural assets inherited from the past in all forms and aspects, being them tangible, intangible, or digital” (Southeast Asian Studies, 1996). This definition appears to be generalised as it incorporates buildings, sites, monuments, landscapes, libraries, museums but also practices various expressions of human creativity thus there is no difference between the tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
While its benefits and importance for the local communities and territories have been greatly recognised, mostly, cultural heritage preservation is sadly not treated as a priority in the modernization process, unless its connections to the economic activities and global exchanges are made clear. This paper will focus on the case of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in Southeast Asia. This area is home to more than 100 ethnic groups thus considered one of the richest, regarding cultural diversity (Houtman, 1999). Here, despite the rapid pace of modernisation, the government has properly managed its culturally rich heritage and continues to rate its potential for economic development. While acknowledging the undisputable potentials and value of cultural intangible heritage, for the sake of this paper, only the performing arts cultural heritage will be explored. This is because this intangible cultural heritage is considered bankable and globally recognised for its value as a driver of economic development.
Myanmar’s performing arts is one of the most diverse and richest in the Southeast Asian region (Ye, 1997). In fact, it can be compared to that of most notable regional neighbors such as Thailand and Columbia. Moreover, harsh domestic repressions and severe international isolation are some of the conditions affecting the nation since the military takeover in 1962 (Houtman, 1999). Such experiences have led to a vacuum in the area of heritage preservation and most performing arts have been ruined because of protracted periods of neglect.
However, recently, the government launched initiatives to promote and preserve the country’s performing arts heritage (Miksic et al. 2011). For instance, they established the Ministry of Culture, holds national performing arts competitions and other cultural exhibitions. Moreover, Myanmar believes that if their dress style and performing style are eroded by modernisation, their culture will be degraded. Also, if the writing, beats and timing of the music are disturbed then the grammar of the language will be worst thus their music damaged. For Myanmar, performing arts show their standard of national culture as well as national character. Throughout the years, Myanmar citizens have been protecting their performing arts due to its delicate creativity, handing down the artistic skills, perpetuation and the art of composing from generation to generation.
If the embankment of the performing arts of Myanmar is eroded by the waves of globalization in the version of modernization, then Myanmar’s cultural heritage will soon be endangered. For this reason, the government holds annual Traditional Performing Arts Competition since 1993 (Burma, 2001). The state encourages not only the promotion and development of traditional culture but also exposing and preserving it among the people. This is particularly for the young generation through organizing the annual Myanmar traditional cultural performing arts, which brings together artists of all ages to perform. Therefore, these national level competitions assume a critical part in the implementation of a delicate cultural heritage, especially promoting Myanmar’s performing arts culture.
The Preservation Of The Cultural Heritage
The aim of the annual traditional performing arts competition is to promote and preserve the cultural heritage of Myanmar’s nationalities (Burma, 2001). This competition is characterised by marionette, xylophone, harp, Ozi, orchestra, piano, song composing, drama narration, dancing, and Maha Gita. Among all these marionette and drama contests serve audiences both aesthetic and knowledge. Often, drama contests portray the intellectual, physical and moral development of youth who are the power of the future Myanmar. On the other hand, Dobet and Ozi contests depict honest, joyousness and polite rivalry and unity. All the performing arts of Myanmar’s ethnic races are based on the movements of the waist, head, hand, and leg.
Most people in Myanmar relate the performing arts heritage with the traditional examples such as the kabuki and noh. Nevertheless, the performing arts include craftsmanship, music and drama to name just a few. Since Myanmar’s implementation of the Cultural Properties Protection Law, it has been at the forefront in the protection of performing arts heritage (Houtman, 1999). With the nations dramatic advancement in industrialization and modernization, their traditional performing arts have recorded an upward trend. The benefits of industrialization and modernization like poverty reduction, freedom of expression and democracy are universally acknowledged. Similarly, there has been a universal obligation to transmit and protect Myanmar’s performing arts heritage for future generations.
With this in mind, Myanmar created a Trust Fund for the promotion and preservation of their performing arts heritage in the global community. This fund has enabled them to protect various forms of performing arts such as music and dance. For instance, they have preserved the today aka dance and instruments such as the saung-gauk. Performed in theatres and at weddings, the yodaya aka dance represents a unique synthesis of sudden shifts in melody and rhythm as well as a change in texture and timbre. Nevertheless, the collapse of the feudal order adversely affected the performing arts heritage (Skidmore, 2005). Through the trust above fund, Myanmar has managed to help with the creation of local networks and preservation of the theatrical texts to transfer this heritage to the future generations. Besides, at the recent UNESCO General Conference, it was agreed upon that a draft convention must be crafted. Hence, following the inter-governmental conferences, the draft was produced. Myanmar assumed a crucial role in the implementation of the Convention for protecting the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which covers performing arts.
Modernization has led to the dramatic expansion of Myanmar, which is struggling to uphold its culture and heritage (Miksic et al. 2011). Day by day new music and dances are coming up threatening to replace Myanmar’s traditional dances and music. At times, historically significant performing arts are forgotten as new ones replace them. This has ignited a controversial debate on whether Myanmar’s performing arts culture should become a prey of modernization or not. To begin with, conserving the culture of performing arts is a means of transferring Myanmar’s ancestral legacy to the future generations. This is a great means for the current children to learn about the country's heritage and culture. Also, such performing arts serve insights into Myanmar’s ancestral lifestyle. Understanding Myanmar’s history and respecting it it crucial to advocating patriotism in the nation’s youth. Moreover, such performing arts is likely to attract more tourists thus tourism sector will expand. In the end, this will bring in more money and improve the lives of Myanmar people. Such money could be used to preserve the various performing arts.
Some people believe that Myanmar’s old performing arts are no need for the country and they should be replaced with modern arts. Nevertheless, other argue that such traditional heritage should be safeguarded for Myanmar people to know and remember their past. By protecting the historical performing arts, Myanmar’s history is passed on to the future generations (Miksic et al. 2011). It is important for children to know their traditions, which are irreplaceable and priceless. It is believed that replacing the performing arts of Myanmar is a sign of disrespect for the ancestors and their traditions. This is because every nation has its own history and traditions which are reflected via performing arts. Therefore, replacing Myanmar’s traditional performing arts means destroying the old history and value.
Appreciation of Myanmar’s traditional performing arts is at times constrained by the laws governing the protection of this cultural heritage (Skidmore, 2005). The issue with Myanmar’s legislation (CAP 25/11) is that it does not recognise explicitly the value of intangible heritage. Performing arts are acclaimed based on their scientific or historic worth and colonial policy makers determined these values. Nowadays, this cultural heritage is the property of Myanmar government, which keeps it in trust of the Myanmar people yet it wrestled it away from these same individuals.
Preservation of performing arts demands a clear definition of the values to be conserved. Following their intangible nature, it is evident that these values are part of the cosmos of Myanmar community (Skidmore, 2005). Conserving them demands a registration of the context under which they were used or practiced. However, an examination of Myanmar’s laws reveals that a professional manager is tasked with the duty of defining the value of these performing arts. The Act is argued to restrict the performing arts, and this makes us wonder for which citizens does the board sustain the heritage in trust (Steinberg, 2001). In Myanmar, the management of performing arts requires the law to re-define the criteria by which these arts are to be acclaimed. This entails re-evaluating the current performing arts and preserving them as recorded knowledge or as legends in oral traditions.
Since 1993, Myanmar has been holding performing arts with the aim of revitalising their traditional cultural performing arts that has been preserved by artists of successive eras (Houtman, 1999). The annual competitions are participated by thousands young contestants in categories such as plays, music, composition, dance and song at various levels of basic education, higher education, amateur and professional levels. From the historical period until today, Myanmar’s performing arts has been flourishing depending on their own styles, forms, elegance, character and languages. However, this heritage was at the verge of extinction following various factors such as financial constraints, caused by modernisation. Today, with government support, this peculiar performing arts has been revitalised. Cultural education via seminars and workshops in the country has been another approach used to preserve the performing arts heritage. The aim of these educational programs is to promote cultural awareness and ownership among Myanmar’s citizens. After achieving this, the citizens are expected to show interest in preservation.