MYANMAR FAMILY ROLES AND SOCIAL
The family plays a very important role in Myanmar society. One indication of this is the presence in the Myanmar language of kinship terms to identify the most intricate family relationships.
Terms exist for seven degrees of ancestors: (hpay, hpo, bo, bae, bi, bin) and seven degrees of descendants: (tha, myae, myit, ti, kyut, hsut), counting from oneself. Kinship terms like khe-oh (to denote the husband of a woman's elder sister or elder brother of one's husband), khe-ma (wife's younger sister or younger brother's wife), mut ( younger brother of one's husband or husband of one's younger sister), ma-yee (elder brother's wife or elder sister of one's wife), ba-gyi (elder brother of one's father or husband of the elder sister of one's mother) and ba-htwe (younger brother of one's father or husband of the younger sister of one's mother), are short and pithy, indicating long usage, and are commonly used in general conversation.
Kin terms to identify relationships not commonly recognised in the west also exist in the Myanmar language, such as Khamee-Khamet to describe the relationship between parents of a married couple, and ma-yah-nyi-ako to refer to the relationship between the husbands of two sisters.
Myanmar honorific prefixes (the equivalent of titles such as Mr, Mrs, Madame, etc. also point up the importance of family roles in Myanmar society.
In Myanmar society, kinship terms have been extended to apply to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers as well. For example an adult named Hla Maung. will be addressed as U Hla Maung. U means "uncle" and its use indicates a certain degree of respect and deference on the part of the speaker for the person being addressed, namely the respect and consideration that a real uncle is entitled to. Similarly a woman named Hla May will be addressed as Daw Hla May, the term Daw coming from the word Adaw and meaning "aunt". It's use signifies that the speaker is according the listener the regard that is due a real aunt.
While it is true that in many societies family terms are used to indicate friendship or intimacy, as in the use of the kin terms "Uncle" and "Aunt" to address friends of one's parents or elders, as in "Uncle Tom" or "Aunt Kate", or in the use of "brother" among Afro-Americans in addressing fellow blacks, the Myanmar use of kinship terms goes way beyond that, to apply to people even in formal circumstances as well. The Myanmar term U (uncle) is employed wherever "Mr" is used in the English language and Daw (aunt) is used exactly like "Mrs" or "Madame", and these terms are so used in all official documents and correspondence.
- The Myanmar use of kin terms as titles in formal or official settings is not confined to the above examples, but extends to cover all categories of age and sex, as follows:
TABLE I. SHOWING THE MYANMAR EQUIVALENTS OF ENGLISH TITLES
English Myanma Myanmar Name Formally English
Title Equivalent Meanining Addressed Equivalent
Mr U Uncle Chit Nyo U Chit Nyo Mr. Chit Nyo
Madame* Daw Aunt (Adaw) Hla May Daw Hla May Madame Hla May
Miss Ma Sister (Ama Yin Yin Ma Yin Yin Miss Yin Yin
or Nyi - Ma)
Master Maung Younger, Ba Win MaungBa Win Master Ba Min Brother
- A Myanmar woman does not take her husband's name upon marriage but retains her maiden name. If a married woman is relatively young the title Ma (sister) is used for "Mrs" while if she is older the kin - term Daw (aunt) is used.
- The influence of the family is evident, not only in the titles used as prefixes of names, but also in the selection of the proper names themselves. The kinship terms for grandfather (Po), grandmother (Pwa), father (Ba or Pe), mother (May), sister (Ma), elder brother (Ko), younger brother (Maung or Nyi), are frequently employed in naming a person, as in the following instances:
U Po Sein : Mr Grandfather Diamond.
U Po Cho : Mr Sweet Grandfather.
Daw Pwa Yin : Madame Demure Grandmother.
Daw Pwa Khin : Madame Affectionate Grandmother.
U Ba Win : Mr. Shining Father
U Ba Than : Mr. Father Million
Ma Hla May : Miss Pretty Mother
Ma Win May : Miss Shining Mother
Maung Ko Lay : Master Smaller Elder Brother
Maung Ko Gyi : Master Elder Elder Brother
Sometimes the kin term is used either alone or is repeated for effect. e.g.
U Ba : Mr father
U Ko : Mr Elder Brother
U Nyi : Mr Younger Brother
U Ko Ko : Mr Elder Brother, Elder Brother
U Maung Maung : Mr Younger Brother, Younger Brother
U Nyi Nyi : Mr Younger Brother, Younger Brother
In some cases a mixture of family terms is used in the giving of proper names. For example:
U Ba Maung : Mr father, younger brother
U Pe Maung : Mr Father, Younger Brother
U Ko Ko Maung : Mr Elder Brother, Elder Brother, Younger Brother
U Maung Ko : Mr Younger Brother, Elder Brother
U Maung Maung U : Mr Younger Brother, Younger brother, Uncle
U Myo Swe : Mr Family, Relatives
U Ba Swe : Mr father, Relatives
A qualifier may be added to the proper name:
U Maung Maung Lay : Mr Smaller Younger Brother, Younger Brother
U Ko Ko Gyi : Mr Big Elder Brother, Elder Brother
U Nyi Nyi Thant : Mr Pure Younger Brother, Younger brother
Ma Khin Ma Ma : Miss affectionate Sister, sister
- Another indication of the importance os the family is the frequency with which the terms for "family" and "relatives" (Myo and Swe) are employed in the selection of proper names. Thus:
Myo Chit : Love Kin
Myo Thant : Pure Kin
Myo Win : Shining Kin
Myo Sein : Kin Diamond
Myo Naing : Victorious Kin
Chit Swe : Love Kin
Khin Swe : Affectionate Kin
Khin Maung Swe : Affectionate Younger Brother, Kin
Swe Swe Hla : Pretty Kin, Kin
- Kinship terms are also used as terms of endearment between a couple. Thus a man may call his wife or sweetheart hna - ma (sister) or may (mother), while she on her part will often call him maung (younger brother), maung-gyi (big younger brother) or ko ko (elder brother, elder brother).
- Kin terms may also be employed to show friendship and affection for other persons who are not family members. Thus a girl may call her friends yaung-ma (sister-in-law) as in the opening lines of poems of the ain-gyin genre: thu-nge-gyin-kaung yaung- ma do lae: "O good friends and sister-in-law".
- Court language too reflects the pervading influence of the family in Myanmar society. Myanmar kings used to call their queens hna-ma-daw "Royal sister" and they in turn would address him as maung-daw-hpaya "Lord Royal Younger Brother". Royal modes of addressing princes and other distinguished personages would often include the term naung-daw "Royal Elder Brother" or nyi-daw "Royal Younger Brother".
- Messages to other kings would include the salutation, a-swe-daw "Royal Kinsman". The same mode of address is used in the present day in messages between Heads of State, as in the messages of felicitation sent on the anniversaries of important days such as Independence Days, National Days and Birthdays of reigning monarchs.
- Myanmars freely use kin terms in social intercourse, drawing relationships with strangers into a familial context, projecting role expectations and behaviour patterns associated with family roles onto relationships with strangers. For example an adult male stranger senior to or somewhat older than oneself named Thein Maung is addressed as Ko (elder brother) Thein Maung, an old man named Ba Min is called Po Ba Min (grandfather Ba Min), and they are given the regard and deference usually accorded family members occupying these roles.
- Kin terms without the name of the person addressed are also freely used in social dealings. e.g. a male advanced in years may be called Ahpo grandfather) or Apa (father), a male contemporary of one's father's may be called U (uncle), a middle aged woman may be called Adaw (aunt), a young woman may be called Ama (elder sister), and a young man may be called Ako (elder brother). This practice is of course, also found in many other cultures. In Myanmar society it is applied routinely even to complete strangers.
- It would appear that Myanmars view society (without thinking consciously about it) as one huge family, that society is organized around family roles, each with its prescribed role conduct, rights and obligations, with encumbents of different age and sex roles being accorded status commensurate with their respective positions in the family.
- These family roles serve as patterns for behaviour in society, attitudes and conduct associated with and appropriate to different family roles being transferred and applied to govern behaviour towards strangers and between strangers as well. In other words, family values and attitudes have thus been extended to encompass the wider social sphere.
- One corollary of this extension is that such stratification as exists in Myanmar society is modeled, not on the basis of master to servant, but rather on that of elder to younger. Given the essentially equalitarian ethos of the Myanmar family, this would appear to be a happy augury for the future of Myanmar society.
Dr. Sein Tu