Burmese Water Festival: Celebrating Burma in Buffalo

Thingyan celebration in Burma. Photo by Flickr user Theis Kofoed Hjorth.

The most important thing about the Burmese Water Festival is that it provides an opportunity to show off Burma’s broadly diverse culture to the rest of the city, say Aung Moe and Kyaw Wunna, two of its leading organizers.

The local celebration mirrors Thingyan, the ages-old New Year purification festivity that is rooted in Hindi and takes place April 13 to 17 in Burma, which was renamed Myanmar in 1989. In Buffalo the celebration is held in July to accommodate colder weather here, and draws visitors from as far away as Washington, DC and North Carolina.

The 2016 Burmese Water Festival is on Saturday, July 23 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Riverside Park.

“The first time we held it in Buffalo was in 2006, indoors at the International Institute. There were about 10 to 13 families who brought food. We ate together, the kids played in the water and there was singing and dancing,” says Wunna, who resettled on the West Side in 2004. He is one of the founding organizers, and has been instrumental in helping the Buffalo event grow.

When the Buffalo Burmese Water Festival outgrew the International Institute, it was moved in 2011 to Bengal Hall on Tonawanda Street. In 2013 it moved to the corner of Grant and Ferry – and this year for the first time will be held in Riverside Park.

With a total budget of about $14,000, the event is managed and implemented by a community-based committee that includes participants from all eight of the ethnic groups who now belong to the 10,000 member Buffalo Burmese community.

“Every group shows their culture with traditional dance and dress,” Moa says, explaining that Burma has a total of 135 ethnic tribes with different cultures and different religions and different languages.

Funding to mount this year’s event has come from an iPhone raffle, donations from the Burmese business community, support from Journey’s End and an allocation from the City of Buffalo.

“You’re growing our community and becoming part of our community in Buffalo, and for that we are very grateful,” Mayor Byron W. Brown told 2015 festival goers.

Buffalo’s Burmese Water Festival no longer includes the ritualistic rubbing on of baby powder, due to U.S. Department of Health restrictions. But there is still plenty of wonderful water play (with water guns, water balloons and just plain water), traditional foods, and cultural color to the day-long family celebration of a clean start for the New Year – including “Than jap,” a singing and dancing, call-and- response report on goings-on in community and government.

“It’s important to show the rest of the community our Burmese culture,” says Moe. “It’s just as important for us to teach our new generations about their Burmese culture too.”

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