In Myanmar, one of the most significant aspects of its culture is the traditional arts. To this day, many artisans in the country have created incredible handicrafts by using customary methods that have been handed down over generations. Ten forms of art are regarded as the Myanmar norm of traditional arts and crafts. These are called pan se myo (Ten Flowers) which consist of blacksmithing, bronze casting, goldsmithing, lacquerware, masonry, painting, stone carving, stucco work, and turnery.
Souvenirs play a vital role in the tourism industry while businesses provide living wages to local people and, in return, it helps with keeping Myanmar cultural traditions alive.
Handicrafts, more precisely called artisanal handicrafts or artisanries which are useful and decorative and made completely by hand or by using only simple tools. Making of these handicrafts is the main section of crafting as it also means making goods. Those made by massive production or machines are not considered as handicrafts. Furthermore, handicrafts are intended to be used, worn, etc.
At present, most of the handicrafts businesses in Myanmar are closed temporarily since the impact of COVID-19 is fierce on the industry.
“Since it’s a COVID-19 period now, there are no visitors, even locals, in Bagan . Therefore, all the business stops and the employees are also taking long vacations until everything goes back to normal. The hotels are all closed and so are the lacquerware shops. No business relating to tourism are working at the moment”, said Naing Lin Tun, son of the founder at Golden Cuckoo Lacquerware in Bagan.
Before the time of Coronavirus, the number of travelers coming to Myanmar has grown over years and years and so did the demand for souvenirs. As a country rich in culture and traditions, every city in Myanmar has its own unique souvenirs to bring back home as a small token of one’s journey.
Inle Lake, Shan State’s most loved tourism spot, is famed for its textiles made from lotus root with a magical touch by the hands of finest tailors and seamstresses despite being a magnificent scenery itself while Bagan, out of all, has become the marvellous landmark for Myanmar to be well-known in the world as it is today. And Mandalay, the last kingdom of Myanmar, is truly recognized for its wood carvings, marionettes and lacquerwares.
Around 2015, the handicrafts business in Myanmar has evolved into a sustainable and responsible market since some expats merged with local communities to support the livelihood of artisans in affordable ways. HLA DAY, Pomelo for Myanmar, Yangoods and dacco. Myanmar are one of the initiative social enterprises in Yangon that persuaded local artisans to prosper while maintaining an ethical and balanced relationship with buyers on the other hand.
Moreover, as the industry is currently in the state of decline and each year, the number of local artisans that work in their crafts has lessened and many traditional motifs, techniques and materials are no longer in use. As it is one of the most promising sectors for economic growth in the country, it also offers the opportunity for social and economic empowerment, specifically for women.
Thae Thae, one of the board members from Pomelo for Myanmar talks about her forfeiture.
“Since we work with around forty individuals together with HIV victims, those with disability, refugees, orphans and so on, COVID-19 has, no doubt, killed the entire organization and cut out their income. We were very successful in 2014 but then in 2017 when the world denounced Myanmar for the ongoing Rakhine State issue with Rohingya, it went down again and we were just trying to rise again. We were not prepared for this”.
In Myanmar, according to the analysis, various types of artisans can be categorized into four;
1) Running own business
2) Providing service in some handicraft unit with fixed salary
3) Proving job work of handicrafts regularly, and
4) Potential artisans doing handicraft in their leisure time only.
It is also noticeable that nearly half of the artisans are part-time artisans who are not currently employed regularly in the field of handicrafts. They are skilled people yet not getting regular work of handicrafts. So, suct artisans work in their leisure time to earn supplemental income. Some are employed in some other occupations.
Ma Su, currently working at Turquoise Mountain who learnt weaving at the age of 13, talked about her career before and then.
“I weave at home and sell my products to Thailand. But I wasn’t making very much money. Now I work with Turquoise Mountain and joined a group of likeminded and talented weavers to produce fabrics for international clients and five star hotels”, adding that she loves to weave in soft colours and could manage up to 60 heddles.
Not only in the pandemic, also in the normal world, the handicraft artisans suffer a lot due to being unorganized, lack of education, low capital, poor exposure to new technologies, absence of market intelligence and a poor institutional framework which is why the social enterprises as well as non-government organizations tried hard to protect the interest of handicraft artisans by providing them with financial, marketing, training and infrastructural assistance.
But the scenario doesn’t stop since the handicraft artisans are not able to overcome their weakness and hence struggle hard for their existence. Some art has slowly lost relevance with the advent of industrialization and the sector carries the stigma of inferiority and backwardness. Therefore, there have been initiatives to tackle the weaknesses and challenges faced by such artisans engaged in the most popular area of Myanmar to support them as much as we can, just to make their lives a little easy to go forward.
Hla Day, known to be Yangon’s favourite souvenir shop for its handmade craft products which range from paper to textiles representing different ethnic groups, has recycled glassware to upcycled plastic products for sustainability in Myanmar.
Ulla Kroeber, the founder and lead designer of Hla Day and an architect in other hands, told the circumstances of her enterprise as follows.
“We provide livelihood for the local artisan community by creating Myanmar contemporary craft. Our aim is to capture the unique flavors of Myanmar design by celebrating traditional skills and locally sourcing all materials, enabling both customers and artisans to enjoy and benefit from unique and quality Myanmar handicrafts”.
“Most of our local staff are students from distant universities who are finishing their graduation with earnings. We encourage them to complete their education”, she added.
Like most of the other businesses, Hla Day is also trying to focus on online sales outside Myanmar as well as to organize pop up shops in different cities outside Myanmar, to get maximum customers since tourism will take a major hit this year. But all this will only be possible once the flights resume operations, as they need to ship out their products.
Last but not least, I hope these people keep making Myanmar proud with their enchanting gifts to put a beautiful memory in everyone’s heart who set foot on this golden land. I hope, by reading this article, you learn about the livelihood of artisans in Myanmar and your support is, indeed, a little endorsement for their hearts to keep doing what they are doing. In other words, they make Myanmar proud in a certain way. A great author of the UK, Ashleigh Brilliant once said,
“Keep some souvenirs of your past, or how will you ever prove it wasn’t all a dream?”