Key Challenges for Myanmar on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (Mar Lar Aung – Culture)

“The cultural heritage of a nation or region is not solely composed of monuments and museum collections, but also of living intangible expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants…” – UNESCO
Myanmar has rich and diverse culture and among them the culture rooted in everyone’s heart is intangible culture with no visual manifestation, which includes daily routines, traditions, rituals and customs of a person. The cultural heritage can be passed down from generation to generation verbally with or without practical training. Whether or not there is a record, the evolution from the past to present is the emergence of a cultural heritage.
Since Myanmar is one of the most civilized nations in Southeast Asia (SEA) also experienced significant change in the past seventy-years as other SEA countries. Following a tumultuous period of decolonization, civil-war, and the challenges of nation-building, the region has emerged poised to play an important part in the forthcoming “Asian Century” and nomination of World Heritage List and other records of Tangible, Intangible and Natural Heritages provide a blueprint for deepening and widening cultural cooperation and awareness of SEA Cultures across the region.
In recent years, due to the aging of practitioners and the lack of successors for their arts and crafts, a great amount of Intangible Cultural Heritage is facing the danger of extinction. That is why countries realized that urgent steps must be taken to preserve and promote intangible heritage. In addition to creating an atlas of the world’s languages in danger of disappearing, there are some tribes and languages which are lost day by day also in Myanmar.
Since Myanmar is one of the largest repositories of tangible heritage in the world, a major part of this heritage has been preserved through ancient monuments, sites and antiquities of varied nature. The range of such relics, from the past is indeed very vast and covers a long span of time i.e. prehistoric to colonial times. The monuments, sites and antiquities protected and maintained so far by the Archaeology Department are only a fraction of the total repository of the country. However, most of these have not been documented in a uniform format which can provide a common platform to the scholars, researchers and planners for reference, research and its management in a diligent manner. Not only the Inventory but those implementing works being carried out annually are work –based depending on the allotted budget, instead of theme with high concepts and nature of sustainability and thorough assessment.
Intangible cultural heritage is renowned as wealth of knowledge to be used in many aspects of life. Women hold a special place in the transmission of intangible heritage and have knowledge that contributes to their empowerment and to revenue generation. Moreover, ICH is also vital for maintaining cultural diversity in the face of globalization. It is noted that understanding ICH contributes to intercultural dialogue, encourages mutual respect and ensures social cohesion. Now its is accepted that the importance of ICH is not the cultural manifestation itself; it lies in its significance to communities. Its value is both intangible and tangible, linked to the social and economic effects of the knowledge and skills transmitted through it.

Ratification of the 2003 Convention
UNESCO adopted the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore as the first legal instrument towards the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in 1989. With this Recommendation which reflected the ideas of the earlier Conference in Mexico City, UNESCO conducted some promotional programs for raising awareness of this Recommendation. In the late 1990s, there was a conference held for the assessment of this Recommendation, which pointed out some problems to be considered in drafting the Convention.
In 1997, UNESCO launched the program of Proclamation of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, intending to raise awareness of the importance of intangible heritage. This program proclaimed a total of 90 masterpieces between 2001 and 2005, and caused the movement toward the 2003 Convention.
Intangible cultural heritage refers to “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”, its 2003 Convention is unlike other UNESCO conventions which has stated its purposes as :
a. to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage;
b. to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned;
c. to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of the importance of the intangible cultural heritage, and of ensuring mutual appreciation thereof;
d. to provide for international cooperation and assistance]
According to the 2003 Convention, the Intangible Cultural Heritage is defined as the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.
Since Myanmar values the cultural heritage and understand the importance to safeguard its cultural heritage, ratified the UNESCO’s Convention on the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage on May 7, 2014, In order to be recognized and honored with international cooperation. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO) announced the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the 32nd Session of General Assembly, which was held from 29 September to 17 October 2003 in Paris, France.
Safeguarding of Myanmar’s Intangible Cultural Heritage
Myanmar has been traditionally practicing the conservation of culture throughout its history. The transmission of Myanmar culture from the ancestors to today’s youths has been alive for centuries and it performs like living cultures.
The Government established the Ministry of Culture in 1952 after the independence of Myanmar and the Department of Cultural Institute under the Ministry of Culture, with the tasks of identifying the cultural traditions and customs that are passed down from generation to generation in Myanmar. The various functions of the different departments, such as doing research; presenting performances; displaying antiquities of Myanmar and its ethnic cultures related objects in museums; extending the libraries in all states and divisions, are in a way of promoting Intangible Cultural Heritage which is incredibly rich in the country.
The Department of Archeology also has a number of cultural archetypes, such as ancient site, temple, and mural painting, stucco, etc… Archaeological excavations have been carried out in ancient sites of Myanmar since the British colonial time last for more than a hundred of years ago. In 2007, the Department of Cultural Institute was merged with the Department of Archeology and named Department of Archaeology, National Museum and National Library. In 2013, the National Library, together with Department of Historical Research, formed a new department, which is reorganized as the Department of Historical Research and the National Library. At present, the Department of Archaeology and National Museum is dedicated to the sustainable development of Myanmar intangible culture, tangible culture and its cultural activities.
The Department of Fine Arts also offers the degree courses on arts such as painting, sculpture, music and dramatic art to help keep the Myanmar culture alive from the two universities Culture and Arts in Yangon and Mandalay in 1993 and 2001 respectively. Furthermore, the two Art and dance schools are opened to spread the heritage of Myanmar Traditional music and Dramatic Arts in and out of the country.
The Historical Research Department was put under Ministry of Culture in 2007 and later merged with the National Library. The Department of Historical Research and National Library has to make research on Myanmar history and the collection of ancient manuscript such as Palm- Leave and Parabite and as national repository.
In 2016, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Culture merged as the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, and those activities related to religious affairs and cultural activities are being carried out. At present, the survival of tangible and intangible cultural heritage have been endangered due to climatic, natural and manmade effects. In the recent years there is also an increasing trend of illicit trafficking of antiquities from Myanmar. This is mainly due to lack of public awareness, ignorance of law/act and also about the importance of documentation and preservation. There are few cities in the country where number of important monuments and heritage buildings has been listed from time to time by different institutions and organizations but there is no comprehensive database at one place. To address these issues, with the objective to document unprotected monuments and sites from both secondary sources and antiquities from primary source in a prescribed format, the departments under Ministry of Culture are undertaking those works. There are various available sources for documenting this heritage which needs to be utilized and collated through a Mission approach to create a credible National data base.
Activities in accordance with the Convention
In line with the purpose of the 2003 Convention, as mentioned in Chapter 1, the following five domains are defined by UNESCO in order to make Myanmar cultural heritage more visible:
a. Oral Traditions and Expressions, including Language as vehicles for Intangible Cultural Heritage,(folk stories/ folktale, ancient manuscripts, traditional game)
b. Performing Arts ( folk dance/visual arts, vocal arts, music )
c. Social Practices, Rituals and Festive events (Including social customs, festivals)
d. Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe (including traditional knowledge, local genius, traditional medicine)
e. Traditional Craftsmanship (painting, sculpture, traditional food)
According to Chapter 2 of the Organs of the Convention, the General Assembly holds regular conventions once every two years. Moreover, if it is decided that it needs to be held, whether requested an emergency meeting is convened when at least one-third of committees or consortiums are requested. Myanmar officials always participate in the meetings.
In accordance with the Convention on Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at the National Level in Chapter 3, there is a list of domains under the Convention.
In order to do so, it is necessary to have a proper Inventory Form for Myanmar. Firstly, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has published the 3 Cultural Heritage Handbooks (Yellow, Green and Red) since 2016.
Next, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture in cooperation with UNESCO Office (Yangon), related Ministries, national ethnic and cultural groups and interested people in the country to attend the national-level seminars on the basis of the UNESCO’s Directive Survey. It was successfully conducted at Mingalar Thiri Hotel, Nay Pyi Taw from 17.3.2016 to 18.3.2016. As a result, the comprehensive Myanmar cultural Inventory Form has been developed. It has benefited for the better understanding and implementation of safeguarding cultural heritage and increasing the awareness of the value and sustainability of cultural heritage.
The Inventory Form is used to conduct the survey in the Regions and States to nominate the 2289 elements in the following five domains:
No Domains Number
1 Oral Traditional and Expressions, including Language as vehicles for Intangible Cultural Heritage 104
2 Performing Arts 506
3 Social Practices, Rituals and Festive events 651
4 Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe 199
5 Traditional Craftsmanship 829
Total 2289
(Source: Myanmar Intangible Cultural Heritage Secretariat Office)
Actions for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage
Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Myanmar; the following efforts are being made to support the development and promotion activities:
a. Committee formation
b. Developing Policies
c. Publication of Booklets on Manuals for ICH (bilingual)
d. Field Trips/ Surveys for Inventory
e. capacity building of Staff
Committee formation
The Safeguarding of cultural heritage is being carried out being led by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture together with cultural practitioners, civil societies, NGOs and local communities in Myanmar. The Myanmar Intangible cultural Heritage Promotion Committee is formed by Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture including Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Information, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and Sports, Union Attorney General’s Office, State and Region government, Expert teams of History and Myanmar language on February 10, 2015.
In addition, the Myanmar Intangible cultural Heritage Promotion Committee was organized by the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs on March 26, 2019.
The Myanmar Intangible cultural Heritage Promotion Committee was held its first meeting on December 29, 2017, the second meeting on July 30, 2018 and the third meeting on January 21, 2020. The Committee has been able to nominate the Intangible cultural heritage element, Thanatkha, for the UNESCO registration. In addition, drafting laws on the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is undertaken.
The education Communities, ICH communities, and the cultural organizations are responsible for raising awareness and capacity building to safeguard and promote the cultural heritage of Myanmar which is diverse and well rooted in rich quantity. The interested individuals and groups in Myanmar, with the intention to carry out a list of national cultural heritage elements in the states and region, have been trained by the Department of Archeology and the National Museum. Through these trainings, the local communities are now able to actively participate in the collection of national cultural heritage in the states and regions.
The Article 16, 17 and 18 of the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage at the International level which are mentioned in Chapter 4 of the Convention, the Representative List, Urgent Safeguarding List and Register of Safeguarding Practices List are defined.
The expert consultation workshop on Myanmar Thanakha was held on January 20, 2020, at the National Museum (Nay Pyi Taw), organized by the Ministry of Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture for a list of representative. The workshop was attended by the Myanmar Trade Promotion Board of the Ministry of Commerce, Department of Intellectual Property of the Ministry of Education, Teachers from Departments of History and Myanmar from universities in the regions and states, Cultural heritage experts in states and regions, Department of Traditional Medicine at the Ministry of Health and Sports, representatives from Myanmar Thanakha Association and Myanmar Thanakha Exporters Association. The workshop gathered a wealth of information that could be put into the list of cultures represented by the Myanmar Thanakha culture. Therefore, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture; The Department of Archeology and National Museum has submitted Myanmar Thanakha Culture to the UNESCO Heritage Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Living Heritage Entity, Culture Sector on March 30, 2020.
According to the International Cooperation and Assistance in Chapter 5 of the Convention, with the support of Norway Government, to enhance the capacity of staff at Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture to work in relation to cultural heritage, the training workshops were held in Naypyi Taw, from 25.11-2013 to 26.11/2013 , in Mandalay, from 19.5.2014 to 24.5.2014, in Shan State Inlay area from 27.10.2014 to 3.11.2014 and in Taunggyi from 14.9-2015 to 19.9-2015. As a result of these workshops, the support of the national staff has been a great help in the implementation of safeguarding the intangible culture.
In respect of the contribution of the Cultural Heritage Fund, Chapter 6, the final part of the Convention, the contributions are made annually to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and population ratio. Myanmar has an annual heritage payment of around US $ 300 to UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage programmes.
As a result, while the government is taking the leading role to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage in line with the international policies and practices, all stakeholders, having confidence, are urged to give hand in hand with the government to the sustainability of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Myanmar.
Ultimately, it is crucial that Myanmar has put forth a National ICH Inventory in accordance with the UNESCO convention. As recommended within the convention, future goals should encompass the adoption of a general policy aimed at promoting the function of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in society as well as incorporating the safeguarding of such heritage into strategic programs and projects. In order to execute such initiatives, a competent body needs to be established to help safeguard the intangible cultural heritage present in Myanmar.
Furthermore, adequate research needs to be carried out to determine ICH elements in danger of disappearing and which methods can be used to curb this issue. The focal Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture is therefore strongly encouraged to adopt appropriate legal, technical, administrative, and financial measures aimed at facilitating the establishment and strengthening of institutions which engage in ICH training, management, documentation, and transmission.
Access to ICH must also be ensured as the Convention reminds us that communities must identify with the ICH and the inventories on which they are based. Education, awareness raising, and capacity building are essential tools required to teach, engage, and learn from communities, groups, and individuals involved with ICH activities and transmission. We must gain their participation in all processes while tapping into UNESCO. UNESCO offers cooperation and international assistance; therefore, Myanmar has a plethora of opportunities for funding, knowledge and best practices.
• Safeguarding ICH: ensuring its viability (continued enactment and transmission) within communities/groups •
• Awareness raising •
• Sharing and celebrating •
• Dialogue, respect for cultural diversity •
• International cooperation and assistance
In this context, the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage offers an important and ongoing space for dialogue, ideas and cooperation. It proposes an empowering platform where all communities and their wisdom are on an equal footing with other developmental approaches. The Convention’s consideration for existing international human rights instruments and sustainable development lend further strength to the framework.
Integrating intangible cultural heritage into present-day debate, policies, programmes and strategies surrounding sustainable development is now a matter of urgency. In this regard, the future discussion and action with four specific dimensions are to be focused:
(i) inclusive social development;
(ii) inclusive economic development;
(iii) environmental sustainability;
(iv) Peace and security.
Each of these dimensions can be viewed from the perspective of intangible cultural heritage — as is shown in the narrated cases of the exhibition. It includes cases like, the excitement of the Frevo carnival in Brazil’s Pernambuco State, which demonstrates how the diverse communities of Recife can live together in harmony and how their shared intangible heritage supports a cohesive society.
The spirit behind the surveys and field trips related to ICH Inventory and Awareness raising is that UNESCO’s belief that culture should be considered a fundamental enabler of sustainability, a source of meaning and energy, a wellspring of creativity and innovation, and a resource to address challenges and find appropriate solutions.
It is recommended in UNESCO meetings that the integration of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage into cultural policies and training sessions on policy development in the context of broader capacity-building projects as well as in emergencies and post –disaster contexts. The activities of ICH awareness and promotion call for the involvement of stakeholders( government, civil society, communities) in the process of developing policies and initiatives related to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs ) and Post Covid 19 New Normal activities. The National level focal ministry like Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has to strengthen tools for effective Plan of Action to improve effectiveness of its policy support. This will include the revision guidance note for facilitators and related ministries who get involved.