Myanmar child nuns dream of conflict-free lives

Buddhist nuns from the Mingalar Thaikti nunnery collecting alms in Yangon. All of the nunnery's 66 girls were born in an area of Shan state plagued by conflict between local rebel groups and the military. Teenager Dhama Theingi said her parents sent
Buddhist nuns from the Mingalar Thaikti nunnery collecting alms in Yangon. All of the nunnery's 66 girls were born in an area of Shan state plagued by conflict between local rebel groups and the military. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Buddhist nuns from the Mingalar Thaikti nunnery collecting alms in Yangon. All of the nunnery's 66 girls were born in an area of Shan state plagued by conflict between local rebel groups and the military. Teenager Dhama Theingi said her parents sent
Teenager Dhama Theingi said her parents sent her to the nunnery in Yangon as there was a lot of fighting in her home state.

YANGON • Dhama Theingi dreams of becoming an engineer and playing football, but for now the teen must rise for dawn prayers before pounding Yangon's streets to collect alms as one of Myanmar's growing number of child nuns seeking refuge from conflict.

With shorn heads and swathed in pink robes, the girls of Mingalar Thaikti nunnery sit cross-legged on floorboards as they begin to pray, bleary-eyed and stifling yawns.

Darkness still blankets the impoverished Yangon suburb as their Buddhist chants compete with the whines and snarls of street dogs.

All of the nunnery's 66 girls - aged four to 18 - are from the Palaung ethnic group and were born in an area of eastern Shan state plagued by conflict between local rebel groups and the military.

"There was a lot of fighting," said Dhama Theingi, 18, explaining why her parents sent her hundreds of kilometres from home nine years ago. "It wasn't easy to study and the schools were far away," she said.

The Buddhist-majority country's borderlands have been plagued by conflict since independence, as ethnic insurgencies battle the state over autonomy and natural resources. Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to make peace, but fighting grinds on.

"Armed conflict and poverty mean numbers of students just keep going up," said Mr Sein Maw, Yangon director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. There are nearly 18,000 child nuns and novice monks attending monastic schools in the commercial capital.

Monastic life is often harder for girls than boys.

Myanmar's strict Buddhist hierarchy combined with a conservative and patriarchal society mean monks are offered far more respect than nuns, who generally receive smaller donations.

They are also commonly teased for choosing a monastic life as a last resort after failing to find a boyfriend or husband.

But the routine for both genders remains much the same, with the girls of Mingalar Thaikti rising at 4am for two hours of prayers before breakfast.

Two days a week, they then criss-cross the neighbourhood to collect alms, chanting outside houses to receive spoonfuls of uncooked rice or small change.

Collecting enough money early is crucial as they use this to buy snacks or lunch. In keeping with Buddhist traditions, both nuns and monks refrain from eating from midday until breakfast the following morning.

On other days, the girls attend a school staffed by volunteers.

Khin Mar Thi, 17, was sent to the nunnery with her four sisters, and their parents simply cannot afford the journey for visits.

She confesses to the odd pang of envy when she sees normal teenage girls. "I sometimes wish I could be beautiful like them," she said, adding that she also misses her parents.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2019, with the headline 'Myanmar child nuns dream of conflict-free lives'. Print Edition | Subscribe