A fisherman on his boat in the waters of Tanintharyi Region, the southern-most part of Myanmar. AFP pic

THERE must be many stories that go untold, or if told at all, rarely so. The story of the Malays in Myanmar is a narrative of the latter category.

Notwithstanding observable historical, anthropological and ethnographical evidences pointing to the Pashu being Malays and natives of Myanmar, their story has somehow escaped historians’ narratives.

Some just do not want the Pashu story out because it does not agree with their private narrative.

This is the story that I hope will tell itself, a tale of the Pashu in the southern most part of Myanmar, called Tanintharyi Region. The culture, customs and social practices of the Pashu reflect those of the members of Dunia Melayu or the Malay World.

The Myanmar dictionary, published by the Myanmar Language Commission, defines “Pashu” as a Myanmar term for Malay. It also states that “Pashu” is a derivative of the Sanskrit word, “parasu”. And, we learn from the Sanskrit-English dictionary that “parasu” means battle axe.

But, a Myanmar historian in his research paper, “Preliminary Survey of Penang-Myanmar Relations from mid-19th to mid-20th centuries”, mentioned that “Pashu” is a derivative of the Sanskrit word “Paraghsu”. The alphabetic disagreement between the Roman spelling of the transliterated Sanskrit word described by the Myanmar historian (Paraghsu) and that accepted by international scholars’ (Parasu) appears to be more than a typographical error.

Although the Myanmar Dictionary indubitably defines “Pashu” as the term for “Malay”, the historian confusingly describes the Pashu as not Malays, but Baba Nyonya, the Chinese descendants from mainland China who settled in the Malay peninsula. This must surely go down as a colossal discrepancy between the Myanmar Language Commission and the historian.

That the Baba Nyonya community migrated to the southern regions of Myanmar is not disputed, but the description that “Pashu” is the term denoting the Baba Nyonya community goes against the grain of established research findings and writings of reputed international scholars.

In the 1983 census conducted by the Socialist Republic Government of the Union of Burma, it is clearly mentioned that in the Tanintharyi Division (Tennanserim Division), the Pashu (Malays) were recorded as the inhabitants together with other ethnic groups such as Mons, Salons, Burmans, Karens, Paos, and Tavoyans.

According to Jacques Ivanoff, a prominent anthropologist, Malays were the earliest to settle in the littorals of the Tanintharyi Region.

By studying the research works of prominent scholars and etymological dictionaries, it can be shown that even the name “Tanintharyi” is the Burmese rendering of the original Malay word “tanahsri” which is a combination of two Malay words, “tanah” (country/land), and “sri/seri” (splendid/glory/prosperity).

My own research indicates that the ancient Malays, who were the Austronesian family members, had been well-known as seafarers and experts in building sea-going wooden boats called perahu in Bahasa Melayu. It is probably possible that as time passed, perahu had travelled the process of phonological change to pahu, pasu, and then pashu.

The Pashu live mainly in the Kawthaung and Bokpyin townships of the Tanintharyi Region. Apart from the Myanmar language with a Kawthaung accent, they also speak a language that is virtually the same as the Kedah dialect, or the Loghat Utara. They even named their villages and the geographical features around them in Bahasa Melayu. (e.g., Pulau Tuntung, Kampung Ulu, Kampung Tanjung Badak, Sungai Gelama, Tanjung Peluru).

The grandparents of my Pashu friends can even read and write the Jawi script well. (Jawi is an Arabic alphabet adapted for writing the Malay language).

The Pashu are adherents of Islam (Sunni), and, like the majority of the Malays of Malaysia, most of them follow Imam Shafie’s School of Islamic Jurisprudence, while the majority of the Muslims of Myanmar follow Imam Abu Hanifah’s.

At ceremonial gatherings and religious occasions, men wear baju Melayu and sarong (longyi in Burmese). Old women wear kebaya, and young women wear baju metsii that looks like baju kurung. Most of the women too, wear kain kelumon or headscarves. Their traditional foods include nasi gulai kawah (on special occasions) and asam pedas (almost daily).

During Eid (Hari Raya), they would prepare ketupat pulut and kuih bahulu (fluffy egg cake with a slightly crusty layer). Their snacks or desserts are collectively called muih, and, quite similar to the popular ones in Malaysia.

The Pashu also practise silat. When there is an engagement or wedding, some of the groom’s friends would perform traditional silat before the groom enters the bride’s house. This tradition is, however, slowly disappearing.

The lifestyle of the Pashu is unpretentious and plain. They earn their livelihood by fishing, selling dried fish, agriculture and other means of income generation.

To the Pashu, religious knowledge is an important pursuit and they have produced outstanding religious scholars.

Today, in the Tanintharyi Region, the aboriginal Pashu population is estimated at not more than 30,000.

My hope is that the Pashu lifestyle, culture and traditions are preserved.

If names are the dress of the ethnicity of a people, then Myanmar’s Pashu wear the garments of the Malays very well indeed.

You cannot get more Malay than the Pashu’s baju Melayu, sarong, baju metsii, and kain kelumon.

Haider Kotwal is a Myanmar writer and an independent researcher

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