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A Wedding and a Funeral

Rohingya Muslims, attending a wedding, walk from the groom’s village to his bride’s home in the neighboring community. More than a hundred villagers march along the road. The crowd of brightly colored scarves and umbrellas is enough to stop all traffic. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)

By Nicole Sganga
June 13, 2014

Tears spill from the eyes of Maung Tin May. This is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. 

The nervous 17-year old bride-to-be kneels, sandwiched by consoling relatives in the dark corner of a 5 x 9 foot kitchen. Aunts and mothers rush to peel back her shaking hands as she folds them above her eyes in prayer.

In many cultures, it is considered bad luck for a groom to see his bride before the ceremony while she is wearing her wedding dress. In the remote Rohingya village where Maung is from, it is traditional for the bride to remain cloistered in a home of only women several hours before the ceremony begins.

Outside the dimly-lit hut, villagers travel in droves from the groom’s neighboring community. Mobs of neighbors shout back and forth.

Barefoot youngsters congregate outside the bride’s home before the ceremony. Many don white face paint and fresh picked flowers in their hair. (Photo: Nicloe Sganga)

Children run along the beaten path, some with flowers pinned to their hair, others with faces painted white. One boy darts about in circles, his trajectory mirroring the chalked designs stamped on his cheeks. Mothers gather on the steps leading up to the bride. Female hands busy themselves preparing fruits and vegetables for later that day. A man balances an old-fashioned speaker over his left shoulder. The contraption measures his own height and blares music.

Seventeen-year old blushing bride, Maung Tin May waits inside a bamboo hut, surrounded by female family and friends. No men are allowed in the home to see the bride before the ceremony. Maung’s cheeks are wet with anxious tears on her big day. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)

The Rohingya community flocks to the home of the bride in unison, all helping to piece together a celebration. During the ceremony, entire villages of both the groom and bride drop everything in their own lives to commemorate the newfound partnership. 

Here Comes the Casket

Rohingya villagers wash the bamboo casket prior to Ba Sein’s funeral in accordance with Muslim tradition. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)

Thirty-six miles away, Ba Sein is clinging to life. Months ago, the 35-year-old tested positive for tuberculosis at a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders within the Rohingya Muslim Camp in Sittwe. Ba Sein never received treatment for his disease. After authorities kicked out Doctors Without Borders, his access to medical care was cut off. 

Two days after Maung’s wedding, Ba Sein died. His wife and four children grieve inside their modest hut. All that remains of Ba Sein lies concealed in a white body bag. Outside their temporary home, male villagers fasten together a bamboo coffin in a matter of minutes. The precision and speed at which the wood is chopped, carved, and woven together suggests that this an all-too familiar ritual within the community. 

The male hands work quickly. In accordance with his Muslim practice, Ba Sein must be buried before dark. The sun lingers above the horizon as the fresh casket is carefully washed in water.

The Rohingya men walk more than two miles, carrying the body of Ba Sein to the Muslim graveyard before the sun sets. The journey takes nearly 45 minutes. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)

The slim corpse is lifted into the bamboo box, a little too easily. A green and gold tapestry is shrouded over the body, and the coffin is carried upon the shoulders of six men. Within moments, a sea of white, crochet skullcaps march steadily behind the lifted casket. As the mourners journey 45 minutes by foot to the cemetery, they are joined by male onlookers and neighbors. 

This death was preventable, as Ba Sein’s passing was not simply the result of his poor health, but also a product of government persecution of the Rohingya population.

The hour-long funeral ceremony draws the attendance of approximately 100 men. Male neighbors and loved ones of Ba Sein line up before his coffin to pay their respects. No women are allowed to attend the burial. (Photo: Nicole Sganga)

Maung Tin May’s wedding is not just a nerve-wrecking day filled with particularly noisy music and guests. It embodies the persistence of a people that radiate communal resilience and spirit even in dark times. The death of Ba Sein marks not just a bad day in the life of his family and friends. It illustrates a dark stain of ethnic and religious discrimination in what should be a rather uplifting narrative of Myanmar’s road to democratization. 

On the outskirts of Ba Sein’s ceremony, a handful of children and teens linger on the outskirts of the large burial. They live in homes that sit at the very edge of the Muslim graveyard. Watching funerals has become a kind of sunset routine for the youngsters. Eighteen year old Rohingya, Tin Aung Lay smiles uncomfortably as he peers into the lavender stained horizon. Ba Sein is lowered into the ground. Tin shakes his head. “We have nobody.”

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