YANGON, April 13: Young women in miniskirts walked down the street, catching the eye of punks with red and blue hair, as Myanmar let loose for an annual festival on Sunday when the military allowed a tiny breath of freedom.

The Thingyan water festival — marking the Buddhist new year also being celebrated this week across Thailand, Cambodia and Laos — is the only time of year when the ruling junta allows people to assemble freely.

In Myanmar, gatherings of more than five people are illegal, while the government encourages people to dress conservatively in traditional longyis.

But this week young people will literally splash out on halterneck tops, blue jeans, and modern hairstyles as they turn the city into a freewheeling water fight for six days.

Prominent families, major businesses, and nightclubs have built wooden platforms called pandals along the sidewalks, where bands play music and water pours down on passers by.

Families and groups of friends also hire cars to drive around the country’s main city, splashing water out the windows as they go.

“People can’t wait to be happy. That’s why many cars are coming out to enjoy the pandals. The authorities allowed many pandals this year,” Lwin, a young taxi driver told AFP.

“It’s the first time that people can feel happy, that they can feel free, since the protests,” he said.

In September 2007, tens of thousands of people ignored threats from the military and followed revered Buddhist monks in marches through Yangon, protesting against the regime.

Security forces cracked down, killing at least 31 people according to the United Nations. Since then, even street vendors have been pushed off the sidewalks as security across the city has been tightened.

The regime has issued repeated warnings of potential bombings or other attacks during the festival, but has not taken any major steps to rein in the celebrations.

State media have, however, issued warnings for people not to shout slogans that would “create public unrest by destroying national solidarity.”

Win, like many young people here, brushed off the warnings. “We want to enjoy ourselves freely at the water festival every year. There were some warnings of bomb alerts or something like that. But who cares? It’s our traditional festival,” he said.

“We are on duty all the time during water festival. We worry something might happen and we don’t want any problems,” one police official said on condition of anonymity.

Although Myanmar is one of the world’s poorest countries, many people will spend their savings during Thingyan to hire a car, buy new clothes, or pay for access to the most popular pandals.

Of course some things don’t change during the festival.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the more than 1,800 other political prisoners in Myanmar will remain locked up.

The festivities will run near Suu Kyi’s home on University Avenue, where she has been confined for 12 of the last 18 years. But police remain at the barricades blocking off her home from the passing cars, and there will be no revellers allowed near her gate, which remains locked shut.—AFP

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