Instant karma in Myanmar
Instant karma in Myanmar
By Sudha Ramachandran and Swe Win
BANGALORE – The sudden collapse of an ancient temple last month – like most significant events in Myanmar – has been opened to a wide range of arcane interpretation. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper blamed the demise of the 2,300-year-old Danok pagoda on inferior reconstruction. But others saw something much darker in its destruction.
The crumbling of the sacred site came as the ongoing trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was still prominent in international media – earning the famously xenophobic government criticism from around the globe. More important to the superstitious-minded, it came just week’s after Daw Kyaing Kyaing – wife of Myanmar’s junta supremo, Senior-General Than Shwe – had presided over a reconsecration ceremony at the temple.
Gold-domed Danok pagoda sits just outside Yangon, the former capital. It was damaged during Cyclone Nargis last year and had been recently renovated. The pagoda has collapsed at least three times before, but its recent fall has generated much talk; fingers are pointing to the highest ranks of the ruling government and its first family.
Many in Myanmar interpret that the accident portends the fall of the repressive military regime that has ruled for nearly half a century.
On May 30, the pagoda’s bell-shaped stupa collapsed onto its northern prayer hall. Three weeks earlier, Kyaing Kyaing, accompanied by a family entourage and the families of senior military officials, visited the pagoda reopening and placed a jewel-encrusted hti (sacred umbrella), a seinbudaw (diamond orb) and a hngetmyatnadaw (pennant-shaped vane) atop the pagoda during the ceremony.
Highly revered by Myanmar’s Buddhists, Danok pagoda is “believed by the local populace to reject donations offered by bad people and to shake in repudiation”, Ingrid Jordt, an expert on Myanmar and anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Asia Times Online in an e-mail interview.
The pagoda didn’t just shake this time, it totally caved in. The sacred umbrella fell and the diamond orb donated by Than Shwe’s family was lost in the rubble. “The Danok pagoda rejected Than Shwe’s offering,” a Myanmar exile based in Delhi said.
Jordt says the event is significant. “It says that more inauspicious events are to come. It says that even the devas [good spirits] despise this regime and have removed their protective oversight of sacred places like Danok because of the regime’s heavy sins. More importantly, it is a sign that Than Shwe’s spiritual potency [based on previous meritorious acts] has been exhausted,” wrote Jordt. “It is a sign that he has done so many evil things that he no longer has the ability to make merit any longer.” It is seen, Jordt claims, as “a very bad sign for the regime”.
A rattled junta responded swiftly. It ordered the media in Yangon not to report the Danok incident. A week later, it blamed the collapse on shoddy renovation work. But discussion, in Myanmar’s streets or expatriate blogs, of what the pagoda collapse means is unlikely to be silenced easily.
Within a week of the devastation of Danok, an accident occurred at the Bawdi Ta Htaung monastery in Monywa, 136 kilometers north of Mandalay. Two senior monks who were inspecting a Buddha statue in the monastery – the 130-meter statue is Myanmar’s tallest – were injured when the elevator they were in hurtled downwards, crashing into a stairway.
“Two bad incidents within a week of each other and that two in places of religious significance is a bad omen. It could mean trouble for the regime or even a natural catastrophe that will bring suffering to people,” the exile said.
Belief in superstition, numerology, astrology and the occult is deep and widespread in Myanmar. It is well known that the generals are influenced in their decisions by astrology and portents.
General Ne Win, who seized power in 1962, was guided in his decisions by a belief that the number nine was his lucky number. In September 1987, he introduced the 45 kyat and 90 kyat bank notes because they are divisible by nine and their digits add up to nine. An astrologer reportedly told him that he would live for 90 years if he did – he died aged 92. It is said that Ne Win used to walk backwards on bridges to ward off evil.
Than Shwe is also said to believe deeply in astrology and occult. His sudden decision in 2005 to shift Myanmar’s capital from Yangon to the jungle redoubt Naypyidaw, meaning “royal palace”, was apparently influenced by soothsayers.
Exiles claim he uses occult rituals to ward off bad luck before talks with pro-democracy leaders and foreign envoys. U Gawsita, one of the leading monks in the 2007 Saffron Revolution now living in the US, told Asia Times Online by phone that the regime has long been engaged in what he calls “astrology politics”.
Reportedly on the advice of his astrologers, Than Shwe has resorted to a bewildering array of yadaya (rituals performed to avert impending misfortune) to counter any karmic misstep and to sustain his hold on power. He has installed a jade Buddha allegedly resembling his own appearance at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon. Buddha images donated by Than Shwe and his family have been installed across Myanmar in recent years.
Than Shwe’s superstitions seem to have originated in his childhood. According to a relative of Kyaing Kyaing, Than Shwe has a birthmark which the astrologers in his native town interpreted it as the sign of a “future king”.
According to the wife of a high-ranking Myanmar diplomat’s wife, who declined to be identified, a 70-year-old nun named Dhammasi living in the northern part of Yangon is the principal adviser of Daw Kyaing Kyaing and Than Shwe on arcane matters.
“There was a scurry of visits to that nunnery by Than Shwe’s family and former general Khin Nyunt’s. The two families were vying with each other to get the most powerful occult advice from the nun,” she told Asia Times Online. Khin Nyunt was the former intelligence chief and a highly influential figure in the regime’s top brass before he was deposed and put under house arrest in 2004.
The diplomat’s wife said the aging nun is still visited by Than Shwe’s wife: “Once we followed [Dhammasi] to upper Burma [Myanmar] in her search for lost Buddha images which she said she saw in her dreams and on the way our car was stuck in the mud. The nun took out her mobile phone which very few Burmese people could use at that time and she made a phone call to someone. Very soon, battalions of soldiers came out in trucks and pulled out our car.”
She said soothsayers are often approached by the regime’s top brass seeking promotions and to strengthen their positions. Astrologers and practitioners of the arcane often tend to be nuns, astrologers and even some corrupt Buddhist monks, according to a range of Myanmar citizens.
Still, many families in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar consult their favorite astrologers and spiritual advisers for an array of purposes: to successfully go abroad, to get promoted, to control an adulterous spouse, to pass an exam, or to have a successful interview.
Many perform yadayar to offset predictions of negative events. For example, throwing away a slipper means preventing the possibility of jail because the jail and the slipper represent the same planetary significance.
Also, every given name has a planet and some astrological significance. Sometimes, however, this becomes a simple play on words. To defuse tension in the aftermath of the 2007 protests, the government appointed a liaison officer to speak to Suu Kyi named Aung Kyi. “Aung” means success, and the thinking was he would win over “Kyi”.
Numerology also plays a significant role in Myanmar. Using astrological calculations based on one’s date of birth, numbers and calculations are inscribed on a sheet of metal. That metal is sometimes placed on an altar or a sacred part of a home to bring luck.
Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be a rare exception. According to a Myanmar woman who frequently met Suu Kyi before she was put under house arrest, the Noble Peace Laureate never showed an interest in astrology. Still, whenever people, including her party leaders, handed her papers of astrological advice, she never rejected them out of respect.
Others in Myanmar’s opposition movement are hardly so skeptical. The famous jailed student leader Min Ko Naing changed to his current name – meaning “the one who triumphs the king” – from his original name Paw U Tun. U Gamira, a leader of the Saffron Revolution whose new name means “magic”, was once called U Samdawbarsa. (The so-called “8888” student uprising of 1988, is also an allegedly auspicious digit.)
Dates in time
Myanmar’s military rulers are not the only political leaders influenced by astrology or superstitions. In neighboring India, astrology rules the lives of ordinary people as well as powerful politicos. Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a self-professed “rationalist” and avowed follower of the iconoclastic Tamil leader “Periyar” E V Ramaswamy Naicker, has never been seen without a yellow shawl on his shoulder for the past 15 years. Many Indian politicians contest elections and file their nominations only after consulting their astrologers.
Former United States president Franklin D Roosevelt had an obsessions with unlucky numbers, specifically avoiding the number 13. Astrologers also reportedly influenced the scheduling of ex-president Ronald Reagan’s appointments, including the time when important arms treaties with the Soviets were signed.
Myanmar’s junta leaders, closed and paranoid at the best of times, are unlikely to have missed the fact that the pagoda collapsed on May 30, a date of great significance to the country’s pro-democracy movement.
It was on that day in 2003 that the Depayin massacre took place. Thugs allegedly in the pay of the junta attacked the Suu Kyi’s convoy and killed around 100 of her supporters. “For many in Myanmar, there is a link between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe’s fall. The generals are unlikely to have missed the date of the pagoda collapse,” said the Myanmar exile in India.
The significance of the pagoda collapse against the backdrop of recent events, specifically the high-profile trial and detention of Suu Kyi, may have made the junta extremely nervous.
According to Jordt, “The generals have in recent weeks enhanced surveillance of tea shops and restaurants in the major cities to ferret out any anti-regime talk. They have created stricter curfews for students in the various university towns. They have locked down the soldier’s barracks so that their families cannot leave even to do business in the marketplace. The monks are not allowed to travel easily.
“In short, the regime is bracing for the worst.”
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
Swe Win is a former political prisoner from Myanmar now working as a freelance reporter.