Burma’s Yadaya Battle
By Aung Zaw Tuesday, October 7, 2003

October 07, 2003—A severe earthquake shook central Burma in late September, damaging ancient pagodas and causing several injuries. Many superstitious Burmese were quick to comment that the tremor was the earth’s way of showing its displeasure with the detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. If so, it would appear the generals’ attempts to woo the spirits’ favor suffered a setback, or maybe the opposition’s efforts finally bore some fruit. Both sides in Burma’s political conflict have a history of consulting astrologers and using yadaya, a form of magic practiced to ward off evil spirits. And earthquakes, solar eclipses, white elephants and other natural phenomena are often linked with both ominous and fortuitious events. In 1999, soon after the generals began a renovation project at Rangoon’s revered Shwedagon Pagoda, a tremor damaged the htidaw ("umbrella") that crowned the pagoda. Senior monks said the earthquake indicated that Shwedagon didn’t approve of the generals’ plan. But the junta’s astrologers disagreed, and the work continued. Finally, the guardians and spirits of Shwedagon surrendered to the generals’ will. The earthquakes stopped. Nonetheless, critics accused the military rulers of renovating the ancient pagoda to serve their own ends and of practicing yadaya to prolong their rule. In 2002, the late Gen Ne Win’s grandsons were arrested for planning an overthrow of the government. Aung Pwint Khaung, the dictator’s family astrologer, was also picked up. The raid which netted the plotters also resulted in the discovery of voodoo-like dolls of the junta’s top three generals. Its not only the current and former rulers of Burma that employ astrologers and soothsayers to court good fortune. Since almost everyone in Burma practices yadaya—whether to earn greater profit, improve yields or even launch a successful coup—its not surprising the opposition has countered with some prayers of its own. Since Suu Kyi’s latest detention began, supporters have been praying for her release at temples in Rangoon. Nine temples ending with "Gyi", such as the Chacuk Htat Gyi Paya ("Six Storey Pagoda"), were selected as the proper sites. At nine o’clock each morning, nine supporters arrive at the nine temples to pray. One of those entrusted with this task told me that he will continue to attend the prayer sessions until Suu Kyi is freed. He added that the time, sites and number of people involved was outlined by a "democracy astrologer," who he cannot name. Coincidentally, the government has asked monks to conduct daily chanting for nine months. U Aunt Maung, a former director general of the government’s religious affairs department, and Bodaw Than Hla have been seen organizing such ceremonies. Bodaw Than Hla is known to be Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt’s chief astrologer. Although the number nine features in the efforts of both groups, it’s commonly associated with the opposition and dissident students. In 1999, activists inside Burma and in exile plotted a 9.9.99 uprising like the 8.8.88 protests that almost toppled the dictatorial regime. The campaign failed miserably, but the number’s reputation apparently remains strong. Faced with failures of its own, the generals are becoming more enamored with superstition. Though they have a mighty army and legions of spies, it’s not enough. They have called on supernatural deities to reinforce their mortal guardians. The recent discovery of white elephants has been exploited by the junta’s astrologers as one symbol of the gods’ acceptance of their rule. White elephants are regarded as an auspicious sign throughout mainland Southeast Asia and many Burmese kings equated the discovery of rare albino elephants with divine endorsement of their reign. The ruling State Peace and Development Council is in possession of three white elephants, which are treated as state treasures. State-run media use news about the elephants to boost public confidence, assuring the people that the lucky pachyderms prove what the generals have been saying all along: that peace and prosperity is assured. Gen Khin Nyunt made just that claim at a recent ceremony honoring one of the elephants. Are the elephants so auspicious? The brutal attack on Suu Kyi’s convoy and new economic sanctions came on the heels of Gen Khin Nyunt’s pronouncement. More international pressure, the earthquake and Suu Kyi’s return home followed. Perhaps the opposition is winning the battle for supernatural supremacy. But the government’s astrologers will certainly fight back.

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