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
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
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
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
"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 Gambira, 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
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
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
Swe Win is a former political prisoner from Myanmar now working as a