Not content with bashing Muslims, they are now turning on adherents of folk religion
They had travelled for hours, some for days. It didn’t matter. They had made it to Taung Pyone. Every August hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Myanmar descend on this village 20km north of Mandalay to commune with nats, spirits willing to bless the faithful with good fortune if they are given the right offering. Nats accept bananas, coconuts, booze and cash—the more the better. At this year’s festival, devotees clutching wads of bills queued under a gazebo to meet one of the nats’ flesh-and-blood envoys, a medium. But the time-honoured display of piety is marred by seven Buddhist nuns with shaved heads and pink robes, who are bickering with the devotees. Nat worship, the nuns insist, is base superstition—a stain on the true faith.
Buddhism is the overwhelmingly dominant religion in Myanmar. Roughly 90% of the population is Buddhist. There are some 500,000 monks and a further 75,000 nuns in a country of 54m. Holy folk have often been at the forefront of politics, leading the failed “saffron revolution” against military rule in 2007, for instance. More recently nationalist monks have helped propagate the idea that Buddhism is under threat in Myanmar, and urged holy war against Muslims—a campaign that helps explain public indifference about the army’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group living in the extreme west of the country.
Some monks rail not against perceived external enemies, however, but against cankers within Buddhism. Han Tun, a 65-year-old spirit medium or natkadaw, was at Taung Pyone festival three years ago when ten Buddhist monks wielding metal rods disrupted a spirit-possession ceremony he was attending. They threatened to beat the 50-odd people there if they refused to hand over their offerings to the nat. Han Tun and the other mediums complied, but the monks tore down the shrine’s decorations and smashed statues of the nats anyway. “It was the worst experience of my life,” says Han Tun.
It would not be the only act of desecration he would witness. Han Tun and three other veteran natkadaws claim that, starting about ten years ago, Buddhist monks began to target nat-worshippers. Sometimes they just scolded and insulted them; at other times they physically threatened them, stole offerings of food and money and destroyed statues of nats. These attacks have taken place not just in Taung Pyone, they say, but at other festivals and spirit-possession ceremonies around the country. Khin Swe Oo, the custodian of the most prominent nat shrine in Taung Pyone, says that shouting, threats and physical destruction of holy objects have occurred every year for the past five years. A decade ago, she notes, such disturbances were rare.
Anawrahta, the most celebrated king of medieval Burma, drew up an official list of 37 nats to be assimilated into the Buddhist pantheon. To this day every Burmese village has a shrine or two to local nats. Yet many Burmese Buddhists disdain spirit worship. Keziah Wallis of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand says that the rift first appeared in the 19th century, when a new understanding of Buddhism as a rational philosophy free of the mummery of religion began to take hold. Raucous spirit-possession ceremonies, lubricated with alcohol and hypnotic music, were at odds with this conception of Buddhism. Some began to describe nat worship as a corruption of the faith, to be tolerated only because it was traditional.
No longer. Hostility towards the spirit lords has grown over the past decade, says Ms Wallis, due in part to the opening of Myanmar to the world. Urbanites are ashamed of what they see as Buddhism’s “dirty, shameful, crazy cousin”, as she puts it. Similar movements to cleanse Islam of what purists see as the superstitions of uneducated villagers have a long history in Indonesia and Malaysia. Efforts have been made to purge Buddhism of folk religion in Sri Lanka and Thailand, too.
Establishing the identity of those responsible for the attacks described by the natkadaws is difficult. No individual or organisation has claimed responsibility. Zawana Nyarna, an abbot from Taung Pyone, claims that the monks from his monastery and the six others in the village are innocent. Several natkadaws think that some, perhaps all, of the individuals perpetrating these crimes are “false monks”—either recent initiates with little religious education or thieves donning maroon robes in order to steal nats’ offerings more easily. However, this explanation may simply be a way to avoid direct criticism of revered monastic authorities. Han Tun believes that the monks he encountered intended not only to steal donations but “to violate, to intervene with our beliefs”. Khin Swe Oo, the custodian of the shrine in Taung Pyone, believes the individuals responsible are inspired by prominent monks who fulminate regularly against nats in widely disseminated sermons.
The main focus of Ma Ba Tha, a radical Buddhist organisation which was banned in 2017, was to alert Burmese to the threat of Islam. One of its leading members, a monk called Wisetkhana, does not believe that devotees of nats pose nearly as great a threat to Buddhism as Muslims do, nor does he condone the violent treatment meted out to them. But he has written a book that argues nats are evil. It is called “Protecting the Race and Religion”.
Not all monks abhor the spirit cult. A few years ago Khin Swe Oo asked Zawana Nyarna and other local abbots for help in preventing the attacks at Taung Pyone. Monks from local monasteries now observe the festivities, interrogate threatening monks, disrobe them if they are impostors or send them home if they are genuine monks. “Because of their help, it’s getting better,” says Han Tun. But as Khin Swe Oo leans back in the bamboo chair in front of her house, just a stone’s throw from the shrine, a pagoda covered in gold leaf, she closes her eyes. The attacks are still happening, she says. The burden of protecting the spirits weighs heavily on her.