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Book review: Saunders novella evokes anti-immigration hysteria in Myanmar and elsewhere

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At first glance, George Saunders’ novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) seems to unfold with the simplicity of a child’s fable: The prose is unpretentious, and the characters are given whimsical, abstract shapes for bodies. There are even drawings interspersed throughout the book to help illustrate the story.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that in this darkly humorous allegory the author is exploring territory much too menacing for books aimed at children: The language used by key characters will resonate with anyone familiar with the malicious rhetoric that emanates from communities in which anti-immigration hysteria has taken root, whether located in the southern United States, northern Europe or western Myanmar.

The book tells the story of Inner Horner, a country with a population of seven but only enough land area to accommodate one person at a time. Each citizen has his or her designated time to occupy the country, while the other six await their turn in the Short-Term Residency Zone of the neighboring country of Outer Horner.

This system has been in place for some time, and as the book opens, cross-border resentment is running high, with the Outer Hornerites feeling that “their country was big, but it wasn’t infinitely big, which meant that they might someday conceivably run out of room”.

They also fear what might happen to their way of life — which “afforded them such super dignity and required so much space” — if outsiders kept demanding bits of Outer Horner.

Tensions increase when, due to an unspecified geological cataclysm, the land area of Inner Horner shrinks to such a degree that it can no longer accommodate even a single person. With three-quarters of an Inner Horner citizen named Elmer suddenly hanging over the border, the Outer Hornerites promptly sound the alarm and move to “expulse” the “invader”.

Saunders plays up the absurdity of the situation, using the outlandish overreaction of the Outer Hornerites to show that immigration issues are never solely about immigration: They are also about nationalism, race, religion, socioeconomics, politics, xenophobia and a host of other interconnected factors, from which immigration cannot be isolated.

The situation on the border quickly degenerates. A particularly angry and vindictive Outer Hornerite named Phil imposes excessive taxation on the “invaders”, and when the victims run out of money, he takes their remaining resources (one apple tree, one nearly dry stream, and approximately 3 cubic feet of dry, cracked soil) and then steals their clothes.

Having, through their own callous actions, ensured the destitution of the “foreign invaders”, the Outer Hornerites only harden their stance.

In one speech Phil says to the Inner Hornerites: “We are a noble people, of ancient lineage, and have a right to live and thrive, whereas you, who would take away our right to live and thrive, I’m not sure about you, I’m not sure that you have not, over the long years of taking advantage of our simple generous nature, forfeited certain rights having to do with your continued existence!”

This is an ominous declaration, and when Phil stages a coup and declares himself president of Outer Horner, he forces his own citizens to “voluntarily” sign, with their eyes closed and their backs turned to the document, a Certificate of Total Approval to sanction his similarly obscure Border Area Improvement Initiative.

The signatories soon find out what the initiative entails: Phase I calls for the internment of the Inner Hornerites in a prison surrounded by barbed wire, which Phil euphemistically refers to as the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure.

“How typical of the Inner Horner mindset,” Phil shouts when the victims attempt to protest, “to be unable to distinguish a jail from a Peace-Encouraging Enclosure. Safe inside the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure, you will be protected from your innate violent tendencies.”

Such internments are not atypical “solutions” for immigration issues: In July 2012, Myanmar President U Thein Sein proposed that the Rohingya be thrown into refugee camps, and AFP later published an eyewitness account of the fearful conditions inside the enclosed Aung Mingalar Muslim ghetto in Sittwe, which has been segregated, Apartheid-like, from the rest of the city.

For Phase II, Phil oversees the restoration of the land that had formerly been occupied by the Inner Hornerites: “At last we are reclaiming our ancient ancestral land, and we want it to look nice!” Phil declaims.

Phase III constitutes the final solution. Phil demands that the Inner Hornerites, whom his father had always said were the “dirt of the world”, be eliminated once and for all: “For us to be at total peace they must be totally gone! Gone gone gone!” Crazed and angry words, yes, but disturbingly near in substance to sentiments demonstrated in countless extremist messages posted on social media in reaction to the violence in Rakhine State.

When his countrymen baulk at perpetrating genocide, Phil urges them on with yet another fanatical speech: “With Inner Hornerites there is no lady, there is no kid, there are only evil, which must be dealt with harsh, before it spread!” By this point his syntax is suffering under his increasingly maniacal outlook.

Without revealing precisely how the situation gets resolved, I will say that the book ends on a decidedly ominous note, indicating that few lessons have been learned from the brief and frightening reign of Phil, that the underlying causes have been swept under the carpet, and that a similar situation is very likely to recur in the future.

In October 2012 the Mizzima website published a story in which the well-known comedian Zaganar was quoted as saying that the work of the government-appointed commission to investigate the violence in Rakhine State, of which he was a member, had been stymied by lack of cooperation from community members “from all sides”.

It is perhaps understandable that the major players in this tragic situation — the government, the Rohingya, the Rakhine — would be too ashamed to discuss their role in the still-unfolding events in western Myanmar, and would likewise be reluctant to have their behavior in this regard scrutinized too closely.

But their silence will only serve to further obscure the underlying tensions, at a time when root causes need to be examined and analyzed by courageous people. This fear of democratic discussion will only ensure that no progress will be made toward an equitable, peaceful solution, and that Myanmar will continue sailing toward a dark horizon where more deadly violence awaits.

Written by latefornowhere

August 25, 2014 at 4:56 am

Posted in Books, Uncategorized

Big temples, huge bells and massive memories in Mingun

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Such is the size of Mingun Paya that it could be seen from the very start of the 7-mile (11km) boat journey from Mandalay up the Ayeyarwady River to the temple site. The huge brick structure seemed so close, it was hard to believe that the 9am boat trip would last the entire hour we had been told it would take to get there.

In the end it actually took a bit longer than an hour – about 15 minutes longer – but I didn’t mind the extra time on the wide, muddy river. There was plenty to occupy my interest out there, from the birds swooping from the sky to pick breakfast out of the reeds along the riverbank, to the local boats with homemade sails driving against the current at incredible speeds with the help of strong winds.


At the prow of our own boat, one of the female crewmembers took on the task of using a long bamboo pole to push away foating vegetation that had been washed down from upcountry by monsoon rains, to prevent it from getting clogged in the boat’s propeller.

There was no sign of precipitation anywhere near Mingun though, allowing me to sit on the uncovered upper deck and keep a sharp eye out for elusive Ayeyarwady dolphins. These rare mammals are one of only five species of freshwater dolphins in the world, and their endangered status prompted the government to establish a 45-mile 72km protected zone extending north from Mandalay in December 2005. This stretch of river is also one of only two places in world (the other is in Brazil) where local fishermen have a cooperative relationship with freshwater dolphins: The fishermen set their nets in the water and then send out a signal by knocking on their boats or slapping a paddle on the water. The dolphins, who are given personal names by locals along the river, respond by herding fish into the nets. In return, the fishermen give the dolphins part of their catch.

Sadly, my vigilance bore no fruit and the dolphins remained hidden from sight. But my search was soon overshadowed by our approach to our destination. As the boat veered across the strong current towards the west bank of the river, the unfinished Mingun Paya seemed to loom ever-higher above the trees along the shoreline. Just to the south and right up against the river – and therefore plainly visible from the boat – was a white temple with a gold spire ontop. It was surrounded by a white wall, and steps lined with Buddha images descended all the way to the river’s edge. This was Pondaw Paya, a miniature version of what Mingun Paya would have looked like had it been completed.


Mingun Paya.

We continued upriver for a few minutes longer, past the two huge, crumbling chinthe (half-lion, half-dragon) statues, meant to guard the walkway to Mingun Paya but now, in their ruined state, barely recognisable from the river as little more than big piles of bricks. Our boat found a place to pull close to the riverbank, and the passengers disembarked on a precariously narrow plank of wood running from the deck to dry land.


We had docked in front of the Mingun Home for the Aged, which, when founded in 1915 by Daw Oo Zun, was the first facility in the country dedicated to the care and comfort of the elderly. Still going strong nearly a century later, its tranquil grounds are worth a visit, even more so if you wish to make a donation toward clothing, food, electricity and other necessities for the comfort of the residents.

After exiting the Home for the Aged, I decided to make straight for Mingun Paya itself. Construction of Mingun Paya (also called Mingun Pahtodawgyi) was started by King Bodawpaya in 1790 with a workforce that numbered in the thousands, but he stopped the project in 1819 based on advice from astrologers who said completion of the temple would result in the king’s death and the dissolution of his kingdom. Had it been finished it would have been 495 feet (150 meters) high, making it the biggest temple in the world. According to legend, Bodawpaya had wanted the structure to be visible from Shwebo about 60 miles (100km) to the north, where he had ascended to the throne.


The temple’s present size of 165 feet (50m) high by 238 feet (72m) wide is still quite impressive. In fact, to stand directly in front of Mingun Paya is to suffer from a minor crisis of perception. My mind was simply unable to comprehend the sheer magnitude of what I was seeing. I watched a group of Buddhist pilgrims entering the doorway to the east-facing shrine and even though they were only 100 feet (30 meters) away from me they looked like mere ants against the backdrop of the monolithic structure. Cracks on the face of the building that were caused by an 1838 earthquake seemed harmlessly small, but when I looked at my photographs later I realised that had they been crevasses on a glacier, they could have easily swallowed an entire team of mountain climbers without a trace.


Water spouts around the base of Mingun Paya.

From the main paya I headed for another of Mingun’s oversized attractions, the bronze bell that King Bodawpaya had cast in 1808 to hang at the temple. Weighing 90 tonnes and measuring four metres high by more than five metres across at the lip, it is said to be the biggest ringing bell in the world. At the suggestion of a young boy at the shrine where the bell is now hung, I ducked down and stepped inside the bronze behemoth, after which the boy proceeded to whack away on the outer surface with a thick wooden stick. I had feared an earsplitting metallic clang but instead heard a low, sonorous hum like the vibrating wings of a thousand hovering bees.


Mingun Bell.

Not far north of the bell, the shining white Hsinbyume Pagoda (also called Myatheindan Pagoda) rises like a mystical mountain from green countryside. In fact, the pagoda was built in 1816 by Bodawpaya’s grandson and successor as king, Bagyidaw, to represent Sulamani Pagoda, the legendary pilgrimage site that stands atop Mount Meru at the center of the Buddhist cosmos.

Hsinbyume Pagoda was also dedicated to the memory of Bagyidaw’s first wife, Princess Hsinbyume (the Lady of the White Elephant), who had died in childbirth in 1812 at the age of 23. The whitewashed pagoda’s distinct design features a central spire (stupa) surrounded by seven terraces with wavy balustrades representing the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru. Four stairways lead up through these terraces to the pagoda platform, from which more stairs ascend past niches with small Buddha images to a shrine and circular passageway in the interior of the central spire.


Hsinbyume Pagoda.

I arrived at Hsinbyume just as a large tour group was leaving and to my surprise found myself completely alone on the pagoda grounds. This moment of tranquility gave me the opportunity to stand on the platform, listening to the small bells on the stupa ring in the wind and contemplating Mingun Paya from afar. From where I was standing, at the symbolic center of the Buddhist universe, I could see that the huge temple I had been trying to envision as a finished work was actually more genuine in its current form, as a monument to the impermanence of power and the futility of striving towards material fulfillment.


As I made my way back toward the boat to make the 1pm departure, I had just enough time for a quick stop at Dhammanada Monastery, whose second abbot, the late Venerable Vicittasara, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “man with the best memory”. This distinction was based on his memorization and recital of 20 books (8,027 pages) of the Tipitaka (Buddhist canon) plus 24 books (9,934 pages) of the commentaries and sub-commentaries during Tipitaka exams held from 1950 to 1953 in Yangon. The feat marked the revival of a tradition of memorizing the Tipitaka that had been lost for more than 2,000 years after the Buddha’s death. The monastery now houses a statue of the Venerable Vicittasara as well as a plaque commemorating his inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records.


Statue of the Venerable Vicittasara.

The late abbot’s achievement seemed even more impressive given the fact that I could barely remember where the boat that had brought me to Mingun was docked. After 15 minutes of searching I finally found it just where I had left it less than three hours before – anchored on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River right in front of the Home for the Aged. I dashed up the narrow plank, the last one aboard, and settled in for another chance to spot an elusive Ayeyarwady dolphin as we made our way downriver to Mandalay.


Unfortunate graffiti around the back of Mingun Paya.

The pen sketches of Hla Myint Swe

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True creativity cannot be confined by genre. Those who demonstrate an aptitude for drawing or painting often possess the ability to bring their distinctive way of looking at the world – including their keen sense of composition – to bear in other art forms such as photography.

Such is the case with Hla Myint Swe, an artist who was born in 1948 in Bhamo, Kachin State, and who has made a name for himself by publishing a series of books containing black-and-white pen sketches of the “national tribes” of Myanmar. Many of the images are based on photographs he has taken during his travels around the country. However, he does not consider himself a true artist, but rather “an amateur with a profound interest in drawing and photography”.

This self-perception, the artist confesses, stems primarily from his lack of formal training. But he made up for this by demonstrating persistence and natural talent from an early age, teaching himself to draw by copying pictures and photographs from books. By the age of five Hla Myint Swe was receiving praise from peers and teachers for his artistic talents, and later he was even drafted by his teachers to instruct his fellow students on his drawing techniques.

Hla Myint Swe continued developing his skill by studying artwork in locally published weekly magazines, as well as in any foreign comic books he could get his hands on. He finally met his first art teacher, U Lu Tin, while attending St Peter’s High School in 1965. U Lu Tin often assigned his students to paint landscapes, but Hla Myint Swe preferred figure drawing, and so instead of painting the scenery, he drew side-view portraits of this fellow students as they worked. When U Lu Tin saw this, he remarked that Hla Myint Swe had a way of thinking that was different from the others.

Hla Myint Swe spent only six months learning from U Lu Tin. After graduating from high school, he entered the Defence Services Academy and stayed in the army for 26 years, from 1966 to 1992. Although he was unable to carry paints and brushes to the front lines, he always kept ballpoint pens in his backpack, and whenever he had the chance he drew portraits on whatever scraps of paper he could find. It was from this experience that he developed his tendency toward black-and-white sketches.

In 1992 Hla Myint Swe was transferred to Yangon, where he worked for the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). His duties put him in contact with painters, writers, filmmakers, performers and photographers, from whom he was able to learn more about the finer points of creating art. In the meantime, he continued developing his own work, making at least one or two sketches even on his busiest days.

As part of his work for YCDC, Hla Myint Swe helped put together several coffee-table photography books, including Yangon: The Garden City (1995), Shwedagon: Symbol of Strength and Serenity (1997) and Yangon: Green City of Grace (1999). His contact with photographers for these projects piqued his own interest in photography. Whereas previously he had used his camera only for family snapshots during trips, he now started utilizing it as a tool to enhance his artwork, a means of capturing the interesting faces of Myanmar’s ethnic people who live in remote areas of the country, which he could later sketch from the photographs.

In recent years Hla Myint Swe has held several exhibitions of his sketches in Yangon, and the work can also be seen in a series of large-format books the artist has published since 2006. The main subjects of these drawings are the ethnic people of Myanmar in their traditional dress.

The third volume, Pen Sketches of Artist Hla Myint Swe: Nature and Social Life Features of Myanmar (2010), is, according to the artist’s preface, an effort to sketch those fleeting moments during which people’s facial expressions reveal their “inner lives”. Perhaps unintentionally, the brief notes that accompany each drawing often reveal the inherent subjectivity involved in “reading” someone’s expression, and the extent to which the artist projects his own assumptions onto his models.

One example is a drawing of a Ta-ang (Palaung) trustee of Loi Hsai Taung Pagoda in Namhsan, Shan State, whom the reader is told has a “pure inner mind” that “reflects his open and simple smile”. But of course neither the artist nor the reader has any way of knowing the degree to which the trustee might possess purity of mind, or whether his smile stems from such thoughts.

However, it is a testament to Hla Myint Swe’s skill as a sketch artist that the viewer is confident that the trustee’s face has been captured with great accuracy. The viewer therefore feels free to study the man’s face, rendered in black and white, and come to his or her own conclusions about what might be occurring inside his mind.

This simple act automatically makes the sketch something more than a passive drawing, taking it into a realm in which the viewer is challenged to engage, to think, to interpret. And this, more than anything, has always been what separates the interesting from the mundane in the world of art.


Bago bike ride and flood donation

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Last Sunday I joined a group of about 40 Myanmar cyclists who pedaled from Yangon to Bago and back again, a total distance of 133 kilometers (82 miles). Our goal, aside from enjoying the ride, was to donate cash and emergency supplies (carried in a following truck) to more than 2,000 people from 730 households who had been displaced by recent flooding in Bago Region.

We left from a teashop in Mingalardon Township at 7am, riding north under gray skies that threatened monsoon rain but never delivered any precipitation – the sun even came out in the afternoon, making for a skin-sizzling ride during the latter part of the day.


Setting off at 7am.

The participating cyclists rode at varying speeds, but we made several stops to regroup and to ensure that we weren’t spread out over too many miles. At one point we had to pedal through some minor flooding that had spilled across the road; by the afternoon, when we rode through going in the opposite direction, this temporary lake had become an impromptu party spot for local teenagers who were hanging out drinking beer and splashing passersby.


Crossing the lake.


We reached Bago well before noon and dropped our donations at a Buddhist monastery on the outskirts of town. A brief ceremony was held which was presided over by the monastery’s head monk, who had arranged a small boat so that a few people from our group could deliver the donations directly to the villagers who were in need.


Unloading flood donations.

The return trip was a fairly grueling experience for me. It had been several months since I had done anything longer than a 40km ride, so my endurance was lacking. The long distance, plus high temperatures and a stiff headwind, created a perfect storm for massive fatigue.

Still, we managed to make it back by 3pm. Multiple stops and donation ceremony excluded, our total riding time was around 5 hours and 30 minutes, an average of about 24kph (15mph).


Roadside repairs.

Written by latefornowhere

August 19, 2014 at 5:40 am

Book Review: Aung San Suu Kyi photo book emphasizes nostalgia over relevance

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Just when you thought the days of uncritical praise for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were over, along comes French photographer Christophe Loviny’s hagiographic Aung San Suu Kyi: A Portrait in Words and Pictures.

The 132-page hardcover book employs photographs, brief biographical excerpts and quotes in the service of perpetuating a carefully burnished image of the National League for Democracy leader.

The content is presented chronologically, and many of the images in the early pages are sourced from Daw Suu Kyi’s own private collection. There are photos of her as a child in Yangon, as a university student in India, and as a wife and mother in England and elsewhere.

One early family portrait shows an infant Suu Kyi held in the arms of her mother Daw Khin Kyi, while father Aung San smiles and clutches his two sons to his chest. Two pages later, we see Daw Khin Kyi with her three children gathered around her. The absence of Aung San, who had been assassinated a year earlier, weighs heavily on the image.

These family photographs are the strongest – and by far the most engaging – aspect of the book, but as the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Daw Suu Kyi was never destined to enjoy a quiet, domestic life.

Contextual photographs help illustrate the major events that propelled her to the forefront of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, including the untimely death of her father, the 1988 uprising against the military government and her first public appearances in support of these protests.

The book takes a strange turn about halfway through with the introduction of a series of awkward portraits of Daw Suu Kyi shot by Loviny on the veranda of her home on University Avenue; they show her posing at a table pretending to write, and standing with an open volume of Japanese poetry as if perusing the pages.

The photos are meant to evoke the period during which Daw Suu Kyi was under house arrest, even though they were actually taken sometime following her release.

But it’s not so much their uneasy staginess that disappoints; rather, it’s their failure to reveal anything remotely personal about the ordeal of being confined to home for so many years: Where did the prisoner cook her food and eat her meals? Where did she sleep? How was her famous piano situated?

None of these questions are answered. Instead, the photo shoot is limited to an outdoor area that has become familiar to the public through its use as the backdrop for press conferences with US President Barack Obama, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other visiting dignitaries.

As such, the photos taken in this politicized space evoke a public rather than a private life; they point not to personal tribulations but to the further cementing of an iconic persona.

The second half of the book – featuring work by Loviny and Myanmar photographers Pyay Kyaw Myint, Minzayar, Aung Pyae, Lynn Bo Bo and Soe Than Win – runs with this theme by perpetuating the legend of the idol.

We see images of Daw Suu Kyi being adored by the masses: adored while standing at the gate of the NLD’s headquarters, adored while her bodyguards escort her through frenzied crowds, adored while campaigning from the sunroof of her white car.

We see adorers waving flags, adorers dancing and adorers plastering NLD flags onto the faces of hapless babies who have no idea what the fuss is all about.

A handful of such photos would have sufficed to convey Daw Suu Kyi’s popularity, but we get page after page of mind-numbingly repetitive images.

Cutting out a few of these images would have left more space for the book to live up to the dust jacket’s promise to evoke “the formidable challenges that still lie ahead”. The photo of Daw Suu Kyi in parliament surrounded by army representatives does not come close to accomplishing this goal.

Neither does the accompanying text, which cites the need to end “long-standing ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country” but makes no reference to the scrutiny Daw Suu Kyi has faced over her noncommittal, lukewarm approach to solving these same problems.

But this is precisely what would have been necessary to create a book that stood for something greater than simple nostalgia, that went beyond pining for the days when Daw Suu Kyi was idealistically viewed as being beyond reproach and incapable of issuing an unwise directive.

The reality is that Daw Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in 2012 has forced her to become entangled in the complex realities of Myanmar politics. With the NLD expending tremendous amounts of energy to amend the 2008 constitution for the benefit of their party leader, serious questions must be asked about her fitness to be president.

In order to successfully evoke the “formidable challenges” of the coming years, Mr Loviny would have done better to scrap some of the idolatrous images and instead include a few contextual photos that vividly illustrate the conflicts over which the blood of Daw Suu Kyi’s countrymen continues to be spilled.

The war in Kachin State, the squalid refugee camps in northern Rakhine State and anti-Muslim pogroms would have been good places to start.

Their inclusion would have served to emphasize the need for Daw Suu Kyi to take a more determined stand on certain vital humanitarian issues, while at the same time making the book substantially more relevant to Myanmar’s current state of affairs.

Aung San Suu Kyi: A Portrait in Words and Pictures by Christophe Loviny (Hardie Grant Books, 2003)


Written by latefornowhere

August 18, 2014 at 8:39 am

Posted in Books, Uncategorized

A spirited way of life

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This year’s Taungbyone Nat (Spirit) Festival is currently underway, occurring from July 28 to August 10. Following is an article I wrote on the connection between spirit worship and gay culture in Myanmar. The story originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Southeast Asia Globe magazine.

Nat 1

August is a slow time for social events in Myanmar. Monsoon downpours keep people indoors, and it’s also the midpoint of the three-month Buddhist Lent, a time for abstinence, self-denial, and religious contemplation. There are no pagoda festivals, no weddings, and few live music performances during this time.

A notable exception to this temperance occurs in the town of Taungbyone in central Myanmar, which for one week each August becomes the site of the biggest animist festival in the country. The antithesis of moderation, the Taungbyone festival has gained a reputation as a Dionysian pickpocket-magnet characterised by copious alcohol consumption, ear-splitting music, and wild dancing.

Nat 5

The throngs of rambunctious revellers who descend on the town go there to make offerings to powerful spirits known as nats, described by Myanmar author Ma Thanegi as humans who died violently and were “caught in a limbo between lives”.

“Their anger and bitterness at their fate made them unable to be reborn into the next existence, and they remain as ghosts,” she explained. These ghosts, endowed with supernatural powers, can punish humans who offend them, or grant favours to those who show the proper respect.

According to Myanmar lore there are 37 central nats, plus a number of others associated with particular regions of the country. The spirits associated with Taungbyone are the brothers Min Gyi and Min Galay, put to death in the 11th century after failing to follow a king’s orders to contribute bricks to the construction of a pagoda. Later regretting the executions, the king granted the dead brothers dominion over Taungbyone, which they are believed to rule to this day.

Nat 2

The central spectacle of Taungbyone are the boisterous rituals, held in temporary bamboo pavilions, at which mediums channel nats into their bodies. Accompanied by the loud, clanging music of traditional percussion ensembles, the dances vary in form and intensity according to which nat is being channelled. Some spirits are relatively sedate while others, such as crowd favourite U Min Kyaw, the renegade patron of drunkards and gamblers, prompt the mediums to spin and sway spasmodically while swigging their way through entire bottles of rum or whiskey. In the midst of the performance, festival goers crowd in to have their fortunes told by spirits speaking through their human hosts.

The majority of nat mediums are homosexual men or transvestites dressed in traditional women’s clothing, a notable idiosyncrasy in a conservative culture in which the gay lifestyle is not openly accepted.

The nat medium role was not always dominated by gay males. In his 1967 book Burmese Supernaturalism, American cultural anthropologist Melford Spiro noted that most mediums at the time of his research were women, with only 3 to 4 percent being men. In a sign of things to come, however, he described all of the male mediums that he encountered as “highly effeminate”.

According to Ma Thanegi, it was in the mid-1970s that homosexual men took over the roles of spirit mediums in Myanmar. Although she would not hazard a guess as to why this transition occurred at this particular time, Spiro had earlier suggested that certain types of social behaviour enacted by marginalised sectors of society – including heavy drinking, rowdy dancing, and cross-dressing – could be “exhibited with impunity” if prescribed by nats as part of a ritual.

As Ma Theingi put it: “It seems to be a profession made for transvestites, for it gives them the chance while being ‘possessed’ by the nat to dress up in fine satin and silk, act out tragedies, dance, and sing.”

Nat 4

One gay medium based in Yangon, who wished to remain anonymous, provided a practical explanation for this demographic shift, based on the understanding that at different times, a given medium can be possessed by different spirits of either sex.

“In my opinion, gay nat mediums are more popular because they are better dancers than male or female mediums. We have many male and female nats, so male mediums are not skillful or good enough to dance for female nats, and likewise female mediums are not good at dancing for male nats. For us, we can perform both without trouble,” he said.

Regardless of their sexual orientation, mediums play a demonstrably important role in Myanmar culture, and aside from their popularity at festivals, they are also consulted throughout the year by people seeking help from the spirits.

Well-known medium U Win Hlaing enjoys a steady stream of clients at his home, located on a quiet street in eastern Yangon. On a recent Saturday morning he received three women in his spacious front room, which is nearly bare of furniture except for several elaborate altars decorated with images of dozens of nats.

U Win Hlaing performed a brief ritual to invoke the favour of the spirits, then sat on the floor with the women to consider their problems.

One, bearing a property deed, wanted advice on a real estate transaction. The second said she had been related to a nat in a previous life, and although the spirit now afforded her special protection, the supernatural entity often reminded her that he could “call her back” to the family at any moment. The woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, asked U Win Hlaing to petition the nat to allow her to enjoy her human life for awhile longer.

The third woman questioned why her son had fallen ill with typhus. Rattling a handful of cowry shells, U Win Hlaing determined that the illness was the result of a curse cast by a woman who loved the boy but whose feelings had not been reciprocated. The medium wrote a “magical” prescription to cure the problem, which the woman carefully tucked into her purse as she left the house.

During the interval before the next group of clients appeared, U Win Hlaing, 60, explained that he had become a medium at the age of eight while attending a spirit ceremony led by his uncle, who was also a medium.

“I was very close to nats in a past life, so I was possessed automatically when I first saw a nat ceremony,” he said, quickly adding that being possessed was not as rigorous as one might imagine.

“Some beginners and amateurs might pass out when they’re possessed, or they might become unconscious or uncontrollable. But when I was first possessed it only made me feel sleepy, and now I’m so used to it that I don’t have any big feelings about it anymore. I only get goose bumps now, but the nats possess my mouth and control what I say,” he said.

While U Win Hlaing refused to answer questions about the prominent role of homosexuals in the nat medium subculture, he was effusive about his satisfaction with the accompanying lifestyle.

“I’m contented with my life since I’m very interested in other people’s lives, helping them, guiding them. I also like putting on makeup, singing and dancing. Being a successful nat medium has been my lifelong ambition since I was very young,” he said.

As for the Taungbyone Festival U Win Hlaing said he would be there ready to perform along with his fellow mediums from around Myanmar.

“I enjoy all the nat festivals since they are celebrations of my spirit protectors, but the most popular is Taungbyone. I feel proud when I dance grandly at Taungbyone in front of my supporters and my protectors,” he said.

Nat 3

On the way to Taungbyone.

Written by latefornowhere

August 7, 2014 at 4:30 am