First News
Volume:7, Number:36
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Around The World 1
THIS WEEK

The Rise of the Occult

| Jobaid Alam |

Wizardry is making a comeback since 2011 after it was pushed underground in 1962 by the generals, who, deeply superstitious themselves, lived in fear of a supernatural strike back

The advent of democratic rule may have liberated the people of Myanmar from military rule, but they seem increasingly obsessed with the occult. From spells to win back an errant lover to help communing with the spirits, Myanmar's mediums, soothsayers and wizards are in high demand. Most people here believe in a brand of Buddhism laced with animism and magic, but since the end of military rule such practices have burst into the open. Win Win Aye is a part-time medium, who claims she has cured dozens of people of illnesses and curses - with the assistance of benevolent Buddhist spirits.

During the British colonial era and the half-century of military rule that followed many people used 'weikza' - semi-divine Buddhist wizard-saints - to fight their oppressors. Most of these sects were disbanded or pushed underground by the generals who seized power in 1962, deeply superstitious themselves they lived in fear of a supernatural strike back. General Ne Win, who was prime minister in the 1950s and 1960s, was said to be particularly obsessed with the occult: he reportedly bathed in dolphins' blood believing it would help him regain his youth. In the 1980s, he almost ruined Myanmar's economy by changing bank notes to denominations of his lucky number - nine. But since the 2011 handover of power by the junta, magic is back in the open for ordinary people. Sorcery courses are popping up across the country, and many so-called experts are sharing their knowledge of witchcraft in journals and online. In an unassuming apartment in northwest Yangon, Linn NhyoTaryar wraps a straw figurine with black tape and places it in the center of a circle adorned with magical symbols. The skinny 21-year-old closes his eyes and mutters incantations to 'activate' the doll in readiness for his first class as a magic teacher.

The soft-spoken sorcerer started studying magic aged five, beginning by reading tarot cards then gradually building up an online following on Facebook. Minutes later more than a dozen students start crowding into the room, eager to learn arts they hope will safeguard their loved ones - and their wallets. Taryar shows them how to create voodoo dolls, draw magical charts and cast spells using rituals involving bananas and incense. But while magical practices are increasingly tolerated in Myanmar, some still fear the power of the supernatural. Taryar was subsequently arrested after scared social media users told police he was teaching people how to use black magic.

Belief in sorcery can also have tragic consequences. In October, a self-proclaimed exorcist beat two toddlers and an eight-month-old baby to death in a village outside Yangon after telling their families they were possessed. Appearing at court the following month the alleged killer, TunNaing, told reporters he had been taken over by a "dark spirit" at the time. Zaw Min, a master from the popular sect of Shwe Yin Kyaw, says only people of "good virtue" should carry out exorcisms. Still, many people believe magic was behind the biggest change in Myanmar for a generation: the end of military rule and the election of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party in 2015.

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