KYETHI TOWNSHIP, Shan State — Hidden away in almost every village in Shan State is a shrine to a nat, the spirits commonly worshipped in remote areas of the country alongside Burma’s dominant Theravada Buddhist tradition. In the villages Kyethi Township, most shrines can be found tucked away under the foliage of large banyan trees or behind rocky outcrops, in areas serene and otherwise unassuming.
Each nat acts as a spirit guardian, protecting nearby residents in exchange for a symbolic offering. In the villages of Kyethi Township—many now hosting a fraction of their usual population after recent assaults and aerial bombardments—locals pray to the shrines for victory over the Burma Army.
“By praying to them, they believe the nats can help them to solve their problems and deliver peace. This is our custom,” said Sai Thiha Kyaw, who was recently re-elected as a Lower House lawmaker for the nearby township of Mongyai.
The Irrawaddy visited Wan Hai village last month to report on renewed conflict between the military and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), the political wing of the Shan State Army-North. The Burma Army attacked SSPP troops on Oct. 6, after the ethnic armed group refused to withdraw from its long-established port base at Tar San Pu village. In the intervening weeks, the government attacked SSPP positions around Mong Hsu and Kyethi townships, including the armed group’s Wan Hai headquarters.
After six weeks of skirmishes, we traveled to visit various SSPP encampments around Kyethi. Along the way we passed nat shrines where the Shan rebels had donated guns and artillery replicas carved from bamboo and wood, asking the spirits for protection during their time at the frontline.
“Every solider goes to a nat shrine before they go to the front line,” said Sai Mon, a sergeant in the SSA-N and our chaperone from Wan Hai. “We even came to pray at nat shrines when we bought new guns. We believe that they can give us victory when fighting our enemy.”
The soldiers of the SSA-N have also constructed rudimentary nat shrines within the confines of their forward bases, donating fruit and model guns. High ranking officers will typically stay near village shrines when on the move to pay their respects.
In ordinary times, the people of rural Shan State will pray at the shrines to ask for health or prosperity. The Shan have an annual ceremony to pray to the nats on Oct. 10 where people donate food and fruit while drinking liquor—though the event does not approach the bacchanalian revelry of the Taungbyone nat festival in Mandalay.
Sai Thiha Kyaw told The Irrawaddy that most villagers in Shan State worshipped nats alongside their observance of Buddhist ritual without seeing a contradiction between the two practices.
“They pay respect to nats in order to have success for their businesses, and success for our Shan army—they pay respect in order to win the victory at the frontline and to protect them from harm,” he said.