Rituals and Yadaya: Myanmar Junta Leader’s Superstition Knows No Bounds

By The Irrawaddy 15 May 2023

As Cyclone Mocha was about to hit land in coastal areas of Rakhine State in western Myanmar on Saturday, junta boss Min Aung Hlaing was performing magic rituals, known as yadaya in Burmese.

The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System had predicted that the maximum sustained winds could reach 257 km per hour when the cyclone made landfall near Rakhine State’s capital.

Min Aung Hlaing however showed no signs of concern over the disaster, which affected millions of people. He was busy performing yadaya in the hope of enjoying long rule.

Accompanied by two infamous monks, Min Aung Hlaing consecrated a replica of India’s Bodha Gaya on Saturday in Kengtung.

The two monks in question were Sitagu Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara and Vasipake Sayadaw. Sitagu Sayadaw, arguably the most influential monk in Myanmar before the 2021 coup, has hailed Min Aung Hlaing as a “king” of great generosity and wisdom. The monk reportedly called ahead of the general election of November 2020 for the military to seize power from the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Min Aung Hlaing and his wife Kyu Kyu Hlaw with the Hti at the pagoda consecration ceremony in Kengtung on Saturday.

Vasipake Sayadaw hails from Kengtung and is famous for his vows of silence. He is widely believed to be the coup leader’s astrological adviser, and has been accused of advising his follower Min Aung Hlaing to order security forces to shoot anti-coup protesters in the head as a form of yadaya. Most of the anti-regime protesters killed in the early days of the junta crackdown had bullet wounds to the head.

The two monks presided over the consecration as the junta boss put “Hti” atop the pagodas on Saturday. A Hti umbrella is considered the most important part of the pagoda, and is placed atop the highest part of the religious structure. It is also one of five items of Myanmar royal regalia, and represents sovereignty.

As Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country, it is typical of monarchs to build pagodas in the traditional belief that doing so will help them gain divine blessings. Generals who view themselves as kings are also obsessed with building and consecrating pagodas.

After putting the Hti atop the newly built pagoda in Kengtung, Min Aung Hlaing together with the two monks shouted three times in Burmese “Aung Pi!”—a common phrase meaning something like “We did it!”, used to mark the successful conclusion of a religious ceremony. But in the mouth of Min Aung Hlaing, the exclamation is believed to be intended as a yadaya, shouted in the hope of conquering his enemies.

All of this was happening on Saturday, when Myanmar people across the country and international humanitarian agencies feared the cyclone would inflict serious destruction on Myanmar.

But almost all of the cabinet members of the regime, which calls itself a government, were in Kengtung, attending the consecration. Myanmar military leaders and their followers apparently believe the merit that they expect to gain from building and making donations to pagodas will offset their bad deeds. But they will never be able to wash the blood off their hands.

Generals’ pagodas

In 1980, former dictator Ne Win had the Maha Wizaya Pagoda built near the southern gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Commonly referred to as Ne Win’s pagoda, Maha Wizaya sees few worshippers despite its proximity to Shwedagon.

Ex-military dictator Than Shwe also had the Uppatasanti Pagoda, a replica of Shwedagon Pagoda, built in Naypyitaw.

U Thein Sein, the general-turned-president of the quasi-civilian government that succeeded Than Shwe’s regime, also had a replica of Bodha Gaya built in Naypyitaw.

Min Aung Hlaing’s favorite monks—Sitagu Sayadaw (left) and Vasipake Sayadaw (right) at the pagoda consecration ceremony in Kengtung on Saturday.

Min Aung Hlaing has consecrated several pagodas since his putsch, and has also had a giant Buddha statue, touted as the world’s tallest sitting Buddha statue, built in Naypyitaw.

One year before his coup, the military chief placed the “Hti” umbrella atop Bagan’s 12th-century Htilominlo Temple—a move driven by his desire to win the country’s presidency in 2021. Traditionally, it is believed that rulers who make offerings to the pagoda will receive divine blessings and enjoy long reigns. Vasipake Sayadaw was also at the ceremony, supervising Min Aung Hlaing as he placed the Hti atop the pagoda.

Everyone who knows well the generals’ megalomania and their superstition are well aware that those consecration ceremonies are full of yadaya, and aim for nothing more than to seek divine blessings and avert misfortune.

Following the consecration in Kengtung on Saturday, Min Aung Hlaing struck a pagoda bell, which was painted in an unusual gold color, nine times. Myanmar generals have a traditional obsession with the number 9, which is the regime’s talisman.

Saturday’s consecration was the fourth by Min Aung Hlaing over the past four months. He was busy flying in a helicopter between Rakhine’s Sittwe in western Myanmar and Lashio, Pa-O and Kengtung in eastern Myanmar to consecrate pagodas there.

Why did he do it?

Min Aung Hlaing was not seen in public during Myanmar’s New Year Thingyan Water Festival despite his attempts to make it festive. He didn’t even join the festival’s opening ceremony in Naypyitaw.

Instead, he observed a religious vow during the entire Thingyan period in Pyin Oo Lwin, which he believes is a land of victory for him. He refused to receive generals and cronies during that period because his astrological advisers told him that he and Myanmar would experience bad luck in April and May.

Min Aung Hlaing splashes a sign composed of magic figures with incense water at a pagoda consecration ceremony in Magwe Region in February 2022. / Cincds

“He might be in fear because astrologers have said some prominent [military] leaders might be assassinated [in April and May],” said a source from Naypyitaw who is close to generals and astrologers.

As the military chief has multiple astrologers, it is not clear which one said so. Min Aung Hlaing has since busied himself with performing rites to avert misfortune, setting aside the country’s affairs. He has not convened a meeting of his regime’s governing body, the State Administration Council, since Feb. 23, after he extended emergency rule for another six months.

Min Aung Hlaing apparently believes yadaya is the only thing that can help him solve the crisis now as he is under increasing pressure from the international community, and the resistance movement is growing day by day.

“Min Aung Hlaing has greater faith in the astrologers after the storm hit Myanmar this month. It is obvious he has been performing yadaya continuously,” said the source from Naypyitaw.

Keeping Eleven Dangers away?

Min Aung Hlaing usually chooses the 11th day of the month to perform yadaya. It is not a coincidence, but carefully chosen to avert “Set Ta Mee”, or Eleven Dangers, according to a traditional Myanmar belief.

On Feb. 11, he had the Maravijaya Buddha image that he is building in Naypyitaw put on a plinth, which the regime calls a “palin” or throne.

Under the guidance of his astrological advisors, he had Hseinwi Haw (Haw is the palace of the Shan feudal lords) repaired on April 11, and checked Kengtung Haw on May 11 for possible repairs.

He has also performed another yadaya, which is dredging lakes. Military leaders believe it will drive off danger and bring good luck.

He had Kandawgyi Lake in Sittwe dredged on March 30, and did the same at Kandawgyi Lake in Pyin Oo Lwin on April 17—which is Myanmar’s New Year’s Day—Shan Lake in Naypyitaw on May 8 and Naung Tung Lake in Kengtung on May 11.

On May 1, he put a sorcerer’s stone in the Maravijaya Buddha.

The pagoda was temporarily closed after stripes appeared below its eye, as if the Buddha image was crying. After a series of yadaya, the Buddha image was opened to the public again.

Min Aung Hlaing’s mentor, former military dictator Than Shwe, also built a jade Buddha image whose face was sculpted to resemble him. The image is kept at Shwedagon Pagoda.

The military chief has been traveling far and wide from coastal areas to plains and hilly regions across Myanmar to perform yadaya. He has even performed yadaya in the sea.

Buddhist monks visit Min Aung Hlaing’s giant Buddha statue in Naypyitaw in May 2023. / Cincds

In April, Min Aung Hlaing traveled to the Coco Islands to unveil a monument marking the meeting point of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This was also yadaya, done at the instruction of his soothsayers.

In another yadaya, Min Aung Hlaing ordered his regime to grow 1 million acres of sunflowers, claiming that he wanted to produce more sunflower oil and curb expensive imports of palm oil. But it raises the question: Why not promote other already-popular edible-oil crops like sesame or peanuts?

Soothsayers believe it would prolong his rule (“sunflower” in Burmese is a homophone for a word that means “long-lasting”).

Agriculturalists dare not complain though they are aware that the project is bound to fail, said an official of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.

“He reproached [participants in] the meeting on May 10, as the sunflower cultivation project failed,” he said.

The sunflower project reminds Myanmar people of former military dictator Than Shwe’s state project of growing castor oil, which also ended in failure. It was also yadaya, done in the name of producing biofuel.

In one yadaya, generals made themselves a laughing stock when they were told to wear htamein, or women’s sarong, to a state-level dinner.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which killed over 100,000 people and caused massive destruction, former military dictator Than Shwe held a national referendum to ratify the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which was designed to ensure the military’s grip on power for a long time, while turning a blind eye to the sheer misery of the Myanmar people.

Exactly 15 years later, Than Shwe’s successor Min Aung Hlaing is doing the same. He was busy trying to protect his interests, and did not bother to take care of Myanmar people while a cyclone as powerful as Nargis was heading to Myanmar.

The tyrant, who has killed thousands of his opponents, wrote on the plaque of the newly built pagoda in Kengtung: “May Myanmar Be Peaceful.”