Prophecies, Rituals, and Resistance in Myanmar

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Prophecies, Rituals, and Resistance in Myanmar

Soothsayers, astrologers, and monks marshal symbols and oracles to predict the anti-coup movement’s eventual success.

Prophecies, Rituals, and Resistance in Myanmar

A row of Buddhist monks walk to collect morning alms from devotees in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, March 14, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

March 31 marked the end of Tabaung, the last month in the Burmese calendar. Tabaung usually overlaps with March and isn’t the most festive or important of Burmese months. Yet this year, as in 2021, people held their collective breath throughout the month hoping a 30-year-old prophecy might come true.

In 1992, a famous Buddhist monk named the Shwe Paw Kyun Sayardaw composed a taboun or rhyming prophecy:

Out of arms and supplies,
The military will face mutinies.
There will be revolts,
And the heretic king will fall.
Led by the righteous,
The Dragon Troop will win.
If there is no unity (by the people),
There will be military offensives.
Peacock soldiers will march for war in Tabaung,
In their tens of thousands.
The Dragon King shall come down to earth,
And the heretic dynasty will fall.
From that day onwards,
Myanmar will be prosperous.
The heretics’ roads are wide,
But the next king is young.
No matter how good the Yedaya (rituals to alter fate),
The heretic king will not last beyond Tabaung.
Mandalay’s Taungtaman lake shall overflow twice,
And there will be peace when the repatriated girl reigns.

For most Burmese, it takes little imagination to interpret the symbols; it comes almost as naturally in 2022 as in 1992. The “heretical king” refers to the heads of the respective military juntas. In 1992, it was Senior General Than Shwe, chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). And in 2022, it is Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, head of the State Administration Council (SAC), as the latest junta styles itself. The “heretics” thus refer to the Tatmadaw or military, which has ruled Myanmar directly or indirectly for much of the past 60 years.

Activists interpret the “Dragon troop” to mean the Burmese public or Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters. As for the “peacock soldiers,” the fighting peacock has long represented resistance movements against oppressors. In their modern incarnation, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) alongside unions and protest groups have embraced the fighting peacock as mascots in defying successive dictatorships. And since last year’s coup, the fighting peacock has once again come to the forefront of resistance with protest groups and People’s Defense Forces (PDF) militias adopting the symbol.

Lastly, anybody familiar with Burmese politics will immediately know the “repatriate girl” refers to Aung San Suu Kyi, who returned to Myanmar in 1988 and quickly dominated the political stage through the NLD. This feeds in well into the popular Burmese expectation of a “min laung” or messiah king who will right all wrongs, vanquish evil, and rule justly. The Shwe Paw Kyun Sayardaw’s prophecy thus predicts in no uncertain terms the Tatmadaw’s downfall and Aung San Suu Kyi’s triumph.

Prophecy Redux

After lying dormant for decades, the 2021 coup’s timing and subsequent protests reignited interest in the prophecy. Peaceful protests had built up momentum throughout February 2021, just as the month of Tabaung was approaching. In particular, the stanza about tens of thousands of peacock soldiers marching for war became a potent slogan inspiring protest artwork.

Predictions made just after the coup also built upon the prophecy. Popular astrologer San Zarni Bo  claimed in early February 2021 that Aung San Suu Kyi would very soon emerge victorious. Others made similar divinations, adding their own flourishes to how the coup would unravel. The junta lent credence by arresting an astrologer after a video of him organizing a ritual against the coup went viral.

Combined with the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)’s early success as well as rumors like the SAC running out of fuel, Western powers mobilizing to intervene militarily and Tatmadaw divisions mutinying, the prophecy and other predictions galvanized protesters further. The prophecy also fit well with the overall anti-coup effort repurposing traditional beliefs, such as banging pots to expel evil spirits, hanging women’s sarongs across streets, pasting Min Aung Hlaing’s photos onto roads, and conducting occult rituals against the junta.

But Tabaung 2021 came and went, the junta clung onto power with increasing brutality, and the predictions and rituals failed to deliver for the year. Regardless, anti-junta platforms continued with a steady stream of predictions, symbolism, and rituals in combination with real world activities to mobilize popular support in delegitimizing the junta.

The parallel National Unity Government (NUG) announced its formation in mid-April 2021 on the day of Thingyan, the Burmese new year symbolizing ascendency. Netizens adapted a Buddhist deity believed to visit Earth during Thingyan by portraying him with a Molotov cocktail in hand and heralding revolution. And a few weeks after the NUG announced its “D-Day” military campaign in September 2021, a popular NLD-affiliated astrologer organized rituals to aid the PDFs and proclaimed that victory was “only five days away.”

In January 2022, a New Year’s prediction saying Min Aung Hlaing will not last the year and the junta will crumble after April went viral. Later, when a solitary hornbill was sighted in Yangon far from its natural habitat in Chin State, netizens claimed the bird portended the flames of war spreading to the country’s main cities. The sighting came as another round of rumors spread claiming the PDFs were about to launch their much promised “city conquests.”

As Tabaung 2022 rolled in, there was once again renewed interest in the Shwe Paw Kyun Sayardaw’s prophecy. This time, its “tens of thousands of peacock soldiers” have manifested themselves as the many PDF outfits waging an evolving conflict against the SAC. Possibly inspired by the prophecy, one of the most active PDF groups in Sagaing region’s Pale township rebranded themselves the “Myanmar Royal Dragon Army” led by Bo Nagar, meaning “Dragon Officer.” Bo Nagar has become a household name with anti-junta platforms quickly capitalizing on the symbolism.

And as the Burmese new year rolled in, the NUG and their supporters urged people to not celebrate for the second year in a row, backed up by threats from PDFs to attack festivities and warnings against holidaymakers. Thingyan symbolizes a clean break by throwing water meant to wash away the previous year’s sins and miseries. By denying Thingyan, anti-coup groups aim to signify the junta being unable to either mark a symbolic break from the overthrown NLD government or to wash away its sins – namely civilian deaths.

Soldiers and Soothsayers

The SAC’s own actions as well as successive Tatmadaw leaderships’ dabbling in occult activities, widespread practice of yedaya rituals believed to alter fate, and consulting astrologers have attracted ridicule while simultaneously fueling belief in tabouns and predictions. Divinations and yedaya have always been mainstays for those involved in politics, business, and the military, and are key aspects of popular religion not limited to the Buddhist majority.

Just like their opponents, junta supporters have shared their own oracle readings and divinations, which predictably say the junta will ultimately triumph. They have also allegedly embraced the sunflower as a yedaya talisman, supposedly wearing, growing, or portraying it wherever they can. With its Burmese name translating as “to stay long,” the sunflower purportedly signifies a lengthy rule for the junta. Furthermore, anti-junta netizens have accused a number of prominent Buddhist monks patronized by Min Aung Hlaing of performing yedayas or giving maleficent advice to safeguard the junta.

After the coup, pro-military social media accounts spread claims alleging President Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi had performed yedaya during their tenure to cement NLD rule. One claim was that the NLD leaders had placed golden daggers and spears on the top of Yangon’s famed Shwedagon pagoda to such end. These talismans were supposedly discovered when the pagoda was re-gilded after the coup, while detractors claimed the SAC was peeling off gold to pay soldiers.

And as widespread resistance took root in once peaceful Sagaing region, pro-military platforms claimed the NLD had installed a drum imbued with black magic in one of the region’s most revered pagodas. The drum actually had Buddhist symbols but was nonetheless removed by the junta in March 2022. The situation in Sagaing has failed to improve for the SAC, and the removal was seen as a sign of deluded desperation in the face of stiffening resistance.

What’s Next?

To be fair, the Burmese people do not blindly entrust their future onto prophecies or rituals. Soothsayers, astrologers, and clairvoyants are a dime a dozen in Myanmar, and all seem to have been blindsided by the coup. That said, the symbolisms and predictions boost real-world actions and help assure anti-junta protesters and netizens that victory is both inevitable and imminent, and that Providence will set things straight. They are also intended to demoralize the Tatmadaw using its own cultural language and hamper it from claiming traditional legitimacy.

Supportive prophecies and predictions also serve as a coping mechanism for a populace increasingly squeezed by economic despair and spiraling insecurity. Divinations have long provided a mental safety net for people going through tumultuous times and now offer solace amid the chaos no matter how outlandish or improbable they may sound.

Crucially, favorable prophecies and predictions help sugarcoat the NUG and their supporters’ appeals to the public to risk everything in the name of total revolution. Such materials also help channel resentment against the junta to raise hope and rally around the NUG. Moreover, a mixture of belief in imminent, divinely-ordained, total victory and romanticized portrayals of conflict, as well as the junta’s atrocities, have hardened attitudes within anti-junta groups to call for armed struggle to the bitter end.

Nobody really knows how things will unfold as Myanmar’s manmade catastrophe drags on with no clear outcome in sight. Even as appetite for all-out conflict wanes among the general public, and the disconnect widens between fiery online discourse and unpalatable realities on the ground, there will still be plenty of new predictions and precognitions raising hope. And the hope of the afflicted will never perish.