Spirit Houses are a common
sight in Thailand. They appear in front of factories, rice fields, houses,
condominiums, restaurants, bars, schools, government offices, high-rises—just
about anywhere you venture, the likelihood is you’ll find a spirit house. Like
the tuk-tuk and muay Thai, it is part of Thai identity to believe there
are spirits who reside on the land require appeasement with offerings and the
gesture of a wai.
A problem arises when a
spirit house is erected on land outside of Thailand.
In Burma, Violet Cho
authored a piece for The
Voice disclosing a
conflict between Italian-Thai Development Company, one of Thailand’s leaders in
the construction business, and local people in Burma.
The Burmese have their own
set of spirits that they pay homage to; they are called ‘Nats’ which have been described as
supernatural Burmese elves.
There are 37 Nats in the Burmese belief system. Among them are Thon
Ban Hla, The Lady of Three Times Beauty, Maung Po Tu, Shan Tea Merchant,
Mahagiri, Lord of the Great Mountain, and Yun Bayin, King of Chiengmai. It
appears some of the Nats have jobs. Others are royalty, and I am not certain if
the Thais are generally aware that one of the Burmese Nats is King of Chiang
In Missing in
Rangoon I explore the supernatural world. Each time I’ve been to
Burma, some new and different aspect of spirituality emerges for
examination. Indeed it would be difficult to write a novel about Burma
without touching upon this belief system as it is and remains central to the
identity of the Burmese.
The clash between the
Thais and Burmese over the Thai spirit house is a collision between different
supernatural belief systems that lie at the core of national identity. The world
news offers up a constant, daily stream of the aftermath of such conflicts.
Often it leads to violence, the full program—pogroms, burnings, looting, maiming
According to Violet Cho’s
account, the problem arose over villager in Nabule who claimed a holy Buddha
footprint had a sacred claim on the mountain, and that erecting a Thai spirit
house was an affront to this object as well as to various ancient pagodas on the
mountain named Mayingyi Paya.
The Nabule villagers
claimed the Thai company had not consulted them before installing more than one
spirit house on the mountain. There are spirit houses in front of the
company office, and other spirit houses at various project sites. The article
makes it sound a bit like a spirit house invasion and occupation. The locals
noticed the appearance of these structures to ‘foreign’ spirits. And foreigners,
in spiritual form or otherwise, aren’t always that welcome especially if it
looks like they have moved into the neighborhood, plan to stay, and drive out
the local Nats.
It is unclear whether the
local villagers mounted protest, demonstrations, letters sent or other
means—perhaps spiritual—of expressing discontent, before locals destroyed one of
the spirit houses.
As Nabule is scheduled for
development in a project involving the Thai and Myanmar governments, it is
difficult to know whether the motives might be more than bruised feelings over
the local spirits being occupied and displaced by Thai spirits. In this part of
the world, when something murky happens, the question usually asked is who might
be the ‘third hand’—who is really behind the incitement and what does that
person(s) want. And usually it is money, says that little cynic that perches on
the shoulder of people who’ve lived in Southeast for too long.
Violet Cho quotes a senior
leader at Ba Wah Village justifying the spirit house destruction by the locals.
“We can accept it if the project does not destroy our environment but if it is
threatening our people, culture and religion then we will surely have to be
against it,” said U Hla Shain.
This being Southeast Asia,
it is no surprise that U Hla Win, the vice chairperson of NLD for Dawei district
would call for negotiations. U Hla Win pointed out the conflict was spiritual.
What he didn’t point out is that the rest of the world since recorded history
has been trying to figure out how people with different supernatural beliefs can
live in peace and harmony in line of site of other believers who erect their own
shrines and perform their own set of rituals that pay respect to alien
On both sides of the
border, both the Burmese and Thais suffer their fair share of cognitive
dissonance between animist and Buddhist beliefs. The incongruity is never quite
resulted as both sides claim they are Buddhist and animist. The Burmese won’t
negotiate away their rituals involving the Nats anymore than the Thais will
cease to erect spirit houses containing a wide range of deities from various
spiritual and religious origins, from local and ancestral ghosts to assortments
of Hindu gods.
As an example of the
straddling of spiritual balance beam, this analysis pretty much sums up why
negotiations between locals who support their local team of Nats and the
visiting team with their imported team of spirits—or even more alarming, the
spirit house are awakening the local spirits who have been oppressed by the
“We do believe and worship the
village’s nat but now seeing Thai spirit houses in the area, it is like a guest
is taking forced residence in our house. We do not want spirit houses in a
religious Buddhist area like this. There is a possibility for cultural mixing
and I am concerned about our culture being threatened by another culture,” said
U Aung Ba, member of the Nabule Spiritual Group.
We will keep an eye on the
2,000 households and 10,000 Buddhists of Nabule as they learn that the opening
up of globalization has a cost. Consumers are given new choices. Foreign
businesses bring in their own culture and belief systems. What locals are never
told until it is too late is the idea of choice means locals are given an
expanded menu of spirits to worship, and the new businesses bringing in their
expertise, technology are not leaving their local gods at home.
Local gods need
accommodations. Spirit houses, like drones, are a metaphor for what it means to
have invisible forces watching you; the locals lose their historical isolation
and the remoteness of the mountain life vanishes. Village life begins to change
as new ways, ideas, and beliefs appear with people from neighboring
This is only the beginning
for the villagers of Nabule. Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-Eleven are not far
behind the spirit house invasion. The Nats will have new immigrants from the
spirit world as neighbors. The locals will resist these intruders. Yet
what can they do? Globalization, like the Borg, has one motto that fits all:
Resistance is futile. Development means the bargain you make is to yield up your
old belief system. The deal with the devil of development is the new spiritual
dimension brings prosperity and happiness. The true enemy of the local
supernatural belief in Nats isn’t the Thai spirit houses, it is shift to
reinvention of identity.
Nabule has had its welcome
to the big game played out in thousands of villages. The Thai company with the
installation of spirit house has merely softened them up for the final assault
on their mountain. It is only a matter of time before the big artillery open up,
blasting them into the modern, secular age, which has no place for local gods.
Only then will the villagers of Nabule feel nostalgic for the time when all they
had to worry about was the conflict over their belief in Nats against the Thai
spirit houses. The dignity of local deities is in for a rough ride.