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 Mai.
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 and murdering.
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 supernatural beings.
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 Nats.
“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 lands.
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.