A decade of living and reporting in Myanmar has brought many memorable moments, but one night was especially unforgettable.
I was working on a story about weizza; people believed to have gained magical powers through years of disciplined meditation and Buddhist practice.
The concept of these supernatural beings had long fascinated me. It is a belief associated with Buddhism, the main religion in Myanmar, but in contrast to the strict form of Theravada Buddhism dominant in the country, weizza practices have a spiritual flamboyance and eccentricity.
The most powerful weizza are believed to be able to fly, teleport, read minds and walk on water. The practice is tied in with the worship of spirits and other animist traditions, but it is widely accepted.
I’d met a young weizza apprentice, 25-year-old Lin Nyo Tar Yar. Lin’s slim build, floppy hair and round glasses give him exactly the look I had imagined from a young wizard in training. I’d seen him perform rituals on social media, chanting before a candlelit shrine in a long, hooded cape and was excited when he invited me to attend a full-moon celebration.
In Myanmar, the full moon is believed to bring luck and power, and Lin was hoping to use this influence to upgrade to a higher level of sorcerer. Lin believes he is on the path to becoming a weizza, but this can take years, sometimes a lifetime, of practice; tonight is just one small step of many he will have to take.
I arrived at a small house on the outskirts of Yangon, the home of Lin’s spiritual master. The basic concrete structure was entirely open at the front, giving a glimpse of the preparations inside.
Soon Lin appeared wearing a pink teddy bear pyjama top and a longyi tied around his waist. Not quite the ceremonial robes and soporific chanting I’d been imagining.
The house was elaborately decorated. The centrepiece was a structure adorned with bunches of bananas, candles, incense and tinsel and surrounded by gold umbrellas with bank notes hanging from their edges. The place was brimming with artificial flowers, statues of weizza and spirits, magical charms in silver alms bowls, masks and costumes for the ceremony.
It was hot inside and the smell of incense and cheroots – filterless cigars – hung in the air. Dozens of people started pouring in for the ceremony.
This was the end of November 2020. Myanmar was in the midst of its second wave of COVID-19 and three months into a lockdown.
Reporting in Myanmar during the pandemic was unnerving. Myanmar’s health system is one of the worst in the world, and testing for COVID was almost non-existent at that time. Being surrounded by people who believe in magic wasn’t helping my anxiety, as the weizza followers seemed to believe they were protected from COVID through faith and practice. No one apart from our team was wearing a mask.
Lin introduced me to the master, Tin Tun; a short, overweight man in his forties in a brown shirt. He was chewing betel nut, a popular stimulant that turns your mouth red; flecks of red spittle flew out as he barked orders at the apprentices.
As the full-moon ceremony was about to begin, Tin Tun donned a jewel-encrusted crown and started calling to the heavens.
That year, Lin told me, all the zodiac signs were going to be visible in the sky at one time, so the night was especially powerful.
I had been told by several people that weizza are inherently good, so their followers must refrain from alcohol and other vices and remain pure in order to harness their power. But at one point Tin Tun replaced his crown with a headdress, put on a bejewelled sash and began swigging from a bottle of whisky.
He explained that naughty spirits enjoy alcohol, and in order to communicate with them he had to satisfy their desire. “It doesn’t affect me, it goes to them,” he said.
Earlier in the evening, Tin Tun and Lin had meticulously mapped out the most auspicious timings for each part of the ceremony; offerings, incantations and communication with spirits. I had been promised that I could witness the administering of a protection tattoo on Lin, a tattoo made of dots said to safeguard against injury from knives and bullets.
The tattoo had been scheduled for 3:20am but as the hours ticked by, it seemed that it had been forgotten. I decided to pull the plug, announcing it was time to go. We had been there more than 17 hours and the morning light was beginning to show above the horizon.
“No, no, we will do the ritual now,” Tin Tun insisted. He retrieved his kit and began attempting to tap orange paint into Lin’s skin with an overused, blunt bamboo needle. We watched obligingly.
“We’re going to test it,” Tin Tun slurred through a mouthful of betel nut, grasping for a machete. I looked on with horror as he tested the knife on the stump of a banana tree, clumsily swinging it through the air. There was a sickening crunch as it sliced through with ease. Should I intervene? Tin Tun was clearly drunk. If this was a trick, surely the sleight of hand involved needed some element of coordination? Lin, visibly nervous, apprehensively raised his chin to expose his chest. There was a hollow, thudding sound as the machete bounced off his breastbone without leaving a mark and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Just two months after that night, Myanmar underwent a military coup. Thousands poured onto the streets in protest and the military responded with a brutal crackdown, shooting protesters and arresting anyone they saw as a threat.
In response, Lin posted photos of himself performing a ritual that could, he said, “destroy the dictators”. He was promptly arrested for incitement. The military leadership are notoriously superstitious and frightened that magic might be used against them.
Since the coup, full moon festivals have come and gone with muted celebrations, and Myanmar’s colour and energy have been dimmed.
Meanwhile, it seems that supernatural abilities were not enough to save Lin. A year and a half later, he remains in prison. I may not have been convinced by the powers of the weizza, but the generals certainly were.