YANGON, Myanmar – Victims of land grabs in Myanmar have eagerly tested newfound freedoms by protesting and sending petitions to the president and parliament, to no avail. Now some are turning to old ways: Curses and black magic.
Coffins marked with the names of those who seized property have been set ablaze. In rugged central regions of the country, aggrieved villagers have prayed for mountain gods to unleash their wrath.
"This is our last weapon," said Sein Than, who was among 200 families evicted from homes at Michaung Kan in eastern Yangon, where they had lived for generations. He and dozens of others presented offerings — and pleas — to "demons of the Earth."
"Punish those who grab our land and desecrate the pagoda," they chanted this month in front of a Buddhist temple. "Drag them to the lowest level of being and keep them there forever."
Land seizures by the military, the government and private companies linked to junta cronies have long been commonplace in this Southeast Asian country, whether for development or the extraction of natural resources.
Many of those who lost their land in the biggest land grabs in the 1990s were relocated to remote areas. Some became squatters on their own land, or were allowed to continue farming if they paid rent. Some houses of farmers who did not give up their land have been bulldozed.
The elected government that ended a half-century of dictatorship in 2011 has restored speech freedoms, released political prisoners and implemented other changes that have prompted the international community to ease sanctions. Many victims of land grabs had hoped new government would help them, but evictions have continued.
Some who have challenged the system have been charged with disrupting public tranquility or violating a new law on peaceful assemblies, offenses punishable by up to two years in prison.
Sein Thein and other families from Michaung Kan were among those staging frequent protests in front of Yangon's city hall. Their sit-in protest is in its second month, but with few options available to them, some now see appealing to mystical forces as a last resort.
"We sought the powers of the demon to put an evil spell on those people who grabbed our land," said Sein Than.
Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, but spirit worship and animists are tolerated and deeply embedded in the society. People worship spirits either to ward off evil befalling them or to bring good fortune. Belief in black magic and supernatural powers are more common in rural and ethnic areas.
It was uncommon, if not unheard of, to see people attempt to use black magic against Myanmar's former military rulers. Though successive Myanmar leaders have consulted astrologers for advice and guidance, there has been little to suggest that the tactics have upset officials.
About 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, farmers in Thegone township in Bago region went to a cemetery in mid-April and burned three mock coffins, wishing for the deaths for those who confiscated more than 1,000 acres of farmland. They prayed that their tormentors would go through the same pain and distress the farmers have felt.
In central Myanmar's Magwe region, where hundreds have been displaced by a copper mine project, people have held ceremonies calling on the guardian spirits of the mountains to punish those responsible for their suffering.
Women went to a spirit house at the edge of Wet Hmay village to ask the guardians of the region's 33 mountains to turn the people who stole their land into stone statues. They carried bamboo baskets filled with offerings such as coconuts, bananas, pickled tea leaves and cheroots, a sort of cigar made with ingredients such as tamarind, charcoal and the stem of an indigenous plant.
"We have appealed to various levels of government, we have appealed to the company, but our demands remain unanswered so far," said Than Than Htwe, a villager from Tone village whose 4 acres of farmland was taken by the mine company, a joint venture between a military-controlled holding company and China's Wanbao Mining Ltd.
"We now turn desperately to the spirits to help us and we believe those evil people will be punished," he said.
That was one case in which officials did react. Five organizers of the coffin burning have been charged with disrupting tranquility.