I came across this fascinating article in the August 12, 1962 edition of The Nation from Burma. It is the text of a lecture given by Dr. Khin Maunt Latt on psychiatry in Burma. It is filled with interesting details about the history and practice of psychiatry in modern Burma.
The author’s perspectives are also fascinating, and it is also interesting to see read this article in the context of the times, as it was written shortly after Ne Win had taken control of the country and had attacked the worship of nats, a topic which the author concludes this lecture with.
I am quoting here some of the points that are made about indigenous beliefs. For the full text of the article, click on the icons below.
The majority of Burmese believe in nats, guardian spirits, astrology, witchcraft and evil spirits. Even the more educated from the higher socio-economic class are not free from these superstitions because of their upbringing. While their education and scientific knowledge make them less inclined to believe in these deities and practices, their cultural heritage working in another direction makes them susceptible at times. As a result, there is often a conflict between the habit of believing and the desire not to believe. While in health, it is relatively easy for these people to be determined but at times of sickness, they often relapse.
Burmese parents have a habit of frightening their children with horror tales of witches, ghosts and spirits whenever the children misbehave. This sort of upbringing fosters anxiety in the child’s mind while the child’s personality is still in the process of shaping itself and when it is still soft and pliable.
The cultural background also colors the symptoms. In the West, patient’s suffering from delusions believe that they are watched by an electronic eye or that their minds and bodies are controlled by radioactive rays. In our country, patients believe that they are bewitched or possessed by an evil spirit.
One businessman, who is a university graduate, came to us in a state of acute anxiety, after he had ordered his workmen to cut an ancient tree near his factory. At night he had nightmares in which the spirit living in the ancient tree showed his anger to him for having removed his dwelling. From these nightmares, he often woke perspiring profusely with a pounding heart and choky feeling. He believed that he was possessed by the spirit.
I would like to discuss both the Western and the Burmese way of treatment.
In the Western way, we use both physical and psychological methods. In the former method, ECT, tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sedatives are most commonly used. In the psychological method, because of the shortage of specialists and the time-consuming nature of the method, psycho-analysis and psycho-therapy are seldom practiced, but superficial psycho-therapy of a supportive nature are widely used.
The Burmese method, I must admit I have very little knowledge of. As far as I can see, there are three kinds of therapists: (1) Spiritual healers (2) Witch doctor and (3) The indigenous medicine man.
The spiritual healer is usually a monk, but sometimes a layman, with a religious reputation. He operates by decorating the household shrine with flowers and lit-candles, and the reciting of loud prayers, with repeated reference to the patient’s name. Then he sprinkles blessed water over the patient as well as all over the house. After the saying of prayers and the counting of beads, he hangs the rosary over the patient’s neck with the loudly spoken prayer that the sick man will get well soon.
The witch doctor, unlike his counterpart from Africa, does not wear any fancy ceremonial dress. He goes about by preparing a sacrificial offering of a coconut, two or three bunches of bananas and other things to his patron spirit. He then commands the evil spirit to leave the supposedly possessed body of the victim. He sometimes uses his magic cane or he may slap his patient with water that has been chanted over with mantras. He then makes his patient drink the water. He may light scores of oil lamps round the patient with the suggestion that the evil spirit has been driven away and that the patient will get well soon.
Although the steps of the above two methods differ greatly, I see a common psychological rationale in them. Both of them try to establish a strong patient-therapist relationship by the instillation of confidence in the patient for the therapist through the observation of various impressive religious and other rituals, with the repeated suggestion that the patient will become more pliable. This is something like supportive psycho-therapy in crude form. I have no doubt that these methods have some value in some of the acute neurotic illnesses, even dramatic recovery is possible.
But I am quite certain that they cannot and will not make any impression on the psychotic cases.
The third kind of therapists uses herbs, shrubs, and other indigenous medicines. He may supplement the medicines with diet, such as plum jam, to restore the mental equilibrium. Some medicine men combine their method with spiritual healing or witchcraft, but a spiritual healer cannot practice witchcraft and vise versa.
Sometimes, the medicine man uses a strong purgative to drive away the illness. We have quite a few cases admitted to the hospital quite weak, exhausted and dehydrated from diarrhea because of the purging treatment.
The author then concludes the article by stating the following:
Now that the Revolutionary Government has banned films on nats and other supernatural beings, and has done everything to discourage belief in these beings, I believe that these superstitions will gradually fade away.
With increasing effort to re-educate and re-orientate the masses, the increased psychiatric facilities, continuous improvement of new drugs and better social security, I foresee that the Burmese mentally ill will soon be able to benefit from early, prompt, scientific and energetic psychiatric treatment, thus increasing their chance of recovery to a normal mental life and happiness.