RANGOON — For many Burmese, it is beyond question that spirits haunt the country’s most infamous highway. Rumor has it that ghostly figures walking the Rangoon-Mandalay road at night—spirits of previous car crash victims, or even the fallen from long-ago wars—cause cars and buses to swerve and crash.
In 2005, Burma’s military junta ordered a new road rapidly built to connect Rangoon with the new capital, Naypyidaw, and Mandalay. The northern stretch of the 366-mile road was only completed in 2011, but already the highway has been the site of at least 432 crashes, resulting in 216 deaths. It has been nicknamed: the “death highway.”
The latest records from the highway’s police station show that from January to April this year, 66 people died and 320 were injured on the road.
Facing a lack of government action to repair the poorly constructed road, and as a seemingly endless death toll piles up, some Burmese are organizing a spiritual intervention.
Volunteer Mandalay residents and Buddhist monks will this weekend hold a so-called merit-sharing ceremony on the road, in an attempt to prevent more crashes.
Organizer Nay Lin Aung told The Irrawaddy that on Saturday night and Sunday morning, about 200 people would attend a ceremony at the highway’s Milestone 116, between Rangoon and Naypyidaw.
Performing a ceremony known as Akyoot Aloot, the supernatural road safety activists will give offerings of food and bestow merit on the spirits.
“On the first day, May 10, we are going to feed them [the spirits] at Milestone 116. We chose this place because last month many people died when a Taungpyar Tan passenger bus and a private car crashed,” Nay Lin Aung said, referring to an accident April 12 that left a dozen people dead.
In line with traditional Burmese beliefs, which involve elements of ancient Brahmanism infused with Theravada Buddhism, it is hoped the sated spirits will cease meddling on the road, and may even be allowed to reincarnate to a better life.
“We will feed them at midnight. Some people know how to feed them without doing them any harm at night, and monks will also be included,” he said, adding that a recitation of the Mitta Sutta, a message of love and protection, would follow on Sunday morning.
“As Buddhists, we believe in new life, and spirits.”
The highway runs through the Pegu Yoma mountain range, which was the site of intense fighting between Allied Forces and Japanese troops during World War II and later became a stronghold for Burma’s communist insurgency.
Construction involved felling swaths of forests and cutting through hills. Mountains and trees are thought to be inhabited by the spirits of those who die suddenly.
“Long before this highway was constructed, there were many Japanese and also communists who died in these areas, so we need to share merit for them too,” Nay Lin Aung said.
Preparations are being made to do just that, with the local police station at Phyu informed of the planned ceremony. The offerings will include non-meat dishes, in case any of the spirits are vegetarians.
“We will prepare for them banana and rice, as well as mutton for the rest,” Nay Lin Aung said, adding that he hoped the ceremony would become an annual event on the highway.
Ko Ko Zaw, a Rangoon resident who regularly drives his car along the road to Naypyidaw, said he had seen for himself the spirits haunting the road, but had stayed safe by reciting the Mitta Sutta when he drives at night.
However, he said, there are also worldly causes for the high incidence of accidents on the road.
“Unseen sprits are one thing that people believe makes the cars crash often, but another thing is drivers must check that their car is in good condition and need to know the highway conditions. Most car accidents are the driver’s fault, or because of poor road construction,” said Ko Ko Zaw.
“Some drivers go more than 100 kilometers per hour without thinking about the road condition—it’s a major problem.”
Nay Lin Aung also admitted that the road itself may contribute to crashes.
“Actually we can’t repair this highway—the government has to do that,” he said. “We just do what we can.”