When a fortune teller outranks policy experts as a head of state’s most trusted advisor, you begin to understand why a country can fall so spectacularly into ruin. That has been the case for successive Burmese leaders, whose subservience to higher powers has led to some extraordinarily bizarre decisions.

The fear of the supernatural trickles right down to the everyday folk: the three Thai army helicopters that crashed in the space of 10 days in the same area of jungle along the Thai-Burma border were brought down by angry forest spirits, some Karen villagers speculated.

Despite the arrival of Christianity in the 19th Century, Burma’s eastern frontier region remains predominately Buddhist – that goes for the vast majority of Burma, which over centuries has incorporated elements of animism, the previous dominant religion, into everyday life. Most prominent of these are the Nat spirits, who around the 12th century became the guardians of the state, and supposedly guaranteed dynastic continuity.

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