Burma's Numerological Nightmare

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.

That elevation of otherworldly beings to the top of the chain of command provides some explanation of the current state of affairs: Burma’s era of military rule was scarred by brash and wholly irrational decisions, made by leaders who were paranoically in thrall to the supernatural. The country’s first military ruler, Ne Win (an adopted name that means “brilliant as the sun”), who closed Burma’s doors to the outside world and single-handedly orchestrated the collapse of its economy, was rumored to bathe in dolphin’s blood, believing it staved off the perils of old age. When an astrologer told him that his lucky number was 9, he banned all bank notes that were not divisible by 9. Overnight, the millions of Burmese who, distrustful of the country’s banking system tend to horde cash in their homes, were propelled further into poverty.

Then up stepped Than Shwe, whose auspicious number was 11. While perhaps not as brazen as Ne Win, his various dalliances with numerology are evident: many of his most feared opponents – including student leader Min Ko Naing and 13 other key figures in the September 2007 uprising – were handed 65 year sentences (6+5 = 11), all convicted in November 2008 (the 11th month of the year), and the guilty verdicts announced at 11am.

But Than Shwe’s most spectacular paean to the spirits arrived in 2005, when after reportedly consulting his fortune teller, E Thi (better known as ET, on account of her appearance), a deaf mute from Rangoon, he relocated the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, where it now sits on a dusty, empty patch of scrubland. Her services were also sought by former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was reportedly warned to stay out of Thailand between 8 and 22 September 2006 – he heeded the warning, but whilst in New York on 21 September was deposed in a military coup.

While not strictly a dynasty in Naypyidaw, the Nat spirits appear to have done their job. Current President Thein Sein was close to Than Shwe – the former’s name translates loosely as “hundreds of thousands of diamonds”, while Than Shwe means “millions of gold” – and may well have rode into office with the help of higher powers: according to the International Crisis Group, known more for crunchy geopolitical analysis than examinations of superstition, the date of last year’s elections, 7 November (7+1+1 = 9), should be scrutinised for celestial involvement, as should the time and date of the first legislature, at 08.55 (8+5+5 = 18 ~ 1+8 = 9) on 31/1/2011 (3+1+1+2+1+1 = 9).

Far-fetched, perhaps, but history might tell you otherwise…

(Francis Wade blogs for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement. His blog is Inside Burma.)