Field notes

The seers who 'foresaw' coups in Thailand

Under its Buddhist veneer is a mix of animism and astrology, boosted by political patronage

At the corner of a wide, busy intersection in Bangkok where cars make U-turns at hair-raising speeds, Ms Somluck Kaewseenin takes her place on the sidewalk.

The slight, stooped woman with a prominent gold amulet over her pink lace blouse carefully arranges her Ganesha statue and tiger figurines on a makeshift table draped in red.

An impatient queue forms behind me even before I can start the interview with the most popular fortune teller at Huay Kwang intersection.

"Business is always good. I never have enough time to serve everyone who turns up," she says.

In the 12 years she has been doling out auspicious dates and other astrologically related advice, she has also prophesied for politicians from both sides of the kingdom's political divide.

MYSTICISM AND POWER

There is a long tradition of people seeking Buddhist and supernatural support for challenges to existing power structures. But there have been probably many more efforts to evoke religious or supernatural authority to reinforce the power structure.

EMERITUS PROFESSOR CHARLES KEYES, an anthropologist from the University of Washington

Members of the Thai Rak Thai party - the forerunner of the Puea Thai party which was toppled from its rule in a military coup last year - as well as those from the Democrat Party have sought her out, she says.

To the outside world, Thailand is conveniently known as a Buddhist nation. But scratch beneath the surface and you will find an amorphous blend of animism, folk Buddhism, Hinduism and astrology.

"Nobody is strict about these divisions," says Yale-NUS College anthropologist Andrew Johnson. "In fact, these elements are always shifting and they are always changing each other around too."

Thai capitalism and bureaucratic patronage, he says, have provided a boost for certain kinds of folk practices that do not exist to such a degree in neighbouring Laos, which shares a similar culture.

The creation and collection of "blessed" or "magical" amulets is one example.

In modern-day Thailand, statues of former monarchs are placed on family altars.

Locals erect ornate miniature houses for "place spirits" and pop into neighbourhood 7-Eleven stores to buy magazines packaged with amulets in the image of "magic monks". They make offerings at Buddhist temples, and then go round the corner to have their birthdates analysed by astrologers using special software on tablet computers.

Neighbouring Myanmar has long been known for the influence that astrology and numerology have on the country.

In the 1980s, former leader Ne Win demonetised Burmese currency to introduce notes in denominations of 45 and 90 kyats - as nine was his lucky number.

POLITICAL SEERS

In 2011, superstitious top Myanmar junta leaders led by military strongman Than Shwe appeared on state television wearing women's longyis, in what was believed to be an attempt to counter the influence of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thailand's political leaders have not been coy about their belief in mystics too.

Coup-maker and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha took office at Government House on Sept 9 last year - a lucky date given the Thais' fondness for the number nine - and reportedly owns auspicious rings he picks to suit each occasion. He barely caused a stir when he admitted to reporters he consulted fortune tellers.

"There's no harm in listening to fortune tellers. Fortune telling is an art," he was quoted by Reuters as saying last year .

But he denied consulting Ms E Thi, Myanmar's most well-known mystic and close adviser of General Than Shwe, who was Myanmar's head of state from 1992 to 2011.

Exiled Thai former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had reportedly consulted Ms E Thi while he was still a telecommunications tycoon and met her shortly before he was unseated in the 2006 coup.

She reportedly told him to stay away from the kingdom between Sept 8 and 22 that year, during which the coup was staged.

DESTINED TO GOVERN

General Prayut, meanwhile, has been seen with an influential seer from northern Chiang Mai province, Mr Warin Buawiratlert.

Mr Warin, who once counted Thaksin and his wife among his clientele, had reportedly predicted the date of the 2006 coup.

In an interview at his expansive Chiang Mai residence overseen by men with walkie-talkies, the thin, pale soothsayer seats himself in front of a pantheon of monk and Buddha statues. He says in a calm baritone: "I am not a medium or fortune teller. I just convey what I see in my visions."

He has a waiting list of 3,000 people, he reveals. Over the past decade, he has advised many mid-career soldiers who later rose to top positions in the army.

One of them, he claims, is General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the first Muslim to assume the role of army chief, and who later staged the coup that ousted Thaksin.

"Sonthi and I still keep in touch," he says. "But I would keep my distance from anyone who is in power. I think my duty is done once they have reached the position they deserve and performed a duty for the country."

Mr Warin says he has been acquainted with Gen Prayut since he was a colonel. He had predicted the general would lead a coup too, and conveyed this vision to him several times. "I told him, 'it's your duty, you can't deny it'. And I said it won't be later than May 19."

On May 20 last year, as a seven-month-long street protest paralysed but failed to dislodge the Puea Thai party-run government, then army chief Prayut declared martial law and invited the key political players for talks. Two days later, he seized power.

Thailand is unlikely to see fresh elections until at least 2017 because a heavily criticised draft Constitution was rejected by the military-appointed National Reform Council, essentially restarting the whole process.

For Mr Warin, this is all predestined. "I told him (Prayut) he would stay until 2017… No one can escape from our destiny, which is determined by our past lives."

But the problem with this kind of thinking, say critics, is that it is too deterministic and removes accountability for individual decisions.

Emeritus Professor Charles Keyes, an anthropologist from the University of Washington, observes: "There is a long tradition of people seeking Buddhist and supernatural support for challenges to existing power structures. But there have been probably many more efforts to evoke religious or supernatural authority to reinforce the power structure."

In Thailand, symbols matter to the superstitious - they are seen to portend good luck or misfortune.

In the wee hours of March 21, 2006, a Thai man vandalised the popular Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok, smashing the four-faced Brahma statue with a hammer. He was beaten to death by angry bystanders. The incident was interpreted as a bad omen for Thaksin's premiership. Thaksin reportedly rushed back to Bangkok from northern Thailand to inspect the shrine and order repairs.

On Aug 17 this year, a powerful bomb ripped through the same shrine during the evening rush hour, killing 20 people. Despite the carnage, the military government cleared the site and reopened the shrine two days later.

"The 2006 act against the Erawan Shrine also left a legacy that was manifest in the strong government reaction to the bombing at the shrine in 2015," says Professor Keyes.

While their services may be in demand, not all star fortune tellers have it made. Last week, a famous astrologer and aide to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was among three people who were detained for lese majeste, an offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Police accuse Suriyan Sujaritpolwong of claiming false links to the monarchy. The fall was dramatic, not least because he helped organise a mass cycling event in honour of Queen Sirikit in August , and was also actively involved in a follow-up ride in honour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej to be held in December.

Still, soothsayers say they are witnessing growing interest in their trade. Membership in the Bangkok-based International Astrological Association stands at 20,000 and is growing by about 1,000 a year. Their customers are getting younger too.

"It's a way of life," says the association's president, Mr Pinyo Pongcharoen. "In the past, people asked us about their lives from birth to death. Now they ask about the baby's life even before he is born. And they want to find out about life after death."

In this context, he believes it's only natural for political leaders to turn to astrologers too.

"It's their right," says Mr Pinyo. "If they can consult other experts, why can't they consult astrologers?" After all, "they can choose not to believe after consulting us", he adds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2015, with the headline 'The seers who 'foresaw' coups in Thailand Field notes'. Print Edition | Subscribe