Than Shwe, Voodoo and the Number 11
By AUNG ZAW Thursday, December 25, 2008


Whenever I speak to diplomats or foreign friends who want to learn more about Burma, I encourage them to draw parallels between the political decisions in the country and astrology, or moreover, yadaya, the Burmese form of voodoo.

It is an open secret that Burma’s military leaders believe deeply in various superstitions—astrology, occultism, numerology, black magic, yadaya.

Throughout our recent history, auspicious dates, times, units of currency and countless other properties have been reset according to the advice of the junta leaders’ astrologers.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon and UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari were given photo-op moments to make an offering and pray in front of the Buddhist sculpture at Shwedagon pagoda. (Photo above: MNA, below: AFP)
During the era of Gen Ne Win, the number 9 became the satanic mark of the regime. Even the national currency was altered to denominations of nine, with 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes suddenly, and without warning, circulated in place of the existing currency. 

As 2009 draws near, many observers inside and outside the country have been amused to find out that the new symbol of power for the paranoid generals of Naypyidaw has been unveiled as the number 11.

Though speculation is rife, no one knows for sure how or why 11 suddenly became the military government’s talisman.

In September, the regime released 9,002 prisoners. Of course, 9002 inverted becomes 2009, so I was intrigued as to whether this seemingly random number had been manipulated.

I approached an exiled former astrologer of the junta’s top brass and asked him if there was some superstitious meaning behind it.

He told me that the number of released prisoners quoted in the Burmese press was never the true figure; it could be a few dozen prisoners, it could be hundreds. But the number quoted was always consistent with the advice of an astrologer.

We mused on the fact that the total sum of the digits in 9002 is 11 (9+2).

Shortly after, the Burmese authorities began sentencing prominent pro-democracy activists. The numerology was consistent—several dissidents, including Min Ko Naing, for years one of the greatest thorns in the junta’s side, were in November (the 11th month) handed down sentences of 65 years (6+5=11). To hammer the point home, the sentences were pronounced at 11am.

Was an astrologer consulted before these judicial decisions were made? “Absolutely!” the exiled astrologer told me.

“So enlighten me!” I beseeched him. “Why 11?”

He reminded me that in Burmese Buddhist tradition, there are “eleven fires”— greed, hatred, delusion, birth, aging, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair—which, in a spiritual context, are fueled by sentient attachment.

So, I was left to wonder, are the generals trying to prevent the “eleven fires” from befalling them? Surely, the generals are aware that under their rule, the people of Burma need not be reminded about the fires of suffering?   

We know that both former and current military leaders have practiced yadaya to ward off misfortune and that many have had private astrologers on their staff.

When Ne Win was in power, one of his aides, Sein Lwin, who was president of Burma for two weeks during the turbulent summer of 1988, regularly consulted astrologers to foresee the future.

In some cases Sein Lwin—known forevermore as “The Butcher of Rangoon” after he ordered a bloody crackdown on unarmed protesters—would even meet his official astrologers to seek assurance of who would fill the top cabinet positions whenever Ne Win purged one of his top brass.

Apart from official astrologers, Burma’s military leaders usually keep close to their sides any Buddhist monks who are well-known for reading palms and predicting the future.

In 2002, Ne Win’s grandsons were arrested for planning an overthrow of the government. Aung Pwint Khaung, the dictator’s family astrologer, was also detained. The raid evidently uncovered a cache of voodoo-like dolls said to closely resemble the regime’s top three generals—Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Gen Maung Aye and Gen Khin Nyunt.

A similar situation unfolded in 2004 when astrologer Bodaw Than Hla was arrested along with his patron, Khin Nyunt. Both were thrown in prison. Although Khin Nyunt remains under house arrest, to this day rumors circulate that the former spy chief still seeks advice from astrologers via a messenger.

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