The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
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. Word has it that Khin Nyunt is obsessed with learning if and when he and his family will be released.

I heard a rumor earlier this year that Khin Nyunt had requested permission for nine Buddhist monks to make merit at his house. Apparently, the request was partially granted—the regime allowed three monks. Why? Perhaps there was a concern that Khin Nyunt was going to perform an act of yadaya. It wouldn’t have escaped the current generals’ interest that “9” was the lucky number for the previous regime.

Burmese farmers know only too well of the regime’s obsessive policies. First it was physic nuts. Then it was sunflowers (translated into Burmese as nay kyar, meaning “long stay”). In 2007, farmers in Pegu Division were forced to grow whatever Than Shwe was advised would ensure his “long stay” in power, even if it meant turning this agrarian society into a Banana Republic.

Notoriously superstitious, Than Shwe is no stranger to yadaya and astrology. Indeed his latest act of voodoo had all the hallmarks of a man possessed.

When UN chief Ban Ki-moon and envoy Ibrahim Gambari came to Burma earlier this year, there was a mysterious detour to their scheduled itineraries.

When visiting Rangoon’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda, they were guided to a newly installed Buddhist statue, which appeared to be made of jade and had never been seen in public before.

On separate occasions, the UN dignitaries were given photo-op moments to make an offering and pray in front of the sculpture.

It may have missed the gaze of Ban and Gambari, but no one else failed to notice that the face of the statue was not so serene and Buddha-like. It was, in fact, an effigy of Than Shwe.

Embarrassed inner-circle officials later admitted that they had to carry out this crazy ritual at the behest of the narcissistic octogenarian. 

My informed astrologer in Naypyidaw had one more amusing story to share with me.

Whenever a UN envoy visits Burma, hotel staff are told to install a strip of a pregnant woman’s sarong or underwear within the ceiling of the VIP’s suite. Traditional Burmese men are often superstitious that coming into contact with women’s undergarments will diminish their hpoun, or manly power.

At least in the case of Ban and Gambari, that curse appears to be working.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |