For Myanmar political predictions, locals look to the stars

Popular 'astrology pundits' are featured as serious political commentators in the Myanmar press. This in a country that once changed its currency on the advice of an astrologer. 

Arthur Nazaryan
Astrologist San-Zarni Bo looks at the palm print of one of his clients at his office in Yangon, Myanmar. His methods of fortune telling include both astrology and palm reading, and his office comes equipped with a magnifying glass connected to a computer monitor to give him an even more detailed view of the print.

For years, Myanmar watchers attributed the odd decisions made by the country’s military rulers to an influential class of government apparatchik: the astrologer bureaucrat.

Take the way the regime moved the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005: on Nov. 11, at 11 a.m., 1,100 military trucks ferried 11 military battalions and 11 ministries to a brand-new city carved from the jungle.

Similar advice in 1987 led the regime to demonetize certain banknotes (causing widespread financial hardship and helping spark the 1988 democracy protests), and to order the mass cultivation of a plant the military believed would sap democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s strength.

Sweeping reforms begun in 2011 have edged Myanmar, formerly Burma, closer to democracy; next year it’s expected to hold the freest general elections since 1960. But that hasn’t diminished the political influence of astrologers – it’s just changed their audience. No longer exclusive to a ruling elite, political astrology has been democratized, and is now a fixture of Myanmar’s vibrant new media industry, with astrologer columnists and commentators appearing in newspapers regularly. Call it the rise of the “astrologer pundit.”

Their predictions began appearing with the end of newspaper censorship in 2012, and are a part of the new era of press freedom. Yet the phenomenon also suggests newspaper readers here are willing to accept a form of fatalism inimical to the spirit of democracy: why bother voting if the stars determine what is so?

By far the most famous of these seers are San-Zarni Bo and Zayar Ko, two men with opposite political views. Mr. San-Zarni Bo discovered astrology as a political prisoner. Mr. Zayar Ko, attended Myanmar’s version of West Point military academy.

Their forecasts frequently betray their own political sympathies. “People want bad news about the government and good news about the opposition,” says San-Zarni Bo. His office mingles Buddha statuettes with computer equipment that enlarges handprints during palm-reading sessions. He’s developed smart-phone apps that deliver horoscopes to subscribers in Myanmar and Thailand, and has daily broadcast gigs.

He is also a staunch supporter of Ms. Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy is expected to do well in next year’s parliamentary elections (he says she politely ignores his advice about lucky dates). Journalists writing for the biggest local newspapers seek him out regularly and quote him with reverence.

Zayar Ko blames Yangon’s soaring prices, and Myanmar’s new openness to democracy, on solar flares; more flaring will lead to yet more changes this year. He publishes four columns a week in four newspapers – including prominent half-page analyses in the 7 Day Daily newspaper, one of Myanmar’s largest – making him a well-known media figure.

Freewheeling newspaper scene 

Off-beat prognostications fit right into Myanmar’s boisterous newspaper scene. In the commercial capital of Yangon, street vendors hawk dozens of colorful, tabloid-style weeklies (top-tier weeklies are said to have circulations of a few hundred thousand). Last year, relaxed government regulations permitted 12 privately owned dailies to launch, with circulations reportedly hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 each.

A number of dailies have since folded due to scant ad revenue and the arrival of Internet and mobile connectivity. Against that backdrop, news editors see pundit astrologers as attracting readers: People here can cite their predictions in the same breath as more "authoritative" voices. Ko Ko, a 68-year-old retired geologist, says the astrology columnists provide an appealing semblance of certainty. “Myanmar is in a very eventful, unstable period,” he says. “When they say something in the news is going to happen, we’re happy.”

Astrology is influential here largely because many regard it as a science, and see practitioners as intellectuals. Few snicker when Bella Liberty, the Venus News Weekly columnist, calls himself an “astro-political scientist.” That prestige is thanks to a long history: Hindu Brahmans originally introduced astrology here, using it to advise royal courts.

Its popular association with Buddhism lends it gravitas, though monks are prohibited from practicing; the Buddha eschewed the concept of predetermination.  

Myint Zaw, a Yangon business leader and avid news reader, cautions that political astrology can easily devolve into propaganda, becoming a platform for views cloaked in the movement of the planets. “I believe in astrology,” Myint Zaw says. “I don’t believe in astrologists.”

[Editor's note: The original version of this story left out Bella Liberty's first name.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to For Myanmar political predictions, locals look to the stars
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2014/0831/For-Myanmar-political-predictions-locals-look-to-the-stars
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe