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.]