Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Numbers of the beast: the politics of superstition

By Joseph Alde

(DVB)–In many parts of the world it is easy to forget that a government - the apparatus that controls our economy and that has the power to send us to war or to jail - is, like any institution, at the mercy of human idiosyncrasies.

In Burma, however the idiosyncrasies of those ceaselessly in power are painfully present in decisive moments in the nation’s as well as individuals’ lives.

Often viewed as the light-hearted past time of housewives, astrology takes on a new meaning in Burma these days. Studying the imprisonment of political dissidents one may notice that an awful lot are sentenced to 65 years for a variety of benign actions. The choice of this number, a painfully long stint at the best of times, is done because the two numbers equal 11.

The prerogative for this number that crops up time and again as a sentence is pronounced is that, in Burmese numerological mythology, 11 is the number that vanquishes enemies. As simply sentencing them to a mere 11 years would not be enough, some have even had their sentencing delayed so it can occur at 11am/pm on 11 November; roll on 2011.

The brunt of such idiosyncrasy is not just borne by those questioning rule in their country. The site for the new capital Napyidaw, the latest ‘place of kings’ hidden deep in the Burmese jungle 350 miles north of the old capital, was chosen by astrologers.

The unfortunate new residents, mainly government workers, were forced to move from the old capital Rangoon at an astrologically opportune moment, one that unsurprisingly was not so auspicious in the construction world. The buildings they were to live and work in were not complete, meaning government officials were forced to shack up in unfinished shells of buildings. To relieve any worries however, the new capital will sport a new astrology museum.

Living or, even more worryingly, ruling on such a basis takes governing to unprecedented levels of incompetence. No example has been more potent than former Prime Minister Ne Win’s infamous dabbling in the Burmese currency soon after he rose to power following the 1962 coup. People watched as overnight he scrapped all banknotes that were not divisible by nine – Ne Win’s lucky number – and the country woke up to find that the majority of banknotes they had were useless.

Superstition and idiosyncrasy is not unfamiliar ground for dictators to tread. Indeed former Ugandan ruler Idi Amin would probably have gladly bathed in dolphin’s blood with Ne Win, as the latter was alleged to have done to reinvigorate his youth. His political leanings likewise can be viewed as somewhat malleable: fighting for fascists, against communism, all under the banner of socialism.

Violent psychosis

The current junta’s method for ensuring longevity is often the adherence to a belief system known as ‘yadaya’. It is expressed, amongst other things, by the forcing farmers to grow sunflowers despite there not being any viable market for them. They apparently ensure perpetuation of the regime and ward off any evil, likely to include opposition movements.

It is sad that Burma’s ‘non-interfering’ trade partners and arms dealers across the world don’t recognise that they are perpetuating a violent psychosis at the heart of the Burmese government.

But perhaps they do; perhaps the ambassadorial reports sent home tell of the Ouija board events at official functions, although it is unlikely that the recipients care. For nations looking to do business, whether it be selling arms or extracting resources, it is usually beneficial, economically, to have a delusional tyrant who can be bought off at the expense of his people.

But if one assumes that the prevalence of superstition amongst the military leaders of Burma is all bad news, think again. They are also said to possess similar weaknesses. The Lanna Action group exposed this when they encouraged women to send their underwear to Burmese foreign ministries abroad under the banner of ‘Panties for Peace’: the ruling junta suffer from an awkward superstitious belief that merely touching women’s garments will sap their powers.

Superstition is not unique to the military junta or Burma. Much of the world’s population possess similar beliefs but there are few whose use it in quite the same way. From Bush’s ‘God-sponsored’, bloodstained meddling in the Middle East, to Hitler’s eugenics, real lives are scarred by the fantasy worlds inhabited by leaders. The truth of the matter is that when the going gets weird, the weird need to get going, from office.

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