The starry eyed generals of Burma

Ben MacIntyre:

The fate of the Burmese junta is written in the stars. That, at least, is what the Burmese junta believes. For one of the odder and most revealing aspects of the brutal military gang that rules Burma is its faith in astrology.

When the junta moved the capital from Rangoon to a malarial town deep in the jungle, it did so because an astrologer employed by Senior General Than Shwe had warned him of an impending catastrophe that could only be averted by moving the seat of government. The same astrologer asserted that the most auspicious moment for the move would be November 6, 2005, at 6:37 in the morning. Sure enough, at that precise hour on the ordained day, the bullet-proof limousines of Burma’s generals started to roll towards their new home on the road to Mandalay.

Burma’s intensely superstitious rulers have long been guided by a belief in portents and prophecies, cosmology, numerology and magic. The time and date of the ceremony marking independence from Britain was also chosen according to astrological dictates: 4:20am on January 4, 1948. General Ne Win was the mysticism-obsessed dictator who seized power in 1962 and steered Burma from prosperity to penury; in 1989, he introduced the 45-kyat and 90-kyat banknotes, for the simple but mind-bending reason that these were divisible by and added up to nine, his lucky number. Ne Win, who insisted on walking backwards over bridges at night and other rituals to avoid bad luck, died in 2002, at the age of 92, which was either good luck or bad luck, depending on how you look at it. Even the decision to change the name of Burma to Myanmar was prompted by Ne Win’s soothsayer, and announced on May 27 (since 2+7=9).

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From the Roman emperors to the Nazis to the Burmese generals, tyrants need to feel that fate, rather then accident, has brought them to power and will keep them there. Since their own eminence is preordained, they seek to shape and predict the future. For most of us, the daily horoscope is a harmless, if pointless, pastime, but in the hands of a dictator. it feeds easily into paranoia and megalomania.

Of no despot was this truer than Hitler, whose fascination with the occult shaped a regime that deliberately rejected rationalism in favor of mystical determinism. “We stand at the edge of the age of reason,” declared Hitler. “A new era of the magical explanation of the world is rising.“

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During the war, British Intelligence tried to exploit Hitler’s fixation with astrology by planting fake predictions of his imminent death in newspapers around the globe, in the hope that this would destabilize him and the regime. The intelligence officer in charge of the plan wrote: “This is probably the most curious thing I have ever been asked to arrange, but nonetheless most important.”

He was right on both counts: Like the Burmese junta, Hitler’s obsession with the supernatural was a mark of instability and vulnerability, and a window into his strange and tyrannical regime. Gilbert Murray once wrote: “The best seed ground for superstition is a society in which the fortunes of men seem to bear practically no relation to their merits or effort.” That was true of Nazi Germany, and it is equally true of modern Burma, where the good suffer and only the oppressors flourish.

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The is the best explanation I have seen for the nuttiness coming out of Burma. It also contains an idea from the past on how to destabilize the despots. We need to flood the country with bad ju-ju. It is an interesting vulnerability to be exploited. We need intelligence to uncover what their unlucky numbers are so that future sanctions can be done on the most unlucky days for them. t reminds me of when I was prosecuting fraud cases, I used to try to bundle indictments on Friday the 13th. There was not any doubt about whose unlucky day that was.

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