How superstition influences Southeast Asian politics EJINSIGHT


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Almost a month after the deadly explosion at the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok, the official investigation is still ongoing.

At the same time, there have been reports of supernatural forces behind the tragedy.

In fact, superstition and politics are often closely linked in Southeast Asia.

Social and political movements in the region which have drawn on religious or superstitious beliefs have sometimes produced surprising results.

Take Erawan Shrine as an example. It honors Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Buddhist deity Brahma.

Phra Phrom is originally from India but has been incorporated into Thai culture.

Some believe it can influence the fortunes of the nation.

The shrine was vandalized in 2006 and some believe the attack was orchestrated by Thaksin Shinawatra, who was then prime minister, so that he could secretly practice some sort of black magic in the shrine to preserve his rule.

It sounds far-fetched, but superstition is part of Thai politics.

In 2010, pro-Thaksin protesters collected blood from among them and splashed it on the main door of the prime minister’s official residence to curse the government of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Last year, some anti-government protesters performed public sacrifice rituals intended to break a curse put on them by their opponents.

Although not all protesters believe in superstition, such practices are often seen as a symbol of broad support for their movement to some extent.

Another vivid example is former Burmese army strongman Ne Win.

He believed in supernatural strength so much that he appointed a fortune teller as his personal consultant, recalling former US First Lady Nancy Reagan after an assassination attempt on her husband.

Ne Win is said to have made many political decisions based on divination.

He reportedly ordered that Burmese banknote denominations be changed to multiples of nine on the advice of his consultant after learning it was a lucky number.

Ironically, this seemingly insignificant movement turned out to be one of the underlying causes that sparked the monumental “8888” democratic movement in 1988.

This would have far-reaching implications for political development in Burma and bring democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to the international stage.

Even in countries as advanced as Singapore, superstition plays an important role in politics.

For example, some say that the dollar coin’s “bagua” or “eight trigrams” design was adopted to reverse the bad luck caused by the construction of Singapore’s underground rail system in the 1980s.

Government officials at the time reportedly sought advice from a priest who told them that the only way to do this was for every Singaporean to have a “bagua” with them at all times.

Former leader Lee Kuan-yew exploded the myth in one of his books, but by then he had become one of the city-state’s most popular urban legends.

The article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on September 8.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Simon shen

Associate Professor and Director of the Global Studies Program, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chinese University of Hong Kong; Senior Editor (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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Lyle L. Maltby

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