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Richard S. Ehrlich: Coups & Superstitions

Coups & Superstitions


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Coup-crazy Thailand is spooked about another possible putsch, after Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej condemned a fortune teller who met the frustrated leader of the 2006 coup.

The prime minister expressed outrage that the influential fortune teller, Varin Buaviratlert, also reportedly predicted Mr. Samak's government was going to be overthrown.

Many Thais are easily frightened by the specter of the supernatural in this deeply superstitious, Southeast Asian Buddhist country, which freely incorporates Hindu and animist beliefs. Thais frequently perform elaborate rituals to improve their luck against perceived dangers from ghosts, bad karma, unlucky feng shui, wrong-sounding family names, the birth of a baby, curses, and a slew of other real and imagined phenomenon.

Their social insecurity has been worsened by nearly 20 coups, and attempted coups, since the 1932.

The prime minister's current coup fears, and the soothsayer's predictions, are shaking the confidence of some people while boosting the hopes of others -- and attracting sarcastic barbs.

"This fortune teller has no shame about making wrong predictions, and I wonder what he is doing invoking my name, and that of the army chief, and insinuating another coup," an angry Prime Minister Samak told reporters earlier this week.

In private, he was much more blunt.

"He [Samak] said to me that anyone who is going to overthrow the government, will have to do so over his dead body," Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said on Sunday (April 6).

"They will have to shoot him first," Mr. Noppadon told reporters. "I am confident that there will be no coup," Army Commander-in- Chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda said earlier, amid widespread speculation that he could mirror the previous army commander-in- chief, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006.

Many Thais were intrigued on Sunday (April 6), when Bangkok's coup cult met the occult -- in the guise of former coup leader Gen. Sonthi, and his wife Piyathaida, who jointly wielded a long-handled ladle during a ritual led by the fortune teller.

The ceremony included a huge web of thick white strings, which are said to link spiritual powers to participants who touch it -- similar to the way a string, connecting two tin cans, allows sound to travel.

More than a dozen Buddhist monks participated in the rite, amid red and yellow bunting, alongside a few senior air force and navy officials, the country's election commissioner, and Thailand's troubled National Police Chief, Gen. Seripisut Temiyavej. Three days later, in a possibly unrelated move, Prime Minister Samak dismissed the police chief on Wednesday (April 9). Gen. Seripisut had been under scrutiny for alleged misconduct concerning his perks, staffing decisions and impolite vocabulary. "I have never talked about the prime minister's future, and never exactly said there would be bloodshed," Mr. Varin, the fortune teller, said during the "Extending Fate" ceremony.

He was apparently trying to dampen concern that he was involved in a dangerous alchemy of politics and potent chanting. "Varin earned the trust of [junta] members after reportedly predicting Gen. Sonthi would lead a successful coup," reported the Bangkok Post on Tuesday (April 8).

"For many Thais, Varin Buaviratlert's prediction about future political turmoil should be taken seriously," said an editorial in the popular Thai-language newspaper, Matichon. "Politics remains unstable, with the government and its staunch opponents at loggerheads over constitutional amendments," it said on Tuesday (April 8).

Mr. Samak's new government wants to amend Thailand's 2007 constitution, because the disgraced coup leaders orchestrated its text to award themselves amnesty and limit politicians' power. Much of the current government's focus appears to be how to dismantle the former junta's tribunals, and unfreeze the assets of Mr. Thaksin, who is under investigation for corruption. Mr. Thaksin's support helped Mr. Samak win a landslide election victory in January, much to the worry of the clumsy junta which mistakenly expected the coup's favored, pampered politicians to win. Earlier, the prime minister expressed anxiety about conspirators chatting against him.

"Today, some people have not stopped, they are still lobbying and meeting...[they] still believe that another coup is possible," Mr. Samak said on March 28, without identifying his enemies. "I have talked with Gen. Anupong, and he has insisted that he would make sure there won't be any coup."

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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