CHIANG MAI – In Thailand, the politicians have gone and the public’s been silenced. It is the military men who run the country now.
The streets – well they’re peaceful enough – but what the generals possess in firepower, they lack in earthly confidence. A nervous bunch, they take assistance and advice from a very special source.
In the west we don’t take too much notice of soothsayers, palm readers and the like. Yes, there are those who dip into the daily horoscope but it’s rarely used as a guide to the big decisions in life.
Still, they take a different view in Thailand and other South East Asian nations. In this part of the world fortune-tellers and other supernatural communicators take their place on the highest rung of government.
Warin Buawiratlert, Thailand’s most influential fortune-teller lives in a large and luxurious compound on the outskirts of Chang Mai – the country’s second largest city. Security was tight when we visited with members of the army securing outer and inner gates. Once inside, we found a group of twenty or so police officers waiting to meet the clairvoyant.
We were beckoned into a special chamber decorated with golden statutes of Buddha and other ancient holy men and took a seat on the floor. Shortly thereafter, the man they call Aajaan Warin (teacher Warin) shuffled quietly into the room.
His full name is Warin Buawiratlert and he is a slight and unassuming man – but behind the crisp white jacket lies a man of real power and influence. ‘Teacher Warin’ has the ear of the most important figure in the country, the head of the Thai junta, General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
“We’ve known each other for more than ten years so I am quite familiar with him – it’s been a long time,” said Mr Warin, speaking quietly and purposely. “We mostly talk about the country. I feel it is also my duty to protect (the nation).”
Mr Warin says he receives visions from an ancient Himalayan holy man called Laung Poo Thao, adding that one of those visions correctly predicted of the coup (that saw General Prayuth remove the Thaksin Shinawatra-aligned government from power). What’s more, Mr Warin assured me his apparitions are trusted by the junta’s head.
“As he leads the country there may be issues he gets stuck on so he’ll contact me. He has confidence in me. When someone gets stuck and it’s beyond the knowledge of humans, you have to consult the spirit that knows.”
Like an old-style strongman, General Prayuth shutdown parliament, detained intellectuals and banned protests – in any form. Last Sunday for example, a young man was arrested for reading George Orwell’s ’1984′ in public.
But the general’s got a softer side – putting on free concerts, complimentary medical check-ups – a group of glamorous models dressed up as soldiers were also sent out to buck-up moral. It seems to be working – ‘Aajaan Warin’ says the Thai leader has got the spirit world on side: “The vision I had is him leading the country and moving it forward – one year will not be enough – it is going to take three years and the people will agree with that.”
The mystic in the Chang Mai compound is not the country’s best known fortune-teller. That honour probably goes to Luck Rakanithes, who runs a multi-platform ‘future interpretation and prediction’ business from central Bangkok.
When we visited, he was in full swing in his radio studio, knocking out weekly horoscopes for the pre-recorded premium phone-line service. “Listen up Leos,” he bellowed. “You’ll have luck, money, love, a chance to travel.”
Upstairs at his call centre, telephonists were offering celestial advice for 30 pence a minute – and they were dishing it out to a wide variety of clients. When I asked cubicle-based astrologer Chitlekha Thanakornmetha whether she had spoken to any army generals in the last few months she replied, “oh yes, but they don’t tell me their names – but after they ask me questions I know it’s an important person.” So what sort questions do they ask? “How will the situation end – who will be the next prime minster – that sort of thing.”
Later we got a chance to speak to Mr Luck in his expansive and ‘well-stated’ office. He surprised me by issuing a sharp warning about the power of his profession. Mystics like Warin Buawiratlert should be kept well-away from the generals he said.
“If the fortune-teller doesn’t have morals then it is really scary – especially when there is a political crisis. When fortune-tellers work for high ranking officials, it creates belief in black magic – people think officials are more powerful than they really are.”
Thais Spend USD63 million a Year on Fortunetelling
Each year, Thais collectively spend about 1.9 billion baht, or about $63 million, on visits to traditional fortunetellers, according to the Kasikorn Research Center in Bangkok. On average, they consulted fortunetellers three times in 2008, the latest year for which figures were available, according to Kasikorn. That is an increase from twice a year earlier in the decade.
“People still queue up for famous fortunetellers,” said Pichit Virankabutra, the curator of an exhibition on ghosts that since August has attracted 120,000 visitors at the Thailand Creative and Design Center in Bangkok. “They trust that it will be more human.”
Online fortunetelling is cheap and easy, Pichit said, but “if you can connect with someone in person, it’s better than a cold computer keyboard.”
Some Thais prefer traditional spirit houses, too. When Todsaporn introduced the modern versions, “we had to answer a lot of questions from our customers and their Brahmin priests,” he said. – John Sparks