Myanmar generals look to the stars
Some make big donations to centuries-old temples in Bagan
Looking to the stars is something normal for Myanmar’s generals, who have ruled the country for more than five decades. Locally, the practice is called “Yadaya” (referring to “magical rituals done to delay, neutralise or prevent misfortune”).
Late coup maker senior general Saw Maung thought of himself as a famous king of Bagan in his past life, before he was removed for health reasons. Once a most powerful man, former general Khin Nyunt donated to all Bagan temples named with raza (king).
Is there now another stargazer looking into history to see what lies ahead for him in Myanmar politics as he donates to an 13th Century Buddhist temple in Bagan, the ancient central town in this Southeast Asian Nation? And is it Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces?
Since 2013, some residents and tourist guides have been referring to Htilo Minlo Temple, which is historically well known for succession of the Bagan throne in the 11th Century, as “Ka Gyoke” (which in other words means “commander-in-chief’s temple”) as the general is the key donor there.
The inscription at the temple gate says the general and his wife, Kyu Kyu Hla, donated money to build the temple path as well as to maintain the structure.
Min Aung Hlaing is supposed to retire from his military post as he turns 60 in early 2015.
“Do you know this temple is Ka Gyoke’s? We now call it that after he became the key donor of it,” Daw Min Min, a tourist guide in Bagan, told a reporter, pointing at the temple. “Htilo Minlo is not very well known compared to other famous temples. But it could be important since he came here and donated money.”
It is also known as Natonmya Temple in Bagan inscription though the inscription does not mention the background of the temple. According to Myanmar chronicles, the key background of Htilo Minlo temple in politics is that Bagan king Narapatisitu had five sons but could not decide who should be his successor. So the king decided his successor would be the one at whose feet a white umbrella fell. Others say the king didn’t make any decision himself but it was the good karma of his son, Natonmya, that led to Natonmya becoming king.
“This is definitely Yadaya. And the temple is an important one for the succession of the throne,” said San Zarni Bo, a well-known astrologer in Yangon. “The general could aim for the presidency after his retirement.” He added that most donations from top officials in the country are related to advice from fortunetellers.
For historians, however, the factual accuracy of Bagan history is still a controversy. It is noticeable among Myanmar people that “people argue with each other over Bagan history with swords and batons”. Whether this is true or not, the stories about dynasties are influencing ruling people mentally.
“Buddhism is still the best and most effective way to legitimise the rulers,” said Pamaree Surakiat, a Thai historian on Myanmar at the Prince of Songkla University here in Thailand.
“According to legend, it cannot be interpreted in any way else than promising a successor.”
Who are the other four potential candidates for the post-2015 presidency if the legacy of the temple really influences a power succession in Myanmar politics? Of course, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the favourite for the post – if the constitution is amended and the elections are free and fair. And following the culture, the lady is “cool supernaturally” while she and her aides are recorded confiding in astrology – even to choose “the best ally”.
Myanmar author Maung Thway Thint wrote in The Myanmar Times, a Yangon based weekly, recently that late famous astrologer Min Theinkha told him in 1989 that according to astrology, Suu Kyi would be become the president in 2015.
This forecast is also endorsed by astrologer San Zarni Bo. “In my astrological calculation, her fortune and stars are great after her 69th birthday,” San Zarni Bo said.
Apart from Suu Kyi, observers tip Min Aung Hlaing and current President Thein Sein as 2015 presidential possibilities. The president previously said he wouldn’t run for a second term, but during his trip to the United States last year, he said he would run. It also breaks trust between him and Suu Kyi as he told her his is only a one-term job.
Other possibilities are Lower House Speaker and chairman of the ruling USDP Shwe Mann, Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint and Htayoo, vice chairman of the ruling party.
During the 2010 election period, most potential candidates for the president’s post was Shwe Mann, then No 3 with the military junta ahead of Thein Sein.
Many still believe the top boss, ex-Senior General Than Shwe is still involved in picking important positions.
“In Myanmar political culture, this kind of announcement pops up at the last minute and everybody are surprised. And then the ‘invisible hand’ picks the card,” said Yan Myo Thein, a well known Myanmar political commentator. But he downplays General Min Aung Hlaing becoming president in 2015.
“Even after his retirement, he could still act as military chief – that is the most important post in Myanmar,” Yan MyoThein added.
There is the likelihood that the 2015 general election will be postponed, as Thein Sein said in his monthly speech on October 1 that unless a nation-wide ceasefire is signed, the election may not go ahead in 2015.