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Archive for December 26th, 2008

Than Shwe, Voodoo and the Number 11

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The Irrawaddy New Magazine


Than Shwe, Voodoo and the Number 11

By AUNG ZAW Thursday, December 25, 2008

Whenever I speak to diplomats or foreign friends who want to learn more about Burma, I encourage them to draw parallels between the political decisions in the country and astrology, or moreover, yadaya, the Burmese form of voodoo.

It is an open secret that Burma’s military leaders believe deeply in various superstitions—astrology, occultism, numerology, black magic, yadaya.

Throughout our recent history, auspicious dates, times, units of currency and countless other properties have been reset according to the advice of the junta leaders’ astrologers.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon and UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari were given photo-op moments to make an offering and pray in front of the Buddhist sculpture at Shwedagon pagoda. (Photo above: MNA, below: AFP)

During the era of Gen Ne Win, the number 9 became the satanic mark of the regime. Even the national currency was altered to denominations of nine, with 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes suddenly, and without warning, circulated in place of the existing currency.As 2009 draws near, many observers inside and outside the country have been amused to find out that the new symbol of power for the paranoid generals of Naypyidaw has been unveiled as the number 11.

Though speculation is rife, no one knows for sure how or why 11 suddenly became the military government’s talisman.

In September, the regime released 9,002 prisoners. Of course, 9002 inverted becomes 2009, so I was intrigued as to whether this seemingly random number had been manipulated.

I approached an exiled former astrologer of the junta’s top brass and asked him if there was some superstitious meaning behind it.

He told me that the number of released prisoners quoted in the Burmese press was never the true figure; it could be a few dozen prisoners, it could be hundreds. But the number quoted was always consistent with the advice of an astrologer.

We mused on the fact that the total sum of the digits in 9002 is 11 (9+2).

Shortly after, the Burmese authorities began sentencing prominent pro-democracy activists. The numerology was consistent—several dissidents, including Min Ko Naing, for years one of the greatest thorns in the junta’s side, were in November (the 11th month) handed down sentences of 65 years (6+5=11). To hammer the point home, the sentences were pronounced at 11am.

Was an astrologer consulted before these judicial decisions were made? “Absolutely!” the exiled astrologer told me.

“So enlighten me!” I beseeched him. “Why 11?”

He reminded me that in Burmese Buddhist tradition, there are “eleven fires”— greed, hatred, delusion, birth, aging, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair—which, in a spiritual context, are fueled by sentient attachment.

So, I was left to wonder, are the generals trying to prevent the “eleven fires” from befalling them? Surely, the generals are aware that under their rule, the people of Burma need not be reminded about the fires of suffering?

We know that both former and current military leaders have practiced yadaya to ward off misfortune and that many have had private astrologers on their staff.

When Ne Win was in power, one of his aides, Sein Lwin, who was president of Burma for two weeks during the turbulent summer of 1988, regularly consulted astrologers to foresee the future.

In some cases Sein Lwin—known forevermore as “The Butcher of Rangoon” after he ordered a bloody crackdown on unarmed protesters—would even meet his official astrologers to seek assurance of who would fill the top cabinet positions whenever Ne Win purged one of his top brass.

Apart from official astrologers, Burma’s military leaders usually keep close to their sides any Buddhist monks who are well-known for reading palms and predicting the future.

In 2002, Ne Win’s grandsons were arrested for planning an overthrow of the government. Aung Pwint Khaung, the dictator’s family astrologer, was also detained. The raid evidently uncovered a cache of voodoo-like dolls said to closely resemble the regime’s top three generals—Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Gen Maung Aye and Gen Khin Nyunt.

A similar situation unfolded in 2004 when astrologer Bodaw Than Hla was arrested along with his patron, Khin Nyunt. Both were thrown in prison. Although Khin Nyunt remains under house arrest, to this day rumors circulate that the former spy chief still seeks advice from astrologers via a messenger. Word has it that Khin Nyunt is obsessed with learning if and when he and his family will be released.

I heard a rumor earlier this year that Khin Nyunt had requested permission for nine Buddhist monks to make merit at his house. Apparently, the request was partially granted—the regime allowed three monks. Why? Perhaps there was a concern that Khin Nyunt was going to perform an act of yadaya. It wouldn’t have escaped the current generals’ interest that “9” was the lucky number for the previous regime.

Burmese farmers know only too well of the regime’s obsessive policies. First it was physic nuts. Then it was sunflowers (translated into Burmese as nay kyar, meaning “long stay”). In 2007, farmers in Pegu Division were forced to grow whatever Than Shwe was advised would ensure his “long stay” in power, even if it meant turning this agrarian society into a Banana Republic.

Notoriously superstitious, Than Shwe is no stranger to yadaya and astrology. Indeed his latest act of voodoo had all the hallmarks of a man possessed.

When UN chief Ban Ki-moon and envoy Ibrahim Gambari came to Burma earlier this year, there was a mysterious detour to their scheduled itineraries.

When visiting Rangoon’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda, they were guided to a newly installed Buddhist statue, which appeared to be made of jade and had never been seen in public before.

On separate occasions, the UN dignitaries were given photo-op moments to make an offering and pray in front of the sculpture.

It may have missed the gaze of Ban and Gambari, but no one else failed to notice that the face of the statue was not so serene and Buddha-like. It was, in fact, an effigy of Than Shwe.

Embarrassed inner-circle officials later admitted that they had to carry out this crazy ritual at the behest of the narcissistic octogenarian.

My informed astrologer in Naypyidaw had one more amusing story to share with me.

Whenever a UN envoy visits Burma, hotel staff are told to install a strip of a pregnant woman’s sarong or underwear within the ceiling of the VIP’s suite. Traditional Burmese men are often superstitious that coming into contact with women’s undergarments will diminish their hpoun, or manly power.

At least in the case of Ban and Gambari, that curse appears to be working.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |

Written by Lwin Aung Soe

December 26, 2008 at 5:09 am

UN Passes Strong Resolution on Burma Human Rights Abuses

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The Irrawadday News Magazine

UN Passes Strong Resolution on Burma Human Rights Abuses

By SAW YAN NAING Thursday, December 25, 2008

The UN General Assembly has adopted by a vote of nearly four to one a resolution calling on Burma to free all political prisoners, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and criticizing the human rights record of the Burmese regime.

The resolution, which addressed the issue of human rights in Burma, was carried on Wednesday by 80 votes to 25, with 45 abstentions.

The UN General Assembly in session in New York. (Photo: AFP)

It urged the Burmese government to halt arrests of political activists and expressed concern about incidents of torture and sexual abuse and the crackdown on peaceful protesters in September 2007.The resolution also voiced concern over the process of  the junta’s so-called “seven-step roadmap” toward democracy, including the planned general election, noting the failure of the regime to include other political parties, members of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and representatives of ethnic political organizations.

An unnamed Burmese UN representative later rejected the resolution and accused the UN Assembly of “blatant interference” in his country’s internal political affairs. He said that although Burma would not feel bound by the resolution it would nevertheless continue to cooperate with the UN and the Secretary-General’s good offices.

The Burmese representative maintained that his country had made major political strides and was now in the process of democratization by carrying out the so-called seven-step roadmap.

Four of Burma’s Asean partners—Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand—abstained in Wednesday’s vote, while Cambodia was not present. Brunei Darussalam, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam joined China, India and Russia, together with countries ranging from Algeria to Zimbabwe, in voting against the resolution.

Burma’s top diplomat at the UN, Kyaw Tint Swe, said in a recent confidential report to his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that international pressure on Burma would increase within the UN Security Council, particularly from Western members.  The envoy said Western influence within the Security Council would increase when Japan and Uganda replace Indonesia and South Africa in January.

Japan voted in favor of the resolution on Wednesday, while Uganda was not present for the vote.

In late November, Burmese junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe said in the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar that the seven-step roadmap is the only way to smooth the transition toward democratic reform in Burma.

The fifth stage of the seven-step roadmap will be the general election, scheduled for 2010.

According to human rights groups, Burma has more than 2,100 political prisoners. About 215 political activists were sentenced last month to prison terms of up to 68 years.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |


NB. This post is specially designed for those who cannot visit the original website.

Written by Lwin Aung Soe

December 26, 2008 at 5:04 am

World focus on Burma (26 December 2008)

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Multiple China quakes cause mass evacuations
ABC Online, Australia –
Xinhua news agency reports that an earthquake measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale struck near Ruili, a town on the China-Burma border. …

Thousands evacuated after quakes hit SW China
ABC Online, Australia –
A 4.9-magnitude earthquake struck at 4:20am (local time) about 10 kilometres from Ruili, a town on the China-Burma border, Xinhua said, …

Counterfeit Money is a Genuine Worry for Thailand, New Zealand –
The informal training will be expanded to Thailand’s border zones, where huge amounts of money changes hands daily during overland trade with Burma, Laos, …

RM1m aid for cyclone victims
Malaysia Star, Malaysia –
Seck Boon Keng said the committee would channel all the funds through the Burmese Shangha Organisation to launch the Myanmar Cyclone Recovery Project. …

Canada-based Party Linked to Controversial Businessman
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –
After the UWSA reached a ceasefire agreement with Burma’s ruling military junta in 1991, Kyaw Myint became the head of Myanmar Kyone Yeom Group, …

Weather Eye: 2008: the tenth hottest year on record
Times Online, UK –
The worst natural disaster of the year struck Burma on May 2, when Cyclone Nargis drove a 3.6m (12ft) storm surge 40km (25 miles) deep inland. …

Warming fuels rise in tropical storms
The Canberra Times, Australia –
… natural disasters were weather-related, with the global damage bill topped by Cyclone Nargis, which left a trail of wreckage across Burma in May. …

Earthquake Hits Ruili
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –
By LAWI WENG Nine people were injured when a 4.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the area around Ruili in Yunnan Province on the Burma-China border at 2:30 am …

China Signs Burmese Gas Deal for 30-year Supply
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –
“Under the agreement, which cements a preliminary deal reached in June, pipelines will be constructed to export natural gas from Myanmar [Burma] to China’s …

Chiswick man helps out in cyclone damaged Burma
Richmond and Twickenham Times, UK –
“When the opportunity arose to go back to Myanmar for a five month placement with Merlin, I jumped at the chance. “I certainly miss my family and friends, …

MYANMAR: WFP to launch food-for-work programme, NY –
These activities will play a critical role in restoring food security in the wake of Nargis, which left close to 140000 people dead or missing in May 2008. …

China moves to make yuan global currency
domain-B, India –
… to settle trade payments with ASEAN countries like Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, Brunei, Vietnam and Indonesia. …

Bangladesh accuses Indian ships of entering its waters
Australia Network News, Australia –
Last month a similar row between Bangladesh and its eastern neighbour Burma flared over another disputed stretch in the bay.

Year of Discovery competition: swept away by the Ayeyarwaddy, United Kingdom –

Camera poised in the lifebelt’s centre, I await the dawn of yet another glorious Myanmar day. Only the melodious slap of the river’s current against …

Australia: Growing opposition to Labor’s Internet censorship
World Socialist Web Site, MI –
Stuart Hargreaves: “Every country in the world has been going backwards in terms of fundamental human rights and this is just another example of that. …

2008: The year in review, UK –
As the drought in Australia entered its sixth year, and Cyclone Nargis tore through the rice fields of Burma in May, killing more than 100000, …

The King – Wild, Wild 2008
Cairns Post, Australia –
The world turned a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses and instead watched people run, jump and swim at the Beijing Olympics. …

A pretty good year
Himal Southasian, Nepal –
It is a victory of Nepali democracy, and a sign of its power to accommodate and absorb, that those who viscerally challenged the Nepali state have today …

Daewoo Signs Agreement to Sell Myanmar Gas to China
Bloomberg –
… Thailand, South Korea and Japan for a share of Myanmar’s gas supply. Proven gas reserves in the country formerly known as Burma jumped 39 times to 21.19 …

A Brother’s Plea: Remember Burma
Wall Street Journal –
My brother is the editor in chief of a weekly journal you’ve likely never heard of called the Myanmar Nation. On Feb. 15, the military raided his office and …

Clinton’s wish list for State
Boston Globe, United States –
The State Department should have a seat at the table when US and Chinese officials discuss China’s pursuit of energy resources in places like Sudan, Burma, …

United Nations Condemns Rights Abuses in Burma
조선일보(영문판), South Korea –

It also urged Burma’s military leaders to free Aung San Suu Kyi — the prominent opposition leader and head of the National League for Democracy — and all …

… on this criminal despot, who ranks with Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and the Burmese military junta as one of the world’s most bloody rulers. …

Iranian leader’s Christmas message prompts outcry
Independent, UK –
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had urged Channel 4 to “pull the plug on this criminal despot, who ranks with Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir of …

Burmese struggle to survive
Bangkok Post, Thailand –
The storm left 138000 people dead or missing and affected more than 2.5 million, while the Burmese military junta provoked outrage by initially hampering …

Doctors Without Borders Lists Top Ten Humanitarian Crises at End …, NJ –
… severe health risks to the populations of Zimbabwe, Burma (Myanmar) and DR Congo, and the constant danger of violence against civilians in Iraq, …

Decline is far from reality as US set to shine in leading role
The Canberra Times, Australia –
… been bogged down in Iraq; after Cyclone Nargis, US ships would have provided large-scale relief, had Burma’s military regime allowed them to proceed. …

Fury at Iran president’s broadcast
The Press Association –
… this criminal despot, who ranks with Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and the Burmese military junta as one of the world’s most bloody tyrants”. …

Dealing with neighbour Myanmar
The New Nation, Bangladesh –
But once the war cloud evaporated Bangladesh failed to take any lesson from that incident where Myanmar junta analyzed every aspect and rapidly took …

An undecided question
The Post, Pakistan –
… 1960 declared “…the subjection of people to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, …

United Nations Condemns Rights Abuses in Burma
Voice of America –
By VOA News The United Nations General Assembly has issued a resolution condemning widespread human rights violations in military-ruled Burma, and urging …

Ahmadinejad C4 speech condemned
BBC News, UK –
… this criminal despot, who ranks with Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and the Burmese military junta as one of the world’s most bloody tyrants”. …

Written by Lwin Aung Soe

December 26, 2008 at 4:56 am

World focus on burma (25 December 2008)

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Thailand’s Burma Policy Set to Change under New Premier
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –
We want to bring good change in Myanmar [Burma],” he said. Thailand’s new foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, has also indicated that the new administration …

Daewoo seals Myanmar-China gas export deal – Xinhua
Reuters –
Few western companies will invest in the former Burma because of its poor human rights record and continued detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San ..

Pope: may the light of Christmas shine also where dignity and …, Italy –
Wherever the dignity and rights of the human person are trampled upon; wherever the selfishness of individuals and groups prevails over the common good; …

Tsunami Still Haunts Burmese Migrants
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Htoo Chit, the coordinator of Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development Committee (Burma), said, …

UN Passes Strong Resolution on Burma Human Rights Abuses
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –

In late November, Burmese junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe said in the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar that the seven-step roadmap is the only way …

Than Shwe, Voodoo and the Number 11
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –

Shortly after, the Burmese authorities began sentencing prominent pro-democracy activists. The numerology was consistent—several dissidents, including Min …

Korea Rejects Charge of Rights Abuse in Burma
The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand –

By WILLIAM BOOT BANGKOK — The South Korean government has rejected a complaint that two Korean companies have condoned human rights abuses and failed to …

Junta-backed party hopes to win 2010 elections
Shan Herald Agency for News, Thailand –
Some Burmese analysts are saying that the ethnic groups will not have much chance either, as the NUP and the transformed Union Solidarity and Development …

Wa offers assistance in fake note scandal
Shan Herald Agency for News, Thailand –
A local police informant on the Thai-Burma border, interviewed last evening by TV Channel 3, said the counterfeit notes were manufactured by the “Red Wa”, …

Written by Lwin Aung Soe

December 26, 2008 at 4:53 am