International -- Spotlight on Thailand
WHERE THE STARS SPEAK LOUDLY...AND POLITICIANS PAY CLOSE ATTENTION (int'l edition)
Parliament was waiting. It was the morning of Aug. 19, and lawmakers had convened to battle over the budget. But Prime Minister Banharn Silapa-Archa was nowhere to be found. Banharn had made a surprise trip to his hometown of Suphan Buri to celebrate his 64th birthday. The problem was that for the past 63 years, according to public records, his birthday had been July 20.
"He changed it because a fortune teller told him that if he was a Leo, he would be the first Thai Prime Minister to complete his four-year term," says Alongkorn Polabutr of the opposition Democrat Party.
The fortune teller was wrong. A month later, Banharn's year-old, five-party coalition government collapsed, and in the Nov. 17 general election, voters rejected his party. The opposition said that changing his birthday proved that he was a dissembler, and even accused him of plagiarizing his master's thesis. But no one blamed him for consulting an astrologer. Everyone does that.
RAKING IT IN. According to a Thai Farmers Bank Public Co. research report, 60% of Thailand's 61 million people see an astrologer or fortune teller on a regular basis--and the numbers are rising as the middle class grows. From Buddhist temples to sidewalk stalls to shops in modern department stores and private rooms at the stock exchange, astrologers watch the clients pour in, asking for predictions on everything from their fortunes in love to the stock market.
And astrologers make plenty of money. "As a fortune teller, I have a better chance of becoming richer," says Colonel Atthaviroj Sritula, who just quit Thailand's police force to become a full-time astrologer. During 1995, Thais spent $160 million on visits to maw duus, or "looking doctors," as they're known. "I'm searching for answers," says Malinee Yongsombat, a real estate executive who consults an astrologer at the four-star Montien Hotel each week. "I won't make a deal just on an astrologer's advice, but it can give me some clue whether the timing is right or not."
Unlike in many countries, where astrology is practiced mostly by the poorer classes, in Thailand "interest is highest among the middle class, urban, and more educated sections," says Nerida Cook, a professor of anthropology at the Australian National University. Thai yuppies want astrology to help them attain the worldly pleasures frowned on by Buddhism, the country's dominant religion. The Buddhist clergy is divided over the issue. Many monks double as fortune tellers, arguing it is the only way to retain their flock, and prescribe Buddhist prayers and rituals to counter ominous horoscopes. The Astrologers Association of Thailand, which has about 1,000 practicing members--about 100 new ones this year alone--and runs an astrology school, is located in one of Bangkok's most prestigious Buddhist temples.
But not all religious officials take such a tolerant view. "The government must do something to educate the people and discourage astrology," says Charuay Nookong of the Religious Affairs Ministry. "This has nothing to do with Buddhism. It's nonsense."
Thaksin Shinawatra was steamed. The former Deputy Premier had emerged from a Cabinet meeting in late April in which his rivals were seeking approval for a military communications satellite dubbed Star of Siam. But Thaksin, whose Shinawatra Computer & Communications Public Co. holds a monopoly concession on satellite services for Thailand, was tight-lipped about this threat to his orbiting cash cows. "It is not a good time to talk," he snapped at a pack of reporters. "Mercury is in the wrong house."
Nobody laughed. In Thailand, there's nothing incongruous about a man who has built a $2 billion business basing his decisions on the planets and the stars.
Thaksin's chief rival and Star of Siam backer, Defense Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, didn't get his way. The Cabinet, unnerved by the billion-dollar cost, eventually shelved the project. But the general rarely gives up. After his New Aspiration Party won the Nov. 17 election, Chavalit was appointed Prime Minister--and in his first speech, he spoke of the military's need for satellites. This time, the stars may be on his side.EDITED BY HARRY MAURER By Robert Horn in BangkokReturn to top