Is Gen. Prayuth really growing “eccentric” or “superstitious” as Time Magazine claims?

This brief article in Time alleges growing “madness” in Gen. Prayuth and also compares Prayuth’s “eccentricities” with those of North Korean leaders: Thailand’s Military Ruler Grows Increasingly Eccentric but No Less Dangerous (Time, September 11, 2014).

While we can expect ineptitude, corruption, and a ham-fisted approach to dealing with the media from the Thai military, the allegation that the new prime minister is displaying growing insanity for believing in signs and symbols simply indicates a writer unaware of customary Thai behavior.

Belief in signs, symbols, and fortunetellers is deeply engrained in every level of modern Thai culture. Politicians and those in lofty positions openly engage in what a Westerner might consider “superstition” to ensure their good fortune.

Above: From Manager, October 5, 2010
Ajarn Ma: What’s up, junkie?
Caption: The day Ajarn Ma takes back [takes back for revenge]
[This cartoon comments on the war of high level feng shui at Government House. Ajarn Ma is a well-known Chinese “luck instructor” who teaches people to improve their luck and fortune. He gave advice on how to reconfigure the lawn in front of government house for correct feng shui. His plan conflicted with a fortune teller backed by politician Sanan (pictured bottom right). That his version of the landscaping is being implemented indicates his victory over the fading political power of Sanan. “Junkie” here is an insult meaning “junk man” or “cheap man.”]

Every new government redesigns the landscaping in front of government house according to their favored “luck gurus,” sometimes sparking political battles over which design is best. Spirit houses are erected in front of high rise buildings in Bangkok where passing employees “wai” to show their reverence and ensure good fortune.

The predictions of fortunetellers are front page news in Thai newspapers. These predictions indicate the important role fortune tellers have in Thai society in general and in politics in particular. The predictions themselves are about as prescient as next Tuesday. However, they usually indicate the current wisdom–what most people are thinking at the present time about a subject or what they are expecting to happen. Deposed Prime Minister Thaksin openly followed Burmese fortune teller “ET.”

Gen. Prayuth’s coup is a risky gambit. The intent of the coup is to demonstrate to the Thai political class that the military has the iron will to resist Thaksin for years to come. Thus, Gen. Prayuth’s rule is indeed depressing for supporters of Thaksin’s amnesty plan as well as to those who hoped for chaos during a royal succession. Those with lofty hopes that a military government can govern wisely and honestly will also be disappointed–the very nature of Thai mutually reinforcing cronyism means that rot will swiftly overcome any good intentions.

Time magazine may feel Gen. Prayuth is dangerous. However, there is very little unusual or eccentric about Thai leaders (and Thai people in general) believing in signs, symbols, and fortunetellers. Gen. Prayuth’s level of “superstition” is no greater or less than that of previous government leaders–or the average Thai.

Above: From Daily News, March 18, 2010
The headline reads: Red blood all over – in front of Government House – the Democrat Party HQ – in front of Mark’s residence [PM Abhisit’s house] – Suthep reveals sabotage is likely – Arisman announces they [the Red Shirts] will absolutely take the blood of [PM] Abhisit and aristocrats to wash their feet unless parliament is dissolved – Meanwhile the Red Shirts splash blood [This shows the Red Shirts famously employing a blood-cursing rite during their 2010 protests.]

From 2006: The belief in spirit houses including the destruction of the Phra Prom Shrine by an insane person and its implications for a key intersection in Bangkok
From 2006: Editorial Cartoons about Thaksin and the Burmese fortuneteller “ET”
From 2007: Warin: fortune-teller of CNS period (fortune teller for the post-2006 coup government)
From 2009: Bangkok international airport shifts “demons”
From 2012: ET – Fortuneteller’s life told on Thai TV
From 2013: Thaksin’s soothsayer: Profile of fortune teller to the Burmese and Thai elite, “ET”

Above: 2004: Workers repositioning cannons to correct defective feng shui in front of the old Defense Department building. This was to help bring luck to government efforts to fight separatists in the Thai Deep South. Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.

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