In Thailand, A Little Black Magic Is Politics as Usual

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A Hindu priest performs a ritual after supporters of deposed Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra spilled blood at Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat party offices in Bangkok on March 16, 2010

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More ominously, Wassana says, Thaksin and many of his followers also believe he is the reincarnation of King Taksin, who ruled in the late 18th century. King Taksin went mad, and so was ousted and executed in 1782 by a general who then proclaimed himself king and founded the Chakri Dynasty. (King Bhumibol, Thailand's present king, is a descendant of that general and part of the Chakri Dynasty.) Thaksin has frequently blamed King Bhumibol's advisors for the coup that ousted him, and claimed they informed the king in advance about the coup. The royal advisors have denied the allegations.

Images of King Bhumibol at Red Shirt rallies are almost completely absent. Instead, red shirt leaders keep a statue of King Taksin at their rallies, some Red Shirt guards dress in the style of King Taksin's soldiers, and banners spell the ousted prime minister's name in the manner of the 18th century king. It's a revelation in a land where near-universal reverence for King Bhumibol has long been assumed. But Thaksin may feel his time is coming, as the king is 82 and ill health. And just about any Thai will tell you that astrologers have foretold there will only be nine Chakri kings. King Bhumibol is the ninth Chakri king.

Thaksin's opponents are equally steeped in the supernatural. The generals who overthrew Thaksin made special trips to Chiang Mai to consult a leading astrologer both before and after their 2006 coup. According to Wassana, the astrologer told her in an interview that he advised the coup makers they would be successful in their putsch, and afterwards performed ceremonies with them in Bangkok to further increase their power. "In the last two successful coups in 1991 and 2006,'' says Craig Reynolds, a professor of Thai history at Australian National University, "the astrologer who advised the chief coup planner became the astrologer for the coup group once it had assumed power."

The Red Shirts are not the only ones to perform blood rites. Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt movement and the owner of ASTV satellite news network, spread menstrual blood at the base of a statue in a black magic ritual meant to neutralize Thaksin's supernatural weapons. It was just one of several acts staged by Sondhi with black magic overtones.

And all political factions and the military are wary of Newin Chidchob, a political boss from Buriram near the Cambodian border who commands the Bhumjai Thai political party. Newin is something of a kingmaker, having been a loyal aide to Thaksin before switching camps so the Democrat party could govern. Newin's real value, however, may be his knowledge of the occult, and in particular Cambodian curses. "Newin's nickname in Thai politics is 'the Wizard of Khmer Black Magic','' Wassana says. Newin's knowledge of Cambodian occult practices may be useful for Abhisit. Because of Thailand's conflict with Cambodia over an ancient border temple, the current PM has also been cursed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who proclaimed last year, "Let magic objects break your neck, may you be shot, be hit by a car, may you be shocked by electricity or [ may you be shot] by misfired guns."

It's not only Buddhist nations that are consumed by the occult. In the past, leaders in indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, have been known to consult javanese mystics who mix islam, hinduism and animist beliefs. But the most occult obsessed nation in the region is easily Burma. Former dictator Ne Win was so consumed by numerology that in 1987 he demonetized all bank notes and reissued ones only with the number nine or divisible by the number nine. That was his lucky number, but it proved less auspicious for the millions who had their savings wiped out in the move. On the advice of astrologers, he also shot his reflection in a mirror to foil anyone plotting his assassination and rode on a rocking horse inside a plane that circled a pagoda nine times. Burma's feared former intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt was rumored to have dressed up as a woman to perform black magic ceremonies, known as yadaya che in Burmese, supposedly to sap the power of his female archrival democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The odd man out in all of this would appear to be Oxford-educated Abhisit. Aides say he has never to their knowledge consulted astrologers or practitioners of the occult, an aberration which may contribute to his perceived lack of connection to the rural masses. In his video speeches to Red Shirt protesters, Thaksin has accused Abhisit of having no religion. But Wassana believes Abhisit, because of his Thai upbringing, probably has some degree of belief in the supernatural and predicts he will stage a ceremony when the current protests are over to remove the blood curse put on Government House, where he works. At the very least, he will need to do it to placate members of the Government House staff who may not share his rationalism.

Thongchai Winnichakul, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, says those who deride last week's blood ritual should take a good look at themselves. All religions engage in some kind of irrational rite, and superstitious rituals abound in daily life at weddings, graduations and other ceremonies. The Red Shirts aren't any different than the rest of us, he says. "They are not more stupid or irrational than us. In fact, they are creative and self-aware."

The curse of the Red Shirts may ultimately prove unsuccessful in its quest to unseat Abhisit and pave the way for Thaksin's return. But the Red Shirts did achieve a measure of success in making the world more aware of their movement with a black magic ceremony that spellbound news directors of international cable networks and their viewers. Whether they win their war of saiysat or not, the Red Shirts have certainly given resonance to the old newsroom adage: "If it bleeds, it leads."

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