March 9, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

The magic in Myanmar's numbers

When dealing with Naypyitaw, ignore numerology at your peril

DAVID I. STEINBERG

Societies often treat numbers with care, even reverence. They may be mystical, magical, symbolic or simply a mnemonic tool. During World War II, the combination of the safe in the German Embassy in Turkey was Hitler's birthday. Many years ago, the combination code of the door to a USAID mission in Asia was 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence. In the West, perhaps the best-known number of significance is 13, a supposed harbinger of bad luck based, some say, on the number of people at Christ's Last Supper.

Myanmar may be the quintessential state where numbers have religious, political and magical meaning. Closely bound with astrology, they have affected key decisions throughout the country's turbulent history. Little is done without careful consideration of such factors. After all, the founding of independent Burma on Jan. 4, 1948, took place at 4:20 a.m., a time clearly chosen by an astrologer.

Gen. Ne Win -- variously described as the country's former dictator, president and party chair from 1962 to 1988 -- believed that nine was his lucky number, and was once told by an astrologer that he would live to be 90 if he paid close attention to this. So, in 1987, he changed the currency from multiples of 10 to those of nine, ushering in 90-kyat and 45-kyat notes to replace 100- and 50-kyat denominations. He lived to be 92, demonstrating -- to some -- the accuracy of his astrologer.

The pro-democracy opposition, however, believed that eight was its lucky number. Hence, the massive (and ultimately unsuccessful) "people's revolution" was launched on Aug. 8, 1988.

The date of the constitutional referendum on May 10, 2008, was no doubt prompted by some regime-friendly astrologer. When Cyclone Nargis hit a few days before the poll, killing nearly 140,000 people in Myanmar, the auspicious date could not be changed. Voting proceeded throughout the country except in the hardest-hit southwestern delta region. That Yangon was lashed by the cyclone while Naypyitaw, nearly 330km north, escaped indicated to some the astrological wisdom of moving the capital.

Naypyitaw was inaugurated as the new capital at 6:37 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2005. On "11-11" -- Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. -- truckloads of public servants departed Yangon for their new lives there. These precise timings were clearly intentional. Some say Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the country's then-leader who initiated the move, revered 11 as his lucky number.

Others speculate on Ne Win's continuing influence, for the changing of the state's name from Burma to Myanmar took place on May 27 of 1989, and two plus seven equals nine -- Ne Win's lucky number.

However fanciful some of this may seem, the fact that these superstitions are believed by most of the country's majority Burman (or Bamar) community indicate their importance.

This -- not chance -- explains why the Hluttaw, or parliament, complex in Naypyitaw sprawls over 31 buildings. In the traditional Burmese Buddhist cosmos, there are 31 planes or realms of existence through which one can be reborn on the way to nirvana. The inescapable conclusion is that the number of buildings was planned either by the architects or by the leader. Conformity with such an appropriate traditional and religious concept would give the institution added gravitas. Those who thought, when the parliament first met in 2012, that it would be mere window dressing for a quasi-authoritarian or semi-democratic regime were wrong.

Calling on Burmese Buddhist tradition and invoking the auspiciousness of the past not only lends weight to the institution but gives added legitimacy to the leadership, the regime and the military, and thus to Than Shwe, the ideological architect not only of Naypyitaw but of the shift that led Myanmar into its new era.

For foreigners, to ignore the significance of numbers and numerology in Myanmar would be a mistake. This is particularly true when dealing with Naypyitaw, where failure to take numerology into account could lead to policy decisions that are divorced from Burmese reality.

David I. Steinberg is an author, academic and longtime observer of Asian affairs.

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