It was late 1981 when an old lady approached me in Bangkok's Lumpini Park offering to read my fortune. As the oversized tarot cards turned, she foretold a life in Thailand with a career, family and more. I was recovering from a bout of dengue fever and knew this to be nonsense. In a matter of weeks, I would be back in London selling features on malaria, political repression in Burma and preparations for the Rattanakosin bicentennial -- the 200th anniversary of Thailand's first Chakri king.
I did not give the encounter a moment's thought until years later, when I came across my jottings in an old notebook. By then I was back in Bangkok, married with a family and reviving a fascination with what was to become Myanmar -- the closed country that had first drawn me to Southeast Asia. The old soothsayer, I had to concede, had been uncannily accurate. Maybe there was something to astrology after all.
I had little interest in its respectable cousin, astronomy, until one October morning in 1995. I was in Cambodia among the crowds atop Angkor Wat to behold a rare total solar eclipse. Old monks recalled the same phenomenon some 70 years earlier. They described a shadow eating the sun, day turning briefly to night, and stars appearing suddenly in a transient night sky. The eclipse I saw had all of these, even though it was over in less than two minutes, prompting hushed gasps from those perched on the ancient temple. It was a spiritual moment -- a reminder that the universe is mankind's supreme clock.
Astronomers routinely predict eclipses years in advance, along with planetary and other celestial movements. Indeed, they know more about the future than anyone. Given such detailed knowledge of the cosmic timetable, the global fascination with astrology is to be expected. If the sun gives us life, the movements of the planets must surely have some influence on our brief passages. And if an eclipse can be predicted, why not a mortal event?
People generally are fascinated by the possibility of some grand cosmic plan. In Asia, particular attention is given to "auspicious" times for births, marriages and even deaths. Women try to time conception on the advice of astrologers; farmers plant grain, businessmen close deals, generals stage coups and kings ascend thrones. The alignment of the planets, we are led to believe, provides an optimal time for everything.
THE NINES HAVE IT There are mystical corollaries. Myanmar's astrologers do a tidy sideline in numerology. The fanatical devotion of the late Burmese strongman Gen. Ne Win to the number nine and its multiples was well known. For example, Armed Forces Day is always marked on March 27, the 27th day of the third month (27 divided by three is nine). Even the currency ended up denominated in nines, contributing to the world's most dysfunctional economy.
When I was covering the country in the late 1980s I would look for dates incorporating nines, when something might happen. This worked surprisingly well. I did not believe that the nines had any cosmic significance, but I knew that powerful Burmese did. My approach was simply a logical appraisal of a system with its own rationality.
Although Nancy Reagan installed Joan Quigley as White House astrologer in 1981, after an assassination attempt on her husband, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, many Westerners look askance at soothsayers and use pollsters to predict the future. This goes well beyond the eminently sensible Asian objective of selecting the best date to initiate an important course of action.
Like economics, polling is a pseudoscience. It amasses survey data to predict likely outcomes. In Thailand, polling often fails badly. In the 2007 general election, exit polls from two separate organizations were more than 25 percentage points apart -- far beyond any acceptable margin of error. Seriously flawed polls in the wider world include those that failed to predict the scale of David Cameron's election victory in the U.K. in 2015, the Brexit vote there last June and Donald Trump's election in the U.S. in November. Did American pollsters cost Hillary Clinton victory by forecasting the wrong outcome?
To be fair, astrological predictions can be just as dubious. One had it that Thailand's Chakri dynasty would last only 150 years, but it survived the 1932 revolution staged to mark that anniversary. Another foresaw only nine kings in the dynasty, but the 10th has just been installed.
Failed prophesies have no news value, of course, and are immediately forgotten. They are certainly not the kind of thing one looks for when reading tea leaves.
Dominic Faulder is an associate editor at the Nikkei Asian Review.