In Thailand, Politics Includes the Spirit World
By James Hookway, WSJ, Jan. 9, 2014
BANGKOK—In Thailand, politics goes beyond life and death to include the spirit world, too.
Kittichai Saisa-ard isn’t leaving much to chance in his quest to topple Thailand’s government. Looking around the fortified protest camp outside Bangkok’s government headquarters where this graying 52-year-old serves as security chief, he ticks off the supplies he needs to continue the monthslong campaign.
Fish sauce and oranges? Check.
Bamboo stakes and rubber-tire barricades to fend off riot police? Check.
Talismans to ward off magic spells that some protesters believe government supporters have cast to preserve its hold on power? Yes, got those, too.
Thailand’s capital city is a throbbing hum of contradictions. Ancient temples nestle side-by-side with gleaming shopping malls, towering office buildings and garish, neon-lit massage parlors. In street markets, amulets said to hold supernatural powers are sold alongside bootleg DVDs of the latest Hollywood hits.
But few things better show how Thailand’s old, pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are prospering than the way the country’s politicians and their supporters are tapping into spirit worship and sorcery to gain an edge over their opponents.
"We’re Thais. We believe in a lot of things," Mr. Kittichai said before leading a ceremony this week seeking blessings from the spirit of a long-dead warrior prince near the gates of Bangkok’s Government House. "And if our enemies are using black magic, we have to counteract it."
Thai politicians for decades have consulted numerologists or performed arcane rites to keep ahead of the competition. The wife of a former prime minister in the 1990s habitually carried a toy elephant dressed in a frilly child’s dress to ward off Rahu, a Hindu deity reputed to cause solar eclipses. Another premier, Thanin Kraivixien, was also known among many ordinary Thais as an astrologer.
In some ways, this interest in the supernatural reflects how astrologers, fortunetellers and various other kinds of seers are seeing business boom as the country’s economy expands. Some astrologers even operate call centers to cope with the demand.
"Thailand is a very hierarchical kind of place," says historian and anthropologist Thanet Apornsuwan. "People are always going to look for some kind of authority to guide their decisions."
The rise of billionaire telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has some Thais looking to supernatural sources for the root of Mr. Thaksin’s perceived power—and for ways to continue or end the family’s influence here.
Many Thais subscribe to all sorts of theories to explain the hold they say Mr. Thaksin still exerts over Thailand, despite being overthrown as prime minister in a military coup over seven years ago. Some say he is the reincarnation of 18th-century monarch King Taksin. Others reckon that in a past life, Mr. Thaksin was a Burmese king who sacked the ancient Thai capital, Ayutthaya, showing just how polarizing a figure this businessman has become.
Mr. Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, couldn’t be reached for comment, while Ms. Yingluck, who was elected in 2011, says she runs Thailand, not her brother.
In 2006, though, a close ally cast a spell on Mr. Thaksin while he was riding an elephant in order to render him immune to his rivals’ attacks—a move that Mr. Thanet, the historian, said was aimed in part at reviving morale among his supporters. In 2010, with a rival administration in power, thousands of Mr. Thaksin’s allies splashed gallons of their own blood on the gates of Government House to curse his enemies and speed up his return to Thailand.
The Brahmin priest who led that rite, Sakrapee Promchart, said in an interview at the time that “it’s the kind of curse that nobody in my family has applied before, and which nobody will be able to lay for another 100 years.”
This time the current crop of protest leaders say they have no choice but to perform rites of their own to undo whatever spells have been cast by Mr. Thaksin’s supporters.
Mr. Kittichai, whose day job is a union leader at a state-run electricity company, has led a series of ceremonies to cleanse Thailand, as he puts it. With a half-dozen or so amulets draped around his neck, Mr. Kittichai on Jan. 4 led a rite that involved sprinkling holy water around the area where Mr. Thaksin’s supporters had splashed their blood a few years earlier.
At the latest ceremony, to win the support of the spirit of a prince who died in 1923, Mr. Kittichai and three other men clad all in white offered incense sticks and prayers. A large table was laid below a statue of the legendary soldier, on which were placed Thai dishes such as grilled fish with spicy mango salad along with whole chickens and ducks, and a pig’s head.
"The Prince of Chumphon was a great warrior who defeated many enemies," said one of the participants, 56-year-old Chayada Sarinyamas. "By doing this we hope his spirit will help us and punish those who have brought evil to Thailand," she said.
Some protesters, including Mr. Kittichai, wear talismans or other charms to ward off bullets or other hazards after seven people were killed last month in clashes between protesters and security forces or rival political groups. Supporters sometimes press amulets into the hands of the protest movement’s burly leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, as he leads marches around Bangkok collecting cash donations to keep the rally going.
"See, a tear-gas canister hit me right here on the wrist, but the only injury I received was this small bruise," Mr. Kittichai said. "If you believe the talismans’ power, then they will protect you."
So far, though, Ms. Yingluck has managed to hold on. Despite the growing protests, she aims to return to power in an election scheduled for next month.