Until a few days ago, all I knew about Burma was that it was ruled by a nasty military junta, that hardly anyone went in or out (the rule for such places), and that the opposition leader was a very attractive woman with a British husband.
I don't know much more than that now, but the place is beginning to acquire that aura of the unique. “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know,” said Kipling, and as usual it seems he was right.
This fascinating article by Ben Macintyre is a sort of Best of Dictators and Astrology. For it seems that the Burmese junta is, as a group, of the opinion that if the stars ain't with ya, ya screwed.
General Ne Win was the mysticism-obsessed dictator who seized power in 1962 and steered Burma from prosperity to penury; in 1989 he introduced the 45-kyat and 90-kyat banknotes, for the simple but mind-bending reason that these were divisible by and added up to nine, his lucky number. He believed this move would also ensure he would live to the lucky age of 90. Ne Win, who insisted on walking backwards over bridges at night and other rituals to avoid bad luck, died in 2002, at the age of 92.
I wonder how many years of study and good contacts it would take to understand why a grown man would believe that walking over bridges backwards at night was good luck. I think many of the great conundrums of human psychology (such as, why is my wife physically incapable of returning something to the place where she found it?) would suddenly yield their mystery.
But these Burmese nutters are serious nutters whose nuttiness has big consequences.
When the junta moved the capital from Rangoon to a malarial town deep in the jungle, it did so because an astrologer employed by Senior General Than Shwe had warned him of an impending catastrophe that could only be averted by moving the seat of government. The same astrologer asserted that the most auspicious moment for the move would be November 6, 2005, at 6.37 in the morning. Sure enough, at that precise hour on the ordained day, the bullet-proof limousines of Burma’s generals started to roll towards their new home on the road to Mandalay.
I suppose, from one point of view, the passing of these clowns will be a loss to the gallery of human weirdness. However, what a gain to the lives of the ordinary.