BANGKOK — The vendor’s leathery fingers sifted through a mound of boar tusks, scattered over a table in a Bangkok street bazaar.
“They’re extracted from jungle pigs,” he explained, pinching a crescent-shaped fang and holding it up to sun. “It protects the wearer from physical harm. And if your stars come up unlucky? It’s an antidote to misfortune.”
Despite its modernity and deeply entrenched Buddhism, Thailand remains under superstition’s sway. Astrologers double as celebrities. Protective amulets purportedly worn by car wreck survivors sell for big money. Even the highly educated turn to fortune tellers for advice on love and money.
But these old-world beliefs also guide much bigger decisions in Thailand. Many within the ruling class of politicians, protest leaders and military chiefs seek supernatural guidance for rulings of national importance. Even armed coups have been scheduled — to the minute — for auspicious times on the astrological calendar.
“It’s very embedded in the culture,” said Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based author and Thai political expert who has studied the role of supernaturalism in Thailand. “Most people don’t really question it. It’s like asking (Western politicians) if they believe in the Virgin Mary.”
Thai astrology often directs the timing of political endeavors. When deputy agriculture minister Supachai Phosu took office in May, employees born under the sign of the dog — the astrological rival to his sign, the monkey — were ordered to stay away from ministry headquarters. On his first day, his staffers were told to avoid wearing purple, red or orange and the minister stepped into his office at precisely 7:09 a.m., which carried some starry significance.
Rituals are also used to ward off bad fortune or enemies. After a 2006 coup to oust former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra proved unpopular, the coup generals and their wives conducted a two-hour chanting rite and allowed monks to loop a long sacred thread around their heads.
Less hygienic was the good-fortune ritual led by Sondhi Limthongkul, the powerful leader of a pro-establishment street movement — commonly called the “yellow shirts” — that helped topple the government late last year. On live TV, he announced that female followers had smeared maxi pads stained with menstrual blood on the monument of a 19th-century Thai king — all to supernaturally protect his faithful from enemy attacks.
In the eyes of some, Sondhi’s mysticism was vindicated in April when assassins dumped more than 100 bullets in his personal minivan. He survived the ambush. And now the amulets supposedly worn by Sondhi are advertised as “soaked in blood” talismans in Bangkok’s streets.
Buddhism, the faith claimed by more than 95 percent of all Thais, is largely opposed to the occult. Yet remnants of animism, folk religions rooted in spirits and superstition, still remain.
“‘The occult arts are for those who are asleep,” wrote renowned Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa Bhikku in a set of teachings called "The Prison of Life." “We are taught these things as small children without intelligence or reason. If you still feel that 13 is an unlucky number, that’s occult. You’re still asleep.”
Still, many political leaders, regardless of their faith in the occult, are at least aware of its power over voters, Baker said. “It’s a way of making claims to a certain type of power. It’s used like p.r.”
Newin Chidchob, a hugely influential former parliamentarian now banned from politics, is particularly associated with supernatural powers — largely because he’s ethnically Cambodian, Baker said. The Thai superstitious typically regard neighboring countries, particularly Cambodia and Burma, as more-primitive lands where ghosts haven’t been driven back by urban development.
Leaders like Newin often make no effort to distance themselves from their black magic personas. “It’s mostly in people’s imaginations,” Baker said. “But he’s allowed this to be played up.” Beliefs about Newin are so widespread that, when soldiers briefly detained him after the most recent coup, they acted on a senior officers’ orders to strip the politician and remove his magic amulets.
Politicians’ public displays of occultism are likely to wane as younger Thais push out the old generation, who are much more likely to retain ancient beliefs. The Thai press already mines humor from the more-absurd displays — and got great mileage when a former prime minister’s wife, on a soothsayer’s advice, carried around a plush toy elephant clad in diamond earrings and a lacy wedding dress.
“The beliefs are popular,” said the boar tusk vendor, “but becoming less popular. These are beliefs held by your grandparents. Now, people are using more logic.”
More GlobalPost stories on the supernatural:
Welcome to the ghost fair
How to shoo off a Jordanian jinn
The sea goddess and the web