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Tiny, frail and barely able to speak, Burma’s most famous fortune teller – known as ET – has for years whispered predictions to Asia’s rich and powerful, from generals to foreign politicians.
The soothsayer, whose popularity has inspired a recent Thai biopic, is one of a plethora of mystics in Burma, where generations of rulers have sought ethereal advice.
Sprightly despite a range of disabilities – including, her family say, that her internal organs are all on the wrong side of her body – ET looks every bit the mystic when accompanied by her sister Thi Thi, whose penchant for shawls and elaborately embroidered frocks enhances the spiritualist image.
“My sister (is a) very, very grand and special one,” Thi Thi told AFP in a recent interview in Bangkok, adding that her guidance has been sought across the region.
“Some is politician, some is business people… Everybody happy, became very famous,” said Thi Thi, who acts as an interpreter for her sister.
Burma’s fortunetellers are thought to be behind several unexplained occurrences in the country, from the abrupt decision by the former junta to relocate the capital in 2005, to bizarre episodes when the generals appeared wearing women’s longyi – a sarong-like skirt.
Normally sartorially conservative, the top brass resorted to cross-dressing “so that a woman would not become president in the country,” said Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy, a news magazine started by Burmese exiles, referring to the junta’s fear of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
“They are very superstitious,” he said.
Mystics have been ascribed great influence in a country where the workings of the secretive junta were kept hidden from the public for decades.
Aung Zaw said that amid the wilder speculation were strong indications that the army chiefs did dabble in the dark arts to try to reinforce their power.
“There is a lot of interpretation… but they do these things quite often,” he said, adding that the practice of consulting astrologers dated back hundreds of years, with Burma’s former kings regularly consulting fortunetellers.
Ne Win, the strongman who ruled Burma for around three decades, was notorious for his reliance on fortunetellers and their “yadaya” – an occult practice where a symbolic act is performed to influence the future.
Rumours about the former junta chief’s use of yadaya to ward off adversity include that he stood in front of a mirror and shot a gun at his own reflection, according to one foreign observer who has long studied the old regime.
Even Burma’s new reformist President Thein Sein has indicated his openness to heed the predictions of mystics.
“I don’t know a lot about astrology, but there are many people who know astrology very well in Myanmar (Burma),” he said in a recent documentary “Un oeil sur la planète” (An Eye on the World) by French broadcaster France 2.
“Sometimes they give me advice on how the situation of the country could be affected from the astrological point of view. I willingly take this advice into account.”
Thi Thi said her sister, who is in her 40s, had also met former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and predicted his rise to power.
“He come and see my sister, before politics. At that time he is (in the) telephone business,” she said.
Thaksin reportedly visited ET just days before he was ousted in a 2006 coup, but Thi Thi declined to give details of the relationship, saying only that her sister’s predictions over the years were “80 percent correct”.
In three decades on the road, she said ET has travelled to “many many countries”, including Japan, China, Singapore and Thailand, and now ploughs a portion of her income into a hospital foundation at home.
While her clients include the occasional Westerner, most are local businessmen and wealthy Asians.
“It’s definitely hard to get an appointment,” said one Western diplomat, who said prices have now risen to a hundred dollars a session.
ET begins her consultations with theatrical flair by writing out the serial number of an apparently unseen banknote in the client’s wallet – a “convincing” start, the diplomat said.
Soon after Suu Kyi was released from her last bout of house arrest in 2010, amid uncertainty about how much freedom the Nobel peace laureate would be allowed, the diplomat asked ET for a prediction of the veteran activist’s future.
“In spite of a warning that she doesn’t predict politics or the lottery, she did say that ‘Aung San Suu Kyi would be more free, very free’,” the diplomat said.
Suu Kyi has since been elected to parliament and is eyeing a bid for the presidency.
ET – whose name is also written E Thi – has predicted her own early death from heart failure, but her sister says it does not worry the soothsayer because she will be “very pretty” in her next life.
Her family claims her powers, including visions of ghosts and future events, were discovered after she was struck by fever while praying at a pagoda as a small child.
Others took a more prosaic route to otherworldly insight and international popularity.
Hein Tint Zaw says he studied for five years under a famous Burmese soothsayer, learning astrology, tarot and numerology with around 100 other pupils before graduating in the mystic arts and moving to Thailand to set up shop among the many migrants from Burma.
His little studio in the industrial town of Mahachai mainly attracts workers from his homeland, who staff local factories in their thousands, but Thais also seek his services and bring along their own interpreters.
“I have never had to advertise,” he said.