The politics of superstition

Numnual  Yapparat

I have seen clairvoyants play a major role in a number of issues, such as family life or even politics. When I was doing my women’s studies course, one of my fellow students, who had given birth, told us that she chose to have a caesarean birth so that she could choose the right auspicious time for her baby. Therefore, the baby’s future would be filled with good prosperity. She came from the middle class with a well-educated family background. I was perplexed why they were so superstitious.

A scary example of superstition is a coach driver who he drinks a can of beer before setting off. When his assistant expresses concern, the driver tells them that everything will be okay because he has got lots of monk medals in front of his seat!

In Bangkok, lots of modern offices buildings have spirit houses where the employees can confide their hopes or sadness. The office management regularly place bottles of warm Coca Cola for the spirits to drink, but only the ants seem to like it. Newly appointed government ministers, before entering the ministry building, have to worship the spirits first. They place pig’s heads and joss sticks in front of the spirit houses, praying that they can enrich themselves before they get transferred.

Every year, we have the Ploughing Ceremony where the oxen will predict the rainfall in coming months and the quality of the harvest. So there is obviously no need for modern agricultural science to maximise crop production. The Thai ruling class seem to think that oxen are more intelligent than humans.

Why does Thai society still believe in mumbo jumbo? Who is benefiting from this superstition?

It is understandable if people live in an insecure society where governments give no guarantee at all about citizen’s futures. Ordinary working people have to find comfort from something among this insecurity. The superstition will fill this gap. Karl Marx explained that religious superstition was “a heart in a heartless world”. It isn’t that poor people are ignorant, stupid or lacking education. It is more a sign of desperation. In advanced countries the number of people who believe in religion is decreasing steadily. The exception is the United States, where there is no welfare state. In Western Europe they have welfare states which provide necessary security to citizens.

Superstition in Thailand is a great tool for the ruling class. People who believe in mumbo jumbo are less likely to question inequality or injustices that they face in their daily lives. If they suffer they might blame fate or “Karma” rather than confronting the establishment. Superstition reinforces the “natural order” in society. The elites and the middle classes need to believe this and that is why they are extremely superstitious themselves.

Were there any groups that challenged superstitious ideology? Traditionally, only the Left challenged this superstition. The Communist Party of Thailand stood for scientific thought. Kularp Saipradit, writing under the pen name “Si Burapa”, wasa famous left-wing intellectual after the Second World War.  He wrote the novel “Lare Bai Kang Na” (Looking to the future) to criticise the old order under the absolute monarchy which was steeped in superstition. In “Lare Bai Kang Na” one of the elite ladies tells the protagonist that in the natural order serfs cannot have doctors like their masters. Kularp asks the question “who invented these customs”? Kulap also criticises those villagers who believed that the cause of illness came from ghosts. He was arguing for scientific thought in the new Thailand.

The strength of superstition and mumbo jumbo in Thai society is a symptom of the weakness of the Left and the rampant inequality between the rich and the poor. It is also a symptom of a lack of democracy.