Myanmese mystics, such as fortune teller ET, have the ear of Asia's elite
Advice from fortune tellers of Myanmar, famed for great insight, sought by rich and powerful across region, including presidents, generals
Agence France-Presse in Yangon
Tiny, frail and barely able to speak, Myanmar'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 biographical film, is one of a plethora of mystics in Myanmar, 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 said 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 interpreter.
Myanmar's fortune tellers are thought to be behind several unexplained occurrences in the country, from the abrupt decision by the former military junta to relocate the capital in 2005, to bizarre episodes when the generals appeared wearing women's lungis - sarong-like skirts.
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 Myanmese 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 kings regularly consulting fortune tellers.
Ne Win, the strongman who ruled Myanmar for around three decades, was notorious for his reliance on fortune tellers 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 a foreign observer who has long studied the old regime.
Even Myanmar's new reformist President Thein Sein has indicated his openness to heed the predictions of mystics.
"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," he said.
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. 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 per cent 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 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 US$100 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.
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 say her powers, including visions of ghosts and the future, were discovered after she was struck by fever while praying at a pagoda as a small child.
Others took a more prosaic route to insight and international popularity. Hein Tint Zaw says he studied for five years under a famous Myanmese soothsayer, learning astrology, tarot and numerology with about 100 pupils, before graduating and moving to Thailand to work among the many migrants from Myanmar.
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.