San Zarni Bo’s destiny was foretold. At the tender age of six, a traveling astrologer read his horoscope and informed him that he would become a fortune teller himself.
But this prediction didn’t make the young man happy. In fact, it annoyed him. At that time, Myanmar’s fortune tellers eked out a living in pagodas, or hawked their skills on the street, and the young San Zarni Bo found their choice of lifestyle uninspiring. Incensed and dismissive, the young man ignored the fortune teller’s words and set out on a life removed from mysticism, engrossing himself in the world of facts, laws and logic as an electrical engineering student in Yangon.
It was here that San Zarni Bo’s interest in politics first got him into trouble. He was arrested at the age of twenty, in 1974, then again two years later for his dissident political beliefs. Today, he is a card-carrying member of the National League for Democracy, the party of democratic reform and progress, despite these beliefs being heretical under the junta.
But his stint in jail was a blessing in disguise. It was there that he met U San Tin Aung, a palmist, fortune teller and master of Burmese magic who instructed the young student in the higher path of prognostication. The syllabus included astrology, palmistry, numerology and tarot card reading – a far cry from his engineering studies. Today, San Zarni Bo still describes jail as his second University, where he learned the techniques that have made him a household name in modern day Myanmar.
San Zarni Bo makes it clear – he is no magician, and he claims no supernatural gifts. “It is not clairvoyance. I predict by calculating the statistics,” he explains, in his distinctive voice which is heard across Myanmar, broadcast via radio to millions across the city.
With about 150,000 Facebook fans and a dedicated following, San Zarni Bo is perhaps the nation’s foremost teller of fortunes, although his skills are available to one and all. Using just a palm print with ink, and the date, time and place of birth, anyone can receive a consultation. A basic reading with three questions costs 10,000 Kyats (US $6.50), a full lifetime reading 50,000 Kyats (US $30). Foreigners can expect to pay US$ 50 – perhaps because paler palms are harder to read.
The Burmese affinity for magic and superstition runs deep. In a nation where twists of fate have had catastrophic effects over the years, and hardship and difficulty have been the norm, many Myanmar people have turned to lotteries, fortune tellers and the magical “high path” to improve their lives and those of their families. Whether its seducing a potential partner or predicting lottery numbers, there’s a legion of hedge wizards, soothsayers, monks and wizards who offer their services in the pursuit of knowledge and power through supernatural means.
Myanmar’s population continues to believe in Theravada Buddhism, suffused with animism and magic, and many see no contradiction between the two. Indeed, Buddhist monks are trained in elementary mahabote, or fortune telling, in the monasteries. The two systems are seen as complementary and mutually inclusive, although some see the pragmatic effects of fortune telling as more immediately beneficial than more abstracted Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation.
Burmese fortune telling varies from its global relatives. The history of the zodiac system actually has its roots in the Western world, but passed through India and eventually to Myanmar, morphing to accommodate the different cultural needs along the way. The Burmese zodiac is unique in that it places great importance on the day of birth, rather than the month, and predictions are still mostly founded on the day of the week and time rather than lunar sign. To San Zarni Bo, all systems are connected, and the Myanmar zodiac system is internationally valid.
In the British colonial era, centuries of magical tradition were ground into the dust by imperialist troops with rifles and belt fed machine guns. In desperation, Myanmar’s rebels and warriors turned to magic and “weikza” – partly-divine Buddhist saints, as well as magical tattoos meant to deflect bullets, to fight against their well-armed foes.
Although British machine gun bullets proved fatally effective against supernatural protection, the invaders eventually left, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by some of the nations more nefarious leaders. The era of the Generals was not kind to wizards and soothsayers – as the military government were deeply superstitious, they lived in fear of black magic, and viciously persecuted anyone who claimed supernatural power which they might use to depose them.
But the era of the Generals came to an end, and since 2011, magic has enjoyed a resurgence in Myanmar, aided by the power of Facebook, a huge cultural force in the nation today. In fact, many Burmese see the rise of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as vindication of their magical beliefs.
“Before, during the junta, everyone lived in fear,” explained one Burmese citizen in his thirties. “We prayed for things to get better, and placed our trust in magic and in saints. We hoped for a new time of freedom and democracy. Now our prayers have come true.”
“When I was young, we all read San Zarni Bo’s books” explained one Myanmar lady in her mid-twenties. “We would come into school and compare our fortunes – our future husbands and financial successes.” Even if Myanmar’s youth can be bashful about their reliance on such services, a thriving cottage industry continues to promise supernatural results for believers, and online magic courses are attracting flocks of members.
San Zarni Bo continues to ride this wave of success and renewed magical interest. Asked for his thoughts about Myanmar’s precarious future, the fortune teller signs. “The conditions will get worse in 2020. The military government is still in charge. But from 2020 onwards, things will get much better. The military government will not take over again, but we can expect more from this government in the future. Things will get better.” He remains a great proponent of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor, and describes her as “a diamond… getting brighter with time.”
Today, Facebook and fate make unlikely bedfellows in a rapidly modernising Myanmar. As the country is pulled into the light of a global community, traditional beliefs and fortune tellers continue to flourish, especially in the nation’s rural heartlands. Meanwhile, high-rises and power plants seeded by Chinese investment rise against the Burmese sky, and the irrepressible forces of global capitalism turn their eyes to this rapidly developing nation.
An upcoming election season will again reshape the nation just as the NLD’s rise to power in 2015 did, and the spectre of climate change threatens to transform the country and uproot its coastal populations. These are uncertain times for SE Asia’s youngest democracy, and even for those as esteemed as San Zarni Bo, Myanmar’s future remains a mystery.
San Zarni Bo can be reached at his Facebook and Youtube channel below.