RANGOON — On Wednesday, the 27th Southeast Asian Games opening ceremony will be held in the gleaming new Wunna Theikdi Stadium in the capital Naypyidaw.
The grand event will offer Burma an opportunity to burnish its new image as a quickly-changing country and the ceremony has been meticulously planned, with the vice-president ordering the use of back-up generators to ensure that Burma’s chronic blackouts will not disturb the spectacle.
But in a country where beliefs in the supernatural powers of numerology and astrology have long held sway, some think that the SEA Games opening ceremony—on 11/12/13—has also been timed to take place on a date that will bring good fortune to the country’s sporting endeavors.
“Eleven December is one of the auspicious days in this month. It’s a good day to advance whatever one wants,” said San Zarni Bo, one of Burma’s most well-known astrologers. “It’s an auspicious date for the country and international [events].”
The soothsayer added that the male and female owls used as mascots for the regional bi-annual sports event were traditional Burmese symbols of good fortune. “The owl is seen as a symbol of a good omen,” he said.
“[Starting on] 11 means Myanmar is in an upper-hand position,” said Kyaw Min Htet, an astrologer and palmist who offers his predictions to customers from his small jeep parked beside Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon.
In Buddhist beliefs practiced in Burma the numbers 9 and 11 hold special significance and many temple visitors will recite their mantras 9 or 11 times, or offer 9 or 11 lotus flowers to the Buddha.
The number 11 is considered auspicious as Buddha’s teachings speak of “eleven fires”—greed, hatred, delusion, birth, aging, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair—that one should extinguish in order to progress in life.
Kyaw Min Htet offered another supernatural benefit of the date set for the opening ceremony, saying, “The opening date tomorrow is on a Wednesday. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment. So, we can say Myanmar has good potential [to win medals].”
The astrological characteristics of the month of December, the soothsayer added, could also boost Burma’s chances in the regional sports competition. “December, [month] 12, this chosen date means Myanmar is in a situation of having advantages over others according to the astrological position of the stars,” he said.
Astrology and numerology, at times tied to Buddhist beliefs and symbols, have long been influential in the daily lives of the Burmese. Many people consult their astrologers to set auspicious dates for weddings, travelling and religious ceremonies.
Members of Burma’s former military junta regimes—many of who still hold leading roles in the current nominally-civilian government—are known to have made political and government policy decision on the basis of such beliefs.
Successive military leaders Ne Win and Than Shwe relied on the Burmese tradition of yadaya, where magical rituals were performed to ensure good fortune and ward off enemies. In the late 1980s, Ne Win ordered notes of 45 kyat and 90 kyat to be printed as both numbers add up to 9, his lucky number. In 2009, the junta is believed to have released 9002 prisoners so that numbers added up (9+2) to the lucky number 11.
However, Win Kyaing, a Labor Ministry department director who heads the inter-ministerial SEA Games Winning Committee, said the opening ceremony of the regional sports event was in no way tied to astrology or numerology.
“The date was chosen as it’s easy to remember and noticeable. [December] 11 and 22 are easy to remember,” he said when asked about a possibly auspicious timing of the opening ceremony. The owl mascot, Win Kyaing said, was chosen because “Myanmar believes owls will bring prosperity.
“Even though, Myanmar’s symbol is a peacock, the owl was chosen in order not to confuse the mascot with any political parties’ symbol,” he added, seemingly referring to the National League for Democracy’s fighting peacock symbol.
Although the opening ceremony is held on Wednesday, several sports events, such as chin lone (cane ball), water polo and basketball, have already been played.
On Tuesday night, Burma stood at 17 gold, 6 silver and 7 bronze medals, topping the table of the SEA Games’ medal tally. In order to win the overall medal tally among the 11 participating countries, Win Kyaing said, Burma will need a dose of good fortune.
“Myanmar could not win in sports like water polo and basketball. Even to win from Thailand in football is not an easy task,” he said, before predicting that “Myanmar has only a 35-percent chance of triumphing.”