Those hoping for an early return to democracy in Thailand may be a bit unnerved by a fascinating ritual reported to have taken place in Chiang Mai. The Bangkok Post reports (and thanks to Bangkok Pundit for bringing this to my attention):

Senior military members of the Council for National Security yesterday flew to Chiang Mai on a trip which reportedly took them to a prominent fortune-teller who was to perform a religious ceremony to ward off bad luck over their staging of the Sept 19 coup. The team, led by army chief and CNS chairman Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, flew on a C-130 transporter to meet Varin Buaviratlert, a well-known Chiang Mai fortune-teller in the heart of town, said a source. A sueb duang chata (prolonging life) ceremony would reportedly be held at the house of the fortune-teller for the coup-makers. The ceremony was prompted by fears among some council members that their efforts to tackle problems plaguing the country could face unexpected obstacles. Joining Gen Sonthi on the trip were CNS vice-chairman ACM Chalit Phukphasuk, Supreme Commander Gen Boonsang Niampradit, CNS member and navy chief Adm Sathiraphan Keyanont, CNS secretary-general and permanent secretary for defence Gen Winai Phatthiyakul. The top brass were Gen Sonthi’s classmates at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School.

Before this is dismissed as some bizarre superstition, or dabbling in voodoo, it should be noted that the sueb chata is an important component of northern Thai ritual practice. In its simplest form the ritual is used for a person who is experiencing ill health or particular challenges in life. (I first saw the ritual performed for a young man in the terminal stages of AIDS.) It may also be performed for those seeking success in business or other enterprises. At its most elaborate it is performed for the city of Chiang Mai itself in the famous sueb chata muang held each year in the auspicious ninth northern month. Here are some images from the sueb chata muang held in 2005.

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There are a number of key elements in the ritual (which should be performed in the morning on an astrologically correct day). Most important is the tripod-like arrangement of wooden stakes (under which the person for whom the ritual is being performed sits). These wooden stakes are maay kham – the forked wooden stakes used to support the branches of the Bodi tree in temples throughout the region. In the sueb chata they function to support and sustain the life that is being prolonged. Other elements include auspicious thread, coconuts, banana leaves, sugar cane and various offering trays of money, betel nut and northern Thai snacks such as miang (fermented tea). These are all “good things” that represent life, prosperity, and abundance. The ritual often takes the form of an elaborate soul calling, whereby the 32 souls (that are prone to wander) are called back to the body:

32 souls, don’t go away anywhere – don’t go to heaven, hell, the ocean, the forest or anywhere else. Please don’t go .Please come and be with legs, chin and cheeks and the empty parts of body. If you went to the wrong point please come back and be stable at your positions forever.

I get the impression that the ritual is becoming more popular. In recent years the ritual has been adapted to extend the life of river systems. Local communities, often working in conjunction with various state agencies, have performed environmentally oriented forms of the ritual to demonstrate their credentials in relation to river catchment and forest protection. I have also heard that an increasing number of Bangkok’s high society are making their way to the north to undergo the ritual themselves. I know of one meditation temple that actively promotes the ritual to its influential followers and a ritual specialist in a nearby village is making a good supplementary living from officiating at sueb chata.

Those who seek to explain (or justify) the overthrow of Thaksin in terms of Thai style democracy may argue that legitimate power in Thailand is based on narrowly defined Buddhist virtue. But it seems that even the Generals recognise the sacred power of peripheral practice. This ritual incursion into Thaksin’s northern heartland is an attempt by the junta to align itself with forms of belief that are often disparaged by Thaksin’s critics as superstition, ignorance and voodoo. General Sonthi clearly knows better.

The Bangkok Post reports that after the ceremony General Sonthi would be visiting northern military units. Power and influence comes in many forms.