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Myanmar's love of numbers can have sinister consequences

Nowhere does numerology have greater importance in shaping people's lives than in south-east Asia, where large sums are paid to buy items containing numbers considered lucky. The practice is particularly prevalent in the Buddhist regions of Myanmar, where anything from mobile phone numbers to vehicle registration plates containing the number nine are in huge demand.

The number's significance derives from the fact that there are nine special attributes of the Lord Buddha, and also nine attributes of monkhood.

"My car registration number is 7-7-0-4," explained a man from the capital Naypyitaw, who has worked for years as a senior public servant in the country's planning ministry.

"Seven plus seven plus four equals 18. One plus eight is nine."

The official paid 500,000 kyat (530 dollars) for the plate, the equivalent of five months' wages for an average public servant, but he has no regrets.

"A good numerical sequence brings luck," he says.

Because a quasi-civilian government only came to power in 2011 after five decades of brutal military rule, mobile phone SIM cards first became freely available two years ago, leading to a rush in demand for certain prized numbers.

One mobile phone number ending in "999" sold in Mandalay for 500,000 kyat, according to local media reports, while 43 98 76 53 was also popular as the average of the four numbers is 45, and those two numbers when added together make nine.

While the popularity of the number nine derives from the virtues of the Lord Buddha and the community of monks, the number 37 is also coveted because that is the number of the great nats also widely worshipped in Myanmar. Great nats are spirits, almost all of whom are said to have been human beings who met violent deaths.

"There are only 37 great nats because this is the number officially instituted by King Anawrahta, founder of the Bagan empire in the 11th century. He named them to break the power of the spirits," explains tour guide Hpoun Shwe.

The increasing use of numbers in explaining political issues, and their use by politicians and religious leaders in support of particular causes, has led to some violent consequences.

Radical Buddhist monks such as Ashin Wirathu have been accused of using the powerful significance of the number nine to incite violence against Muslims, whom they see as a threat to the Buddhist way of life in Myanmar.

Wirathu was jailed for 25 years in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim hatred, but was released in 2012 as part of an amnesty for political and other prisoners. Since then, he has been at the forefront of this new Buddhist radicalism.

His campaign urging Buddhists to shun social and business contact with Muslims is called 969 and comes from the Buddhist tradition in which the Three Jewels (Tiratana) are made up of 24 attributes: nine special attributes of the Lord Buddha, six core Buddhist teachings, and the nine attributes of the monastic order known as the Sangha.

These Buddhist radicals point to the 786 symbol used by Muslims in South and south-east Asia, saying this is evidence of a Muslim conspiracy to achieve world domination in the 21st century, because seven plus eight plus six equals 21.

There are also more farcical examples, such as that set by General Ne Win when he ran the country between 1962 and 1988. Ne Win believed the number nine was a lucky number, so in 1987 he changed the denomination of the national currency to include 45 and 90 kyat notes.

The move did not bring the general the luck he had hoped for - he was ousted in a coup a year later.

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013


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