Online mystics cash in during Myanmar virus lockdown

By AFP

YANGON — Myanmar lawyer Ma Thiri had been excited about her wedding and new job this year, before the coronavirus threw both into doubt. With the stars very much unaligned, she turned to an astrology app for help.

For a fee of a few dollars, Thiri’s online mystic advised the 26-year-old to carry out kind deeds around her home, from donating flowers to feeding animals on the street, to ensure good karma.

“I’m going to follow all her advice,” Thiri tells AFP, praising the Min Thein Kha app for its convenience at a time when the doors to her usual real-life astrologer at a downtown Yangon temple are securely shut for the city’s lockdown.

The Min Thein Kha platform, the only one of its kind in Myanmar, was launched two years ago. Its creators claim to have two million registered customers and 50,000 daily active users. 

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Users log on, select one of the 23 astrologers profiled on the app and submit a question, paying in advance by bank or mobile phone transfer with the promise of an audio file reply within 48 hours.

Uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak has seen the number of questions rocket by 50 percent, says Bagan Innovation Technology, the company behind the virtual fortune-telling service.

Astrology has long been firmly intertwined with Myanmar’s Buddhist beliefs, and few big decisions are made without a soothsayer consultation.

Former military rulers kept the nation largely offline and Min Thein Kha is part of a nascent digital community scrambling to catch up. 

The app is named after one of the country’s most prestigious fortune tellers, whose family and devoted disciples made sure his legacy lived on after his death in 2008.

“We’ve scaled up the personalised experience,” says co-founder Ko Ricky Thet.

“I wanted to show digitising isn’t only for new creations but can also improve existing traditions.”

‘Tech revolution’

Requests for help with the naming of babies and businesses or choosing auspicious wedding and housewarming dates have been replaced with worries about work and fears for the health of family members as the deadly virus spreads in Myanmar. 

The underdeveloped country has so far recorded 144 confirmed infections and five deaths, but experts say the lack of testing means the real number is likely far higher.

Love is another recurring theme on the app.  

Returning migrant workers ask after sweethearts left behind in Thailand, while other customers come laden with concerns for husbands or lovers working on oil rigs or as sailors, says Thet.

“We can help lift people out of depression and bring back their self-confidence, their hope and future,” says 70-year-old astrologer U Win Zaw, a brother of the late Min Thein Kha.

He has been in the fortune-telling business for 30 years and calls the switch to online soothsaying a “technological revolution”. 

But he admits there are downsides.

In a face-to-face session, a trained eye can pick up valuable clues from a client’s posture, where they place their hands or how they wear a hairpin, and so distance predictions are sometimes not as accurate, he explains.

Fellow astrologer U Htun Aung Lu, 45, claims he foresaw the 2014 Malaysian air crash and correctly predicted who would become Myanmar’s president after the last election.

In these troubled times, he offers grounds for optimism, forecasting the pandemic will stabilise in May before some “good news about a vaccine between June 2 and 12”.

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