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Facing hard times, Thais turn to Hindu god for good luck

September 17, 1997

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand (AP) _ Looking for hope in tough times, many Thais are turning to a god of a different religion.

About 20,000 people participated this week in a lunar eclipse ceremony for Rahu, the Hindu god of darkness, a deity said to reward followers with good luck. Legend has it he swallowed the moon during an eclipse.

Rahu has been around for years in Thailand, where some Hindu beliefs have survived despite the fact that most Thais are Buddhists. This town 30 miles west of Bangkok is home to the world’s biggest Rahu statue.

But the deity has become more popular lately, partly because of the failing economy but also because he has an important patron _ the prime minister’s wife.

``In such confusing and uncertain circumstances in the country, people don’t know what to believe in,″ said Asama Thawornan, 39, a housewife who traveled six hours for Tuesday night’s ceremony. ``When some say Rahu can bring us good things, I come.″

For 10 years the world’s fastest growing nation, Thailand’s fortune turned last year. This year, things only got worse, forcing the country to seek a $17 billion international bailout, the second-largest ever.

The local currency, the baht, has lost a third of its value since July, half of Thailand’s financial institutions have been shut down because of non-performing loans, and the government has attempted to gut constitutional reforms aimed at ending corruption. Purchasing power is down, taxes are up and layoffs loom for thousands.

That sort of misery has helped boost Rahu’s stature. The deity can thank Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. Not only has the economy sunk even further under Yongchaiyudh’s 10-month stewardship, but his wife, Phankrua, is a big believer in Rahu’s astral powers.

Phankrua, who carries a jewel-studded elephant as a good-luck charm, reportedly was ready to attend Tuesday’s ceremony before bad press kept her away. But the publicity is credited with doubling the crowd. About 20,000 people turned out for the ceremony, where worshipers offered dishes of black food, including Coca-Cola, and burned incense sticks.

Some paid the equivalent of $8 to have prayers said for them.

``Many people gain good results after worshipping Rahu,″ said the abbot, Prakru Winaithorn Manitlasaro. ″That’s why so many have come.″

Even if their luck doesn’t improve, those who attended may feel less anxious, said Thanu Chartananondh, a psychologist with the Public Health Ministry.

The lunar eclipse is expected to be the last in Thailand this millennium, and many Thais, especially those struggling, might otherwise have viewed it as a bad omen.

``If this natural phenomenon had happened when people were doing well, it would not have become so important,″ Thanu said.

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