Telling the future can be a risky business. When French seer Nostradamus published his prophecies in the 16th century, he wrote in obscure verses apparently to prevent anybody calling him a heretic.
Thai soothsayer Thongbai Khamsri has a more humdrum problem: Lawyers.
“Knowing the future has brought me nothing but trouble,” says Mr. Thongbai, 73 years old, at his mountaintop retreat near Thailand’s border with Cambodia.
Shortly before New Year, a video clip of Mr. Thongbai circulated on YouTube in which he revealed that his young son, Suthat, had warned years before that a massive dam in eastern Thailand would collapse. According to Mr. Thongbai, his son had also predicted other disasters.
What really gave the prophecy a ring of truth among some Thais was Mr. Thongbai’s disclosure that Suthat had accurately foretold his own death at the age of five, nearly 40 years ago, before going on to list a series of cataclysms.
Faced with that kind of revelation, many Thais panicked, landing Mr. Thongbai in hot waterand in courtfor scaring off tourists from annual New Year celebrations at the dam and hurting the local economy. Mr. Thongbai was convicted of causing a public alarm, fined $17 and told to keep his mouth shut.
His conviction, though, has flung Thailand’s fortunetelling industry into uncharted territory, pitting the country’s age-old traditions of soothsaying against a modern-day world of Internet video-clips, tabloid television showsand lawsuits.
James Hookway/The Wall Street Journal
“Our country is changing, and fortunetellers need to adapt and choose their words more carefully,” said Pinyo Pongcharoen, president of the International Astrology Association in Bangkok, who is himself a lawyer. Clicking through a series of astrological charts on his laptop computer, he grumbled, “If we don’t, more of us are going to get sued.”
It is difficult to predict which version of Thailand will prevail, the old or the new. The country is famously superstitious. In recent months, people have lined the streets wherever Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra goes to get a glimpse of her official car’s license plates. In recent months they twice have corresponded with the winning numbers in the national lottery.
Top politicians and military leaders, meanwhile, regularly seek out fortunetellers. One of the most sought-after seers is an elderly woman who lives across the mosquito-infested border in Myanmar and who goes by the name of “E.T.”
But as this tropical kingdom has modernized amid Asia’s decadeslong economic boom, lawyers are competing with soothsayers for power and influence. In recent years, two governments have been brought down by legal challenges, and this growing litigiousness is quickly spreading to other parts of life hereup to and including the supernatural.
That’s got some top fortunetellers worried. They fear that seers such as Mr. Thongbai who warn of catastrophic events need to tone down their language before the government steps in to regulate the industry, as the country’s military leaders did in the 1960s.
Amulets for sale in Bangkok.
Astrologers, who use dates and times and the movement of the planets to make their prophecies, are especially annoyed. Kengkard Jongjaiprah pops up regularly on television talk shows to state that astrology is a science. He says seers such as Mr. Thongbai who base their predictions on visions or other supernatural phenomenon should be ignored.
“They are just making things up and selling their predictions,” Mr. Kengkard, wearing a leopard-skin pattern hat, said in one recent TV appearance.
Mr. Thongbai, who worked as a driver and now does some fruit farming, says he isn’t spreading his son’s prognostications for money, so “I have no reason to say anything that isn’t true.”
Some professional seers, such as popular TV astrologer Luck Rakanithes, say fortunetellers need to be free to reveal whatever is in the stars, whether the authorities like it or not. Like a handful of other prognosticators here, Mr. Luck has embraced new technology, giving readings by telephone text messages and employing a stable of call-center agents to talk customers through their astrological tables.
Other commentators wondered what would have happened if Mr. Thongbai was right. “Would he still be prosecuted, or would he be a hero?” asked Atiya Achakulwisit, an editor at the Bangkok Post newspaper.
As for Mr. Thongbai, he said he didn’t quite see this controversy coming.
Shortly before Suthat died in 1974, Mr. Thongbai said his son made a series of strange pronouncements, as well as foretelling that he would soon pass away. After their son died, Mr. Thongbai and his wife, Sunthana, grieved for years before a number of disasters across the world made them wonder about the boy’s pronouncements.
When an earthquake rocked northern Japan last March, Mr. Thongbai says he realized he had to speak up. With the help of a computer-savvy Buddhist monk and a local businessman, he made a video that the trio loaded up onto YouTube. Within days the clip went viral in Thailand.
Visitors from cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai continue to trek up the winding dirt road to the tin-roofed retreat Mr. Thongbai built at the top of Hidden Hill here to pray before Buddha statues and paintings of Suthat. Mr. Thongbai says the prophesy could still come true because Thailand’s New Year falls in April, although he says he hopes it will be proven wrong.
“It’s true that some people think I’m crazy, but I don’t care,” Mr. Thongbai said, pounding a bright-red mixture of betel nut and tobacco to chew on later. “I’m just like the postman delivering the news.”
Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed to this article.
James Hookway/The Wall Street JournalThongbai Khamsri pounds betel nut into a paste at a retreat he built in memory of his son Suthat.