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Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Burma’s Generals Hope White Elephants Provide Jumbo Support

Posted on 25. Jun, 2010 by in Articles, Curious Travel

Burma’s Generals Hope White Elephants Provide Jumbo Support

Burma’s Generals Hope White Elephants Provide Jumbo Support

Trying to restore some of the good vibes that come with rare pale pachyderms


Most new national capitals feature monumental architecture, statues to independence heroes, broad boulevards, cultural centers and shopping malls.

Burma’s new, deliberately-isolated and rarely-visited capital, Naypyidaw (which means “royal capital” in Burmese), some 320 kilometers north of Rangoon, apparently has few of these standard features.

But Naypyidaw may soon have something even rarer and more portentous–a new white elephant.  Word around Rangoon has it that one of these rare creatures, a male, has been captured and is kept in the Phokyar Elephant Camp in Bogo Division, some 350 km distant.   Once an auspicious date can be determined, the animal will be unveiled in the new capital.

It’s unclear why Burma’s ruling generals chose to move the capital from Rangoon [the junta changed the city’s name to Yangon and the country’s name to Myanmar]  to Naypyidaw.  Some wags say the new, inland capital was selected to protect the petroleum-rich country from an Iraq-like invasion by the United States.  Another argument is that the centrally-located Naypyidaw allows the army a better chance to patrol the restive border regions of the ethnic Shan, Chin and Karen states.  Regardless, an underlying incentive is the belief that a Burmese king (or in this case General Than Shwe, the country’s senior leader) could consolidate his power by listening to court astrologers and creating a new capital.

This reliance on fortune tellers is not new.  General Ne Win, who came to power in 1962, was totally dependent on their advice. Fortune tellers told him to change the direction of traffic overnight, which he did, causing huge confusion and numerous accidents.  He had a penchant for the number “nine”, and in 1987 the government removed the 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes and replaced them with 45 and 90 kyat bills; denominations which could be divided by his favorite number.

Even today seers determine propitious times for major events.  The present military junta began moving government ministries from Rangoon to Naypyidaw at exactly 06:37 on 6 November 2005. Five days later, at 11 a.m., a second convoy of 1,100 military trucks carrying 11 military battalions and 11 government ministries left Rangoon.

* * * * *

Burma already has three official white elephants, which are on public display in an enclosure near the Rangoon airport, guarded by armed soldiers with M16s who politely enforce a “no photography” policy.

The white elephants are fed with fruit from nearby gardens.  They spend their days protected from the sun but are nevertheless chained on a tennis-court-sized concrete platform.

Some cynics claim that at least one of the three Burmese white elephants was stolen from a Bangladeshi farmer.  In a perhaps apocryphal tale which is nevertheless widespread in Rangoon, it seems that a Bangladeshi peasant somehow made his way to Rangoon, said to the astonished authorities “that’s my elephant” and demanded compensation.  The Burmese authorities scoffed, asking him to prove his claim.  So the farmer spoke to the white elephant in Bengali, the animal responded, and the startled authorities gave the man a fistful of US dollars.

* * * * *

White elephants have played a jumbo-sized role in Burma’s geopolitical ambitions.  As U Toke Gale, the country’s leading elephant expert, explained: “The white elephant has always been a symbol of Buddhism, of prestige, prosperity and political power, and has, at the same time, been for centuries one of the chief causes of invasions and plunder among some countries of the East.” Between 1549 and 1769, for example, the Buddhist kings of Burma, Thailand and Cambodia fought a two-hundred year series of violent and important battles over, in part, which ruler had the greatest number of pale pachyderms.

The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper does not hesitate to predict that the discovery of the country’s three white elephants heralded a new era of prosperity. “Throughout history, white elephants emerged during the time of Myanmar kings and governments who ruled the nation discharging the ten kingly duties,” the government newspaper reported.  “It is said that the white elephant brings peace, stability and prosperity…. a good omen when the State is endeavouring to build a peaceful, modern and developed nation.”

To some sceptics white elephants are just animals with recessive genes that give them albino-like characteristics and other curious attributes like particularly-shaped tails and ears, or a white palate or genitals.  But to true believers, and to people like Burma’s military leaders who use the white elephants to legitimise their positions on the top of the hierarchal totem pole, white elephants are true incarnations of Lord Buddha and are as sacred to many Buddhists as a saviour born to a virgin is to Catholics.

* * * * *

Is the white elephant a genetic abnormality or a heaven-sent omen?

Some wildlife experts in Burma would like to try to breed the country’s white elephants.  But I wanted the official government position on such an attempt at barnyard-like breed-improving. Turns out this would be anathema to government officials.  Through a friend I obtained a meeting Lt. Col (retired) U Shu Maung, the general manager (extraction) of Myanma Timber Enterprise, who is responsible for capturing and maintaining the country’s white elephants.  U Shu Maung explained that the white elephant is a sort of cosmic herald which ”only appears during the reign of the righteous leaders.”  More practically, one Rangoon-based cynic asked what would happen if they bred two white elephants and 22 months later found they had created an ugly, or even a malformed creature?  That would be terrible for the image of a holy-pachyderm, and for the image of the sensitive generals and their State Peace and Development Council.

I visited U Shu Maung in his headquarters on the outskirts of Rangoon.  To reach his large office, decorated with samples of the dozens of types of wood Burma produces (much of which is smuggled to neighbouring Thailand), I wandered past offices that seem Dickensian with a tropical touch – sleepy clerks surrounded by disintegrating paper binders filled with the outputs of a few ancient Underwood typewriters.  U Shu Maung, a jolly man who obviously enjoys a comfortable life in Rangoon, did not hesitate to spin the significance of these rare animals:  “Their presence signifies a new Myanmar renaissance,” he said.

Burma’s three white elephants, two males and a female, were found in the forests of Rakhine state, near the border with Bangladesh.  Capturing a renaissance symbol is serious business.  U Saw Sei, the veterinarian who tranquillized the rare animal relates how nervous he was during the sensitive procedure.  “This is heavy duty work,” he said, explaining that they couldn’t dart the elephant in a swamp or near a river (it might drown) or too close to a steep incline (it could stumble and become injured).  “We understood that ‘if you don’t capture it, don’t come back home’,” he said.

I asked U Thaung Nyunt, the assistant manager of Myanma Timber Enterprise who also participated in the capture, what would have happened if his team failed to catch the elephant?  Half joking, he ran his index finger under his chin, in a universal sign of “big trouble”.

* * * * *

Of Burma’s three white elephants, four-year old Rati Marlar (Precious Flower), is the most recent white elephant in Burma’s stable.  Captured at 17.20 on July 18, 2002, she is a beautiful animal, with skin the colour of pinkish sand, white eyelashes, pearl-coloured eyes, five toenails on the front feet, four on the back, as playful as any four year old.

While Precious Flower is clearly special, it is rare that a white elephant is so easily discernible.

I was bewildered when I saw another of Burma’s white elephants, Raja Gaja Sri Pyitsaya  (Graceful and Auspicious Elephant King).  To a layman it appeared disturbingly ordinary.

The problem, I learned, is that white elephants are rarely white, and it can often be difficult for non-specialists to tell at a glance that they are viewing an incarnation of Lord Buddha.

Which leads to the job description of one of the world’s more arcane disciplines:  white elephant-determining-expert.  Interpreting ancient Thai and Burmese texts, these men have esoteric arguments about the 12 different categories of white elephant that sometimes sound like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Nevertheless, most experts agree that in order for a white elephant to be kosher it has to have four toenails instead of the normal five, the skin has to turn red, not black, when sprayed with water, the tail and trunk should be straight and long, and the eyes must have yellow irises enclosed by red rings.  Some authorities decree that a white elephant must not snore but should emit the gentle sounds of Burmese and Thai classical musical instruments.

Savet Dhanapradit, a member of Thailand’s White Elephant Selection Committee, remembers the complications of his first charge, in the late 1950s: “We received word at the palace that there was a miraculous elephant at a village near the town of Yala.  People who drank water from its trunk were cured of their ills…But the elephant wasn’t perfect…not so beautiful, but it was very intelligent and mixed well with people. My only objection was that her toenails were not suitable. My bosses and I argued for a month about that animal. In the end I concurred with my superiors and signed the certificate [making the animal a chang samkhan].”  Savet Dhanapradit says the even the Royal Stable’s top current white elephant, considered the finest beast in generations, is only “80% perfect.”

* * * * *

How did white elephants become so powerful?

Like other key Asian symbols, the white elephant mystique has its beginnings in animistic beliefs that were subsequently adopted and adapted by proponents of new religions.

In ancient pre-Hindu, pre-Buddhist times, a white elephant was associated with rain clouds and, like the cobra-nagas, was a symbol of life and prosperity. It made sense then for Hindu priests to build on this time-proven perception and elephants were built into Hindu mythology. Four-tusked Airavata, who rose to the surface when the celestial Sea of Milk was churned, was an elephant Adam and begat all the elephants which followed. Just as sun-eagle Garuda became the mount of Hindu god Vishnu, the elephant became the steed of Indra, the Hindu god of the heavens.

Subsequent Buddhist teachers built on the already deep-rooted Hindu beliefs. Airavata, they argued, had been an incarnate Buddha (bodhisattva).  But raising the stakes even higher, they said that the holy white elephant appeared in a dream to Lord Buddha’s mother-to-be, Maya. The future Buddha, in his elephant form, held in his silvery trunk a white lotus flower (the symbol of the yoni, female genitalia). The white elephant uttered a long, drawn-out cry, bowed three times, and touched his forehead to the floor. Then he gently struck Maya’s right side, and entered her womb.  The Queen reported this extraordinary vision to the court astrologers, who divined that she would bring forth a great king or a great seer. Nine months later, Prince Siddhartha was born.

Like any religious symbol, particularly one which represents a god-king, a visitor is advised not to make fun of the importance of the white elephant.  An entertainment called Wilson’s English Circus visited Bangkok in the late nineteenth century and drew a huge crowd by advertising that a real white elephant would participate in the next performance. According to Norwegian traveller Carl Bock, “two clowns came in and began jesting about the white elephant. Then in came a small Indian elephant, appearing as white as snow; not a dark spot could be seen anywhere. But the elephant left white marks on everything he touched. He was chalked all over, and when one of the clowns told the other to ‘rub his nose against the elephant and he will leave his mark on you,’ an ominous silence was maintained by the great mass of the people, only broken here and there by a suppressed titter.”  The Thais were naturally annoyed that fun was being made of an incarnated Buddha. In the usual Thai way of avoiding open criticism, they merely expressed their confident belief that Wilson would be punished for his disrespect of the Lord Buddha. Several days after the Bangkok fiasco, the impostor elephant died at sea on a trip to Singapore. The too-clever Mr. Wilson suffered from dysentery during the voyage and died almost immediately on landing. The reputation of the true white elephant remained untarnished.

* * * * *

While Burma is forthright (and proud) about how many white elephants they have, it is surprisingly difficult to figure out how many of the auspicious creatures live in neighbouring countries.  Sources in the Royal Household in Thailand say that King Bhumibol, who has led his country during five decades of development, has eight chang pheuk.  (The Thais distinguish between a chang samkhan, an elephant which, according to the ancient guidelines, possesses some of the characteristics of white elephant, and a chang pheuk, the honorary title of “lord” that is bestowed once the king accepts a chang samkhan.  As evidence perhaps that old rivalries linger, U Shu Maung in Burma, says he doesn’t believe that Thailand has any white elephants.  Leading elephant conservationists think that sleepy Laos has two (one in the zoo in Vientiane, one sighted in the wild by a helicopter pilot) while Cambodia, which paradoxically is undergoing a mini business-boom, has none.

World leaders have always sought supernatural and spiritual justification for their rule.  In the case of Burma’s military junta, which lost a 1990 election to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party but refused to relinquish power, the country’s powerful generals are not shy about declaring themselves de facto royalty.

Perhaps building on the white elephant/ruling authorities/nation building concept, the elaborate naming ceremony for Burma’s third white elephant (a command performance for the diplomatic corps and high-ranking officials) was held on February 12, Burma’s Union Day.  Authorities say that the date was chosen by astrologers and it is just a coincidence that the auspicious event coincided with a national holiday which marks Bogyoke Aung San’s short-lived achievement of unifying Burma’s disparate ethnic groups.

As much as Burmese kings sought the power that white elephants provided, the monarchs similarly were terrified when one of their white elephants fell sick.  When his favourite white elephant was dying, 19th century King Thibaw, the last Burmese monarch, desperately bestowed vast treasures on the animal – the elephant’s forehead was decked with a spray of diamonds to ward off evil spirits, golden pendants were hung from his ears, and above his gold feeding trough a mirror specially ordered from France was installed to reflect his glory.  Yet the white elephant died. The pundits predicted plagues, floods, and earthquakes.  But the real disaster was more prosaic. The British took over Burma and deposed the king.

* * * * *

The last two Burmese kings, Mindon and Thibaw, had white elephants.  Each holy pachyderm had its own palace, guarded by 30 servants, one of them a minister. As a sinecure, each elephant was granted a province whose revenue it could “eat up”.

The Governor of Pegu (now Bago, a city 80 km north of Rangoon) noted in a report to King Bodaw-paya that a “pure” white elephant captured in 1806 was treated, well, royally.  A golden barge escorted by gilded canoes filled with dancers and musicians was sent down the Irrawaddy River (named after Burma’s version of the sacred white elephant Airavata) to fetch the animal.  The elephant was bathed in scented sandalwood and housed in a specially-built palace of five golden spires that was inlaid with rubies.  Its entire route was lined with live banana and sugar-cane trees.

Sir James George Scott, a British civil servant who wrote a classic book The Burman under the pen-name Shway Yoe, adds that a baby white elephant in Burma in the 1850s was suckled by ladies who “stood in a long row outside his palace, and the honour was eager sought after, for the creature was a national pride and not merely a royal monopoly.”  In spite of all the mothers’ milk, the Lord White Elephant, as it was called, was hot blooded and on one occasion killed an Englishman who had ventured too near.  The king heard the commotion and enquired what was the matter. When he was told, he expressed great concern – a Lord White Elephant is a repository of good deeds and should not bear the red stain of murder.   But the elephant’s minister calmed the monarch by saying, “Pray do not be disturbed, paya, it was not a man, only a foreigner.”

White elephants are treated with great respect even in modern times.  When a white elephant calf was born in Burma in the 1950s (the nation’s last such blessing – all subsequent white elephants have been wild caught), a chronicler noted: “People of all races…threw at her feet silver coins….some people fell on their knees and gave her homage, and many were near to weeping with religious fervour.”

* * * * *

Yes, there is a subtle link to the white elephant and the western expression of something being worthless.  An ancient king of Siam was surrounded by innumerable offspring, nephews, and cousins vying for official state appointments that the king had to be creative to come up with sufficient titles to go around. Thais are invariably polite, so the king devised a particularly Asian way to punish a pesky relative, by making him an offer he couldn’t refuse.  The king devised the position of Keeper of the Sacred Royal White Elephants and gave the irritating syncophant a position of trust and honour by making him responsible for the care, feeding, and costuming of one of the king’s white elephant, all to be paid for out of the keeper’s own purse.  The honoured keeper soon found himself penniless as a result of being forced to support huge and economically unrewarding animal, which, as the sacred possessions of the king, had to have only the best of everything.

* * * * *

In early 2003, Thailand and Cambodia nearly fought a war when Cambodians took umbrage at an imagined comment made by Thai actress Suvanan Kongying who, according to angry Cambodians, said that Angkor Wat should be returned to Thailand. Students of history know that the animosity between these two neighbours had its peak in the two hundred year “white elephant wars”.  Between 1549 and 1769 the kings of Thailand, Cambodia and Burma fought a series of violent and important battles over which ruler had the greatest number of pale pachyderms.

During a particularly bloody 16th century encounter, Thai King Mahachakrapat demanded that King Ang Chan of Cambodia give the Thais a white elephant as reparation for the 1549 destruction of Prachinburi.  After Ang Chan indignantly refused, Mahachakrapat sent in the elephant tanks.  But the Thais were soundly defeated in the battle and Ang Chan gloatingly called the site of the victory “Siem Reap,” which mean “the defeat of Siam.” (Today, Siem Reap is the town closest to the Cambodian Angkor Wat temple complex.)  But Mahachakrapat didn’t give up – in 1558 he sent a stronger army to Angkor Wat, defeated Ang Chan, and returned with a coveted white elephant.

Thailand fought similar battles on its western front with Burma, and white elephant-related plunder was partly responsible for the creation of Burma’s national symbol, the golden stupa of Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda.

I strolled around this spectacular structure, which Rudyard Kipling described as “a golden mystery on the horizon — a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun,” with one of Burma’s respected elder statesmen. My friend shielded his eyes from the reflection.  “It’s said that there is more gold on the Shwedagon Pagoda than in the vaults of the Bank of England,” he explained, in awe from both the religious importance of the site and the quantity of gold leaf on the stupa.  My companion added that much of Shwedagon’s gold was liberated from Thailand during the white elephant wars.

For me the white elephant wars were an enigma.  How could two and a half centuries of bloodshed be consecrated to a symbol of the peaceful Lord Buddha?  I wondered if W. Somerset Maugham presciently saw the current state of events when he compared Shwedagon’s golden presence to “a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.”

My friend, who has lived through the British colonial period, the Japanese occupation and a succession of post-colonial governments, thinks the presence of a few white elephants doesn’t mean much.  “What will be will be,” he said, obliquely referring to the future of the much-whispered-about, oppressive military regime.  “If you meditate and do good work then good fortune will come.  You will be judged by your actions.”

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