Nathan Vanderklippe’s article in The Globe and Mail looks at how the so-called white elephant has become a vital element in statecraft in mainland Southeast Asia, particularly in Burma but also in Thailand.
White elephants hold power by virtue of a history possibly rooted in Vedic Hinduism, dating back more than two millennia, “where Indra, the king of the gods, is always depicted as seated upon exactly such a beast,” says Rupert Arrowsmith, a cultural historian at the University College London who has lived in Myanmar, where he has twice been ordained a monk.
Later, the mother of Gautama Siddhartha – Buddha – dreamed that a white elephant had entered her womb before giving birth, extending the animal’s influence to Buddhism. Burmese kings took “master of the white elephant” as one of their titles and the animals were afforded every luxury. They suckled human breasts as babies and as adults were ornamented with diamonds, kept in gold houses and fed from golden troughs.
Having them in place was among the most important events in the inauguration of a new capital. Their death, too, had great portent. Colonialists rooted out white elephants along with monarchies, since the animals were potent royal symbols.
In Myanmar, royal rule ended in 1885, and the tradition was only recently revived. Author Rena Pederson writes that military strongman Than Shwe, in power from 1992 to 2011, “desperately wanted one of the power symbols to signify his own kingly rule.” Mr. Arrowsmith speculates it might have to do with Than Shwe seeking legitimacy for his new capital, Naypyidaw, built at the cost of billions of dollars on an empty plain.
What seems clear is the collection of white elephants was a deliberate act. In 2008, Myanmar’s government created a White Elephant Capture and Training Group charged with the nationwide collection effort.