Status-Obsessed Myanmar Junta Chief’s Reverence for White Elephants Draws Ridicule

By The Irrawaddy 4 August 2022

In Myanmar, which is rich in biodiversity and natural resources, discoveries of large rubies and albino elephants are not unheard of. But when these rare finds occur under military rule, the generals tend to see them as nature’s confirmation of their own greatness. They always boast of them as national talismans, only to be ridiculed by Myanmar people.

Under the now ousted National League for Democracy government from 2016 to 2020, there were no reports of discoveries of white elephants or giant rubies. And people were not bothered by the lack of them.

For ancient Myanmar kings, “white elephants” are not necessarily Albino elephants. The term can be generally translated as “auspicious elephants”, being “white” in terms of their purity. Historically they are prized as symbols of power and good fortune, and the status of a king is evaluated by the number of white elephants in his possession. However, the beasts have never contributed to the wellbeing of ordinary people.

It was former military dictator Senior General Than Shwe who first politicized white elephants and rubies in Myanmar. “White elephants appear to kings and governments that have ruled well, and are good omens for the country,” his regime preached as it attempted to exploit the ancient belief.

Then-dictator Than Shwe visits a white elephant. / The Irrawaddy

Under the previous military regime, which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and later the State Peace and Development Council, a giant ruby was discovered and named after the SLORC. It wasn’t for another nine years that a white elephant emerged.

But Min Aung Hlaing appears to be eager to show that he is greater than his predecessors. Junta media reported on July 7 that a giant ruby had been discovered and named after the regime’s governing body, the State Administration Council (SAC). Nearly one month later on Aug. 2, the regime said that a white elephant had been born in captivity.

The male calf was born on July 24 in Rakhine State’s Taungup and meets seven out of the eight characteristics of white elephants, the regime said. Not surprisingly, the little pachyderm made the front-pages of junta-controlled newspapers the following day along with ridiculous articles saying how well the white elephants reflect the virtuous leadership of the country’s rulers, in this case, Min Aung Hlaing.

Traditionally, white elephants have been viewed as highly auspicious in the cultures of Southeast Asia. In ancient times, rulers took possession of as many as they could capture, hoping fortune would favor them.

The English expression “white elephant”—a useless possession that is expensive to maintain—is derived from the crippling expense of keeping such animals in a style appropriate to their status.

Historically in Myanmar, Burmese monarchs were obsessed with the title “master of the white elephant”, as the number of white elephants in their possession was believed to reflect their innate superiority and symbolize national prosperity. They would take the title “master of the white elephant” even if the animals were killed before they could be brought to them. Despite their possession of the animals, Myanmar fell under colonial rule and the monarchy was rooted out in the 19th century.

Military spy chief Gen. Khin Nyunt pours sanctified water over a white elephant at a ceremony in July 2002 at the Royal White Elephant Garden. / MRTV

In the 20th century, megalomaniac and conservative generals like dictator Than Shwe and military spy chief General Khin Nyunt resurrected the beliefs associated with white elephants. They even worshipped them.

“There is no connection between white elephants and the development of the country. Elephants are animals whether they are white or black,” prominent historian Dr. Than Tun told Washington-based Radio Free Asia (Burmese Service).

When asked what he thought of people worshipping albino elephants, the late outspoken historian replied: “Elephants are animals. If someone worships them, they become inferior to animals.”

To Myanmar people, they are just elephants whose skin is an unusual color, and nothing more. But one thing is certain, they are not happy to be ruled by the people who worship elephants.

The generals’ white elephant mania

Nine white elephants emerged under the previous military regime and U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration. Three of them are currently being kept in Naypyitaw and three others in Yangon.

Sai Mauk Kham, a vice president in the Thein Sein administration from 2011 to early 2016, pours sanctified water over a white elephant in 2015.

During his heyday, military spy chief Khin Nyunt copied Myanmar monarchs and held various ceremonies such as naming and food-providing ceremonies for white elephants. Acting President U Myint Swe of the current regime, who was then the chief of the Myanmar military’s Yangon Command, was present at those ceremonies. But it appears that white elephants did not bring good luck for the spy chief. He was purged in 2004, just a few years after the first white elephant was found.

Dictator Than Shwe had 5,000-kyat banknotes printed with the image of a white elephant in 2009. People viewed it as an act of Yadaya—magical rituals done to delay, neutralize or prevent misfortune, widely practiced in Myanmar.

Rumor had it that two private planes reserved for Myanmar’s then junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe and four other top leaders were named “White Elephant.” According to the regime’s Ministry of Transport, the two ATR 72-500 planes, painted in white, were used by the top five military officers at that time—Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Vice Senior General Maung Aye, General Thura Shwe Mann, Prime Minister General Thein Sein and Secretary 1 General Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo.

Later, as president, ex-general U Thein Sein made an awkward remark during his trip to Ayeyarwady Region, calling on locals to have “pure minds” like white elephants. The April 5, 2015 issues of the state-run newspapers reported that the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was able to be signed thanks to the white elephants.

In 2013, the Thai government proposed that Myanmar lend white elephants to it. But U Thein Sein’s government rejected the idea.

Will the White Elephants Save Min Aung Hlaing?

The current and former generals have never been shy about their contradictions. Min Aung Hlaing is the worst in that regard.

This handout photo taken on Aug. 2, 2022, and released on Aug. 3 by Myanmar’s Military Information Team, shows a newborn baby white elephant walking in Taungup Township, Rakhine State. / AFP

Over the past 18 months since the coup, he has embarked on a project to build a Buddha statue, touted as the world’s biggest sitting Buddha statue, in Naypyitaw, and boasted that his SAC ruby is bigger than the SLORC ruby. And, he boasts, his white elephant possesses more of the requisite traits for white elephant status than eight previous specimens.

Including the latest one, Min Aung Hlaing now has 10 white pachyderms in his possession. So, he may add the title of “master of the white elephant” to his other titles—commander-in-chief of defense services, prime minister, SAC chairman and two that he gave himself on April 17: Sadoe Thiri Thudhamma—The Most Glorious Order of Truth—and Sadoe Maha Thray Sithu—the Order of the Union of Myanmar.

On the other hand, it is possible that Min Aung Hlaing is simply fooling himself, hoping his white elephant will provide a distraction amid pressure from the international community over his failed coup and resultant economic recession.

At the same time, the whole country wants to see him on the gallows because of his numerous crimes against humanity. As an extremely conservative dictator like his predecessors, he may irrationally think that worshipping white elephants would save him from the gallows.

The emergence of white elephants will bring no good for the Myanmar people, but have pity for the newborn elephant, who will be held in captivity in Naypyitaw rather than grow old in the wild, thanks to the craziness of Min Aung Hlaing.