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The generals and the elephant


The Herald (Glasgow) November 10, 2001

Briefing: White elephant

Q: How so?

A: A white elephant might be a burden here, but in Burma, Thailand, and 
Laos it is revered.

Q: Why?

A: The white, or albino, elephant is said to bring peace, stability, 
prosperity, and bumper harvests, while warding off danger.

Q: Any evidence that it works?

A: Not really. Burma-watchers are treating the news of the find with a 
pinch of salt because it was reported by the New Light of Myanmar 
newspaper. It is the mouthpiece of the junta and, unsurprisingly, concluded 
that the auspicious event boded well for the military rulers.

Q: So do white elephants exist?

A: Oh yes. They belong to the species elephas maximus, or Asiatic elephant. 
The other species, loxodonta africana, is the African elephant. Elephants 
are the biggest surviving animals on land, and among the mammals are 
exceeded in size only by the whales. Albino elephants are not strictly white.

Q: What colour are they?

A: Their skin is light pink in the rain and a soft reddish- brown in the 
sun. They have fair eyelashes and toenails. There are ancient Asian 
references to a white elephant with multiple tusks.

Q: Where exactly?

A: In Buddhist legend. Maha Maya, the mother of Gautama Buddha, the founder 
of Buddhism, had a dream about a white elephant with six tusks. It was 
taken to mean that she had conceived a child who would be a world ruler or 

Q: What happened?

A: After 10 lunar months the child was born from her right hip. Seven days 
later she died but was reborn in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods 
(Tavatisma Heaven).

Q: Why, in the English language, does white elephant mean a useless, costly 
possession that is difficult to get rid of?

A: White elephants are the symbol of kingship in Thailand. They are 
regarded as semi-sacred and must be dealt with respectfully by their 
keepers. It is said that the kings of Siam (Thailand's former name) gave 
white elephants to obnoxious courtiers, the aim being to bring financial 
ruin upon the offensive court attendant because of the great cost involved 
in maintaining the animal.



Posted 8 April 2001 by darnott

It appears that the good luck generated by the possession of the Mandalay 
Airport white elephant (see article below) has not proved sufficient for 
the Burmese generals, and another is in gestation at Pegu. Could it be that 
they are planning a breeding programme for white elephants? If so, this 
could provide a useful boost to Burma's exports.


Subject: Myanmar Gets Set For Third International Airport To: 

Saturday, April 7 [2001]

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) The cornerstone has been laid for the terminal 
building at Myanmars planned third international airport near Bago, 80 
kilometers north of Yangon Construction of the new airport is scheduled to 
be completed in four years, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper 
reported Saturday. Speaking at the cornerstone-laying ceremony Friday, 
Transport Minister Maj. Gen. Hla Myint Swe said the facility, to be called 
"Hanthawaddy International airport," would boost tourism, reported the 
newspaper. Hanthawaddy is the ancient name for Bago, which is also called 
Pegu. The new airport will have the capacity to simultaneously serve 1,000 
arriving and 1,000 departing passengers, said Hla Myint Swe at the 
ceremony, which was attended by Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, a top member of 
Myanmar's ruling military council. The Department of Public Works has been 
working on the 12,000 foot long, 200 foot wide runway since 1994, and 
22.94% of the earthwork has been completed, said the newspaper. 
Construction of the airport building and related facilities such as the 
control tower, taxiway and power system will be undertaken by the South 
Korean company Archon Co., said the transport minister. The cost of the 
construction project wasn't reported. Myanmars second international airport 
opened last year in Mandalay, the country's second largest city, 560 
kilometers north of the capital. The country's main airport in Yangon has 
been renovated over the past few years.



(Internet, 22/9/2000)

I suspect that the construction of the new Mandalay airport is another of 
the generals' attempts to acquire luck and magical power in their contest 
with the Lady -- this time by possession of a large white elephant.

In Burma as in most South and South-east Asia, the white elephant is 
traditionally regarded as semi-divine,  a bringer of good luck, and is 
treated with great veneration: "The 'Lord White Elephant' -- or Sinbyudaw 
-- commanded social status second only to the king in the hierarchy of 
the  royal court. Sinbyudaw were treated with reverence and had white 
parasols held over them wherever they went. Young white elephants were even 
suckled  by women in the royal court who considered it a great honour to 
feed the  elephant with their own milk" (Asiatours history of Myanmar )

While it is unlikely that the members of the State Peace and Development 
Council will literally emulate the ladies of the Burmese court,  we should 
not be surprised to read of senior officers walking round the airport, 
shading the runways with white umbrellas, or spraying them with milk from 
tankers ("donated" by local entrepreneurs).

What is certain is that the new Mandalay Airport is the biggest and most 
expensive Burmese White Elephant of recent days, and is thus likely to 
bring good fortune to those responsible. The only problem is that the 
actual use of the airport by tourists and other foreigners, arriving in 
wide-bodied jets and wearing shoes, could well profane the site and thus 
reduce the benefit.  With this in mind, the military junta will no doubt do 
its utmost to discourage tourism by stepping up the frequency of 
atrocities, increasing the penalties for foreign distribution of leaflets, 
maintaining current visa requirements and placing administrative obstacles 
in the way of air carriers and  tour operators. Oh yes, and making sure 
there is not enough generating capacity to avoid airport brown-outs at 
awkward moments. In fact they will do whatever it takes to keep the balance 
tilted towards them in their magical contest with the Lady.


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