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Revered white elephant caught in Burma

Only the third white elephant, a potent symbol of power and good fortune in Burma, to be found in Burma in the past decade has been caught by government workers in the country’s western Arakan state.

Officials from the forestry ministry were alerted on 26 June to sightings of the rare elephant by locals close to Maungdaw township, which has been hit by heavy flooding in the past fortnight, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper said today.

A sighting of a white elephant, perhaps the same one, in Arakan state in January this year was followed by an emergency deployment of army troops tasked with seeking out and bringing the capture to the capital, Naypyidaw, to be gifted to junta chief, Than Shwe.

The country’s ruling general, whose superstitious bent was a key catalyst behind the creation of Naypyidaw in 2005, has long sought a white elephant, and this discovery will likely be paraded as a sign that controversial elections this year have the backing of higher powers.

Two are already kept in a specially-built pavillion close to Rangoon, which was created by former Burmese prime minister, Khin Nyunt, an aficionado of the auspicious symbol. Their discovery in 2001 and 2002, also in Arakan state, was hailed by the junta as an indication of the growing strength of the ruling generals.

Although the white elephant is not a distinct species, it remains rare: in Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej owns 10, while former Cambodian king, Norodom Sihanouk, was presented with one in the early 1970s by former US vice president, Spiro Agnew.

The white elephant in Indian culture is a symbol of the Hindu god, Indra. Although the practice of Hinduism in Burma is now minimal, it is though to have greatly influenced pre-colonial kings, while Thagyamin, king of the nats – a form of worship practiced by the dominant Burman group – is identified with Indra.

Legend has it that Burma’s invasion of present-day Thailand in the 16th century followed a refusal by the then-King of Siam to bestow on Burma’s king, Bayin Naung, a white elephant. The subsequent invasion in 1563 has come to be known as the War of the White Elephant.

The New Light of Myanmar said the elephant was thought to be aged 38, and stands at more than seven feet.


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