A white elephant discovered in Burma and taken to Naypyitaw has been hailed as a sign of good fortune for the upcoming election in Burma. The elephant has been paraded in very politically significant displays by the Burmese government, which is largely military run. With a landmark election coming up (the first of its kind in over 20 years) one can wonder how this symbol of spiritual significance to the Burmese people will affect the outcome.
Animals have often been used as political symbols in times of great political change. And Burma has a long significant history involving white elephants. In the west the term White Elephant has to do with an object or possession that provides little value but at great cost to the possessor. In fact, the term came from the ancient Burmese tradition of keeping white elephants on hand. But the phrase does not take into consideration the significance such a creature could have to those who wield it like a political tool. As a side note, the United States too are no stranger to elephants being involved in politics, but the creatures’ Republican symbol has no known connection to the Burmese tradition.
To receive a white elephant from a monarch or presiding power was to know you were in favor with the king. But this favor carried with it a great price. Those who possessed it were entrusted to care for it and make sure the creature did not fall to great misfortune. Such a creature would in essence become the focus of many peoples’ lives. And the elephants received to the palace would be similarly cared for. To have a white elephant die on your watch was considered a curse indeed.
But the white elephant carries with it significance in today’s political arena as well in Burma. By discovering the animal, the largely Buddhist country will have to accept that the current administration, largely run by the military after it was seized preemptively from the previous elected power who was denied office.
Five white elephants have been discovered in Burma in recent years, a number too high to be considered mere coincidence by many who suggest the animals are being transplanted from other regions for political reasons. Still others are convinced the elephants are genuine, and they are present due to mystical circumstances and vigilant prayer. The creatures are all being cared for by various regional parties connected to the government.
Scientists would say the white elephant is really nothing more than a genetic mutation. Albinism is a genetic mutation that affects several different species where pigment is entirely absent in the skin. Often albinos will possess red eyes with difficult to see pupils. The trait can result in blindness, making white elephants all the more difficult to care for.
Will this white elephant be used as a symbol in Burma? No doubt it will, but to what end? And who will benefit most from its presence? And throughout it all, what spiritual significance will the people of Burma find in this creature?