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World In Myanmar, white elephants are prized symbols of rulers

The elephants are fresh from their morning ritual, which includes a walk, a hand-scrub and a belly-filling feed of grasses and sugar cane, much of it grown at a 19-acre farm devoted to their appetites. Come evening, they will repeat the ritual, complete with a second wash-down, before U Kyaw Kyaw, the 56-year-old chief elephant master charged with their care, beds down with them, choosing the pachyderms over his wife as he always does.

The pampering may all seem a bit much for beasts typically pressed into heavy labour. These elephants, however, have their own load to bear on platinum-haired shoulders: the ambitions of Myanmar's ruling elites, who see in them nature's confirmation of their own greatness.

The difference is in their flesh, which to the untrained eye may look a striking shade of dusty pink. But to the current and former generals who run the country they are rare white elephants, prized as symbols of good fortune at a time when the military continues to cling to power despite nominally moving toward democracy. And in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, there's a bumper crop of such symbols.

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After the newest arrival was introduced in Naypyidaw, the capital, on Monday, six now luxuriate in a giant shaded enclosure, its roof fringed in gold and its floors kept immaculately clean. They look out on the gleaming Uppatasanti pagoda, its name meaning "protection against calamity." Three others are housed in Rangoon, bringing the total to nine white elephants – one born in captivity – amassed since 2010 by a military regime that has now switched from uniforms to suits in a parliament still dominated by active and former officers.

They have not been shy about trumpeting how well the white elephants reflect on their leadership. At the Royal White Elephant Garden, as the Naypyidaw enclosure is called (Myanmar has not had a monarchy for more than a century), tourists are handed brochures citing "learned persons of the past successive eras" to boast that white elephants appear to kings and governments who have ruled well. The "emergence of the white elephants is a good omen for the nation at a time when the state is endeavouring to build a peaceful, modern and developed nation," the brochure says.

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.

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When a new white elephant is spotted, the group dispatches a crew of 50 to prepare it for regal life. They track it, tranquilize it and take it to the nearest elephant training camp, where it spends weeks being pried out of its wild state. Part of the breaking includes being lashed to another elephant to walk, support it needs in part because "it is kept awake for a whole week, to make it weaker and prevent it from running away," U Kyaw Kyaw says. "But we don't hurt them. There's no beating them."

U Kyaw Kyaw comes from a family of elephant masters. His parents worked for Myanmar Timber Enterprise, a state-run company that owns nearly half of the 6,000 domesticated elephants in Myanmar, home to the biggest working herd on Earth. In a poor country where diesel machinery remains foreign to many, elephants still pull logs and harvest tea. But white ones are uncommon.

"Whenever I hear about a new white elephant, I'm happy for the government and for the country as well," U Kyaw Kyaw says. He had never seen one before being brought to train the capital's herd in 2011. The discovery of so many is, he says at first, "magic." Then he admits to a darker truth: "These days people keep cutting trees and colonizing the forests, so the elephants are coming out for food. That's why people have discovered them."

Be it occult or tragedy, there is nonetheless a problem. The elephants treasured by Myanmar's current rulers appear to have little in common with the silk-draped greats of ancient royal courts.

In Thailand, where traditions live on in a monarchy never deposed by colonialists, royal white elephants are still certified by a single, secretive family that classifies an animal according to its rank in four individual lineages tied to mythical Himalayan forests. "It is a very arcane business," says Richard Lair, a Thailand-based conservationist and expert on domesticated elephants.

Among the most important traits are the shape of the tail hair, the mottling on the inside of the mouth, the blotches on the head of the penis and even the sound of snoring.

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The one trait that seems not to matter is colour. Mr. Lair has seen all 11 of the Thai royal elephants – all officially still alive, although the top-ranked one died years ago. "They don't look white. They look just like ordinary elephants," he says. The Thai word for "white elephant" translates more accurately to "auspicious elephant."

That makes Mr. Lair suspicious about Myanmar's white elephants, which to his eyes look like mere albinos – curiosities, not talismans.

"My own feeling is the generals discovered these albino elephants and conflated them with what a white elephant was," he says. "In the old days they would not have been white elephants. They would have just been oddball elephants."

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