BANGKOK – Myanmar’s rulers left little to chance as they prepare to stage a much-criticised election on November 7, the county’s first in two decades. Perhaps unaware of the English meaning of the term, and hence the irony, on October 21 in Naypidaw they paraded a real-life white elephant named Nandavati, the fifth to be put on show in the service of the state.
The animals have a place in southeast Asian political lore, signifying virtuous and legitimate rulers. Dr Maung Zarni, a Burmese lecturer at the London School of Economics, said that “the General’s quest for albino elephants is partly rooted in history, as they try to portray themselves as the rightful descendants of the country’s feudal kings and emperors, who all treasured white elephants as symbols of power and virtue”.
The following day, in another ritual with political overtones, Senior General Than Shwe, the country’s military dictator, launched a new flag and renamed the country “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. According to Ingrid Jordt, an anthropologist who studies Burmese religion and culture, “this was done on the advice of soothsayers in order that the bad karma would follow the old government-nation-flag”, in an attempt to reverse the bad vibes generated by the regime’s crackdown on Buddhist monks and other protestors after the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”.
While an estimated 89% of Burmese citizens are Buddhist, astrology and numerology are popular and folk beliefs are entrenched. Some people believe that if a man goes near a clothes-line used to dry women’s underwear, he will lose his willpower and his mojo. In turn, the junta is rumoured to hide women’s underwear in visiting diplomat’s rooms, in the hope that this will undermine their negotiation skills.
Myanmar’s rulers have long resorted to what outsiders might view as arcane superstition. General Ne Win was the country’s first military dictator, seizing power in a 1962 coup. An occultist and numerologist, his economic mismanagement brought Burma from relative prosperity to the penury endured by the 40% of civilians living below the poverty line today. Ne Win’s economic white elephants contributed to the mess. His 1989 introduction the 45-kyat and 90-kyat banknotes – multiples of his lucky number 9 – caused chaos in the economy. in 2005, successor dictator Than Shwe ordered farmers to grow jatropha – a crop from which biofuels are harnessed, However locals speculate that some wordplay was involved. In Burmese, the word for jatropha reads like an inversion of Suu Kyi, reminiscent of the country’s detained pro-democracy figurehead, and hence a reversion of her power, according to the logic of the occult.
In November the same year, Than Shwe created a new capital city named Naypidaw, in a remote jungle location in the centre of the country, far from the British-established capital of Rangoon. Historically, founding a new capital has been undertaken by new ruling dynasties in Myanmar, partly to generate positive hpoun – or karma – for the new regime. Ben Rogers is a Myanmar expert with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and has visited the new city. It has all the trappings of a white elephant boondoggle, going by Rogers’ account. He described it as “a strange collection of buildings spread out in different zones, with several miles of brushland in between each zone.” Unlike most of the country, he added, there is electricity, lighting up buildings near “brand new highways with almost no traffic on them.”
Experts say, however, it is important not to overstate the role of ritual, or under-estimate the junta’s savvy in utilising esoteric means to underpin their grip on power. According to Guy Lubeigt, a scholar of the country’s culture and religion, “the possession of white elephant brings a religious legitimacy to their claim to rule the country. In the eyes of the believers this claim cannot be denied and they are helpless to counter it.”
The interaction of politics and ritual is not unique to Myanmar, however, with parallels elsewhere in southeast Asia. During anti-government protests in Bangkok earlier in 2010, “red shirts” gave blood as part of a grisly Khmer ritual, the culmination of which saw the liquid poured at Thailand’s Government House and then on the gates of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva’s home, part of the protest group’s campaign to force the PM to call early elections. The ruling Democrat party ran counter-rituals while cleaning the blood, aiming to negate the red shirt curse. While in power, red shirt backer and former Thai Prime Minister forged close ties with Burma’s junta, ostensibly based on Thailand’s growing trade and investment ties, but perhaps more to do with a soothsayer he consulted in Rangoon.Show