White Elephant War Pits Thailand Against Myanmar (Part II)

Part 2

The Generals Take Charge


Note from the Editors

This is the second part of a five-chapter story, excerpted from American writer Paul Sochaczewski’s forthcoming book, “Exceptional Encounters.”

In the first installment, we learned of the recent flare-up of an old dispute between Thailand and Myanmar: stolen white elephants.

While “Elephant Wars” is grounded in real people and places, the author has chosen, as he puts it, “to enhance its reality.” We offer the story to readers looking to explore the boundaries between fact and fiction, news and fake news. 

Where do you see the line?

By Paul Sochaczewski

What most outsiders fail to realize is that the two protagonists in the current white elephant dispute are collecting white elephants to consolidate their own shaky hold on power domestically.

In one corner, we find Brigadier General Tha Zan Maung, whose path to power was aided by a prolonged inability of the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi to overcome inertia, corruption, unrealistic expectations and naiveté.

As one Myanma journalist explained: “After several years of good intentions but little action, people were getting restless. The time was ripe for a coup.”

Myanmar bank note

In stepped Brigadier General Maung, a graduate of Sandhurst and the Said Business School at Oxford, to “save the country from the bumbling civilians,” as my friend put it.

“Maung knows that in order to get the people’s respect, he had to both achieve development goals and earn their acknowledgement that he is on a par with the great Buddhist kings.”

And in the other corner we have Thailand’s King Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned, a proud, rich, poorly educated, sickly man trying to retain some of the worshipful reverence accorded the previous monarchs of the Chakri Dynasty.


In Myanmar’s capital of Naw Pyi Taw, I met Colonel Tun Tun Oo, the Minister of Tradition and Cosmology, who explained his nation’s view of the conflict.

“It’s simple. Thailand is stealing our white elephants. They’re jealous because we now have more than them.”

white elephant

White elephant in enclosure, near Yangon, Myanmar (Photo by Paul Sochaczewski)

His Thai equivalent, Pattama Thongphakdee, who is information officer for the Royal Household, objected.

“Total nonsense. How can you even speak about Burmese white elephants as being important. Everyone knows that it’s the Thai white elephants that are ‘pure.’ We don’t need Burmese elephants.”

I asked her how many white elephants the king owns.

“That’s not for public information,” Thongphakdee told me. “The king doesn’t have to count his white elephants. He has nothing to prove.”

Myanmar, however, is not shy about publicizing white elephant numbers. They have 18 white elephants, which are proudly on display at specially built sanctuaries in Yangon and Naw Pyi Taw. This is arguably the most white elephants ever owned by a single ruler.  

In Bangkok, unofficial sources (veterinarians working in the various royal palaces and elephant sanctuaries) tell me the Thai king has 10 chang pheuk. Or 12. Maybe six.

“Plus, all the as-yet-undiscovered white elephants in the forests of the world that will belong to His Majesty,” one doctor added.


Is anyone keeping a true count? What’s so important about these elephants, anyway? Find out in the next installment of “Elephant Wars.”

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, Distant Greens, Curious Encounters of the Human Kind, Redheads, Share Your Journey and Soul of the Tiger (with Jeff McNeely). This satirical piece is excerpted from Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017.  Paul can be contacted at: www.sochaczewski.com.

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