White elephant war pits Thailand against Myanmar (Part I)

White Elephant

White elephant at the Mount Popa Monastery in Myanmar (Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons)

A note from the author

I usually write about true, unusual Asian encounters with exceptional people, about strange events that defy Western logic.

Tales of folly and greed, ambition and dreams. My books (with the exception of my novel “Redheads”) are non-fiction. They tell of events that I experienced.

My next book — “Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia” — takes the seeds of the true stories I wrote earlier and applies the classic fiction-writer’s aerobic exercise by asking: What if?

What if I were to take a germ of an idea, a pinch of veracity, and create, well, an untruth — an untruth leaping off the ground, allowing the wind of levitation and bewilderment to whoosh through.

But even soaring fiction needs to be anchored to the ground; we all know a kite won’t fly without someone holding the string.

This story, “White Elephant Wars,” is a chapter from “Exceptional Encounters,” which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017.

Part One

Myanmar, Thailand dispute re-erupts after 250-year cease fire

At stake: the power of the kings

By Paul Sochaczewski

The Western media have paid scant attention to recent border skirmishes between Myanmar and Thailand. The two countries have bombed each other’s military bases, sent troops over the border into the other country’s territory, withdrawn ambassadors and closed official border crossings.

Some observers say the fight is about territory. Or maybe illegal trade. Perhaps drug dealing gone awry. Maybe conflicting political systems.

But the real reason for the conflict is that each country has been stealing the other’s white elephants to prop up beleaguered heads of state. A white elephant has always been a symbol of a just and revered Buddhist king, and the rulers of Thailand and Myanmar need all the symbolic power they can get.

* * *

The triggering incident is unclear, but two versions are heard, depending on which country you believe.

In the first, told by Myanmar sympathizers, the Thais intercepted a Myanmar road convoy transporting two white elephants to the Chinese provincial capital of Kunming, where they were going to be put on display as a symbol of friendship between the two countries.

The Thais captured the trucks containing the animals in northern Myanmar and spirited the animals across the border to a secret location near Chiang Mai.

The second story, told by the Thais, is that Thai veterinarians had successfully cloned white elephant embryos. Three of the embryos were stolen from a Thailand laboratory by sophisticated Myanmar thieves and taken to Myanmar, where they were carried to term by captive white elephants.

The head of the Thai laboratory absconded, along with his family. Their whereabouts are unknown, but Thai rumor-mongers speculate the turncoats are living in lonely luxury in the Myanmar capital of Naw Pyi Taw.


As this volume was going to print, a new, sketchy report of white elephant aggression and trade has emerged.

Rumors (heavily denied by both sides) filtered out that the Thais attempted a lightning helicopter raid to capture three baby white elephants from their corral in central Myanmar, where they were being held for veterinary care before being transferred to their permanent home in Myanmar’s capital, Naw Pyi Taw.

In a blitz attack described by one Thai general as based on the 2011 U.S. midnight raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, three Thai military helicopters, probably U.S. Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks, equipped with veterinarians as well as soldiers, made a daring midnight raid.

Their plans were to tranquilize the adult white elephants and, with the help of Thai mahouts who learned Burmese language elephant commands, lead the baby elephants on to the helicopters and transport them to Thailand.

* * * 

Not yet sure what to believe? Follow along 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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