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Thailand's loan request to Myanmar lacked diplomatic tact

Publication Date : 25-06-2013


The records of the past, what we call history, are not all useless. It is important that we study them as lessons to be learned, in order to avoid repeating mistakes or improper actions. This is especially true when considering relations with neighbouring countries.

In the diplomatic world it might not necessarily be wrong to request a gift or a magnanimous gesture from a foreign country, but the subject of the request should be a matter of tact.

Myanmar's reply to the request by Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul to borrow a white elephant, by saying it would be too difficult to transport the animal from Myanmar to Chiang Mai, is the most polite and diplomatic refusal that Nay Pyi Taw can offer.

Embarrassingly, however, Myanmar made the reply publicly through the state-run media rather than quiet diplomatic channels.

A white, or albino, elephant is not simply a rare animal in this part of the world. Traditionally, such a creature is highly valued, and ownership of one is reserved only for the monarch or a figure who can claim the title of conqueror. As the well-known expression says, it is indeed a burden, even in the Thai context, for anyone to take possession of a white elephant.

Both Thailand and Myanmar regard the birth or discovery of a white elephant as an auspicious event. It is said that such an animal is born to represent the power and charisma of the monarch.

In the turbulent history of Siam and Burma, it is recorded that a white elephant was used a pretext for war when King Tabinshwethi of Toungoo demanded from King Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya a tribute gift of a white elephant. Ayutthaya turned down the demand, saying white elephants were born to serve the king of Siam. If the king of Toungoo earned merit and had charisma, a white elephant would be born in his kingdom eventually.

So in 1548, King Tabishwethi invaded Siam, taking back to Toungoo two Siamese white elephants, 30 other elephants and much valuable property. Only in that sense did the white elephants become tribute from the vassal kingdom of Ayutthaya to the Toungoo Empire.

Myanmar is no longer a kingdom, but the white elephant is still regarded as a symbol of power and prestige. The country currently has eight white elephants, all discovered during the rule of the previous military junta. The country's former paramount leader, Than Shwe, regarded these elephants as a sign of support for the regime and his personal charisma.

Than Shwe no longer heads the government, but the country's administration nevertheless feels uncomfortable with the recent request from the Thai foreign minister. The idea was to put the white elephant on display at Chiang Mai Zoo to attract tourists. The government in Bangkok does not have a clear idea of how the government in Nay Pyi Taw regards the country's eight white elephants. They might have a higher value for the Myanmar government than outsiders can imagine.

If we put the white elephant in the Thai context, it is royal property to represent the power of the king. In the current reign, a white elephant would symbolise the great achievements of King Rama IX. How would the Thai people and government feel if Myanmar had asked to borrow such an animal to put on display at a zoo in Yangon?

Thailand and Myanmar have a lot of historical baggage. Diplomacy between the two countries can thus sometimes require greater sensitivity than usual. Subjects like a white elephant - with its historical connotation - should be avoided. Fortunately, our relations with Nay Pyi Taw are still good. Bringing up this issue could have led to more trouble than has actually been caused.


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