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Of Science Diplomacy and White Elephants

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / Neureiter on S&T in Diplomacy
By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norman P. Neureiter jMyanmar is a long plane ride from Washington, DC. But when the second AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) science diplomacy mission headed for Burma two months ago, my wife Georgine said she just had to see Myanmar (it was the last item on her bucket list). So she and I took the long way there – through Tokyo and Bangkok. After we met up with the rest of the AAAS delegation at the Yangon Airport (they had flown overnight from Newark via Singapore), Georgine set out with a lovely young Burmese woman charmingly named Yuyu, to look at several thousand pagodas and images of Buddha in the area around the ancient city of Bagan. The rest of us clambered aboard two vehicles and drove 200 miles due north on a sparsely traveled four-lane concrete highway to the six-year-old capital of Myanmar, called Naypyitaw. Late in 2005 the capital was officially moved from Yangon to its present location in the country where a completely new city was built. Naypyitaw now has about one million people, a quite large, partially golden pagoda, some very nice hotels, 34 government ministries, and the parliament. The generals also live there – the same ones who, in their opulent isolation from their people and from much of the world, have mismanaged the country into its present run-down state.

But also residing there are the minions of a new president and a new government that has begun a dramatic process of social and (cautious) political change. Some may say the changes are only modest, but the presence of change is palpable. One hears it in the voices of the new ministerial officials with whom we met. One senses it in the openness of conversations, the enthusiasm with which scientists talk about more study abroad and the possibility of science cooperation with the US and other Western countries. In slightly over two days, we visited seven different ministries – Science and Technology; Education; Health; Forestry; Industry; Mining; and Foreign Affairs – almost all at the minister or vice-minister level. On our first visit, two years ago, we visited only four ministries. And although we had sensed a genuine interest in cooperating, we came away then with the feeling that it would be difficult – on their side because of the policy of isolation and avoidance of interaction with the West, and on our side because of the sanctions and restrictions, as well as a very politically active anti-Myanmar Burmese refugee population in the US. During our recent visit, we were amazed at the openness of discussions, and the willingness to discuss problems and challenges as well as capabilities and accomplishments. But Myanmar clearly has huge challenges ahead in its transition to a new economy and social structure. When asked, officials asserted that the present changes are irreversible; but one sage individual noted that success will come only if there is real improvement in the economic condition of the country and its people.


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On the positive side, the recent visits of Secretary of State Clinton and a veritable parade of other US government officials have indicated a clear shift in US policy toward Burma (US officials for years have referred to the country as Burma instead of Myanmar to show displeasure with the previous government). The appointment of a US ambassador to Myanmar is expected soon; Japan has already forgiven over $3 billion of Myanmar debt; the EU has suspended its economic sanctions for a year – all gestures resulting from the changes made by the new government and predicated on these being the start of a continuing process of democratization.

These major moves by the West have been in response to several specific liberalizing actions of the new Myanmar government: the release of hundreds of Aung San Suu Kyipolitical prisoners, and the lifting of the 14-year-long house arrest of the very popular Aung San Suu Kyi, known as "The Lady," the leader of the NLD (National League for Democracy) party. She was allowed to campaign in the recent election and did so vigorously, usually to cheering crowds throughout the country, eventually winning for the NLD 43 of the 45 seats in play (out of 655 total). She is a remarkable and determined figure.

Through a personal connection, a tentative appointment had been made for some of us to call on her. Her home is a large, old, and somewhat run-down family residence on the shore of lovely Inya Lake in the center of Yangon. It is surrounded by a high, white wooden fence, with large NLD party initials painted near the entrance. We went there one day about noon and were told that she was having lunch and could not see us then but to go to her election headquarters and talk to her scheduler. That was a surprising experience, much like going into a hyperactive political campaign office anywhere in the Western world. There were no ID checks or restrictions on entry – at least none that we noticed. It was noisy and jammed with people, with many young people enthusiastically handing out campaign literature and selling trinkets: pins, calendars, T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. – all bearing Suu Kyi's picture and "NLD." We all loaded up with souvenirs but were told that the first day she would have time to meet with us was a week away, and we would be long gone by then. By chance, I began talking with one thin and serious young man who said he had been a youth leader and had just been released from four years in prison – one year in the infamous old British prison at Insein, then transferred elsewhere for the next three years.

Suu Kyi's father was a great national hero, seen as the father of the country for having negotiated Burmese independence from Great Britain. He would have been the first president of an independent Burma, had he not been assassinated by his political opponents in 1947. Forty-three years later, Suu Kyi's own story of leading her pro-democracy party to an overwhelming win in a surprisingly authorized 1990 election was one of triumph and tragedy. The ruling junta ignored the results and sent her to prison. This event, on top of the murder of reportedly thousands of peaceful protesters (including many students) in 1988, brought further condemnation, sanctions, and isolation from the international community. It is this isolation that has perhaps now begun to lift – on both sides. It was fascinating, indeed inspiring, to see nascent democracy stirring in this South Asian environment, led with courage and determination by this remarkable woman.

But what about results? What are the chances of developing some cooperation in the sciences? We see good potential for joint activities in the biomedical and health areas, both with NIH and professional science organizations; specific discussions are already underway. Forest conservation is another promising area. It would be very valuable to have an active Fulbright program with Myanmar: More opportunities must be found for Myanmar scientists to study for advanced degrees in other countries, building on what has existed in Germany, Korea, Japan and, sometimes on a private basis, in the US. The ability for UN agencies such as the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) to operate in Myanmar should be increased and existing restrictions on their actions eased. Authorization for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) to operate in Myanmar would be another major step forward, particularly with the new focus on science in USAID under Administrator Rajiv Shah and his Science Advisor Alex Dehgan. Japan has already expressed interest in science diplomacy initiatives in Myanmar, and we would welcome an opportunity to cooperate with them on joint projects.

The White Elephants of Myanmar

Two years ago, we learned that the Myanmar Forestry Ministry is responsible not only for the plants in the forests but also the animals including, of course, the elephants. In fact, tamed elephants working in the timber industry are important for the Myanmar economy, as shown by the life-size statue of an elephant hoisting a giant log in its tusks and trunk, which dominates the space in front of the Forestry Ministry's main building. On this trip, the Ministry had arranged for us to visit an elephant camp – not where logging was going on, but where younger elephants are trained and also provide rides for visitors through the jungle/forests.

We were told that elephants, which become fully grown at 17-years old, do not do heavy work until they are 18-years old. At the camp, several elephants came out to meet us, driven by slight young men perched on their shoulders with one leg crossed and the other outstretched in back of the ear. We fed them pieces of sugarcane, were boosted up onto their shoulders, and were told that their ages can be judged by how much the top edge of their ears have turned down. We learned that Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants but may still weigh 3-6 tons, stand 8-10 feet at the shoulders, and eat 300-400 pounds of vegetation per day, including sugarcane and grass-like stalks. The trunk (which is an elephant's nose) is a strong and also highly prehensile instrument, grabbing the cut pieces of sugarcane out of our hands and stuffing them into the mouth to be chewed with great enjoyment.

The elephants were led away for a time, but soon six of them reappeared bearing wooden crates tied to their backs, which turned out to be seats for us. As each elephant in turn stood patiently by a kind of loading platform, one or two of us, depending on our agility, size, and inclination for sociability, struggled into each crate with varying degrees of assistance. When all of our party were aboard, the column of six elephants set off on an hour-long walk through the jungle – across a shallow river, along very narrow, winding, and sometimes steep paths surrounded by trees and vines that the driver of the lead elephant occasionally slashed with his machete. Vision was usually limited to the elephant in front or behind because of the thick foliage and winding path, and it was not always clear what was happening. At one scary moment a wandering water buffalo suddenly appeared and spooked the lead elephant, who pulled up sharply, trumpeted like a fog horn, and set all of the elephants on edge. Finally, we recrossed the river near a small settlement of small wooden houses, with women washing clothes and themselves in the water and children splashing and waving to us as we trundled by, and arrived again at the camp where we were unloaded from our perches, got into the cars, and headed back for Yangon. We were sore and stiff from twitching about in our wooden crates in search of a comfortable position, but had a new appreciation of life in rural Myanmar. And if you really like elephants, as I do, it was an unforgettable experience. Which leads me to a final tale ...

Just before leaving Naypyitaw, we were asked if we wanted to see the white elephants. Well, none of us had ever seen a living white elephant, so of course we said "yes." When we arrived at the place they are kept, there were three of the remarkable beasts – two adults and a youngster. Each was tethered by one leg with a loose chain in an open but roofed pavilion, standing and dining on that familiar menu of sugarcane and large stalks of grass. They seem to be revered by the population, and apparently they are partially supported by visitors who come to see them and buy cut-up pieces of sugarcane to feed them.

White ElephantsWhite elephants are essentially albinos and are very rare (see story below) and it was a great surprise to see three in one place. Their eyes are a pearly pink and the slightly pinkish skin is covered by white hair – neither long nor thick, but rather bristly and stiff. The two adults were some distance from each other, and we were told little about the one on the far side of the pavilion. But we did learn a lot about the mother and her baby that were near to us and whom we could feed. An elephant's gestation period is 22 months, and we were told that the mother had been found and captured in the jungle when she was about eight months pregnant. The baby, weighing around 120 pounds when it was born about two months before our visit, had flourished on its vegetarian diet and now weighed over 200 pounds. Petting it, which it did not seem to mind at all, was like petting a big friendly dog. It seemed very happy to take 8-inch sticks of sugarcane out of our hands with a very strong and insistent trunk and put them in its mouth.

Book Cover: "Finding George Orwell in Burma", Penguin PressA wonderful little book titled Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin Press, New York, 2005) contains a brief tale about white elephants. Larkin is supposedly the pen name of an American woman living at one time in Thailand – whom I would love to meet if I knew how to find her. I have copied this segment of her book below, because it so clearly puts the white elephant in its historical context. Ms. Larkin first writes about one of Orwell's most famous essays from his writings about Burma, called "Shooting an Elephant," and then discusses its allegorical meanings with native Burmese intellectuals whom she visited on her 2003 hejira through Burma in Orwell's footsteps. Yes, this George Orwell, who served in the British colonial service in several locations in Burma in the 1930s, is the same George Orwell who wrote 1984, eerily chronicling the elements of control eventually exercised by all the dictatorial regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries. So, here is Ms. Larkin's story of the white elephants:

"Ordinary domesticated elephants have been part of Burmese life for centuries, but there is one particular type of elephant that has played a key role in Burmese history: the rare and revered white elephant, which is believed in Buddhist legend to be a symbol of purity and power. The kingdoms of Burma, Siam and Cambodia collected these pinkish, pearly-eyed elephants from the wild, housing them in palatial stables and honoring them with elaborate rituals. The prestige of the white elephant was so great that in the 16th century a war was waged between the kings of Burma and Siam over the disputed title of "Lord of the White Elephant."

"In Burma, the white elephant's significance faded after the British exiled the final Burmese monarch in 1885 and housed his last remaining white elephant in Rangoon Zoo, where it later died. Over a century later, toward the end of 2001, a white elephant was discovered and captured in the jungles of western Burma. The Burmese regime created a media fanfare. White elephants, claimed the state newspapers, appear only during the reign of righteous rulers. The eight-year-old bull elephant was conveyed to Rangoon with much pomp and finery, shaded by traditional white umbrellas and accompanied by a military battalion. One of the most powerful three generals, Khin Nyunt, himself performed the religious rite of pouring holy water over the elephant, which was given the Pali name "Yaza Gaha Thiri Pissaya Gaza Yaza" or "Royal Elephant that Bestows Grace upon the Nation." Since then, two more white elephants have been discovered and each has been welcomed with equal ceremony into a specially built shed outside Rangoon, where the public can admire the auspicious beasts."

Of course, I do not know for sure, but suspect that the second adult white elephant we saw in Naypitaw may be the one captured in 2001 and transported there when the new capital was completed and the pavilion ready.

And in case you were wondering, the Internet says that "Pali" is a Middle Indo-Aryan language and a literary language, closely related to the language or various regional dialects spoken by the Buddha himself. Thus, it is studied in order to gain access to Buddhist scriptures. Historical chronicles written in Pali are said to have great historical significance. I found this especially intriguing because, during the tourist phase of our trip when I joined Georgine for three days of vacation, we visited a monastery in Shan State (a northeastern province with its own illustrious ethnic history) where 20 young boys (ages 9-13) were sitting at their studies cross-legged on the floor, reciting Buddhist texts aloud for an hour at a time. Later when we heard two of them talking to each other, we asked what language they were speaking. "Pali," they answered.

Indeed, Myanmar today is a most interesting and surprising place!

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The author, Norman Neureiter, has been a senior advisor to the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD) since July 2009.

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