Tortured gift elephants: why Thailand is angry with Sri Lanka – Panorama

China has shown everyone how animal diplomacy works. Decades ago, Beijing sent the first pandas into the world. As fluffy ambassadors in zoos, bears are meant to soften the image of the Asian superpower and elicit sympathy. The city-state of Singapore, for its part, relies on botanical gestures, it keeps important visitors in good place by offering them specially selected orchids, which then bear their names. And Thailand? The royal family has given a slew of elephants overseas to foster ties between states. In the end it went horribly wrong.

Instead of promoting friendship, such an elephant transfer sparked serious diplomatic upheavals between Bangkok and Colombo. And it happened like this: Thailand once sent three elephants to the friendly state of Sri Lanka, they were declared as a benevolent gift from the monarch. The gifted Indian Ocean nation thanked them and then named one of the elephants Muthu Raja, which means something like “King of Pearls”. Except that this animal, with its long imposing tusks, was then severely enslaved.

The elephant had to perform temple services and apparently had to carry loads that were too heavy. Animal rights activists were shocked to see Muthu Raja mistreated. However, it took another three years for Thailand to bring the abused animal home. In the hold of a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 the four-tonne bull traveled from Colombo to Chiang Mai over the weekend.

Elephants are considered sacred animals

The matter is so important that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka sent the King of Thailand his deepest regrets for the state of the elephant in May. Vets determined that not only was he malnourished, but he was also unable to move one leg properly after being hit. Also, Muthu Raja, whom they call Sak Surin in Thailand, has an abscess.

Elephants are considered sacred animals in Thailand and Sri Lanka. But where they have to perform temple services, life is often turned into hell for them – a finding also denounced by experts in southern India. Religious ceremonies that last for hours in scorching heat are particularly painful. Animals can barely move, are surrounded by crowds, they are surrounded by noise, and they often have to carry heavy jewelry and loads. Also, many animals in the temples are fed the wrong food. They rarely receive a varied diet that keeps them healthy.

Is this the end of years of torture for Muthu Raja? Officially, the elephant was only airlifted for medical treatment, now vets are trying to bandage his wounds and get him back in shape. The Sri Lankan government seems to expect the gift to be returned at some point, but it’s unclear if it will ever come to that. In any case, Thailand has instructed its embassies around the world to verify the health of donated elephants. In the future, the country will probably offer other gifts, because the ordeal of sacred animals is hardly conducive to secular diplomacy.

Rosemary Rowse

"Unable to type with boxing gloves on. Web maven. Infuriatingly humble creator. Typical tv specialist. Music aficionado. Proud explorer."

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