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Richard Broderick

KING BY VIRTUE
Reflections on the Life-long Endeavor of
King Bhumibol of Thailand
KING BY VIRTUE
Refections on the Life-long Endeavor of
King Bhumibol of Thailand
by Richard Broderick
with a Foreword and Afterword by Stephen B. Young
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KING BY VIRTUE
Refections on the Life-long Endeavor of
King Bhumibol of Thailand
Published by
The Thai Khadi Research Institute
Thammasat University, Thailand.
First edition published September, 2013: 2,000 copies.
Second edition published December, 2013: 4,000 copies.
Copyright @ 2013 by the Thai Khadi Research Institute
All Rights Reserved
ISBN 978-974-466-717-5
Book cover design by
Charubhumi Ruangsuwan
Printed by
Amarin Printing and Publishing Public Co., Ltd.
376 Chaiyaphruk Road, Taling Chan, Bangkok 10170
Tel. (66) 2422-9000, (66) 2882-1010
Fax (66) 2433-2742, (66) 2434-1385
www.amarin.com
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King Bhumibol pronounced an oath at the coronation
ceremony on 5 May 1950: “We shall reign with
righteousness for the benefts and happiness of
the Siamese people.”
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The Princess Mother, the model of the King’s simplicity
and tireless work ethic.
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His Majesty performing the sacral rite of appointing
the late Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, 1989.
His Majesty was ordained into
the Buddhist monkhood in 1956.
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Their Majesties the King and Queen during the state
visits to neighboring countries:
Burma, 1960.
Indonesia, 1960.
The Federation of Malaya, 1962.
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Their Majesties received
Chinese President Jiang Zemin, 1999.
Their Majesties received Queen Elizabeth II
of the United Kingdom, 1972.
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His Majesty granting an audience to
US President Barack Obama, 2012.
His Majesty giving
address to a joint
session of Congress
in the House of
Chamber, 1960.
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His Majesty
greeting Pope John
Paul II of the Vatican
during the Pontif’s
apostolic visit to
Thailand in 1984.
The FAO Telefood
Medal was presented
to His Majesty the
King in recognition
of his performance
in agriculture
development in
Thailand,
December, 1999.
The UNDP’s frst ever
Human Development
Lifetime Achievement
Award was presented
to His Majesty the King
by Mr. Kof Annan,
Secretary-General of
the United Nations,
May, 2006.
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One of His Majesty’s many lasting achievements is
his work in ending opium cultivation in Thailand by
introducing cash crop substitution to the hill tribe people.
His Majesty giving a lesson on water resource
management to students.
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His Majesty has assisted national development
through the alleviation of poverty and the improvement
of the quality of life of his people.
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His Majesty works closely with his people, always
armed with three indispensable accessories: a two way
radio; camera; and a detailed map of the area
he was traversing on.
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The research-gathering phase of His Majesty’s
development projects in specifc areas includes extensive
on-site interviewing of local residents and discussion with
ofcials at all levels of government.
His Majesty planting vetiver
grass, a living barrier to
prevent soil erosion.
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Map of The Royal Chitralada Projects
๑. Organic Fertilizer Plant
๒. Grassland
๓. Chitralada Dairy Farm
๔. Experimental Rice Field
๕. Demonstration Forest
๖. Electricity Generation by Wind
Power
๗. Solar Energy House (Solar Cell-
Powered Water Pumping System)
๘. Wind Mill
๙. Culture of Nil Fish
๑๐. Solar Energy House
๑๑. UHT Plant
๑๒. Milk Collection Centre
๑๓. Cheese Plant
๑๔. Suan Dusit Milk Powder Plant
๑๕. Suan Dusit Milk Tablet Plant
๑๖. Paddy Storage (wooden style)
๑๗. Experimental Rice Mill
๑๘. Silo (New Zealand style)
๑๙. Rice-Husk Grinding Plant
๒๐. Plant Tissue Culture
๒๑. Plant Genetic Conservation
Project
๒๒. Upland Rice Plantation
๒๓. Experimental Fuel Production
Unit
๒๔. Maha Mongkol Reception Hall
๒๕. Research and Development Unit
๒๖. Sales Ofce
๒๗. Royal Candle Factory
๒๘. Fruit Juice Pasteurization Plant
๒๙. Cannery Fruit and Vegetable
Juice Plant
๓๐. Honey Plant
๓๑. Bakery Production
๓๒. Dried Fruit and Vegetable Production
๓๓. Sa Mulberry Paper Production
๓๔. Culture of Spirulina Species
๓๕. Mushroom Culture Plant
๓๖. Cold Water Production by means of Heat Energy from Husk
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His Majesty developed
‘Sufciency Economy
Philosophy’ as a way of life
for the Thai people in
the modern world.
‘The New Theory’ for sustainable agriculture.
The Royal Chitralada Projects’ experimental rice feld.
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The royal-initiated
projects for drought
alleviation (the Artifcial
Rain-making Project),
wastewater treatment
(the Chaipattana
Aerators Model RX-2
and Model RX-5c),
and food alleviation
(the Monkey Cheek
Project).
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King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit began their life-long
journey to develop a thorough and frst-hand
understanding of the hardships of their subjects in 1950s.
King Bhumibol cerebrated his 60 years on throne in 2006;
an estimated 700,000 Thais thronged the streets around
the Royal Plaza to display their reverence.
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King Bhumibol has a unique place
in his people’s hearts – and in the nation’s life.
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Preface (5)
Foreword (7)
Introduction 1
Part One: A Royal Transformation
Among the Muser 9
The Gift 17
The Ban Yang Makeover 31
Part Two: On Royal Grounds
The Birth of the Dhammaraja 41
Fish in the Water and Rice in the Fields 49
God-kings in the Paris of Southeast Asia 57
3
D Map of the Sacral Cosmos 65
From Monk to King 71
Rama V, Father of the Nation-state 77
Mother of Kings 83
Contents
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King by Virtue (5)
Part Three: King by Virtue
The Iconic Moment 103
Building Barami 119
The Soft Counterrevolution 127
Crisis Management 135
Part Four: The Developer King
Royal Development Projects,
Royal Development Centers 147
A New Theory for Sustainable Agriculture 177
The Mahajanaka and SEP 187
After the Deluge 219
Afterword 233
Bibliography 252
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King by Virtue (5)
Preface
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the longest-serving
monarch in the Thai history and one of the greatest and most
beloved kings of the nation. His greatness derives in many
remarkable ways from his simplicity, hard work, wisdom and,
most importantly, his care about his people. Besides numer-
ous royally-initiated projects designed to improve the quality
of life of the Thai people, His Majesty has bestowed upon his
subjects a philosophy of Sufciency Economy, a middle-path
approach that promises peace, happiness and prosperity
against the adverse efects of globalization.
Conceived in 2011, King by Virtue: Refections on the Life-long
Endeavor of King Bhumibol of Thailand was initiated by the
Thai Khadi Research Institute, an institution for research in
social science and humanities, and the Caux Round Table, an
international organization of ethical business practice. It is a
narration, refection and interpretation of the King’s life and
work through Western eyes. The author, Richard Broderick,
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(6) King by Virtue King by Virtue (7)
came to Thailand twice for fieldwork. He traveled from
north to south, visiting villages and royal development
centers and interviewing people from diferent walks of life
to investigate why King Bhumibol is so highly revered by the
Thai people and how His Majesty has successfully performed
his duty as a constitutional monarch.
We hope that this book will give foreign readers an insight
into King Bhumibol’s life-long endeavor to establish a strong
foundation for the prosperity of Thailand and its people and
that the Sufciency Economy Philosophy will reach and beneft
even greater audience.
The Thai Khadi Research Institute
Thammasat University
Bangkok, Thailand.
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King by Virtue King by Virtue (7)
Foreword
This is a diferent kind of book about Thailand. It is a book
that arises from empathic insight into other peoples and
cultures. It accepts and does not judge as a step towards
deeper understanding and the fowering of a universal moral
sense. It transcends the formalism of Western social
sciences by not using their categories of meaning to make
sense of the Thai reality. But it is a book about meaning,
about a symbolic universe of beauty and imaginative power,
that can be accessed and exposed like a work of art. It is
therefore an aesthetic work.
My approach to the Theravada formulation of kingship by
virtue that has been central to the historical presence of
the people now called Thais was dictated by my Father,
Kenneth Todd Young Jr., American Ambassador to
Thailand under President John F. Kennedy from 1961 through
September, 1963.
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Dad enjoined us – myself and my younger brother and
sisters – to learn before we judged, to respect before we
criticized, to walk in someone else’s shoes before complaining
about the journey. As Dad reached out to Thais from
villagers to His Majesty and as Mom sought to learn from
Thai art and iconography, we children learned Thai, at home,
during meals, from Khun Nhut.
We arrived in Bangkok in 1961 at the height of the Cold War
in Southeast Asia when the Kennedy Administration was
willing to fght any foe, bear any price, and assist any friend
to assure the success of liberty against Communism. In
Southeast Asia it was to be “a long, twilight struggle” won in
the last analysis, not by the Americans, but by the peoples
there who would have to stand up against the Communists to
defend their values, their freedoms, and their communities.
My Father’s role in Thailand as head of the US Mission
was not to impose American ways and strategies, but
to support, succor, assist, and partner with Thais in a joint
undertaking.
The Thai-American partnership was a joinder out of mutual
interests of diferent cultures seeking to build a more efective
efort from the independent, and sometimes very diferent,
contributions of two diferent cultures, societies and political
systems. It was two pieces of a puzzle trying to ft how they
ft together as part of a larger episode in human history. To
ft the pieces together deftly and strongly, Dad had to be very
American but at the same time somewhat Thai. He had to use
soft power for there were serious limitations on his ability to
dictate to Thai leaders or dominate Thai political opinion.
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And the core of that soft power was insight into what
the Thai valued and believed and what gave them meaning
and motivation.
One of my Dad’s stories resonated on the social justice issue
of judging other cultures. The world premiere of the movie
The Ugly American was to be in Bangkok. Marlon Brando -
who played the American Ambassador to Sarakhan who was
trying to work with an aristocratic Prime Minister (played
by Thai aristocrat, author, newspaper publisher, and later
Prime Minister, Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj) and a
radical leader of the poor – was coming out for the premiere.
Their Majesties, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, were to
attend.
President Kennedy heard of this and was not happy. He
considered the book The Ugly American which was a novel
about failed American anti-Communist eforts in Southeast
Asia an unfair, prejudiced, biased attack on his New Frontier
doctrine of containing Communist subversion in villages
around the world, an afront to the American mission of
defending freedom. President Kennedy instructed Dad to
call on the King and ask, as personal favor to the American
President who was committed to the support of Thailand,
not to attend the premiere.
His Majesty heard out my Dad with respect and then smiled
and replied “But, Ken, you have The King and I!” Their
Majesties attended the premiere. Our family too.
I later in 1984 had a long personal discussion with His
Majesty. While his aging military aide-de-camp fell asleep
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sitting stify on an uncomfortable French sofa, His Majesty
spoke of his worries that Buddhism was in decline with the
advance of Western consumerism in Thailand, especially
among the youth of Thailand. Even monks, the King
noted sadly, were tempted by possessions as never before.
Respectfully sitting forward on the edge of my chair, my head
conspicuously lowered below that of His Majesty, I listened
for about an hour and came away admiring a man who was
caring and thoughtful, cautious but frm in his views. What
was there to disparage in this man and in his ambitions for
his people to become one in a sense of reverence for the
turning of the Dharma wheel and to live modestly with
optimism and decorum.
I have known the high, the well-born and the well-to-do in
Thailand – many of them. And I have known the poor and
the marginalized. In 1966 I spent most of a summer living
in poor villages in the northeast of the country. In one, you
walked in as no road came to the village. I was the frst “Farang”
or Caucasian ever to visit that small rural community. Women
would come up to touch my skin and pull the hair on my arms,
commenting politely with excitement that I really had white
skin with no make-up. They would get up before sunrise to sit
around the house where I was staying to wait for me to come
out and shave with foam and razor. Children would squeal with
delight at my approach. I was the odd one, the one who did
not ft in with all relevant cultural norms being judged as not
too bad. The abbot of the village temple with serious demeanor
gave me a magic charm, which I still have. Magic writings and
designs cover a cheap linen cloth. It has served its purpose
though. It was given to me to protect me from bullets, knife
wounds, car accidents and airplane crashes. I subsequently
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came through the Vietnam War without a cut or scrape and
after that apparently, have been fully shielded from bullets,
knife wounds, car accidents, and airplane crashes.
In the other village I resided in, Ban Chiang in Udon Thani
Province, I stumbled over a tree root, fell down, and found
myself on top of old pots in a Bronze Age cemetery. I took
some pots as exemplars back to Princess Chumbhot of
Nakhon Sawan in Bangkok and the Fine Arts Department
later established the site as very important. It is now a
UNESCO World Heritage site. I go back from time to time to
see the family with whom I stayed – ties of friendship in rural
Thailand secure for 46 years.
All my Thai friends – from villagers to royalty and to one
degree or another – had to adapt psychologically and
culturally in ways that I escaped. They needed to decide
just how “Western” or “Thai” they were going to be. The same
challenge has faced all my in-laws, who are Vietnamese. To the
contrary, I have never been challenged to decide how “Thai” or
“Vietnamese” I am going to be. One psychic beneft that comes
with “White Privilege” is not having to decide on how “White”
one needs to be in order to be identifed as, among those who
are without question, modern, respected, and valued in our
industrialized and rationalized global community.
For my Thai friends, the options have been basically three:
ignore the West and just be as your parents and forbearers
were; ignore your cultural heritage and become Western, or
somehow blend the two.
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But if we are to understand an institution such as the Thai
Monarchy, which has come down over the centuries with
articulated rules, norms and practices, we need to take
ourselves out of a purely Western conceptual approach to life
and bring Thai perspectives to our minds.
As my Dad advised, this step is not one of judgment whether
the norms and practices of another culture meet our
standards of right and wrong. It is a more introductory, quasi-
scientifc, step of seeking to understand how reality works.
Richard Broderick takes us on a journey into what is little
known to Westerners who visit Thailand or read about Thai
politics. His reports do not purport to be Western academic
political science, but something more poetic and humanistic
– an engagement with Thai values.
He describes more lyrically how one Thai Monarch, His
Majesty King Bhumibol, has aligned his work as king with
fundamental Thai expectations conditioned by Theravada
Buddhism. As a consequence, Broderick enables us to see how
fulfllment of that task was reciprocated with loyalty and
afection from the Thai people, especially from the rural people
unable to access the higher rungs of the social hierarchy.
But King Bhumibol was not a narrow-minded traditionalist
seeking a return to pre-industrial and pre-colonial mores and
behaviors. Far from it, along with his Father and Mother he
was educated in the West – his Father at Harvard University,
his Mother at Simmons College, and himself in Switzerland.
King Bhumibol has simultaneously worked hard at Western
occupations – Jazz music, oil portraiture, photography,
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design and construction of useful items – and has succeeded
in these commitments.
But his success in being open to Western modalities does not
explain his success as a Thai Monarch. That success
comes not from the West but rather lies in Thai values and
satisfactions. The King’s task has been frst and foremost to
be a “Thai” king and secondarily to adapt that kingship to
modern realities without losing its moral core as a Thai
institution. His office was created to respond to Thai
perceptions of social realities in maintenance of Thai
cultural integrity. Evolving the duties of such an ofce as
Thai perceptions have changed in response to Western
cultural intrusions was only part of his responsibility.
Thus, the more important story of His Majesty’s reign is
the Thai story, not a Western one. But given our largely
self-referential cultural orientations, a Western framing of
Thailand is more easily appreciated by “Farang” observers
and commentators. But when they apply such rose-colored
glasses to Thailand, they merely perpetuate the mispercep-
tions of Anna Leonowens who wrote the book from which
The King and I was adapted. We do ourselves no credit and
the people of Thailand little good when we follow in Anna’s
intellectual footsteps.
Stephen B. Young
Global Executive Director, The Caux Round Table
Minnesota, USA
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King by Virtue 1
The book you are about to read is not a work of scholarship.
Nor is it a comprehensive critical analysis of Thailand and the
reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who, having been on the
country’s throne for 65 years, is the longest serving monarch
in the world.
The Caux Round Table and the Thai Khadi Institute,
Thammasat University, whose specialty is Thai culture and
society, thought I would be able to write a book about the
King, precisely because of my record as a journalist, author,
non-academic historian and essayist. CRT and Thai Khadi
wanted someone with fresh eyes and fresh ears to come in
and, as Thai Khadi’s director kept saying, “absorb as much
Thai culture as possible.” They knew as well of my critical
stance toward Western hegemony and consumer capitalism.
They also knew of my concern over the way globalization – in
essence an efort to establish the market as the fnal arbiter
Introduction
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of all values on the planet – has deracinated the world, placing
a price tag on everything, from natural resources to human
populations to the ecosystem upon which civilization relies
for its survival.
During the course of my reading, research and interviews,
I came to identify a pair of central questions that I wanted
to address in this book. I also came to see, almost as an
added bonus, that there are valuable lessons that the rest of
the world can learn from the reign of King Bhumibol, lessons
about principled leadership, and the skillful exercise of
power, especially soft power, lessons about how to reign
not by force or sheer economic domination but by inspiring
others, modeling how to live in the world in a way that can
yield material prosperity while maintaining harmony within
a culture and an ecosystem.
Alone among the countries of South and Southeast Asia,
Thailand was never colonized by any of the European powers.
Ironically, however, the compromises and “modernization”
the country undertook in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
in order to maintain independence had the unintended efect
of laying the groundwork for the overthrow of the country’s
absolute monarchy in the Revolution of 1932. Because of that
revolution and the turmoil that followed, King Bhumibol came
to the throne in 1946 with no real model of how to reign as
the king of a constitutional democracy.
Yet despite the challenge of navigating uncharted territory,
and despite the fact that he was only 19 years old when he
ascended to the throne, King Bhumibol has reigned for
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2 King by Virtue King by Virtue 3
65 years. That might seem impressive enough, but other
facts make his longevity even more remarkable. Currently,
there are other constitutional monarchs in the world who have
reigned for many decades – Queen Elizabeth II of England
comes to mind. But in those cases, the monarchs have been
on their thrones during an era in which their countries have
enjoyed relative peace and tranquility, in cultures that long
ago resolved questions about national identity or what form
of national government would prevail or the relationship of
that government to the monarchy.
The same cannot be said about Thailand since 1946. In fact,
the past seven decades of Thai history have been marked by
turbulence and uncertainty in almost every sphere of life. Far
from a time of peace and tranquility at home and abroad, the
country has been wracked by political and economic turmoil
on the domestic front, while confronting even more
convulsive events in countries on or near its borders. During
the post-war era, Thailand has experienced more than a
dozen coups, fnding itself embroiled in fghts to suppress
several anti-government movements, from those led by
Communists between the 1950s to the 1980s to the various
elements that continue to oppose the Thai government
today along the country’s border with Malaysia. If that
were not enough, during this same period of time the
country has operated under several diferent constitutions,
lived through (and recovered from) the 1997 collapse of the
so-called Asian Tiger economies – a collapse triggered by
Thailand foating its national currency (the baht) and see
long-simmering issues about the allocations of political
power and perhaps even income distribution erupt into
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violent clashes between the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt
factions since 2010.
Looking beyond its borders, things have been even more dire.
During King Bhumibol’s time on the throne, the world has
witnessed the Chinese Revolution, revolutions in Laos and
Indonesia, and the takeover of Myanmar – formerly Burma –
by a highly repressive and often unpredictable military
dictatorship that has only recently begun to move toward
democratic and economic reform after holding power in that
nation for more than 50 years. All of these events sent massive
flights of displaced persons flooding across Thailand’s
borders. Meanwhile, beginning in the 1960s, Thailand became
increasingly ensnared in the Vietnam War on several diferent
levels, principally as an ally of the United States and staging
area (and R&R destination) for U.S. forces, and as haven
for hundreds of thousands of displaced persons feeing that
confict and then from the subsequent civil war and genocide
in Cambodia that occurred as a direct result of the confict
in Vietnam.
Yet despite all of this turmoil – and other upheavals I have not
mentioned -- King Bhumibol has remained securely on
the throne, not as a passive fgurehead but as a leader whose
soft power has actually increased rather than been diminished
by the turbulence and uncertainty, which brings me to the frst
question I wish to address in this book. How did he do that?
What combination of actions and events, either initiated by
the King or that simply happened without his direct
involvement, resulted in his attaining the position he had
acquired by the end of the 1950s and which he continues to
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hold even to this day, almost 60 years later – the indisputable
moral center and psychological cynosure of Thai culture.
The other question I set out to answer is related to the frst:
Why is King Bhumibol so revered by the Thai people? Because,
make no mistake about it, the King is revered; not simply
admired, respected, or even beloved, but actually revered as
if he were a semi-divine fgure in a manner largely alien to
Western sensibilities. His photo or image, or photos and
images of the King and his family members, or of symbols of
his reign can be found everywhere in the country, not just in
public spaces, but in homes, cafés, market stalls, even on
the dashboards of taxis. In the course of my research, it also
became clear to me that the reasons the King strikes such
a deep chord in the hearts of his people are not much
examined by the Thais themselves. Whenever I would
inquire into this subject, I always received enthusiastic
answers – invariably accompanied by equally enthusiastic
expressions of love for the King, all of them sincere – but
none of the answers seemed defnitive; none appeared to
address the question deeply enough to explain the adulation,
at least to my satisfaction.
This book, then, is aimed at lay readers who may know little
about Thailand but are willing to go beyond Orientalist
stereotypes and perhaps to learn some things that might
be useful for our own lives in the West. Of course, that will
mean letting go of a cultural parochialism in which the only
things that matter happen in the Western hemisphere and
the only signifcant ideas about how to navigate a path to the
future are the exclusive domain of the West.
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6 King by Virtue
Max Weber famously wrote that the essence of modernity
means living in a “disenchanted world.” That is to say, a
universe ruled by reason, where values of an older heroic
age – charismatic leadership, a valorizing of the heart over
the mind – have been replaced by the orderly exercise of
power on the part of decidedly un-heroic bureaucratic
institutions, both public and private.
By contrast, despite its participation in the global market-
place, despite its possession of a capital city that boasts
commercial skyscrapers and government buildings that
would ft in anywhere in the industrial world, Thailand has
not yet made – and, one might hope, never will make – the
transition into full-fedged modernity in the Weberian sense.
It is still, at least in part, faithful, at its deepest level, to an
ancient sacral cosmology shaped by Buddhism and
Hinduism, as well as indigenous traditions whose origins
are lost in the mists of the past. Failing to grasp this simple
reality, we must inevitably also fail in any attempt to grasp
essential truths about the Thai way of doing things. Far from
a measure of Thai backwardness, the country’s devotion to
its king can conceivably be viewed as a measure of how much
we, in the West, have lost in our headlong rush into
modernity, and our equally headlong rush to impose our
values and demands upon the rest of the world.
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6 King by Virtue
PART ONE
A Royal Transformation
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A strawberry farm on a hill slope
under the Royal Projects at Doi Ang Khang.
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Among the Muser
The frst thing you notice is the houses. These are not the kind
of residences you fnd in a city or even in a village in the low
lying regions of Thailand.
Lodges long and rectangular, with low-pitched roofs covered
in thatch, they possess walls and flooring woven from
bamboo, the whole structure sitting about a meter above
ground level on vertical wooden beams -- much lower than
traditional Thai wooden houses still found in fatter, rural
areas of the country.
Several houses sit below a dome-shaped slope of dried,
mustard-colored clay that descends from the edge of the
single paved road going in and out of the village of Kopdong.
In the rainy season, the clay turns treacherously slick but
today, in mid-May just before the monsoon rains descend,
the rutted surface is easy enough to navigate on foot.
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Kopdong’s inhabitants belong to the Lahu, or Muser as the
Thais call them because they are renowned as hunters. They
are one of Thailand’s many hill tribes, some of which have
assimilated into Thai mainstream culture more than others.
The village is located only a couple of kilometers from the
border with Myanmar high in the mountains that separate
the two countries. Not far from Kopdong, a No-Man’s land
nearly a kilometer wide cuts its way along the border. Here in
Kopdong, however, the atmosphere is peaceful, far removed
from international politics or tensions.
The Muser are sometimes referred to by their countrymen
as “the Amish of Thailand” because of the way they have
retreated deeper and deeper into the highlands as modern
Thailand has encroached on the tribe’s former territories.
The analogy, however, is not precisely exact. In many ways
the Muser have clung to their traditional modes of life. They
wear some forms of traditional tribal clothing. Their houses
are, as noted, raised bamboo lean-tos with thatched roofs that
can sometimes shelter extended families of up to 20 people
who sleep around a hearth that is often the sole source of
heat and light.
But, unlike the Amish, the Muser people do not completely
eschew the modern world and its conveniences. From the
entrance of the sheds, also thatched, that line the paved road
here as well as the dirt road that descends a steep hillside,
the tailgates of late-model pickups and SUVs peek out from
under protective tarps.
It’s getting on toward supper, and villagers are returning
from their work in the felds that blanket the hillside. On the
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open-air platform in front of one of the houses, a grandfather
plays with a toddler sitting in a walker. Just past their home,
a 60-year-old grandmother comes out from her lodge to greet
people – visitors are uncommon but certainly not unknown
here – bringing with her a shallow wicker basket that
contains brightly colored bracelets she and her daughters
have woven from bamboo and which family members take
down into lowland markets to sell. As visitors examine her
wares, a young man dressed in a ragged homespun shirt
lumbers down the slope; he, too, has a basket of woven
bracelets, which he presses upon the visitors. “Ha baht! Ha
baht! Ha baht!” – fve baht – he keeps crying plaintively, even
though he fnds no takers.
Eventually the older Muser woman invites her visitors into
her thatched house where a large tureen of rice steams over
a charcoal fre. By contemporary standards living conditions
in Kopdong might seem primitive. But looks in this case are
deceiving. For one, no one is starving in Kopdong – on the
contrary, everyone, including the young man trying without
success to sell his bracelets, appears well fed. The villagers earn
good money from crops like strawberries, lettuce, peaches and
tea that are well-suited to the temperate local climate of the
northern mountains. They earn that money by transporting
what they produce down from the highlands along an
extensive, well-maintained infrastructure of roads and
highways. Much of that produce ends up for sale in Thailand
but because the Muser and other northern hill tribes have been
connected to the world market for several decades, a portion
of their crops reaches beyond Thailand or even Southeast
Asia. Meanwhile, the same system of roads and highways by
which the Muser go to market provides them with access to
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quality health care and educational opportunities for their
children.
It was not always so. Prior to the creation of The Royal Project
by King Bhumibol some ffty years ago, the hill tribes living
in the north of Thailand were mired in a way of living that
was not simply primitive; it was destitute. Malnutrition was
widespread. Life expectancy was about 40. There were few
market roads, no access to doctors and schools. As more
and more people, both tribal and non-tribal, streamed into
Thailand from China, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma to escape
bloodshed and persecution, the once verdant hills of northern
Thailand became increasingly deforested, the result of a
combination of commercial logging and increased slash-and-
burn agriculture, that had long been the traditional practice
of the nomadic tribes cultivating their highland rice felds.
After the Second World War the cycle of environmental
despoliation and human misery escalated as a new kind of
parasite arrived to prey upon the hill people alongside the
other kinds of parasites that had traditionally aficted the
villagers: opium traders.
Northern Thailand forms the bottom leg of the Golden
Triangle, which, until it was recently replaced by Afghanistan,
produced more opium than any other regions in the world.
When global demand boomed following the war, opium
traders hurried to make their way up into the mountains to
convince the Muser and other peoples to convert their felds
from rice to opium and to expand the plantings of poppies
tribal people were already growing to provide for their own
use.
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Before long, the uplands of northern Thailand were a hotbed
of opium production, with the traders helpfully trekking up
into the mountains to collect the raw product from villagers
and transporting it back down the mountains, often by horse
or in backpacks. By the end of the 1960s, poppy felds covered
an area in northern Thailand the size of Uruguay; just in
the highlands 500 meters or more above sea level, that
poppy-infested area was the size of Portugal.
But despite this brisk trade – or, to be more exact, because of it –
the Muser and other tribes did not prosper; on the contrary,
the payment they received for their raw opium – an average
of 7,000 baht (about $235) a year – were less than pennies
on the dollar of what the traders got for it from their heroin
manufacturing clientele. Those payments were also a fraction
of the estimated 180,000 baht a year it is estimated that
village families might have been able to earn if they had been
able to get their food crops to market in good condition.
Life among the opium-producing hill tribes and other villages
living in the northern hills became an even more hard-scrabble
existence. When the steep felds were allowed to remain
fallow for several years between plantings, slash-and-burn
agriculture did not present a threat to the ecosystem. But with
the advent of year-round opium cultivation, and economic
pressures that forced farmers to maximize production
whatever the short-term costs, slash-and-burn agriculture
led to deforestation and subsequent erosion in a region of
Thailand that had once contained the nation’s largest
reserves of primeval forests. By 1969, an estimated 225,000
villagers were practicing slash-and-burn in Thailand’s north
and northeast. As one hillside after another was stripped
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of foliage to make way for poppy, the region experienced
ever more frequent fooding, aggravating erosion and soil
depletion. Desperate for money to feed their families, local
farmers converted more and more of their land from food
to opium, resulting in widespread malnutrition. In turn, the
hunger was made worse by the increasingly common practice
among residents of using opium as an appetite suppressant
for themselves – and their children.
All but ignored by Bangkok and becoming more impoverished
and desperate with each passing year, northern Thailand
was ripe for the kind of political turmoil that aficted other
countries in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s. As in
other parts of the world, the opium production and potential
unrest could have called forth a strictly military response on
the part of the Thai government with the use of defoliants,
criminalization of the lowly farmers growing the poppies to
stay alive, and armed incursion of units bent on carrying on
a “war” on drugs.
Remarkably enough, none of that happened almost entirely
because of King Bhumibol’s work to improve rural conditions
not just in northern Thailand but throughout the country.
Today, though Thailand still faces a major drug trafcking
problem, that problem does not begin with opium produced
within the country. Inside Thai territory, such production has
been virtually eliminated. And while the country still struggles
with reforestation and soil erosion, the slash-and-burn
agriculture that once bedeviled northern Thailand has also
been brought under control. As a result, once deforested slopes,
like the hillsides around Kopdong, are now covered with
carefully cultivated crops and stands of second-growth forests.
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And all of this dramatic turnaround occurred in a little over
50 years. Even more impressive, it was accomplished not by
force but through the peaceful means employed by the Royal
Project initiated by King Bhumibol specifcally to address the
problems of northern Thailand: through the construction of
roads and processing plants and other forms of infrastructure;
through the identifcation and development of alternative
crops whose market value far exceeds what villagers could
earn from growing poppy; and through programs to educate
the hill tribes about the advantages of switching to food crops
and sustainable farming practices. Most of all the eradication
of opium production in Thailand entailed an increasingly
systematic process of reaching out to the villagers, listening to
their needs and suggestions, enlisting their support in helping
to solve the problems they faced, and, above all, by making the
hill tribes and emigrant villagers feel, for the frst time in the
country’s long history, part of the larger Thai community.
King Bhumibol’s track record of sponsoring and guiding
development contributed both to the soft power His Majesty
accumulated and to the status in which His Majesty is
held by the Thai people.
In explaining how this radical transformation took place
and the King’s role in bringing it about, a good place to start
is with the story of Ban Yang, a small town not far from the
Muser village, and its remarkable transformation over the
past four decades.
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His Majesty during the early rounds of visits
to northern Thailand.
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The Gift
As Xia Sang Mei begins to talk, a torrential downpour erupts,
the raindrops clattering on the corrugated tin roof of the
interior deck on her house located on Ban Yang’s main
street.
She is 84 years old and her soft voice is all but drowned out
by the din. She waits for a while, hoping for the storm to
abate, but when it continues on without slackening, she
continues as best she can.
She lives comfortably now: her two-storey house has three
wings that open on a walled compound. As she resumes her
story, one of her children brings out bowls of sliced apples
and cups of green tea and sets them on a cofee table.
She fed Yunnan Province in southern China 62 years ago, a
member of a once-prosperous family whose father was killed
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by the Communists following the Chinese Revolution. She
was married at the time – she is now a widow – and already
the mother of young children.
The young family had a little money and a few possessions,
which it transported by mule over the mountains. At frst,
the family members settled in Burma, where they received
protection from the British authorities, but after that country
gained its independence, Burmese military units went up into
the mountains and attacked the thousands of Chinese who
had settled there after 1949. About 20,000 of the displaced
persons, on the invitation of the Thai Border Patrol Police,
crossed over the frontier and settled in and around Ang Khang,
a long, fertile valley located several hundred meters above
Ban Yang village, which is nestled in the foothills on the edge
of rolling parkland that stretches down to the Kok River in
Fang District. Though no longer hounded by the Burmese or
feeing the Chinese Red Army, the Chinese who settled in and
around the mountain valley still faced difcult challenges,
among them that Thai immigration law did not allow them
to become citizens; those same policies also sharply limited
the immigrants’ range of movement, confning them to an
enclave along the northern frontier.
Up in Ang Khang, meanwhile, Xia and her husband grew
peaches and lychees and operated a small grocery store in
Baelong, a village near the border. By then, the Chinese and
tribal people were already growing opium in the area, in part
to satisfy the craving for the drug brought to Thailand by many
of the displaced persons from Yunnan.
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Her husband served as headman for both Baelong and
Ban Yang, the latter at the time little more than a destitute
settlement of mud houses and dirt streets far from any paved
road. His position explains why one rainy day a delegation of
Muser brought a stranger to Xia’s home in Baelong and asked
if she could serve him lunch. She had no idea who the visitor
was, but fed him and ofered him the use of some horses to
help take him down the mountain through the cold and rain.
He thanked her but declined the ofer and, after eating,
departed with his Muser companions.
It was a week or so later that she learned the identity of the
mysterious visitor. That was when he was helicoptered into
Baelong accompanied by several researchers. It was they
who revealed his identity to her: His Serene Highness Prince
Bhisadej Rajani, better known simply as Prince Bhisadej. He
was visiting the village because at the time he was head of
the Royal Hill Tribe Assistance Project (renamed the Royal
Project Foundation in 1992).
The Project had been established not long before by King
Bhumibol. From his base at Bhuping, a royal palace located
in Chiang Mai, the King made numerous treks beginning
in the late 1950s into remote regions of northern Thailand;
sometimes His Majesty would travel by helicopter or light
plane, other times by jeep over rutted dirt tracks that
the King, a musician and composer, jokingly referred to
as “disco roads” because of the way his vehicles shook
and bounced while en route. Often His Majesty made
the trips by foot, traveling with a small entourage.
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“Every cold season, His Majesty would go to the palace for
holidays,” says Prince Bhisadej, “but his holidays were not for
resting. It was for visiting the hill tribes because His Majesty
was interested in the lives of his people, those who were
unknown to government officials. His Majesty is a hard
worker, very serious – but he enjoyed working with the hill
tribes.”
In turn, the King asked the Prince, who had been a friend
since before the King ascended the throne, to head the project.
“His Majesty knew I had been in the British Army during
the Second World War and had lots of training marching
up and down mountains, including the Himalayas,” says
the Prince.
Refecting on what he had learned during his treks into the
hills around the palace, King Bhumibol came up with the idea
of trying to fnd temperate crops, fruit, livestock and even
fowers that would fourish in the north, funding the efort
from his own pocket. One of Prince Bhisadej’s tasks was to
travel to ever more remote villages all around the north and
gather information about local conditions in preparation of
royal visits – sometimes by the King, sometimes by both the
King and Queen – to promote adoption of new cultivars.
During his preliminary visits, the Prince’s mountaineering
experience came in handy. Once in a while the Thai Air Force
provided him and his companions helicopter rides to remote
location; the rest of the time, the Prince made his way on
foot through the rugged mountains. “I don’t even remember
how many villages I visited during those years,” the Prince
says with a laugh. In addition to day trips, once a year he
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would make a 7-day trek through the hills, carrying his own
sleeping bag and food from village to village. “People didn’t
always know we were coming,” he says. “But they are nice and
friendly people in the north, so there was no problem.” In
time, the King also visited every single village Prince Bhisadej
encountered in his travels.
In Baelong, the Prince asked Xia and her husband if he could
use their house as a base of operations as he and his academic
team surveyed the surrounding hills and felds. The couple
agreed to accommodate the visitors.
“The Prince was looking for information about the villager’s
farming situation, their crops and problems in health care
and nutrition,” recalls her son, Pairat Kamdee; along with
his wife, he now operates the Ban Yang Lodge, a successful
resort that attracts many visitors from the lowlands of
Thailand, especially during March and April – the country’s
hottest time of the year – when tourists fock to the Ang Khang
region to enjoy the cooler temperatures of the highlands.
Though the main thrust of the Prince’s concern was
humanitarian, that concern was linked to other issues of a
political and military nature. “It was clear that part of the
interest in the area had to do with security reasons. The
community was taking care of the frontier area – some of
the villages were involved in fghting the Communists.” The
other big concern, of course, was drug trafcking and the
opium trade.
In the wake of Prince Bhisadej’s stay, the locals learned to
come to Pairat’s father with their requests for paved roads,
clean wells and electricity, knowing that he would transmit
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those requests to the Prince. “Whatever my father reported
to the Prince, there would be changes after that,” Pairat says,
pointing out that Ban Yang was the frst village in Fang District
to be electrifed.
* * *
As in England and Sweden, Thailand has a constitutional
monarchy; the country was ruled by an absolute monarchy
until the Revolution of 1932 – which was more a bloodless
coup d’etat than an out-and-out revolution – when a
constitution was adopted and the throne placed within a
legal framework.
For the next two decades, the Thai monarchy was not entirely
unlike the constitutional monarchies of Western Europe. But
almost from the inception of his 65-year reign – the longest in
the world at the moment – King Bhumibol, the ninth ruler of
what is known as the Chakri dynasty, rebuilt the infuence of
the throne in his country. Today, His Majesty is indisputably
the central figure of Thai society, revered by virtually
everyone, even those who have not always agreed with his
actions. As anyone who has spent time in Thailand can attest,
the King commands the love, admiration and respect of
Thai citizens.
While it is true, as shall be explained at greater length later in
this book, that the country has a long tradition of revering its
kings as “devarajas” or god-kings, King Bhumibol is beloved
not just because of the sacral position to which His Majesty
was born, but more because of the dedication with which
His Majesty has tried to help the lives of his countrymen
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during his long reign on the throne. It is true that over the
past several decades a good deal of energy and funding has
been expended on presenting the King and his family in
a favorable light, but the source of the reverence stems
from two sources.
First, in the perception, abundantly supported by events,
that in ascending to the throne under the most traumatic
circumstances, King Bhumibol dedicated himself to reigning
not just as a fgurehead, but by the precepts of an advanced
and enlightened conception of kinghood based upon virtuous
rule – what, in Buddhism, is known as “dhammaraja.” During
his coronation, for example, His Majesty made a vow: “We
shall reign with righteousness for the benefts and happi-
ness of the Siamese people.” Since then, the Thais have come
to see frst-hand that the new monarch took those words
very seriously. Indeed, they became the model for the
leadership style he would adopt. His kingship was defned
more by values than by law and power, which was the case
in the West.
Secondly, the King almost immediately began to apply
imagery, language and rituals that would establish his
position as a sacral fgure bridging this world with other
higher and lower cosmic realms of existence. His Majesty
connected, in other words, with the older, dormant-but-still-
living, conception of a devaraja. In fact, his choice to rule as
a “Righteous King” – a monarch who reigns by virtue —
comported with the traditional Thai yearning for justice
under the auspices of a devaraja: a yearning that had already
been whetted with popular discontent over the state of the
country between the 1932 Revolution and King Bhumibol’s
permanent return to Thailand early in the 1950s.
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Certainly there was precedent for his choice of leadership
models, one set from the beginning by the Chakri monarchs
and typified by one of King Bhumibol’s most illustrious
ancestors, King Mongkut, who reigned from 1851 to 1868,
and Mongkut’s equally illustrious son, King Chulalongkorn,
who reigned from 1868 until 1910.
Together, these two kings deserve much of the credit for
having saved Thailand from the colonization that was the fate
of every other country in Southeast Asia.
King Bhumibol’s climb toward revered status began shortly
after he returned from Europe in 1951 – with the exception
of a few years early in his life, His Majesty had been raised in
the West – where he had gone to complete his education
and receive medical care for an eye injury sustained in a car
accident. His return from Europe came only several years
after his unexpected ascent to the throne in 1946 following
the sudden death of his older brother, King Ananda.
A famous anecdote from the time when His Majesty and
his grieving family departed Thailand relates how the
new King rolled down the window on the car taking him to
the airport and heard a voice from the crowd that lined
the road chanting what sounded like, “Do not forsake us!”
If the people will not forsake me, the King reportedly
thought to himself, then I will not forsake them.
Upon his return, the King set about making good on that
vow. At the time, Thailand’s monarchy was without question
at its lowest ebb of power and infuence. The country was
ruled by Prime Minister Field Marshal Pibul Songgram,
who had already served one long term as Prime Minister
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before being ousted from power for allying the country
with the Japanese during the Second World War. Pibul came
back to power following a military coup in 1948.
Pibul had been one of the leaders of the 1932 Revolution and
in the years following the overthrow of the absolute monarchy
made no secret of his admiration for the fascist leaders of
Europe as well as the militarized nationalist regime in Japan.
In his second term as Prime Minister he still wanted to be
seen as the central fgure in Thai society. And what he wanted
in the country’s monarch, King Bhumibol, was a compliant
fgurehead, someone reliant on the regime for his position
and well-being, a non-threatening administrative position
which could be put to use to help resolve some of the knottier
problems facing the country.
In the Thai language the word “barami” refers to a reserve
authority that attaches both to a position like the throne and,
critically so for this story, the individual person invested with
a leadership role. In English, the term is usually translated as
“charisma”; while there are afnities between the two words,
charisma is not quite a direct equivalent, for barami is tied
in to other non-Western concepts like the role of karma in
bringing a person to power and in determining whether that
power will be wielded in a virtuous way.
In Thailand, a degree of barami is inherent in the institution
of the monarchy itself, but over the centuries individual rulers
have possessed greater or lesser degrees of personal barami.
How much barami a Thai king possesses is determined by
a combination of elements, the king’s wisdom and personal
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righteousness, among them. Thus King Mongkut and King
Chulalongkorn, for example, both had great personal
barami.
Two years before he came home permanently, the King had
returned to Thailand for a few months to preside over his
brother’s funeral and his own investiture. Now he returned
with his young wife, Queen Sirikit and the couple’s frst child.
The couple decided not to make the Royal Palace, haunted by
memories of King Ananda’s death, their ofcial residence in
Bangkok but chose to live at Chitralada Villa located near
the northern end of the city. Soon after, King Bhumibol began
to act in ways that immediately began to expand his personal
barami. By the end of the decade, with Pibul ousted by yet
another coup, only this time led by a general openly devoted
to the monarchy, the King had acquired a degree of barami
so great that he more than restored the moral, and a good
deal of the implied power of the monarchy that had been lost
since 1932.
Initially, the Pibul regime, jealous of its prerogatives and
armed with a new constitution that codified the Prime
Minister’s political ascendancy, aforded the King and his
entourage very little room for action. But from the beginning,
His Majesty demonstrated a strategic and tactical acumen
rarely displayed by someone as young as he was – he had just
turned 24 when he came back to his country. Cut of from
direct contact with his subjects and restricted to supporting
himself, his family, and a small staf on a limited royal income,
His Majesty started his own radio station in a studio at
Chitralada, acting as both D.J. and musician, playing jazz
standards as well as compositions of his own devising,
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with a revolving group of fellow musicians drawn from the
ranks of the nobility, the army and his personal entourage.
Concerned about poverty and hunger in his country, His
Majesty began to divert some of the palace’s extensive
grounds into experimental plots of land where he would
research crop and water management – work that would by
the 1960s evolve into the Royal Development Project
initiative; as of this writing, there are more than 4,600 such
projects located around Thailand.
In the mid-50s, concerned about growing unrest in northeast
Thailand, known as the Isan, and in the north following the
Communist victory in China and in particular the Communist
victory in North Vietnam, the Pibul government allowed the
royal couple to make a personal tour of Isan. Accompanied
by a small entourage and dressed not in ceremonial garb but
regular ofcial uniform, His Majesty was one of the few
monarchs in the country’s history to venture beyond the
confnes of ofcial protocol and make personal contact with
people at the very bottom rung of Thai society. In reaching
out to learn from ordinary people, His Majesty had before
him the precedent of his grandfather, King Chulalongkorn.
Later trips to the north of Thailand gave King Bhumibol
frst-hand evidence of the human and environmental ravages
caused by opium production. With that knowledge in hand,
the King donated the money – about $10,000 – to launch the
above-mentioned Royal Hill Tribe Assistance Project,
enlisting the help of researchers at Kasetsart University,
Thailand’s principal agricultural school, to begin investigating
ways to promote cultivation of peaches and other cash crops
in the northern highlands.
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All of which helps explain why some six months after Prince
Bhisadej frst set down in Baelong, King Bhumibol himself
followed up by making his own visit. Xia now made lunch
for the King and his retinue of fve assistants, seated at one
table, and another for 15 members of a security detail seated
at another.
“I was very excited, of course but His Majesty put me at
my ease,” says Xia of the royal visit. “His Majesty asked how
I cooked the dishes that I served because he liked them
and wanted to bring the leftovers back to the palace.”
When the King learned that she suffered from a goiter
because of a lack of iodine in her diet – a common ailment
aficting people living in the highlands at that time – he had
a letter drawn up to allow her to go to Chiang Mai and
receive treatment; ultimately, she had surgery to correct the
disorder after receiving more than $500 from Prince Bhisadej
to cover the expenses of her three-month stay.
After eating the meal prepared for him, the King presented
Xia and her husband with a live apple sapling. It came with
specifc instructions.
“His Majesty told us not to move anywhere because where
we were located was good for planting apples,” she recalls.
“His Majesty said, Stay here and grow apples for me.” And
so she and her husband did, cultivating a thriving orchard
up in Ang Khang and operating a prosperous business
down in Ban Yang where they built the house where she
now sat, listening to the rain abate as her guests sipped
tea and ate some of the product of the family’s fruit trees.
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In addition to the apple tree, the King presented the couple
with a pair of cows, turkeys and goats.
Of course, it was not enough simply to tell people like her and
her husband to stay where they were and grow apples. It was
also necessary to provide them with some way of earning a
living from growing those apples and other fruits, vegetables
and livestock. And that necessity was, in turn, also provided
by the King and his Royal Project initiative.
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Local villagers working in the First Royal Factory
in Fang district of Chiang Mai.
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The Ban Yang Makeover
About 150,000 people a year tour the visitors’ center and
museum at the First Royal Food Factory in Ban Yang, which
got its start in the early 1970s and has since grown into a large
complex. Many of those same visitors, among them foreign
delegations, traveled up the mountain to see the Royal Project
experimental felds and hothouses in the Royal Agricultural
Station in Ang Khang Valley.
The royal factory comprises a series of buildings arranged
around a rectangular courtyard. It includes a cafeteria, several
processing centers for handling produce, preserving fruit,
purifying and storing drinking water and a cold room with
three separate freezer sections. Since its inception it has spun
of three branch operations, all marketing products under the
special royal brand of Doi Kham. The Ban Yang headquarter
also boasts a water - turbine - driven powerhouse, a traditional
clay home for show purposes, and demonstration felds.
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On one typical weekday, workers in a refrigeration unit are
cleaning and packing bokchoy grown in felds around Ban
Yang. In the same building, a team works in another cold
room trimming and arranging fresh fowers into bouquets,
many of which will end up in stores and stalls in Bangkok’s
Pak Khlong fower market. Still other workers in another part
of the same building sort and pack small, tart plums in plastic
carriers. Elsewhere workers are packing boxes full of
perhaps the factory’s most important product: dehydrated
strawberries, grown in the cool microclimates in the hills
and the frst kind of food produced in Thailand to receive a
carbon-neutral label from the Thai government.
To supply the factory, which is also part of the Royal Project
(which is now operated by a non-proft organization called
the Chaipattana Foundation), the Royal Agricultural Station
in Ang Khang grows local varieties of peaches, as well as the
strawberries, a cross between Thai and Japanese varieties.
Currently the project is also experimenting with kiwi and
loquat, a Taiwanese fruit that researchers hope can be
adapted to the north. Under canopies to protect tender shoots
from the direct rays of the sun, the project is testing
hydroponic leaf and red lettuce along with other kinds of
green vegetables as well as sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes
and squash.
The factory complex sits beside a heavily channeled
watercourse just downstream from where the Mae Ngon
River leaves the mountains. Initially, though, it was situated
at the confuence of three hillside streams, ostensibly for the
hydroelectric potential but in fact because the site sat astride
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the base of the trail up to Ang Khang – one of the main arteries
for the trade in raw opium; it was hoped that the presence of
the Royal Factory would help disrupt the illegal trafc.
The frst item produced in Ban Yang was peach syrup made
from a local variety of fruit the King learned about during
one of his early tours of the hill country; production began
even before construction was completed on the Royal
Factory. As headman of the two villages, Pairat’s father
played a leading role in communicating with the mountain
people and it was in his house that the frst fruit press was
assembled by a team of experts; indeed, it was there that
the very frst samples of peach syrup to come out of Ban Yang
were canned. Soon other items followed – soy powder,
tomatoes, dehydrated strawberries – and production moved
down the road into the factory.
Some 400 people now work in the plant and up in the research
center; three-quarters of the employees are drawn from Ban
Yang and surrounding settlements. In 1974, the location’s
hydroelectric potential was realized when a generator was
installed in a small plant where its turbine, driven by water
from the Huai Khan check dam, produced 15 kilowatts of
power – enough to run the plant. Since then, two more
turbines have been installed and the plant now generates
125 KW, enough electricity for every household in Ban Yang,
with the excess power distributed back to the provincial power
company. One of the favorite attractions at the Royal Plant is
the Model 181 Volkswagen on display outside the power plant.
It is the same car the King would drive on his early visits to
Ban Yang and the Ang Khang valley.
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In 1974, flooding destroyed the first factory complex.
Afterwards, the site was moved to higher ground. After an
even worse fash food in October, 2006 destroyed part of
the new plant and killed seven villagers, the Mae Ngon was
dammed more extensively and today’s concrete channeling
created to prevent further problems.
Despite the setbacks, the First Royal Food Factory has been the
key element in transforming Ban Yang from an impoverished
backwater into the prosperous village it is today. For his part,
Pairat’s assessment of what life would be like in Ban Yang if it
had not been for the Royal Project is bleak and blunt. “There
wouldn’t be peace in this area. Drug trafcking would still
be as bad as it was and there would be unrest.” But as living
standards have risen, he says, the former displaced persons
from Yunnan and their ofspring now feel safe, secure, and
“attached” to their adopted country.
Besides offices, living quarters, processing areas and
warehouses, the grounds of the First Royal Food Factory
include a now-defunct medical and nutrition center. There,
in the early days, local children would come and be fed and
given instructions on diet and hygiene; the small building is
now part of the visitors’ tour.
Ban Yang resident, Alee Limvanich was an early employee
at the health center. A native of the town, her parents were
Chinese immigrants who grew rice using slash-and-burn in
surrounding hills. There were 11 children in all in her family
– eight of whom survived into adulthood – and she describes
her upbringing as “dirt poor.” At 15, she was hired to help
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make peach syrup at the factory, running the hand-operated
peeler and press. After two years, she was sent by the factory
management to Chiang Mai for training in health and
nutrition and returned after a month to become part of a staf
of four serving 153 local children who came to the center
several days a week. There, for a tuition fee of 15 baht
a month, the students received balanced meals to help ward
off the malnutrition that was rampant among the local
population, as were worms and other food-borne parasites.
Before the royal factory, she recalls, “There was not even one
motorcycle in the village, only horses and mules. There was no
family planning and so families were large and many people
were hungry.” There was also no electricity or running water
and whenever it rained the dirt tracks leading in and out of
the village would be washed out. Retired now, Alee has two
grown children, both of whom took master’s degrees in
education and went on to become teachers. Each now lives
elsewhere – her daughter in Chiang Mai, her son in the
southern part of the country. They are examples of the Thai
version of the “brain drain” typical of small towns the world
over. However, even that has begun to change in Thailand’s
north.
Take, for example, Ratree Panyacharoen. At 18, she is a third-
generation resident of Ban Yang. She, her sister and mother
split their time between their house and a little shophouse/
distillery on the town’s main street.
Her grandparents began the business of making wine and
liquors when they came to Ban Yang from China in the 1950s
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and then Ratree’s mother and father – who died some
10 years ago – continued in their footsteps. Today the fruit and
grain used by the business come from the Royal Project and
Ratree helps produce the beverages. As night settles over the
village, she and her mother work in an open area in the back
of their building that contains, among other things, stainless
steel fermentation tanks manufactured in Chiang Mai and a
retort that uses natural gas and lychee wood as a heat source
–the wood imparts a special favor to the alcohol. As Ratree
and her mother slip bottles into wooden racks, a muezzin in
Ban Yang’s sole mosque calls the evening prayers; in the
village Buddhists, Muslims and Christians – Ratree’s mother
is Catholic, and her late father was Buddhist – live and work
side by side with no divide across sectarian lines.
The operation’s star product is the apricot brandy Ratree’s
mother distills from apricots grown up in Ang Khang and that
is sold under the name “Hongfakow,” or “Celestial Swan.” Not
only is the fruit supplied by the highland orchards excellent
for distillation, but apricots are considered to be auspicious
by Chinese people. The brandy, Ratree reports, has found
a strong local market among descendents of the Yunnan
displaced persons. Altogether, the distillery turns out about
1,000 bottles of brandy, wine and hard liquor a year, most of it
marketed through shops at royal development projects around
the country. Despite the relatively small volume, revenue from
the business is good – enough to send Ratree and her sister to
private school; eventually Ratree plans to go abroad to study
business administration at a college in southern China not far
from where her family migrated two generations ago. But after
completing her degree, she is planning to come back.
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A large part of the reason why is because of the three years she
spent volunteering as a youth guide at the First Royal Food
Factory Museum. From there she went to become a research
assistant at the facility.
She signed on because a friend had invited her to join but soon
became engrossed in a project that collected data about the
community; what started out as a lark turned into an
enriching learning experience. The volunteers in the project
were divided into teams with each assigned a specifc topic.
In her case, the topic was the hydroelectric plant at the Royal
Food Factory with the material gathered by her team to be
used to develop guidebooks for visitors. She read data,
interviewed workers at the plant, both current and retired,
then went out into the community to speak with elders
about how Ban Yang had changed over the past 40 years. Much
of the information struck close to home: for the frst time she
not only learned from her paternal grandfather about the
family’s trek by foot from southern China but also about the
handful of Chinese coins issued prior to the revolution that he
still had in his possession. The research and interviews were
used to develop information for visitors about the history of
the factory and hydroelectric plant.
Ratree came away with a much deeper appreciation of
Ban Yang and the people who live there. “I was lucky to be
able to do the research,” she says. “I got to hear the older
people talk about how difcult the journey was and about the
hardships and conditions of the community at the time they
arrived. The elders were happy to share their memories with
us younger people.”
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As a result of her work, she has developed a strong bond with
many of the older villagers, most of whom were strangers to
her before she started her research. Now, when she passes
their houses, they call out to her and she often spends time
chatting with them before going on her way again. “It’s a small
community but I never had a chance or reason to talk to old
people before,” she says. “This was an opportunity to get to
know them.”
And it is not just elders. During her research she and other
team members went out into the feld to interview children
10 and 12 years old; in the end, she found herself in the ironic
position of being treated as an elder by these younger Ban
Yang residents. Altogether, the experiences as a guide and
researcher instilled in her a desire to return to live in the
village of her birth after completing her education.
“My family and our family business are here,” she says simply.
“And I have fallen in love with Ban Yang. There is nowhere
else I would want to live.”
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PART TWO
On Royal Grounds
Ultimately, the question raised by phenomena like the
eradication of opium production, the transformation of Ban
Yang, and the reforestation of large areas of the north and
northeast is this: how did Thailand end up with a monarch
who did not decide simply to sit back and enjoy the perquisites
and privileges of his exalted position?
To answer that question we must begin by looking at the 2,500
year-old relationship between Buddhism and monarchy, then
the history of an emperor in ancient India and of the several
kingdoms that evolved into present-day Thailand. It also
means surveying the Thai vision of a sacral cosmology that
still persists, just beneath the country’s otherwise modern
surface, as well as the history of the Chakri dynasty; and, last
but hardly least, King Bhumibol’s own upbringing and
education under the tutelage of a remarkable mother.
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Asoka pillar with lion capital,
a symbol of Dhamma.
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The Birth of the Dhammaraja
Buddhism is the dominant religion of Thailand, or, to be more
exact, Theravada Buddhism, or “way of the elders,” that came
to the country by way of Sri Lankan missionaries more than
2,000 years ago. Adherents of Theravada Buddhism believe
it is a purer version of the faith, truer to the original teachings
of the Buddha than other variants of the religion.
Official statistics, as well as the ubiquitous presence of
Buddhist temples, confrm what the Thai people themselves
will tell you: the overwhelming majority of the country’s
67 million residents are Buddhist – about 92 percent of
the population, in fact. The country is also home to about
fve million Muslims – most of them located in the provinces
at the bottom of the Elephant’s Trunk, the long tail-shaped
appendage of Thailand that borders Malaysia. Thailand also
has small populations of other religious afliations, principally
Christianity and Hinduism, and an even smaller number of
people who practice some form of animism.
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If Buddhism is the single most important religion and
cultural complex shaping Thai culture and Thai concepts of
the monarchy, Hinduism ranks in second place. Long before
Buddhism began to penetrate the region several centuries
before the birth of Christ, Southeast Asia had come under
the cultural sway of the powerful nexus of civilizations born
in the valley of the Ganges. Even today, royal rituals combine
Buddhist and Brahmanical elements, combination that
dates back to the frst Thai kingdoms some 800 years ago.
Syncretism then has shaped the country’s concept of
monarchy – its roles, rituals, and overall purpose within
society as a whole. First and most obvious of the infuences
is Buddhism. Although Westerners sometimes think of
Buddhism as a religion concerned only with things of the
spirit – in particular how to achieve enlightenment through
non-attachment – from the very frst, the Buddhist canon has
included very concrete information about the nature of society
and secular leadership, including kingship. This begins with
Agganna Suttanta, (considered to be the religion’s Book of
Genesis) and continues on through the Tripitaka, the core
teachings of the Buddhist canon, and the Jataka, a vast
collection of stories about the Buddha’s teachings and the
many lives he lived before achieving enlightenment and
nirvana, or freedom from the cycle of existence and sufering.
The Agganna Suttanta presents the Buddhist version of the
origin of the cosmos – and of the social order. According to
that cosmology, we live in a universe in which world systems
have been destroyed and regenerated again and again over
vast cycles of time. In turn, each world system consists of
31 planes of existence distributed over three major worlds –
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the Triloka, the realms of sufering and rebirth. Those three
worlds are themselves divided into numerous dimensions
ranging from the depths of demon-infested hells all the way
up to the summit of Mount Meru, the center of the Buddhist
and Hindu universe, and beyond to numerous even higher
Brahmanic heavens.
Unlike the Hindu version of cosmology, which posits that
society was divided among diferent castes from the very
beginning of time, Buddhism proposes that social ranking
began later on, at that moment in the social evolution of
human beings when the frst agricultural settlements had
grown into stable urban aggregations with a hierarchical social
structure aimed at keeping order and allocating resources.
It was at this point that people began to look for a fgure
among themselves who would be invited to serve as king and
settle disputes and mete out justice in return for a portion of
the society’s crops. It was only after this invitation and the
frst king, who received the title Mahasammata, which means
“approved by the whole people,” began his reign that the other
orders of society formed. One of the great breaks between
Buddhism and Hinduism, from which Buddhism arose as
Christianity did from Judaism, is that in Hindu mythology,
each of the world’s four social categories, or varna, is
considered timeless and fxed while in the Buddhist conception
of things, they only come into being after the rise of kings and
are just as subject to the fux of impermanence as anything
else in the cosmos.
Possession of the kind of favorable qualities needed to be
monarch had to precede an individual’s ascension to the
throne and so we might say that in the Buddhist order of
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things, the king ascends to the throne by way of two
interrelated mechanisms: the positive karma he has
accumulated in previous lives and selection by those over
whom he is going to rule. A good king is one who rules in
accordance with the dhamma, the laws that govern the
cosmos.
Though the Buddhist idea of dhammaraja can be traced to
earlier Hindu concepts designed to regulate the power wielded
by an absolute monarch, this new formulation takes those
restrictions a big step further. In addition to 10 essential
principles by which a king should rule, his reign should also
be governed by other dhammic principles.
The frst known and still considered the prime exemplar of
the dhammaraja was Asoka, who ruled the Maurya Empire.
Born around 304 BC, Asoka was the grandson of the founder
of the Maurya dynasty and reigned between 274 and 232 BC.
Although parts of his story are related in other Buddhist and
Hindu texts most of what is now known for certain about
him comes to us in his own words, from stone inscriptions
whose earnest and sometimes didactic style has convinced
experts that the inscriptions were undoubtedly dictated
by the emperor himself.
By his own admission, Asoka spent the frst half of his life
as a thoroughly wicked man who murdered several brothers
in order to secure the crown, then ordered the conquest of
Kalinga, an advanced republic that defended itself with great
ferocity – according to the stone inscriptions left by Asoka,
some 100,000 soldiers died in the fighting and another
150,000 residents of Kalinga forcibly relocated to make way
for the Maurya empire.
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This happened eight years into Asoka’s reign, when he was 42.
By then, he had already been calling himself a Buddhist for
several years, but the bloodshed and sufering brought about
by the conquest of Kalinga apparently triggered a much deeper
mid-life conversion. From that point on, he attempted to rule
by mercy and justice. In numerous other stone inscriptions
scattered in sites around India, Nepal, Pakistan and
elsewhere, Asoka laid out edicts about dhamma and its
central role in shaping the principles for leading a virtuous
and enlightened existence in both public and private life.
The basis for his own governance was a state morality
directed at creating a just, prosperous, and equitable
realm. And he backed up those edicts with concrete actions,
investing in roads, planting shade and fruit trees, digging wells
and building rest houses for weary travelers and even funding
the importation of remedies from abroad. He may also have
been the world’s frst royal conservationist and animal rights
advocate, banning the hunting of some animals altogether,
setting up wildlife refuges, and outlawing the mistreatment
of all animals, whether wild or domestic.
Like King Bhumibol more than 2,000 years later, Asoka
traveled around his realm extensively – calling his now
regular travels “dhamma tours” – and ordered his ofcials to
do the same. Over the course of his reign, he visited already
existing temples and erected new ones and promoted the
tenets of Theravada Buddhism, the most prominent form of
Buddhism in Thailand today. Yet another conscious
intention of his travels was to make himself accessible to his
subjects, seeing first-hand what problems they faced,
listening to their concerns, and acting to alleviate their
sufering. And, as King Bhumibol would later strive to achieve,
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he tried to make sure that he was kept abreast at all times of
what was going on in his kingdom, as made clear in yet another
of his edicts, even while acknowledging the near impossibility
of the task.
Overall, as one scholar has noted, Asoka’s edicts were not
focused on the kind of issues that we might expect would be
topmost in the mind of an absolute monarch – the duties and
services owed to him by his subjects. To the contrary, there
is no mention of the topic in any of the inscriptions that are
still intact. What the edicts do dwell upon is the duties a ruler
owes to his subjects – as well as all living beings. In keeping
with that preoccupation, Asoka reformed the courts, reduced
the severity of punishment for crimes and instituted a system
of stays-of-execution and legal appeals even for those
condemned to death. He also established the tradition of
an active relationship between the court and the sangha,
or Buddhist clergy, that presages the relationship between
the monarchy and the sangha in Thailand today, and called
one of the frst conclaves of representatives from around
the Buddhist world to rectify discrepancies that had arisen
in the interpretations of the Buddhist canon during the 200
some odd years since the Buddha’s death. In addition he sent
monks on missions around India and elsewhere – including
Sri Lanka – that then became the seedbed for later
missionary work into countries like Thailand, and he also
appointed officials he called Dhamma Mahamatras to
instruct the populace in the ways of dhamma. Yet despite his
interest in spreading the word about his faith, Asoka laid forth
the model of religious tolerance that is one of the hallmarks
of Buddhist countries, even those, like Thailand, where
Buddhism is the dominant religion.
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It is from Asoka’s concept of a good ruler that, in part, the
Buddhist world derived the Dasarajadhamma, or the Ten
Principles of a Righteous King, which are known in Thailand
as “Thotsaphit Rajatham.” Among other things, these ten
principles govern a king’s generosity, willingness to make
self-sacrifces for the good of his people, loyalty, honesty,
trustworthiness, patience, and upright conduct. (For a more
detailed description of the Thotsaphit Rajatham, see
“Afterword” at the end of this book.)
For Thai kings, how best to try to strike their own balance
between worldly governance and maintaining the smooth
progress of the dhamma– in other words, what it means
to be a “righteous ruler” – has been a concept that has evolved
over the centuries, at least since the rise in the 13th century
of Sukhothai, a state in north central Thailand that the Thai
people have been taught – in a greatly simplifed version of the
evolution of the country – was the frst true Thai Kingdom.
By contrast, the Hindu tradition – which has had some but
not predominant influence over the evolution of Thai
politics – proclaims the king as “devaraja” – a god-king. To
fnd how this complex synthesis came about and formed
the complex sacral cosmology that prevails even today,
beneath the very real modernity that are also a feature of
Thai society and political economy, we have to turn toward
the history of the Thai speaking people who settled in
Southeast Asia and the rise of the frst true Kingdoms of
Thailand in the Middle Ages.
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Ruins of Wat Trapangthonglang, Sukhothai.
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Fish in the Water and Rice
in the Fields
“In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng this land of
Sukhothai is thriving. There are fsh in the water
and rice in the felds. The lord of the realm does
not levy toll on his subjects. They are free to lead
their cattle or ride their horses to engage in trade;
whoever wants to trade in elephants does so;
whoever wants to trade in horses does so; whoever
wants to trade in silver or gold does so.
…There is a bell at the gate; if any commoner in
the land is involved in a quarrel and wants to
make his case known to his ruler and lord, it is
easy; he goes, and strikes the bell, which the king
has hung there; King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler
of the kingdom, hears the bell; he calls the man in
and questions him, examines the case, and decides
it justly for him…
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King Ramkhamhaeng, son of King Sri Indraditya,
is lord of the kingdom of Sri Sajanalai – Sukhothai,
and all the Ma, the Kao, the Lao, the Thai of distant
lands, and the Thai who live along the U and the
Khong come to pay homage… He is the teacher
who teaches all the Thai to understand merit and
the dhamma rightly. Among men who live in the
lands of the Thai, there is no one to equal him in
knowledge and wisdom, in bravery and courage,
in strength and energy. He is able to subdue a
throng of enemies and possesses broad kingdoms
and many elephants.”*
There are many theories about when the diferent groups of
Tai peoples began to emigrate from what is believed to have
been their homeland in southern China, but nobody knows
for certain why that started to happen or when the Tai came
down out of the highlands into what is now Southeast Asia.
What is known for certain is that there are peoples speaking
Tai languages in one form or another across a broad region
that covers southern China, northwestern Vietnam, Laos,
and the Shan region of northern Myanmar.
............................................
*Inscription on stone stele attributed to King Ramkhamhaeng,
(b., circa 1237, d. 1298), ruler of the Sukhothai Kingdom, which
was founded at the time of his birth and fell under control of
the Kingdom of Ayudhya in 1438. In addition to serving as one of
the models of Thai monarchy, legend credits King Ramkhamhaeng
with having created the Thai script, which is still in use today with
only minor modifcations.
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Whenever it was exactly, by the time these peoples arrived
in the vicinity of Thailand, people inhabiting the region were
already engaged in agriculture, farming the uplands before
moving down into the river valleys. By the fourth millennium
BC, or not long after the domestication of rice in the region,
archeological fnds from Ban Chiang and other sites around
northeast Thailand show that inhabitants had established a
high degree of material and cultural advancement. Over time,
a common cultural and economic horizon, one that even today
connects citizens of many diferent nations, languages and
ethnic backgrounds, developed all along the nearly 2,000-
mile length of the Mekong River based upon the region’s rich
bounty of rice and fsh.
The earliest mention of the Thai comes from the 11th century
but there is little doubt that many tribes of Thai-speaking
people

had been living in central Southeast Asia for some time
before that frst mention. The frst city-states and kingdoms
to emerge in what is today Thailand date back to the frst
centuries AD. From then until the 12th century small states
based upon Indian models ruled by a god-king, the sacral life of
the society watched over by Brahmins, or Hindu priests, began
to appear in the region. Some historians even characterized
these states and kings that ranged all the way from Burma to
Indonesia as essentially outliers of India itself, though that
view is hardly universal. What is universally accepted is that
the statelets and small kingdoms adopted Hindu ideas about
the proper way to structure a society and the role of the king
within a sacral cosmology. One thing that these states did not
import wholesale, however, was the Indian caste.
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Those proto-states did, however, absorb the notion of a
semi-divine king along with rituals, symbols, work of
literature (like the Indian epic, Ramayana, the basis of a
Thai version called the Ramakien), clothing, and religious
and secular architectural styles. Angkor Wat in the ruins of
what had been the capital of the Khmer Kingdom ofers
vivid proof of the Indian infuence in the heart of Southeast
Asia. Just as important, Southeast Asia embraced the idea
that society should be structured in such a way that it
embodies the mandala, or shape of the cosmos, in which
everything ranges around a center in concentric circles. In
political terms, the king is the center of that mandala, with his
lands, cities, and nobility ranged around him like the spokes
and rim of a wheel. Many historians describe the societies
that emerged at this time or in later Thai kingdoms as
“feudal,” but that is really not an accurate description. Power
was not decentralized. In theory, if not always in reality, the
king owned everything, including the people living under
his rule, and whatever anyone owned was held as a gift from
him.
Several of the earliest kingdoms in central Southeast Asia
were located in the central and lower Chao Phraya basin;
the Chao Phraya River, whose name means “Lord”, is fed by
important tributaries, like the Ping and Yom, where other
statelets and small kingdoms also began to take shape. The
earliest kingdoms to emerge in the lower Chao Phraya were
part of what is known as the Dvarawadi culture. It was made
up of members of another ethno/linguistic group that spoke
Mon, a member of a language family that includes Khmer.
Though the original conceptions of kingship in Dvarawadi
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and other regions of present-day Thailand were based upon
Hindu models, sometime in the middle of the frst millennium
BC Buddhism was brought into the area; tradition maintains
that it was through the southern port city of Ligor – today
known as Nakhon Si Thammarat – halfway down Thailand’s
Elephant’s Trunk. Thai-speaking people settling in Dvarawadi
states adopted Buddhism, though they also retained elements
of their own indigenous spiritual and cosmological traditions.
All evidence indicates that the Thai were welcomed into the
Mon area and the two peoples got along without confict. By
the end of the frst millennium BC, the Thai-speaking people
probably outnumbered both Mon and Khmer-speaking
inhabitants of Thailand.
If the Mon and Thai lived together amicably enough, such
was not the case with the Khmer kingdoms to the east in
today’s Cambodia. When Thai kingdoms began to take shape
about 1,000 years ago their growing size, power, and ambitions
began to bring them into confict with the Khmer. Eventually
one of these kingdoms, Ayudhya, would drive the Khmer out of
Thailand and sack Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire.
The frst small Thai kingdoms began to form in the 12th and
13th centuries. The Kingdom of Lanna was forged out of
several principalities by the great leader Mangrei, who
established Chiang Mai as the capital of his domain (whose
name, Lanna, translates, fttingly enough, into “the Kingdom
of a million rice felds”), the Kingdom of Nan Chao, in today’s
China, and the Kingdom of Sukhothai, which was created
early in the 13th century.
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Of all these nascent states it is Sukhothai that contemporary
Thais have been taught is the first true Kingdom of
Thailand. Sukhothai started out as a tiny principality
carved out of a piece of the Khmer territory, but, according
to the story long taught in Thai schools, with the ascent of
its third king, Ramkhamhaeng, in 1279 it emerged as major
power in the region. By the end of his time on the throne – he
died in 1298 – Ramkhamhaeng is reputed to have extended
Sukhothai’s sway eastward into Laos – Vientiane became a
tributary of Sukhothai – west to the Indian Ocean in Burma
and south as far as Nakhon Si Thammarat.
But Ramkhamhaeng is not honored by the Thai people so
much for his reputed conquests, but for the way in the 20th
century he emerged as a model of an ideal king after the
discovery by a monk at a Bangkok wat, or temple complex,
who would later become one of the greatest monarchs in the
country’s history, King Mongkut, the great-grandfather of
King Bhumibol.
What Mongkut found while still in the monastery was a
stone stele bearing the inscription quoted at the beginning
of this section. As with Asoka before him, in this inscription
King Ramkhamhaeng detailed the principles by which he
ruled his realm and the peace, happiness, and prosperity
his enlightened ways bestowed upon Sukhothai and its
people.
Sukhothai and King Ramkhamhaeng are considered by
Thais as, respectively, the frst true Kingdom of Thailand
and the frst Thai dhammaraja. In Sukhothai, we also know
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that the merger of Buddhist and Brahman rites was part of
the ritual life of the kingdom, even if that merger might have
occurred elsewhere at an earlier time in another proto-Thai
kingdom. At all events, the apotheosis of that merger
between Buddhist and Hindu concepts of monarchy and of
the role Thai kings play within the country’s cosmological
system would fnd full expression in another, later state
located several hundred kilometers south of Sukhothai.
The Kingdom of Ayudhya, formed in the 14th century, achieved
its apogee some two hundred years later before being overrun
and literally burned to the ground a decade-and-a-half before
the French Revolution. It was in Ayudhya that the kings of
Thailand would truly achieve the status of “Lords of Life,
Lords of the Land,” monarchs who occupied the portal
between the material world and the realm of the gods;
rulers whose subjects were all personal dependents of
lower status – metaphorically “dust beneath the dust
beneath the feet” of the king.
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Ruins of Wat Chaiwattanaram, Ayudhya.
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God-kings
in the Paris of Southeast Asia
Now to tell of the king who resided under a
brilliant jeweled spire. In the dawn light of the
sun, he was bathed and dressed and went out to
the Sutthasawan Hall, his mind full of anger at
his foes… [King Phanwasa] was infamed with
rage...He bellowed like a thunderclap... ‘Bring
the executioner here immediately. I cannot keep
him. Of with his head. Stick it up on a pole and
raise it high!’
The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen:
Siam’s Great Folk Epic of Love and War.
Translated and edited by Chris Baker
and Pasuk Phongpaichit.
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Touring the remains of Ayudhya, the capital city of the
kingdom of the same name, it takes a leap of imagination
to picture what it must have been like in its heyday, which
came to an end late in the 18th century.
All that is left of its previous splendor are a collection of
ruins – impressive ruins, to be sure, enough so to be listed by
UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, but ruins nonetheless –
scattered around an area of about one-square mile on the
banks of the Chao Phraya River some 40 miles upstream
from Bangkok.
The ruins are the fnal product of the sporadic warfare that
took place between Burma and Thailand. In 1767, following
an 18-month siege of the capital city, the Burmese fnally
overran Ayudhya and, as was the custom among warring
states in Southeast Asia, razed everything in the city, even
statues in the temples where fellow Buddhists had
worshipped.
Ayudhya began life in 1351 as a small principality on the
western edge of the much more powerful Khmer Empire whose
capital Ayudhya would itself go on to overrun and sack in
1431. Although there are diferent creation stories about
the birth of the kingdom, it seems most likely that it arose
when King U Thong of Suphan Buri moved his court up to
an island in the Chao Phraya River to escape the threat of an
epidemic.
Within a century of its founding the Kingdom of Ayudhya
would become the most powerful state in the region,
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pushing the Khmer east, turning the other Thai kingdoms
of the time, Sukhothai, Lanna and Lan Xang in Laos, into
tributary states.
Even if wandering the ruins today might bring to mind
nothing so much as the words of Shelley’s “Ode to
Ozymandias,” Ayudhya at its zenith in the 17th century
rivaled any city in the world. One French diplomat likened
the capital of the Kingdom to Paris for its size and splendor.
An international city, located only 55 miles north of the Gulf
of Thailand, it was from its very beginnings an entrepôt,
with merchants and artisans from China, Arabia and Persia
setting up shops in settlements on its southern outskirts,
and then joined from the 16th century on by traders and
diplomats from Europe. The kings and nobility of Ayudhya
were not only open to foreign merchandise but also alien ideas
and technologies. One of its kings employed a prime minister
who was born in Greece – and who replaced a prime minister
who was the grandson of a man born in Persia. At the end of
the 17th century, that same king carried on an extensive
correspondence with King Louis XIV.
One book detailing the history of Southeast Asia described
the role of the capital city in this way:
[T]he court of [Ayudhya] was the center of the
cultural life of the kingdom. In addition to its
specialized bureaucracy, the Thai court main-
tained a full complement of arts, performers,
and craftsmen, who flled the city with carvings,
statues, monuments, and a succession of dramatic
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and musical performances. Talented poets and
dancers, wherever found, were brought into the
court or the households of high ofcials, who took
pride in their writers-in-residence and dramatic
troupes. Buddhism fl ourished under the
patronage of the court; the hundreds of
monasteries in and near the capital were major
centers of secular as well as religious learning.
The difusion of the literary and the scholastic
writings of the capital into the provincial towns
and even villages suggest that, at least by the
eighteenth century, the culture and language of
the kingdom were becoming increasingly
uniform.”*
Though Khun Chang Khun Phaen, Thailand’s great epic
poem, continued to be altered even after the fall of Ayudhya
and the rise of a new Thai kingdom centered in Bangkok,
an image of what life was like at the high point of the Ayudhya
regime can be seen in its verses. It also provides numerous
and indelible glimpses of how the king of Ayudhya – in this
case, the fctional King Phanwasa—appears to his subjects
and the role he plays within the larger epic of Thai life at
that time.
The portrait of this particular king was undoubtedly composed
as something of a caricature, but what we see in the poem is
the Thai concept of monarchy at the zenith of its manifestation
............................................
*Steinberg, David J. et al. (eds.). (1971). In Search of Southeast Asia:
A Modern History. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. p.63-64.
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as a Hindu-Khmer influenced version of devaraja,
occupying a liminal space in the realm inhabited by the
gods whose supernatural powers he shares. When he stomps
his foot and roars with anger – which he does frequently
during the course of the story – all those within earshot
tremble and prostrate themselves at his feet. When King
Phanwasa is not terrifying or, as also occurs from time to time,
rewarding his subjects, the reader is assured that he is of
in a secluded part of his palace being bathed and dressed in
gold and silk raiment by armies of servants while all his other
needs were attended to just as lavishly by scores of beautiful
consorts; as in other parts of Asia, such as China, severely
limiting the king’s public visibility was one of the principal
strategies for maintaining his divine aura.
“Historically, there have been several concepts of monarchy
in Thailand,” says a Western expert who has lived and taught
in Thailand for decades and written extensively on the
country’s culture and history. “But even today, one of the most
important is the devaraja– the god-king – that came about in
a definitive form in the Ayudhya period.” Even though
dhammaraja is the more-or-less official concept of the
monarchy today, this same expert says, “the concept of the
devaraja, though not voiced, remains rooted in the cultural
subconscious of the people, including the elites.” The fact
that in Thailand today Father’s Day is celebrated on the
King’s birthday is a vestige of the time when Thai kings were
considered the mediator between the here and now and the
eternal, between the profane of everyday life and the sacred
cosmology of many worlds and powerful spirits.
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After the destruction of the city – and disruption of the dynasty
that had been in power when Ayudhya fell – remnants of the
kingdom’s military forces regrouped, harrying the Burmese as
they retreated northward to face a threat from Chinese
forces gathered on Burma’s own border. After a brief contest
among fve would-be successors to the throne of Siam, the
former governor of Tak, a half-Chinese general named Sin,
won the struggle and was declared King Taksin. Because
Ayudhya had been razed, the Thais assumed – based upon the
concept of karma – that it was no longer an auspicious place
from which to govern. King Taksin established his new capital
downstream from Ayudhya along the west bank of the Chao
Phraya, creating a city he called Thonburi directly across the
river from a mostly Chinese settlement known as Bangkok.
A little more than a decade later, King Taksin was overthrown
and succeeded by one of his top generals, whose title was
Chao Phraya Chakri; it is after him that the current dynasty
gets its name. At his ascension to the throne he took the name
King Buddha Yod Fa Chulalok, though he is more commonly
known as Rama I – Rama to signify his direct connection to
the highest god of the Hindu pantheon.
Rama I was an uncommonly efective ruler who combined
an advanced understanding of military strategy and tactics,
keen political instincts, and above all, an instinctive
understanding that auspicious sacral symbolism was critical
to the stability of his reign, as well as of the dynasty that he
was initiating. The coup that brought him to the throne in
1782 was the last time a king was overthrown in Thailand, his
succession of nine direct descendents unprecedented in the
country’s history, going all the way back to Sukhothai.
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Like King Taksin, and the Ayudhya kings before him, Rama I
was an energetic builder and patron of the arts. He moved the
capital across the Chao Phraya to Bangkok, its current location.
He encouraged the arts, music, and theater and was even an
author himself, writing, among other texts, a new rendering
of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu sacred epic,
the Ramayana, and he constructed the magnifcent Grand
Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha with murals
depicting scenes from Ramakien.
In all these and other ways, Rama I demonstrated a deep
understanding of his people’s psychic landscape. But he
displayed an even more profound grasp of the complex
realities of his culture – the integral combination of the
sacred and the profane. From Laos, which was now once
again under Thai dominion, he brought the statue known
as the Emerald Buddha and installed it in the temple on
the grounds of his new palace where it served as the palladium
or talisman of his new dynasty. Adjacent to the Grand Palace,
Rama I renewed and expanded an older Buddhist compound
that stood on the same site during Ayudhya times to become
Wat Phra Chetuphon to serve as the principal site of the Thai
sangha or monastic organization. Better known today as Wat
Pho, the name of the older wat, Wat Phra Chetuphon served
an additional purpose – to establish a center of the concentric
mandalas that reached out wider and wider to constitute
the realm under the sway and protection of the King seated
in Bangkok. The symbolism of the mandala as built into the
structures of Wat Phra Chetuphon replicated a vision of the
cosmos itself. Thus, Wat Phra Chetuphon could easily be seen
to symbolize that at the center of the cosmos stood the King
as the living link between the three principal worlds of
Buddhism and all its secondary realms.
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An aerial view of
Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimonmangkhlaram.
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3
D Map of the Sacral Cosmos
Wat Pho is one of the most revered Buddhist temple
complexes in Thailand and, for reasons that will soon become
clear, one of the most sacred places in the entire country.
Located just south of the Royal Palace constructed by Rama
I, Wat Pho is also the largest Buddhist temple in Thailand,
divided into two-walled compounds sitting on the north and
south sides of a road that runs along the cardinal direction
from east to west. Within its walls are more than 1,000
images of the Buddha (the most of any temple in the country),
many of them collected from around Thailand and beyond.
The northern compound is home to most of the wat’s major
attractions, while the south is home to a Buddhist monastery
and school.
Founded in the 17th century, elements of the temple are
actually older than the city of Bangkok itself. The name
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Wat Pho comes from its original name of Wat Potharam.
Rama I enlarged the original temple, installed many statues
and other artifacts recovered from Ayudhaya, and renamed
it.
Wat Phra Chetuphon was completed in 1801 but underwent
major renovation and enlargement under Rama III, the third
king of the Chakri dynasty. He had plaques posted around the
grounds ofering information about Thai medical practices
and turned the temple into a center of Buddhist learning and
scholarship, making Wat Pho, in essence, the frst college in
Thailand.
Rama III also ordered the creation of what is undoubtedly
Wat Pho’s principal attraction – a monumental 150- foot long
statue of the Reclining Buddha that all but dwarfs the building
that houses it. In keeping with the monumental scale of Wat
Pho, the temple’s Reclining Buddha is also the longest statue
of the Buddha in Thailand.
But Wat Pho is more than one of the holiest sites in Southeast
Asia. It is also a major tourist destination. Visitors, from
both Thailand and abroad, fock to Wat Pho by the tens of
thousands each year. The visitors are attracted by many
things – the Reclining Buddha, above all, of course. But
there are many other features to stimulate a tourist’s
attention. There are those thousands of statues of the
Buddha, for instance, including one whole arcade of gold-
colored statues recovered from Ayudhya. There are dozens
of chedi – rounded pyramids topped by a spire that hold
relics – of unusual shape and size. At the corners of the
huge complex visitors can catch their breath – and a little
shade – at the small islands of shrubs and trees that feature
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statues depicting diferent mythological fgures and ofer a
haven of greenery in a city where green space is, to put it
mildly, at a premium.
And, of course, there is the world famous Wat Pho school
of massage where you can receive a Thai massage or session
of refexology provided in half-hour increments in premises
that are air-conditioned – which, like the shady areas, ofer a
welcome relief to the relentless heat and humidity of a country
that residents like to say has three seasons: hot, hotter, and
hottest.
But what tourists and perhaps even many devout Buddhists
who come to Wat Pho to pray often do not realize is that, in
addition to everything else, they are walking around a
miniature, three-dimensional map or model of the
elaborate sacral cosmology that draws upon both ancient
Buddhist and Hindu sources – a cosmology that places
the Thai monarchy within a sacred cultural context.
The cosmology embodied by Wat Pho details Buddhist and
Hindu beliefs that there are two dimensions that exist on
the same plane: one, the material world in which human
beings live and toil, the other the dimension of the three
worlds, which stretch from hell, or actually many hells,
inhabited by demons, monsters and other frightful creatures,
to the upper levels of many heavens inhabited by gods and
angelic spirits. Stepping through one of the many gates of Wat
Pho, and then navigating toward the complex’s main chapel,
Phra Ubosot, is to travel, metaphysically at least, from the
profane world into a simulacrum of a sacral cosmos: into the
heart and soul of a belief system that encases Thailand’s king
within a more transcendental order of respected being.
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Both the location and layout of the complex were very
helpful and perhaps even critical in establishing the legitimacy
of the new Chakri dynasty and for placing its kings at the
threshold between the two dimensions and multiple worlds
of the sacral cosmology. Put simply, when Bangkok became
the capital of Thailand in the 18th century, Wat Pho became
the site of a special new temple because it asserted that
divine energies have a center that can be accessed by a king
empowered as a devaraja and serving as a dhammaraja. The
rebuilt temple’s central role in connecting the Chakri kings
to Buddhism is underscored by the new name chosen for
Wat Pho – Wat Phra Chetuphon: Chetuphon is the name of
the Buddha’s favorite forest for wandering and meditating.
A shrine built to contain a sacred pillar and a Hindu temple
–built as the residence of the kingdom’s head Brahman,
both– also built by Rama I, further cemented Bangkok’s
metaphorical centrality in the cosmos.
Upholding the three worlds of the sacral cosmos is Sumeru–
Mt. Meru in English. The upper and lower of the three worlds
are connected by Thawips, the four continents of Buddhist
cosmology. The Chomphu Thawip – Asia – is where human
beings meet the avatars of the Buddha; at Wat Pho, the
Chomphu Thawip is symbolized – and enacted in miniature –
at the eastern part of the complex known as Khet Phutthawat,
or area that belongs to the Buddha. At the center of Khet
Phutthawat stands the Bodhi throne – the elevated seat
upon which the main statue of the Buddha sits in the
Phra Ubosot.
Just beyond the wall of Phra Ubosot is a roofed corridor with
openings facing the four cardinal directions – as in Native
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American cosmology, the cardinal directions bear great
symbolic weight, with each direction auspicious in both
positive and negative ways. Beyond that corridor are four
smaller corridors. The chedis clustered at the four corners
of this central area of Khet Phutthawat represent the fve
principal mountains of the Himawan Forest – an uncivilized
region of danger and demons and magical creatures. Even
further from the Bhodi throne are the khao mo, those hillocks
of greenery that ofer visitors welcome relief from the sun;
tourists might think twice about resting in the shade if they
knew that these islets also symbolize the Himawan Forest.
At the four corners of the Khet Phutthawat are buildings, or
salas, that represent the world’s four continents; it is here
that Wat Pho’s lecture halls and massage school and clinic
are located.
According to this sacral cosmology, a Brahman god fies
around the world. If he sees the lotus on the Bhodi throne
growing that means that the Buddha is returning to the earth.
At the same time, Khet Phutthawat also symbolizes the most
important of the heavens of the cosmological order, the one
where Indra – the patron god of the Chakri dynasty – dwells.
It is through Indra dwelling on the same plane as the Bhodi
throne in Khet Phutthawat that the Chakri kings achieve
their status as both dhammaraja and devaraja– fgures who
connect the three worlds and two dimensions of the cosmos
and keep it in harmony and balance.
This may all seem very abstruse. But, as we will see, the dual
identity, however subconscious in the minds of the Thai
people, of King Bhumibol as both devaraja and dhammaraja
is one of the keys to his centrality in the national psyche.
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King Mongkut (1804 -1868).
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From Monk to King
It is unfortunate that the only image most Westerners have
of King Mongkut, or Rama IV, who reigned in Thailand
during the mid-19th century, comes by way of the portrayal of
him in the flm The King and I.
To begin with, King Mongkut was not a broad-shouldered, big-
chested young man even when he frst ascended to the throne;
in fact, he was 47 years old when he was crowned. Though his
reign was not long, he played a critical role in helping shape
the contemporary Thai conception of the monarchy, as well
as in maintaining the country’s independence.
Before ascending to the throne, King Mongkut spent 27 years
in a monastery, rising from simple monk to abbot while
getting up each morning to make the alms round that is one
of the central duties of Thai monks: in an alms round
faithful Buddhists wait for monks from the local wat to pass
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by and then ofer them gifts of food in order to “tham bun”,
or make merit. Under the monastic code, the food collected
like this is the only thing the monks are allowed to eat that
day; Mongkut submitted to the rule that monks may only eat
two meals a day, and that the last of these has to be eaten
before noon. In this long prelude to his 17 years on the throne,
then, Mongkut not only practiced humility but had almost
daily contact with ordinary Thais, helping shape the path
he would pursue as King.
He was also intensely interested in the outside world – that he
hired an English governess to teach his children is evidence
enough of his efforts to expand his own and his court’s
exposure to Western ideas and attitudes. During his time
as an abbot he struck up what would become a lifelong
friendship with a French clergyman, Bishop Pellagoix,
mastered the difcult art of reading and writing Pali and
learned English well enough to carry on a correspondence
with many Westerners, including Queen Victoria of England.
He also had a lively interest in Western science, engineering
and technology and founded the frst Thai-owned printing
press in Thailand.
The frst three monarchs of the Chakri dynasty were able
men, warrior kings who consolidated Bangkok’s hold on
Thailand but who were also patrons of the arts and literature
as well as other dimensions of Thai high culture. But
preoccupied with the task of bringing the country’s distant
provinces under central control, none was particularly focused
on the West, other than as a source of trade goods and a
market for Thai rice, wood, textiles, and other products.
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Because of his background, training, and education,
Mongkut came to power with a far diferent understanding
about how his kingdom should relate to the European
powers that were making such inroads throughout Southeast
Asia. When it came to maintaining Thailand’s continued
existence as an independent nation at a time of European
expansion, King Mongkut was the right man to come to the
throne at the right time. By the end of the 19th century, only
Thailand among the nations of Southeast Asia – albeit
diminished in size and with a somewhat truncated
sovereignty – remained independent, not subject to the
direct rule of any Western imperial power.
A good case in point of the King’s vital role is the Bowring
Treaty with England, which Thailand signed in 1855. King
Mongkut led a team of Thai negotiators that, despite dealing
from a position of weakness in the face of representatives
of what was then the most powerful country on Earth,
managed to hammer out an agreement that acknowledged
considerable legitimacy inherent in Thailand’s sovereignty,
though at the price of major concessions. The treaty also
laid the groundwork by which Mongkut’ s successor, King
Chulalongkorn, was able to play England of France, which
rose to ascendancy as an imperial power in Southeast Asia at
the end of the century. Ultimately, Thailand would see almost
one-third of the territory it controlled fall under the control
of either England or France (mostly France) but neither
country ever took the fnal humiliating step of imposing
military control and appointing a viceroy to run the country’s
afairs.
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This last point is critical. Having never been colonized,
Thailand never had to face the crisis of faith in itself that came
to afict every other country in the region. It was never
confronted with a failure of its own culture to maintain its
independence in the face of the “superior” culture of the
West.
King Mongkut also strengthened the ties between the
monarchy and Theravada Buddhism by reforming the
sangha– the country’s monastic order. He updated and
completed an accurate translation of the Pali versions of the
Buddhist canon. Additionally, he vastly simplified Thai
cosmology in a way that made him and Thai kings who
followed him much more visible and accessible fgures –in the
process expanding the psychic connection between the king
and the society at large. In the 1840s, he sent emissaries to
Sri Lanka to obtain 70 volumes of the sacred Buddhist text,
Tripitaka, in a version of Pali that was closer to the language
spoken at the time the Buddha actually lived. In response
Mongkut oversaw a purging of the Thai version of the canon
of what were deemed to be accretions and deviations from
the original. In doing so, he played a key role in first,
re-establishing the monarch’s position as the secular head
of the sangha; and second, further solidifying the control of
the central government by purging alternative rites and
rituals from Thai Buddhism, many of them products of
outlying provinces in the still loosely confederated
kingdom.
“At the time King Mongkut came to the throne, he changed
tremendously,” says Phra Anil Sakya, an assistant secretary
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to the Supreme Patriarch of the Thai sangha. “He brought
Buddhism back to its roots and he consciously tried to lead
by dhammic principles. From that time on, he ruled with
power derived from the people – a path that has been clearly
followed by King Bhumibol.”
One of the sobriquets that have been bestowed upon King
Bhumibol is “The Developer King.” Over the course of his
reign, His Majesty has sponsored several thousand royal
projects, beginning with the earliest experimental plots
on the grounds of Chitralada Villa, his primary residence in
Bangkok. As much as is possible for a Thai monarch,
His Majesty is also viewed by his subjects as a “Citizen
King”, one who has not only made himself visible to the
populace but has gone out into the country to gather
information and counsel that, in turn, have been used to
initiate and shape the Royal Projects. Some of the most
iconic images of the King show him carrying the tools of
a feld scientist/engineer – binoculars, maps, two-way radios,
and an ever present camera, useful both for collecting data
and indulging in one of his favorite pastimes, photography.
In this way, too, His Majesty the King has modeled himself
in part on his illustrious great-grandfather. “The way King
Bhumibol has conducted himself was started by King
Mongkut,” says Phra Anil Sakya. “King Mongkut believed
that you couldn’t sit in the palace and figure out what
was wrong. You had to go out and do research.”
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King Chulalongkorn,
the first Thai monarch to visit Europe.
(Photo from ‘Klai Ban’ or ‘Far from Home’, the book of
compilation of letters written by the King during
his second visit to European countries in 1907).
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Rama V,
Father of the Nation-state
King Mongkut’s successor, King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V
*

is considered one of the greatest Thai monarchs. During
his long reign – the longest in the country’s history prior to
King Bhumibol - Thailand was transformed from a traditional
loosely structured network of local and regional statelets
and aristocratic landlords all subordinate to the King in
Bangkok into a 19th century nation-state, combining elements
of European bureaucracy with traditional Thai institutions
and political practices.
In this regard, one of the most important steps King
Chulalongkorn took was to reform the provincial adminis-
tration of the kingdom, centralizing control of the country in
............................................
*King Chulalongkorn’s successor, King Vajirvudh, instituted the
practice of referring to the kings of the Chakri dynasty as “Rama”;
King Bhumibol, then, is also known as Rama IX.
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Bangkok. The old more personalistic and fragmented
administrative system was reorganized into Ministries of
Defense, Interior, and Education, among others, and the
government bureaucracy professionalized. Creation of a
national infrastructure of roads, railways and canals was
begun and the first hospital and medical school in the
country were founded, public health regulations put into
efect and sanitary districts established to prevent outbreaks
of cholera and other diseases spread by contaminated water
that were a growing concern, especially in Bangkok with its
burgeoning, and largely haphazard, population surge at the
dawn of the 20th century. In addition he ended the practice
of slavery in Thailand.
King Chulalongkorn also took steps that further established
the concept of the country’s king as a righteous ruler,
concerned with learning about and resolving the needs of
his people. The cloak of invisibility that had been wrapped
around the throne – and had begun to be lowered during
the time of King Mongkut – now all but disappeared. King
Chulalongkorn rode in processions in an open car – and was
photographed driving his family around the grounds of the
Royal Palace – and appeared in countless photos and
paintings. Eventually, he would even have his image cast in a
bronze statue sitting astride a horse like a European monarch
or general in front of his new Throne Hall; this was the frst
time in the country that a statue was created depicting a
secular as opposed to a religious figure. He also greatly
fattened the country’s ofcial hierarchy, replacing the old,
multi-tiered structure with a much simpler system in which,
theoretically at least, there was only one person, a kharajakan,
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78 King by Virtue King by Virtue 79
or “servant of the king,” standing between a Thai subject and
King Chulalongkorn. In taking this step, he revived the spirit,
if not the exact form, of the days of King Ramkhamhaeng when
it was at least theoretically possible to petition the monarch
simply by ringing the bell hanging at the gate to his palace.
Nor did he wait for his subjects to come to him. King
Chulalongkorn could be said to have been Thailand’s frst
“Public King”; like King Bhumibol he enjoyed going out and
meeting with ordinary people in informal settings. Though
he did not, as his father, spend time in a monastery and go
out with fellow monks on the alms walks, he followed in his
predecessor’s footsteps when it came to gathering evidence
frst-hand about conditions in the country. From time to time,
the King would travel around the capital and countryside,
chatting with ordinary Thais and bringing valuable insights
back to the palace with which to inform his development
policies. While in Bangkok, for example, he was known to take
boat trips around the city’s extensive canal system, stopping
along the way to cook meals and chat with whoever was on
hand.
Like King Mongkut, King Chulalongkorn acted to tighten
even further the ties between the throne and Thailand’s
Buddhist order of monks. The Sangha Act of 1902 placed the
newly unifed Thai sangha under the leadership of a supreme
patriarch who would be appointed by the King. The law
specifed that only monks duly empowered by the supreme
patriarch could ordain new monks. It also reformed the
structure, text, and training of monks. Perhaps most
signifcant of all, it assigned wats around the country with
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80 King by Virtue King by Virtue 81
the task of providing universal elementary school education
for all the children of Thailand; by the 1920s almost half of
all Thai children between the ages of 7 and 14 were enrolled
in schools where the coursework included instruction
on Buddhism, mathematics and the Thai language.
But while King Chulalongkorn was exemplary in ways the
current King has modeled, perhaps the most important
lesson he would leave to the future monarch came in the skill
with which he exercised soft power. If King Chulalongkorn
was an absolute monarch within the boundaries of Thailand,
his power was nowhere near absolute when it came to dealing
with the European imperial powers, in particular England
and France.
The threat to Thailand’s independence reached a climax
at the turn of the century – right in the middle of King
Chulalongkorn’s reign. Artfully cultivating the British while
holding of the French, he used Thailand’s bufer position
between the colonial holdings of the two countries as a
strategic point of leverage to maintain the country’s
independence. But he went beyond such diplomacy. In the
late 19th century, he became the frst monarch in Thai history
to make formal visits to foreign lands – over several decades
he would eventually visit the capitals of every remaining
monarchy in Europe. Like his father, King Chulalongkorn
was curious, well-educated and keenly interested in the latest
advances in science and technology; at least one reason for his
tours was to satisfy his curiosity in these areas. But the primary
motive seems to have been to use his personal appearances in
cities around the world as a way of demonstrating the
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80 King by Virtue King by Virtue 81
“normality” – by western standards – of the Thai monarchy.
His modernizing and centralizing of the government, his
multiple visits to European capitals, his selective adoption
of Western styles of dress and comportment, all helped rob
the West of any chance of labeling Thailand as a primitive,
“barbarian” culture in need of the West’s “civilizing” hand.
By bringing Thailand into the “modern” world, King
Chulalongkorn ensured that the heart of Thailand – its
ancient culture and sacral cosmology – would endure even
while every other indigenous nation around him fell to
colonialism.
Though Thailand paid a price – in territory and other less
tangible losses – to retain its independence, thanks to King
Chulalongkorn, the Thai people never had to swallow the
humiliation of “Farang” – the Thai word for “Westerner”
-- conquest and so never lost faith in the idea that there is
a uniquely Thai way of governing a nation and organizing a
society.
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The Princess Mother,
Princess Galyani, King Ananda, and Prince Bhumibol
in Switzerland.
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82 King by Virtue King by Virtue 83
Mother of Kings
The community known as Khlong San is located in Thonburi
on the West bank of the Chao Phraya where the river makes
a great bend on its way through the city.
The Chao Phraya does not look like a river that one would
expect to fnd fowing through a major metropolitan area of
more than 10 million population. In fact, the Chao Phraya does
not so much fow as surge through Bangkok, a largely untamed
clay-brown watercourse that resembles nothing so much as
a tropical river at foodtide, which, of course, is exactly what
it is, at least during the monsoon season.
In its earliest days, the place that would become known as
Bangkok contained a fort to protect Ayudhya located further
upstream and a handful of small settlements. When the
kingdom’s capital was moved downstream, frst to Thonburi
by King Taksin, then across the river to Bangkok by Rama I,
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some districts became clusters of artisans working in
particular goods or trades.
Khlong San was one such artisan settlement. During the
middle of the 19th century, many of its inhabitants were
recruited from India and other regions of Southeast Asia
because of their skill in metal-working, in particular “nak,”
an alloy of gold, silver, and copper. Today, Khlong San is
home to their descendents along with residents of Chinese
and Thai descent.
It was here in this unpretentious neighborhood on the West
bank of the Chao Phraya River that King Bhumibol’s mother
lived until she was nine years old. More commonly known as
the Princess Mother, she was to go on and beget not one but
two Kings of Thailand during the course of a life that would
last from 1900 until 1995. At the same time, she would –
according to those who knew of the relationship between
herself and King Bhumibol – play perhaps the most signifcant
role of anyone in his life in shaping his personal character.
To say that she lived an extraordinary, indeed almost mythic,
existence is no exaggeration. Born a commoner and raised her
frst several years in a small Khlong San shophouse, she, like
many ordinary Thais in the early 20th century, had no fxed
surname and was known only as Sangwan. Her mother was
Thai, and her father was Chinese and made his living working
gold specks retrieved from the khlong, or canal, where they
had been sent adrift by shops further up the canal from the
river. Both her parents died before Sangwan was nine – but not
before her mother taught her how to read and write. After her
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parents’ death, she was taken in by one of her mother’s sisters.
From this humble, even hardscrabble upbringing, it can be
surmised that she acquired the qualities that would motivate
and mark her spectacular rise in Thai society: a tireless
work ethic, great clarity of purpose, a canny grasp of the true
feelings and intentions of others.
Her unforeseen rise to prominence began at 10 years old
when yet another aunt who worked at a palace got Sangwan
accepted into service there. At frst, used to enjoying a high
degree of independence, she rebelled against the restrictions
of palace life, running away twice before returning in time to
begin her schooling. Whatever difculties she had adjusting
to her new existence, however, seemed to have been laid to
rest by the chance to gain an education; she did not run away
again after she began attending a new government-sponsored
school. She would go on not only to earn a professional
degree but also to be a lifelong reader, devouring the classics
of both the Eastern and Western literary traditions.
It was also at school that a minor accident would once again
change the circumstances of her life – and lay the foundation
for her future role as mother of two kings. Some of her fellow
students were children of court ofcials. One of them, who also
happened to be a friend of hers, was the daughter of the royal
surgeon. When young Sangwan got a sewing needle lodged in
her fnger, her friend’s father examined the injury; wanting to
monitor her hand to ward of the risk of blood poisoning, the
doctor invited young Sangwan to come live with him and his
daughter in their home. It was he who encouraged her to go
into nursing. At 13 she enrolled in the nursing and midwife
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86 King by Virtue King by Virtue 87
program at Siriraj Hospital, graduating at 16 – the youngest
in her class.
A diligent and intellectually advanced student, she did so
well that she was chosen to go to the United States to
continue her training and granted a scholarship by Queen
Savang Vadhana, a widow of King Chulalongkorn – and
mother of Sangwan’s future husband – to study abroad, frst in
California and then a year later in Connecticut. Queen Savang
Vadhana did not know it, of course, but in sending Sangwan
Talapat – the surname that the young Princess Mother was
assigned for her passport – to the United States, the Queen
was setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to
the marriage of her son to the young nurse and commoner
from the Khlong San district of Bangkok.
One of dozens of children sired by King Chulalongkorn, Queen
Savang Vadhana’s son, Prince Mahidol, belonged to the
highest ranks of nobility and - like his father and future bride
– had a lively interest in science and health. After attending
Harrow in the United Kingdom, the Prince received military
training in Germany, returning to Thailand when the First
World War broke out to serve in the Thai Navy. Two years
later, he went to the United States where he pursued a degree
in public health, the frst step toward his ultimate goal of
becoming a medical doctor. A true modernizer, he eschewed
the privileges and even the title of his royal rank; to his fellow
students, he was simply Mr. Mahidol, though a fellow student
recalled that upon occasion he referred to himself as “Citizen
Mahidol” in a clear allusion to one of the Western authors
he admired most, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
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Despite forgoing his royal title and traveling more or less
incognito while in the United States, the Prince did not turn
his back on the obligations of noblesse oblige. It was while
acting in his self-appointed capacity as unofcial ambassador
and welcoming committee for new students from Thailand
that he met the Princess Mother at the train station when
she arrived in Boston where the two reportedly spent part of
the night searching for – and eventually fnding – a $5 camera
Nurse Sangwan had brought with her. It was love at frst sight.
The young woman’s determination, work ethic, and practical
intelligence meshed well with Prince Mahidol’s high-minded
seriousness and social consciousness.
After Prince Mahidol completed his degree in public health
at Harvard, the young couple returned to Thailand and
were married in 1920 in a ceremony presided over by King
Vajiravudh at Queen Savang Vadhana’s mansion at Sra
Pathum Palace. As the wife of a prince of royal blood,
Sangwan now acquired a new addition to her name – the title
Mom. Afterward, the newlyweds traveled around Europe,
where the Prince continued his studies, living for a while in
London, where their frst child, Princess Galyani was born,
then on to other cities, including Berne, Lausanne, and Paris
where Prince Mahidol was instrumental in preventing a young
Thai named Pridi Banomyong, who was studying abroad,
from losing his scholarship after the future leader of the 1932
Revolution had been denounced as a communist. Their next
child, Prince Ananda – the future monarch – was born in
Heidelberg, Germany.
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From there, this almost fairy-tale Prince and the Commoner
romance and marriage might have followed a course in
which the couple remained for several years in the West,
living the prosperous but not extravagant middle-class
existence of a professional couple that seemed to be Prince
Mahidol’s preference while he continued his studies in
medicine and science. Eventually, he planned to return
to Thailand and help promote Western medical practices
throughout the country, including the remote rural regions
where what medicine existed tended to be folk medicine and
where modern concepts like hygiene and proper nutrition
had not yet penetrated. But in 1925 King Vajiravudh died
without producing a male heir and his mantle was passed on
to his brother, King Prajadhipok. The new King was, it turned
out, childless.
In the meantime, the couple returned to the United States
where Prince Mahidol received his medical degree with cum
laude honors. It was there, in Brookline, Massachusetts, that
their third and last child was born on December 5, 1927. The
baby was called “Baby Songkla,” after one of Prince
Mahidol’s titles, and given the name Bhumibol, or “Strength
of the Land.”
In repatriating to Thailand – permanently for Prince Mahidol,
temporarily for his young wife and children – the couple’s
initial intent was to live at least for a while in Bangkok at
Sra Pathum Palace. When the Prince learned, however, that
protocol would make it very difcult for him to practice
medicine in Bangkok, he became a resident at the McCormick
Hospital in Chiang Mai where he was known to volunteer his
services in the leper ward of the Presbyterian Hospital.
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We can only speculate what kind of King a man like Prince
Mahidol might have made – and what kind of Queen his wife
might have proven to be. But that was not to be the case.
Kidney disease had long plagued the royal line and Prince
Mahidol himself fell prey to the disorder. In 1929, he returned
to Bangkok to have laboratory work done on a patient
specimen. While in the city he consulted with a specialist in
kidney disease. It was already too late. Prince Mahidol died
on September 24, 1929, and his ashes buried in a simple
ceremony at a temple next to Sra Pathum Palace. His death
occurred one month to the day before Black Tuesday, the
stock market crash in New York whose shock waves ultimately
precipitated the worldwide economic depression that would
play a key role in ending Thailand’s absolute monarchy.
After the Prince’s death, the Princess Mother and her three
children remained in Bangkok, living at Sra Pathum Palace,
the children attending Mater Dei School, a Catholic
institution renowned for the quality of its education. Once
again, the question of royal succession was up in the air.
King Prajadhipok, who was childless and sufered chronic
ill health, issued instructions on how his successor should
be chosen. In order of priority, they were that the new King
should be one of his own male children, should he have any
before he died or abdicated the throne. The second line of
succession would be one of Mahidol’s male children.
In 1932, a relatively small coalition of military ofcers and
government ofcials – including the above-mentioned Pridi –
calling themselves “The Promoters” and their movement
“The People’s Party,” overthrew Thailand’s absolute
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monarchy, in an event known as the 1932 Revolution. The
People’s Party, which organized the bloodless coup and took
control of the government, asked King Prajadhipok to
remain on the throne as a constitutional monarch; the
move was inspired by a mixture of considerations, like
the Thais’ universal reverence for the institution of the
monarchy and the coup leaders’ instinct that having the King
on the throne would decrease, rather than increase, the threat
of a bloody counterrevolution.
But it did not take long for the uneasy arrangement to begin
to fray with King Prajadhipok growing increasingly restive,
less because of the trimming back of his powers under the
new constitutional government than because of proposals
put forward by Pridi to nationalize industry and much of
agricultural production as well. In particular, the last
proposal would have virtually eliminated the income as well
as the source of the status of the country’s nobility.
“The People’s Party did not plan to completely democratize
monarchy and reduce it to only a ritual role,” observes a
senior researcher of the Thai Khadi Research Institute at
Thammasat University. More likely, she says, there was a split
in the People’s Party between hard-liners like Pibul Songgram
and more conciliatory fgures like Pridi. To the King, though,
Pridi’s economic model looked a little like socialism because
it dealt with production crisis and cycle of production among
ordinary people. Pridi was a social democrat – and the biggest
element of that was land reform. He also wanted to impose
an estate tax. That angered the rich and powerful.
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It also angered the King. Within two years of the revolution,
matters reached an impasse. Citing the need to consult
Western experts for treatment of his eye problems, King
Prajadhipok left Thailand in January 1934, never to return.
A little over a year later, in March 1935, and to the surprise of
no one close to the top of Thai society, he abdicated the throne,
putting the Princess Mother’s oldest son, Prince Ananda, high
on the list of potential successors.
In the time leading up to King Prajadhipok’s abdication, and
as it become more and more likely that Prince Ananda might
be picked to succeed him, the Princess Mother realized that
the People’s Party might very well see that a minor on the
throne would be more easily controlled – and possibly even
shoved aside – than an adult King. With that in mind, even
before the King’s abdication, and with the full approval of her
mother-in-law, Queen Savang Vadhana, she decided that the
most prudent course of action would be to move her family
beyond the immediate reach of the new government where
she would have more leverage in determining her son’s future.
Switzerland was a country familiar to the Princess Mother
from her frequent visits there with her late husband. It was also
one of the cheaper European countries to live in at the time,
and it was to Switzerland that the Princess Mother decided
to move her young family.
Their frst home in that country was a very modest two-
bedroom apartment in Lausanne where the Princess Mother
enforced her motto “Every minute counts!” In between classes
and homework, the three children were expected to learn
musical instruments as well as how to read and write several
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languages, including English. They were also expected to
help out with chores and to earn money to help support the
household. In the winter, the boys shoveled snow and in the
autumn raked leaves. A portion of anything they earned was
set aside for charity.
“There’s a well-known story from the King’s childhood in
which his mother gave him and his brother and sister an
allowance but made them pay a 10-percent ‘tax’ that went
into a collection for the poor,” says Sumet Tantivejkul, the
Secretary-General of the Chaipattana Foundation, the
non-proft organization that manages the Royal Development
Projects, and a long-time associate of King Bhumibol’s. And,
Sumet points out, it was not just money the children earned
doing odd jobs in the neighborhood that would help ease the
suffering of the poor. As a young boy, King Bhumibol
developed a fascination with, among other things, aviation.
After painstakingly constructing a model airplane, the Princess
Mother instructed him to sell it and give the proceeds of
the sale away. “It was a difcult moment for him,” says
Sumet. Later, however, as King Bhumibol he would recall
his mother’s emphasis on self-sacrifce and selfessness.
“It would be difcult to overstate the role [the Princess Mother]
played in shaping her children,” says another expert on the
monarchy. “She was very diferent from the royal mold. She
not only had a strong work ethic, she was self-reliant,
self-directed, and self-sacrifcing. She was a pragmatist. And
she worked all the time – even her hobby was work, like
later in her life when she would make souvenirs to give to
anyone who would come to celebrate the royal birthday.”
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Almost as soon as King Prajadhipok vacated the throne, the
Princess Mother’s premonition about the likely attitude of
the People’s Party concerning the choice of the next King
proved correct. A delegation from Thailand arrived in
Lausanne to announce that Prince Ananda had been
selected as Prajadhipok’s successor. The Princess Mother
informed the delegation that she would have to have time
to think about whether she would allow Prince Ananda to
accept the throne and sent the party away. Finally, after
considerable deliberation of how her oldest son, raised
according to the values and example of his father and
mother, might help Thailand’s development as a nation, she
conceded to the wishes of the People’s Party and gave
permission for Prince Ananda to be placed on the throne, but
with one very signifcant proviso: he and his family would
continue to live in Switzerland, safe from the machinations
of politicians back home, until he had fnished his education.
King Ananda was only 10 at the time, meaning that it would
be a good decade before he would return to Thailand, at which
time, according to Thai custom, he would have achieved full
adulthood and could reign without a regent overseeing his
actions.
The delegation was instructed by the Thai government
to accept the Princess Mother’s condition. Despite her
reservations, the government appointed a Council of Regents.
After the appointment of a private secretary and aide-de-camp
for the new King, the government moved the family out of
their apartment on Tissot Road in Lausanne into a large
three-storey complex given the name Villa Vadhana in the
nearby town of Pully. Set on a 32,000-square meter estate, the
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villa itself was a cheerful place with white walls and red-tiled
roof and a panoramic view of Lac Leman, more commonly
known as Lake Geneva. The grounds included a stand of pine
trees and a small orchard and, in time, a vegetable garden
as well.
Despite the new and expanded lodging, however, the Princess
Mother and her family continued to live a relatively frugal
existence, one that stressed responsibility, diligence and
concern for others. Above all, it was a life that emphasized
the imperative of work before play. As before, King Ananda,
Prince Bhumibol, and Princess Galyani were expected to help
with chores, including the gardening, whose orderly
allocation of plantings would help inspire what came to be
known as ‘The New Theory’ for agriculture introduced by King
Bhumibol in the 1990s.
“It was the Princess Mother who taught King Bhumibol to
touch the earth even as he embodies the highest position in
the land,” says Rapee Sagarik. “It was the Princess Mother
who told him that his name means ‘The Strength of the
Land’ and that is what His Majesty has tried to be.” Twice
rector of Kasetsart University, Thailand’s leading agriculture
school, Rapee worked with the King on many initiatives
over the decades, beginning with the Royal Project in
northern Thailand.
Work, however, was interspersed with generous amounts
of time for the children’s play and social development. In
summer, there was swimming and hiking in the countryside
around Pully and in winter there were snowball fights,
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snowman building and occasional days spent skiing at the
Alpine town of Arosa. There was even a family vacation to
Italy. By all accounts, the family was close-knit and happy –
the Princess Mother emphasized the value of flial afection.
In these last years of the 1930s, Prince Bhumibol in particular
drew very close to his older brother; during free time, the pair
was usually inseparable.
In addition to a new home, the two boys also began receiving
intensive instruction on Thai culture, history and politics,
with Pridi playing an important role in selecting their tutors.
The Princess Mother ensured that her children learned
the Ramakien, which forms the basis of the belief that king
is a demigod. They were also taught about the royal family,
the history of the Chakri dynasty, and court rituals and
protocols of Thai monarchy as well as articles about the
origins of a king’s power.
According to experts on the Thai monarchy, this last
subject was important because it set the foundation for why
Thailand should keep the institution: it provides the basis
of Thai unity, with the king as the center of that unity. Once
King Bhumibol was crowned, these same experts observe,
he would follow up on this education and institute ideas
about the centrality of the throne into the role he has played
in leading Thai society – an approach intended to spawn no
factions, to maintain social harmony and national unity, and
to intervene into politics only at moments of supreme crisis,
when the very future of the country is at stake.
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After returning for a temporary visit to Thailand in 1938,
during which King Ananda bestowed upon his mother
the title “Somdej Phra Rajajonani Sri Sangwan”, or Her Royal
Highness Princess Sri Sangwan the Princess Mother, the
family came back to its home in Switzerland. Even during
the war years, as Thailand entered into an uneasy alliance
with Japan and Pridi organized a secret resistance movement
to the pact, life at Villa Vadhana remained serene and orderly.
It was not until December of 1945 that the family would set
foot again on Thai soil. And within six months an unspeakable
tragedy would befall the family and unexpectedly catapult
Prince Bhumibol to the throne.
At 9:00 a.m., the morning of June 9, 1946, at a time when
members of the royal family, retainers and household staf
were beginning to stir, the peace and quietness of Borom
Phiman Palace in the compound of the Royal Palace in
Bangkok was shattered by the report of a gunshot coming
from the bedroom occupied by young King Ananda. Moments
later a servant came running into the Princess Mother’s
bedchambers to tell her that her eldest son had been shot.
Racing to his room, she and others in the palace found the
king lying in his bed with a single bullet wound in the middle
of his forehead. He was already dead by the time his mother
reached his side.
To this day, the question of what happened to the King that
morning has never been defnitively resolved. In the wake
of his death, the now-Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong was
blamed by his opponents for failing to provide adequate
protection for the young monarch. After his old friend-
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turned nemesis returned for a second tenure as Prime
Minister following a postwar coup, those opponents
escalated the charges from negligence to complicity in
murder. Though Pridi was eventually forced to go into what
turned out to be permanent self-exile, there is virtually no
evidence that he had anything to do with King Ananda’s
violent death. In time, three of the King’s retainers were
arrested, shackled and held in solitary confnement for six
years, during which they were tried, acquitted of the charge,
then retried and convicted, and fnally executed for their
failure to protect the King, which had been their formal
duty.
Whatever happened that morning – and it is highly unlikely
that the truth will ever be known – by the evening of June
9 Prince Bhumibol was proclaimed King by unanimous vote
of the National Assembly. Later that night he underwent a
simple investiture ceremony; with his family and the entire
nation in a state of shock and with any idea of a state funeral
for King Ananda postponed pending at least a preliminary
investigation into his death, a formal coronation ceremony
would have to wait. The new King and his grieving family
remained in Thailand until August, during which time
the King altered his original plans for college and decided
to return to Switzerland to study Political Science and Law,
the feld he felt more relevant to the role of a monarch.
At the same time, as would become evident upon his
return in 1951, the King had not entirely given up his
dreams of directing the interest in science inspired by
his late father, along with his own aptitude for engineering,
toward helping the development of his country.
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When King Bhumibol, who by now had married Queen
Sirikit, returned from Europe for good in 1951 after
completing his studies and receiving medical treatment for
an injury sufered in an automobile accident, the Princess
Mother had little interest in taking up permanent residence
in a country that was now flled with haunting memories of
what had happened to her oldest son. Even when she did
fnally decide to come home some time later, dividing her
time between Thailand and Switzerland, she was still so
traumatized by events that she mostly remained out of public
view for several years. But eventually her native drive and
diligence reasserted themselves. It can be assumed that she
served as one of her son’s most trusted advisors during the lean
years of the 1950s, when the resources available to the royal
family were sharply limited and the overall power – both legal
and soft – of the monarchy left it at one of its lowest points
in Thai history. It therefore fell to the young King somehow
to restore the traditional charismatic aura of dhammaraja
and devaraja, or “barami”, that had been stripped from the
throne. After she constructed a home for herself at Doi Tung,
a mountaintop near the country’s northernmost border, where
she could escape the heat and intrigues of Bangkok and
indulge her passion for gardening, sculpting and tapestry
in the region’s more temperate climate, the Princess Mother
become deeply involved in the lives and welfare of the people
who lived around her new residence; many of them were
members of hill tribes inhabiting a part of the country with
the loosest connections to the central government.
Moved by their poverty and backwardness, she began, just as
her son was doing elsewhere, to initiate personal projects to
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alleviate their suffering. The widow of a doctor, she
inaugurated a Volunteer Flying Doctors’ Service, soliciting
the help of physicians, nurses and other health care workers
from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and elsewhere in the north to
bring care to the hill people. Her own frequent visits via
small plane or helicopter to villages too remote to reach by car
earned her the sobriquet “Royal Mother from the Sky”
from the benefciaries of her work who became accustomed
to the sight of this slender and increasingly frail woman, once
as anonymous as themselves, showing up dressed in her
characteristic garb of slacks, short-sleeved shirt, sunglasses
and beret, cheerfully asking questions, taking notes and
overseeing the provision of assistance to local residents.
Within 10 years of the establishment of the initiative, volunteer
medical personnel were making some 700 fights a year and
treating a quarter-million northern residents for free. Initially,
the monetary cost of operating the service was paid for with
the Princess Mother’s own donations, but by 1969 a central
committee was established to promote donations and tap into
public resources to underwrite the fying corps. Today, some
one million baht per year is allocated to the service from
the Government Lottery Office to the Princess Mother’s
Charities Fund Foundation.
Her work extended to many other parts of the country, in
particular dirt-poor Isan where many people had the
opportunity to witness her good works – and her powerful
infuence on her son. Sanerh Mulasart was governor of Surin
Province in Isan between 1980 and 1987, a period of time when
the Princess Mother made frequent trips to the northeast.
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“She would come here and work with medical people,” he
recalls. “His Majesty would come and visit her, seeing her
every day. It was very clear that His Majesty loved her very
much and that she was an enormous infuence on him.”
Says a member of a noble Thai family that, for several
generations, has been part of the Chakri circle of supportive
clients, “I think the Princess Mother’s influence on her
children was absolutely total in every possible way, but most
of all morally. It was from her above all that the King acquired
his simplicity and kind-heartedness and sense of public
responsibility.”
The Princess Mother continued her self-appointed work
until the very end of her long life. When she died at age 95 in
the summer of 1995, the country went into a lengthy period
of heartfelt grieving. In turn, not only her son, King
Bhumibol, but her daughter-in-law, Queen Sirikit, whose
SUPPORT Foundation was established in 1976 and has
been active in promoting traditional Thai handicrafts, and
her grandchildren, too, have established their own royal
initiatives to pursue charitable work or medical research.
In particular, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has become
a beloved fgure both for her work assisting her father’s
initiatives and for projects she has created herself. Following
the establishment of the Princess Mother Memorial Park
shortly after her death, memorabilia of her life and projects,
along with examples of her artistry in tapestry, painting on
porcelain, sculpting and other media were placed on display
in the museum that sits at the entrance of the grounds. The
compound sits not far from the narrow canal in heart of the
Khlong San community where she began her long journey in
the very frst year of the 20th century.
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PART THREE
King By Virtue
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His Majesty receiving a wilted lotus blossom presented
with reverence by a villager during his trip to Isan in 1955.
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The Iconic Moment
A lean young man bends forward, smiling benignly. Bent at
the elbow, his right arm is extended. The hand that is visible
is turned inward and slightly cupped, the frst two fngers
about to grasp, gently, something delicate.
The something delicate he reaches for is a wilted lotus
blossom. It is being held in the clasped hands of a woman
sitting humbly in front of the young man. Though most of
her face is hidden from view, the creases in her cheeks and
temples and the concave shape of her mouth indicate she is
elderly, possibly over 80 years old. Her wizened hands cover
her eyes as she raises them in a “wai,” the Thai form of
greeting. Folded, as in prayer, her hands are pressed against
her short-cropped gray hair.
The young man in the photo is a visiting dignitary: King
Bhumibol of Thailand, to be exact. The old woman is a simple
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villager. The picture was taken by a royal photographer during
a tour of Isan, the country’s northeast quadrant, undertaken
by King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, in 1955. It was the frst
time the royal couple had visited the region, one of the most
impoverished and, at the time, politically unstable parts
of the nation. Their visit had taken place a year before the
young King would ratify his devotion to Buddhist ideals by
being ordained as a monk and spend two weeks meditating
and submitting to monastic discipline at the same wat where
his great-grandfather, King Mongkut, had served as abbot.
It would be an understatement to say that this picture is a
favorite among Thai people, not simply because of the
aesthetic appeal of its simple yet dramatic composition or
even because of the way it radiates a complex of positive
impressions –compassion, gratitude, and peace.
No. This picture strikes a much deeper chord for a simple
reason: The photo captures an iconic moment.
In fact, it presents, in one striking image, a key to understand-
ing why King Bhumibol is so revered, even by those who have
sometimes questioned his actions or believe the relationship
between the monarchy and the state in Thailand needs to
be reformed. Beyond that, the picture represents one of the
moments early in his reign when his monarchy was all-but-
instantly transformed from an institution with very few
resources and little clout, when even the soft power
conferred by the throne’s barami was at perhaps its lowest
ebb, into the central persona in the middle of the nation’s
sacral mandala toward which all eyes turn in Thai culture.
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None of this would be evident to uninformed Western eyes,
but Thais grasp the signifcance of the picture without any
need of explanation. But to understand the power of this
iconic image, its almost rapturous power – to be able to
unpack it at the most profound level – we have to view it
from the perspective of the complex legacies of Buddhism
and Hinduism in Thai culture.
From that perspective, what the picture represents is an
enactment of several interconnected strains of sacral
cosmology, formal and folk religion. Even more than that,
the photo pays witness to a transfguration, an exchange
of gifts, as it were, in which both the King and the elderly
woman – and, by extension, all the millions of common people
of Thailand – are transformed, in ways that could never be
reversed.
To begin with, there is the multiplier efect of combining
the Buddhist notion of tham bun – making merit – and the
preternatural sense that lurks just below the surface in the
Thai psyche that their monarch, whoever he might be, is a
god-king, a devaraja.
Tham bun is one of the most signifcant acts devout Buddhists
can undertake. Making merit – through acts of charity or
devotion – is key to fnding greater happiness in this and
future lives. Making merit is also a gesture that signifes a
mastery over attachment, the latter being, as the Buddha
taught, the ultimate cause of self-inficted human sufering.
In a Theravada Buddhist society such as Thailand, one of
the principal ways of making merit is by the ofering of gifts,
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mostly to the sangha, though gifts motivated by compassion
to anyone meet the prerequisite for tham bun. While
theoretically it does not matter to whom those gifts are
conferred, on a psychological level, it very much does matter.
The value of the gift giving – and thus the value of the merit
that is earned – can depend upon the position and rank of
the one on the receiving end, the value escalating in worth the
more elevated the status of the recipient.
In reviewing the photo from the standpoint of making merit,
what we see is an elderly woman who is clearly a member
of the poorest, most isolated, and, what is signifcant for yet
another reason which will be addressed shortly, one of the
most marginalized segments of Thai society. She may not be
at the very bottom of the bottom – the dust beneath the dust
beneath the King’s feet – but she is pretty close to it, at least
at the moment the picture was snapped.
And what is she doing? She is holding up a lotus blossom –
symbol of the Buddha himself – as an ofering to the King of
Thailand. And he is accepting it, with a Buddha-like serenity.
In doing so, His Majesty the King is granting the elderly
woman the opportunity to make merit on the simplest,
most transparent level. But there is more to this story.
According to those on the scene at the time the picture was
taken, the lotus blossom was wilted because the woman
had been sitting for so long in the heat waiting for the
King to pass by and she could offer him the flower.
The value of her gift, therefore, far exceeds the value of a
simple lotus blossom. Its value is magnifed by the value of
her patience and sufering. As a result, she is making merit
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with a gift that possesses a heightened spiritual value and she
is making that merit not with a person on her own level, or
even a monk, but with the King: the King who not only
occupies the throne at the pinnacle of Thai society, but is
also a god-king. What this image signifies is the precise
moment when an elderly peasant woman is making merit by
ofering a valuable gift to a god – a “tham bun” of inestimable
worth.
It is possible to unpack this image even further in the quest
to understand its iconic power. In addition to receiving gifts
and rapturous greetings when he stopped at tiny villages
and hamlets in Isan and elsewhere, the King would also ask
inhabitants like the old woman directly, one human being to
another, what problems they faced, what help they needed,
what he, as King, could do to make their lives less arduous.
More often than not, these forays resulted in swift response
on the part of the ruling elite that heretofore had barely
acknowledged the existence of a country beyond the edges
of Bangkok, let alone entertained the idea of responding to
the needs of the people who lived out there.
At the time, Thailand’s cultural structure was even more
hierarchical than today, with an un-codifed, though not
air-tight, low to high ranking of personal statuses. A highly
deferential country, it was a place where, in the mid-1950s, a
large percentage of its people dwelled in a very low status of
social invisibility. This was especially true in the nation’s rural
areas, and even more so among the very peoples the King was
visiting when this picture was taken.
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To the elderly woman this event must have felt like a miracle:
the instantaneous lifting of that invisibility. With a single
gesture the King extended the boundaries of Thailand’s
national community, expanding it to include everyone,
from simple villagers to the far-fung hill tribes occupying
the most remote regions of the country.
Not surprisingly, the response to this kind of gesture on the
part of the recipients was electrifying. From exchanges such
as the one caught on flm, King Bhumibol became the center
of Thai culture, a monarch enthroned in the hearts of his
subjects – and nothing has happened since then to truly
threaten that position.
At the same time, the King also helped cement the allegiance
of regions of Thailand that, in the 1950s, were hardly secure –
and did so without the use of military force or the threat of
force but by the simple power of his barami, which by now was
virtually boundless. In fact, it was to help secure that region’s
stability that Their Majesties the King and Queen were
allowed by the Pibul government to tour to Isan for the frst
time in 1955.
Upon returning to Thailand a few years earlier, the King had
confronted a difcult scenario, one that His Majesty was
preparing to face even before he left Europe. The tricky
landscape that lay ahead was alluded to in a letter His
Majesty received about a year before his departure from
Francis B. Sayre, an American who had been an advisor to
Kings Vajiravudh and Prajadhipok before the fall of the
absolute monarchy. Even more pertinent, Sayre had been
a close friend and confidant of the King’s father, Prince
Mahidol.
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“Do not let yourself become discouraged,” Sayre wrote.
The Thai people themselves, even if not their government,
wanted the new King to return and he could count on their
loyalty and devotion if he were to serve in the tradition of the
dhammaraja. The source of any trouble he must confront
would come from elsewhere, Sayre warned – from those
jockeying for power and position. However, if King Bhumibol
remained steadfast in his determination to help the people of
Thailand, placing their welfare and happiness even above his
own, he would prevail in the end.
“To meet such problems, your own course will be clear,” Sayre
advised. “You will follow the pathway which your father
always followed, the pathway of selfless service for his
country and its people. Your ideals like his must be kept
untarnished and shining; and your constant compass if you
would avoid shipwreck must be utter goodness and integrity
of character. Nothing else will so surely win your people’s
hearts and strengthen your reign.”
Sayre’s words were on the King’s mind as he made his way
home to stay. Mid-route, His Majesty sent a reply to his late
father’s friend, thanking him and complimenting him on
his understanding of the Thai people that, at that time at
least, surpassed King Bhumibol’s own insight into a
country which, in many ways, was new to him. “I shall try
not to get discouraged, although sometimes, I nearly got
discouraged even in Switzerland. But I know I must hold
on to what I think is the right thing to do, and I can assure
you I shall try my best,” His Majesty wrote.
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As it turned out, His Majesty’s best proved far superior to
anything mustered by those who would have liked to use
him for their own purposes. In the cat-and-mouse game in
which he found himself ensnared from the instant he
arrived in Bangkok, His Majesty turned out to be the cat and
Prime Minister Pibul the mouse. Within a few short years,
King Bhumibol had not only restored all of the barami lost
by the monarchy since the 1932 Revolution but actually
added new depths of barami to the throne. He would do
so in ways that were not only consistent with the throne’s
new status as a constitutional monarchy but also employed
the new political realities of a constitutional government
to expand the King’s barami. The next few years would
find him demonstrating a mastery of the tools of soft
power – of imagery, words, and timely silences into
which others might project their own interpretations –
that no one (in particular the Thai government) could have
anticipated in someone so young and “inexperienced.”
The bloodless 1947 coup that overthrew the caretaker prime
minister who succeeded Pridi was the work of a coalition of
forces that included the military under the control of General
Phin Choonhavan and his son-in-law Police General Phao
Sriyanond, a faction of ultra-nationalists loyal to Pibul, and
a group of pro-royalists that went on to form the Democrat
Party, which still exists today.
Though it was widely assumed that Pibul and the military
were calling the shots, the pro-royalists had the upper hand,
controlling the cabinet; from Switzerland, the King relayed his
approval of the new government, saying that the coup
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members “do not desire power for their own good, but aim
only to strengthen the new government, which will be
administered for the prosperity of the nation.” The new
Democrat Party-dominated government would make its
intentions clear when, in 1951, the pro-royalist faction began
pushing for a constitution that would greatly expand the
formal political power of the King, giving him, for example,
control over the military, as well as the right to appoint
members of the Senate, the parliament’s upper house, to
dismiss cabinet ministers and veto legislation. The proposed
constitution was one of the opening shots in the soft
counterrevolution that would continue to bubble beneath
the surface until the end of the 1950s.
But for the moment, these pro-royalist aspirations would be
pushed into the background. Only days before King
Bhumibol’s return there was another bloodless coup that
dissolved both houses of the parliament and suspended the
1947 Constitution, which had restored some of the royal
prerogatives and oversight in matters of politics and state
affairs, and temporarily at least re-adopted the 1932
constitution which sharply curtailed the role of the monarchy.
The newly convened Provisional Executive Committee, which
was under Pibul’s control, also announced a new election
law that banned royalty from any participation in politics.
Small wonder that when the King and Queen stepped down
on the royal landing from the boat that had brought them to
Bangkok and were greeted by Pibul and other members of the
provisional government, an Associate Press article recounted
how, “An unsmiling young King returned from Europe today
to this picturesque capital…”
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If the reception King Bhumibol received on the part of
the Pibul regime was equivocal, such was not the case among
his subjects. The two-and-a-half mile route from the royal
landing on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok to the Royal
Palace was lined by a crowd estimated by General Phao’s
police to be 100,000, but was perhaps three times larger
than that. Every step of the way the crowd greeted the royal
couple with rapturous cheers and hands raised together in
respect – wai. Many of the onlookers along the route even
went a step further, prostrating themselves face down as the
royal entourage passed, an ancient protocol of deference to the
monarchy that had been repealed by the King’s grandfather,
King Chulalongkorn.
The regime seemed intent on keeping the new King on a short
leash in part because of its belief that the establishment of
Thailand as a modern nation-state in the post-war period
required that the monarchy be pushed into the background.
At the same time, those same post-war conditions acted in
favor of keeping the King in the public eye. The United States,
recognizing that the young Thai monarch provided a
ready-made bulwark against the appeal of revolutionary
Communism, pushed Prime Minister Pibul to utilize the
King toward that end. At the same time, the regime appears
to have seen that it could acquire prestige by association with
the King – barami by contact – but that it was also walking
a tightrope it could easily fall of if it failed to keep King
Bhumibol’s movements and actions under strict control.
Toward that end, the King was appointed a judge at the
Bangkok district court. Most of the cases His Majesty
heard concerned petty crimes and civil suits but his
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112 King by Virtue King by Virtue 113
presence there gained a lot of praise and cast a positive
light on the government by creating the perception of
a sound relationship between the Prime Minister and the
monarch.
The Pibul government made other concessions in the name
of creating that same perception. In September, 1952, the
regime allocated 50,000 baht and ordered its Public
Relations Department to provide the King with a 150 KW
radio transmitter – a paltry device that could only transmit
signals to a small area of Bangkok – over which King Bhumibol
could at frst broadcast only one hour per day, from 11 a.m.
to noon. Those frst broadcasts consisted of recordings of the
King’s own musical composition, and though they could not
have been heard by many people directly, press coverage and
the word-of-mouth communication that has always been a
vibrant channel for spreading news in Thailand, soon helped
reinforce the impression that the resident of the throne
was both an avatar of traditional monarchs and a thoroughly
modern King, carrying on his ancestors’ artistic legacy but in
a métier that appealed to post-war listeners.
The new King’s grasp of the tools of soft power revealed
itself in two other well-publicized events from early in his
time on the throne, one in the realm of politics, the other in
the realm of religion.
In January 1952, the Pibul government wrote yet another
amended version of the 1932 constitution, adding provisions
that broadened the power of the military – which was frmly
under the control of the regime’s allies. A delegation of
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114 King by Virtue King by Virtue 115
parliament members led by the Prime Minister presented the
draft to the King who asked that the new charter be changed
before fnal approval to loosen up restrictions, carried over
from the 1932 constitution, prohibiting members of the
royalty from participation in politics. After considerable
debate the National Assembly agreed to the requested
revisions, but the Prime Minister overruled the parliament
and formally presented the King with a fnal version that
did not include the changes he had asked for.
There was little the King could ultimately do but to relent.
Yet even in a situation where he appeared to possess little
or no leverage His Majesty was able to respond in a way
that enhanced his perceived power – perceived power
being a major component of barami. On the day he was
supposed to preside over the session of the National
Assembly’s pro forma ratification of the constitution,
the King took his family to Klai Kangwon, or “Far from
Worry,” the palace King Prajadhipok had built in Hua
Hin, a seaside village located about three hours by train
southwest of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand. Police General
Phao, the head of Thailand’s national police and a member
of the country’s ruling triumvirate, went down to the seaside
palace with a delegation of men and brought the King and
his family back to Bangkok. The next day, King Bhumibol
presided over the opening of the National Assembly, which
duly went ahead and ratifed the constitution. But though the
King himself did not publicly rebuke the charter, his absence
on the day the constitution was supposed to be ratifed, the
postponement of the session until the next day, and even his
disciplined silence on the matter communicated far more than
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114 King by Virtue King by Virtue 115
he could have by speaking out – and in ways that the regime
was helpless to counter. The Thai people got the message.
The King not only disapproved of the new constitution, but
he had, fguratively speaking, had it forced upon him in what
the public implicitly understood amounted to a de facto if
not de jure act of lèse majesté.
Five years later, the King again demonstrated the power
of passive resistance during the run up of the nationwide
celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddhist era,
which in Thailand was set to occur in the summer of 1957.
By now the Pibul regime was foundering, the Prime Minister
was facing a tough parliamentary election, and the
anniversary celebrations were planned in a way designed
to place him and his government at the center of this most
sacred of ritual occasions.
In the years since King Bhumibol’s return, the Prime Minister
had pursued a policy that included an expropriation of what
had been the monarchy’s role in traditional and Buddhist rites;
in efect, the objective of the policy was a tacit recognition of
the still essentially conservative nature of Thai culture,
especially outside of the growing metropolis of Bangkok; the
city had just reached a population of one million residents.
During this time, the Pibul government refurbished or
constructed more than 5,000 wats, while Pibul himself
visited temples around the country, usually donating money
and statues, and began restoring sites, like the ancient capital
district in Ayudhya, turning them into tourist attractions.
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But as with the pre-Chakri dynasties, Ayudhya would be the
site of a rout – symbolic and reputational rather than military –
for the government. The Prime Minister, without consulting
the King, the nominal head of the sangha in Thailand, decided
to organize the event on his own, announcing that the
celebration would include the mass ordination of 2,500 monks
and the casting of an equal number of gold Buddha statues and
that the event would take place not in Bangkok but in
Ayudhya; it was as if the government sought to leapfrog back
over the nearly 200-year history of the Chakri dynasty,
relegating it in the process to an historical footnote.
That decision alone did not sit well with the public. Pibul
then dug an even deeper public relations hole by inviting
the head of Burma, the nation that had sacked Ayudhya, to
attend the ceremony. U Nu, the Burmese leader, was a fellow
Theravada Buddhist, but his presence at the anniversary
celebration evoked widespread anger. In a sign interpreted
by the public to mean that he shared their displeasure, King
Bhumibol not only declined Pibul’s invitation to co-preside
over the anniversary ceremonies but did not even attend the
Ayudhya event. To add insult to injury, the elements
themselves seemed to conspire against the celebration as a
wind and thunderstorm tore through the ruins of Ayudhya
and more imaginative participants swore that they could
hear the “wailings of outraged ancestors” erupt even before
the ceremonies began.
Another factor that helped spark the soft counter-revolution
was the general tenor of the post-war era throughout
Southeast Asia. The early 1950s were a time of increasing
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116 King by Virtue King by Virtue 117
instability – and hysteria – in and around Thailand.
The Chinese Revolution got all the attention at frst, but the
Vietnamese resistance to French colonial rule heated up, and
seemed to reach a climax with the overwhelming defeat of
French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, only to kick into high
gear again with a protracted civil war that followed. Closer
to home Communists and ad hoc insurgents seemed ready
to peel of whole regions of Thailand in the south, north and
northeast.
Not long afterward, Thailand joined the United States and
representatives of six other countries in the Philippines to
sign the Manila Pact, which laid the groundwork for SEATO,
a coalition of Southeast Asian and Pacifc nations dedicated
to countering the Communist threat. Nor were all the threats
coming from Communists. In June of 1954, 21 people were
arrested in Isan and charged with joining the “Free Laos”
movement and plotting to separate the northeast from
Thailand, carry out coups in both Laos and Thailand, and
establish an independent Isan state. It was only these real
and perceived threats that led the Thai government to lift its
informal ban on the royal couple touring outside the Bangkok
region and fund their 1955 trip to Isan. By the time the King
returned to Bangkok from that visit, there was nothing anyone
could do to reverse the expansion of royal barami.
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118 King by Virtue King by Virtue 119
His Majesty receiving food from his subjects
during an alms walk.
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Building Barami
Other events, both within and outside the control of King
Bhumibol, soon conspired to expand his barami even
further. Late in 1955, Queen Savang Vadhana, the King’s
paternal grandmother – and mother to the King’s father,
Prince Mahidol – died at the advanced age of 93. Unlike the
death of King Ananda nine years earlier, her passing was one
that Thais could commemorate without mixed feelings. Her
death also marked the passing of the closest living link to the
reign of her husband, King Chulalongkorn. It was difcult for
people not to draw the comparison between the peace and
prosperity and tremendous advancement that had taken
place under King Chulalongkorn and the instability and
economic hardship that prevailed in the country under
civilian rule during the post-war years. In retrospect, it is
clear that Queen Savang Vadhana’s death only whetted the
appetite of the public for the return of the monarchy to a
leadership role.
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120 King by Virtue King by Virtue 121
Following the Isan tour, King Bhumibol continued to
consolidate his image as a potential dhammaraja who
intended to rule by subscribing to Thotsaphit Rajatham,
the ten principles of Buddhist leadership. Largely thwarted
by the Pibul regime from making contact with people
outside the palace, the King began to parlay his own prestige
by inviting infuential members of the country’s society to
come to the palace and even use its facilities for worthy
causes. Along this line, he established a school at Chitralada
Palace that was open to everyone, rich, poor, native-born or
foreign. Despite the 1932 Revolution, the social cachet
made possible by rubbing elbows (strictly in a manner of
speaking) with members of the royal family far exceeded
anything similar that might be gained by spending time
with members of the ruling triumvirate. Its members
might be in a position to dispense raw political power and
money, but the King had it within his power to dispense
something that Thais saw just as valuable, if not more so. In
addition to the chance to bask in the proximity of the royal
barami, the school also served as a clearinghouse for
connections between members of the older elite, the nouveau
riche who had made their fortune in the economic chaos
following the war, foreign ofcials and representatives of the
increasingly important aid organizations that would play a
major role in the years ahead in shaping civil society in the
country. Scholars of Southeast Asian Studies often describe
Thailand as a “patron-client” society in which power and
infuence are predicated upon the ties between a powerful
patron able to provide opportunities and clients further down
the social ladder. In these years of the monarchy’s almost
internal exile, King Bhumibol built a very strong network of
patron-client relationships that, in turn, enhanced his own
standing – his soft power – within the country.
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120 King by Virtue King by Virtue 121
As with rural villagers, the King also made it possible for
well-to-do Thais to make merit through their connections
to him by donating large sums of money or in-kind gifts to
a number of royal charities. One of the frst of these was the
Ananda Mahidol Foundation, which provided scholarships for
Thai students who wanted, like the King’s father, to become
doctors. The operations of this and other charities set up by
the monarchy during those years cut a sharp contrast to the
rampant corruption and greed that very publicly aficted the
civilian government, bureaucracy, police and armed forces.
These ventures, in turn, helped establish the King’s reputation
among commoners as a man of virtue, a Righteous Ruler, who
placed his people’s welfare ahead of his own. That many of the
recipients of the largesse channeled through these early royal
charities were not members of the upper crust, but ordinary
Thais, only added to King Bhumibol’s growing acclaim.
Then a little less than a year after the royal couple’s frst
tour of Isan, King Bhumibol became the second monarch in
the Chakri dynasty to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. In
doing so, His Majesty touched a wide range of historical
and cultural chords, among them his great-grandfather’s
monastic term, while reminding the public that the kings
of Thailand had traditionally been the secular heads of
the sangha with the power to appoint the sangha’ s
Supreme Patriarch – a power that had been expropriated
by Pibul. The King’s ordination resonated even more
strongly in that he took up residence in Wat Bovornives,
the temple King Mongkut had served as abbot during the
last 15 years of his monkhood.
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122 King by Virtue King by Virtue 123
With more than 100,000 onlookers waiting to catch a peek
of their new monk-king, King Bhumibol was ordained in
the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha on the grounds of
the Grand Palace. Taking the name ‘Bhumibalo Bhikkhu’,
His Majesty had his head and eyebrows shaved according
to the rules of the sangha and donned the safron robes
of a mendicant monk, having recently demonstrated his
embrace of the Buddhist virtue “metta,” loving kindness,
by freeing 3,000 prisoners.
At Wat Bovornives, the King submitted to monastery
discipline just like all the other monks. The room His
Majesty occupied had changed little since his great-
grandfather’s day; it was, according to a contemporary,
small and dark, with small grilled windows, a heavy wooden
door and a sleeping mat – far from the grandeur of the
royal residences, but perhaps not such a radical departure
from places he had known as a child, especially while of
hiking or skiing in the Alps. His Majesty rose before dawn
and went out into the city to do an alms walk – tradition
calls for the walk to begin at the hour when it is light enough
to see the lines on the palms of one’s hands – and came back
to eat two meals before noon. The alms walks gave Thais the
chance to see their monarch as a human being just like them;
on his part, it gave the King a chance to come into daily close
contact with the people of his kingdom.
As with other monks at the wat, the rest of King Bhumibol’s
time was spent reading, meditating, chanting and listening
to lectures. On several occasions His Majesty visited other
temples around Bangkok and met with monks from China
and Vietnam.
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122 King by Virtue King by Virtue 123
Altogether the King spent 15 days at Wat Bovornives, naming
Queen Sirikit Regent during the period he was at the
monastery in order to free himself from any royal duties
so that he could get the most of the time at the temple. To
unenlightened Westerners two weeks in a monastery may
seem like something of a lark, a form of spiritual tourism,
like people from California traveling to India to stay for a few
days at an ashram. But within Thai and Theravada tradition,
even a short stay in a monastery is not at all devalued. In
Theravada Buddhism it is understood that most, if not all,
men, especially young adult males, will become ordained at
some point but there is no expectation (or desire) for more
than a small fraction of them to take a lifetime vow. In fact,
there is no such thing; even monks who, like King Mongkut,
have spent half a life in the monastery are free to leave
without any stigma being attached to their departure. At the
same time, there is no requirement within the Buddhist
tradition that a man be ordained; it is strictly voluntary. Even
today, it is very common for a young man to be ordained and
enter a monastery for the minimum stay – about a week,
though even that is fexible – as a way of demonstrating his
gratitude to his parents; in traditional Thai culture, every child
owed his father and mother an infnite debt of gratitude.
At all events, whatever the combination of objectives
motivating him, King Bhumibol’s decision to be ordained
and spend even a couple of weeks living as a simple bhikkhu
further enhanced his reputation among the great mass of Thai
people that here was a just, simple, honest man, “sincere and
conservative” as a press account put it at the time, to whom
the country could look for leadership and something more –
a spiritual and cultural renewal in a difcult time.
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124 King by Virtue King by Virtue 125
“The thing about His Majesty the King is that he takes the
sacral part of kingship – that part that is divine – very
seriously,” observes a friend of King Bhumibol who belongs
to a distinguished Thai family that, for several generations,
has been part of the Chakri Family circle. “Take for example,
when His Majesty appoints ambassadors he used to bless
each one personally, pouring lustral water on their heads
and placing sacred powder on their foreheads.” Anyone
who has witnessed this kind of ceremony, this friend says,
“knows that His Majesty was not doing it pro forma.”
Similarly, says this same source, when the King prays or
listens to a sermon, it is clear that he is truly praying and
listening. “I think this is in part what has given His Majesty
his strength, his barami,” the source says. “And this does not
go just for Buddhist ceremonies. It includes Brahmanical
services as well. His Majesty takes religion very seriously.”
The degree to which the new King took his complicated and
highly symbolic sacral role seriously was also demonstrated
while he was traveling outside the capital – actions that
reflected a perhaps instinctive but nonetheless highly
advanced understanding of the Thai psyche. According to
Thailand’s chief Brahman, Phra Maha Ratchakru Phitee
Sriwisutthikun, when King Bhumibol went on trips into
outlying regions of the country – areas of the country where
traditional beliefs remained most potent – he invariably
brought with him the current chief Brahman’s father. The
then-chief Brahman was on hand to assist the King in
performing Brahman rituals intended to introduce himself
and express gratitude to the dhevada– the sacred spirits and
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124 King by Virtue King by Virtue 125
gods of each place – who were convened for the occasion by
the Brahman.
Even as King Bhumibol was burnishing his reputation as a
devout monarch and cultural conservative, he at the same time
avoided any suggestion that he represented an anachronistic
throwback to an earlier, semi-feudal age. Instead, through
his music, artwork, sailing, photography and other pursuits,
His Majesty created an image of himself as a thoroughly
modern and fashionable man, who, accompanied by his
beautiful wife, Queen Sirikit, along with their young
children, cut a very up-to-date fgure in Thai society.
In an event that occurred late in the very same year in which
he had been ordained a Buddhist monk and lived for two
weeks in the monastery, the King’s birthday celebration was
highlighted by a performance by the world’s greatest jazz
clarinetist, Benny Goodman. But it was not just Goodman
who played. During one set King Bhumibol got up on the
stage with his saxophone and jammed with Goodman and his
band. During its tour of the country, the band came back and
played at the palace two more times; on each occasion, the
King jammed with the group. The efect on the Thai public
was predictable. The jam sessions, which received generous
coverage in the local and international press, were seen as a
spontaneous display of monarchial cool. During King
Bhumibol’s early years on the throne, a song he composed
became the signature tune of the day. “Falling Rain” it is
called. In the minds of the Thai people – tired of the turmoil
of the past two decades – the young King was seen as the rain
that would come and wash the country clean again.
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126 King by Virtue King by Virtue 127
His Majesty during a state visit to
the United States, 1960.
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126 King by Virtue King by Virtue 127
The Soft Counterrevolution
If the royal star was rising, the same was not the case for the
coalition led by Prime Minister Pibul. In 1955 he announced
that his government was going to restore democracy to a
country that, under Police General Phao, had been operating as
a virtual police state. Pibul relaxed censorship laws, legalized
labor unions, promised amnesty for the hundreds of political
prisoners still in jail, and passed other measures.
The plan backfred. The press, organized labor, and the newly
liberated political opposition used the new atmosphere of
dissent to loudly denounce the government’s incompetence
and corruption. Faced with an increasingly unruly population
and splits within his own ruling coalition, in particular the
growing restiveness of one of the heads of the armed forces,
Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who commanded the Thai
troops in and around Bangkok, Prime Minister Pibul called
for parliamentary elections to take place early in 1957. In
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128 King by Virtue King by Virtue 129
announcing the elections, Pibul pledged that they would be
the freest, fairest, and cleanest in Thailand’s history.
They weren’t. Coupled with the fallout from the celebration
they spelled the end of the Pibul era.
Almost immediately the 1957 National Assembly vote was
labeled “the dirtiest election ever” by the media, with
widespread and quite credible accusations of vote-buying,
manipulation and other acts of fraud. Despite the shenanigans,
the ruling party, led by Police General Phao, lost half its seats
in the National Assembly and clearly was spared even greater
losses by the electoral irregularities. At one poll in Bangkok
a voter was hacked to death for cheering on the leader of the
Democrat Party. Elsewhere, runners for the ruling party were
caught red-handed with stacks of pre-marked ballots.
Confronted with this, Pibul denied any involvement. “I swear
I have nothing to do with this,” he told reporters. “I am
certain of getting elected myself. I do not have to resort to this.”
Four days after the election, his government declared a state
of emergency in response to an alleged coup conspiracy.
Over the course of the next several months, the coalition led
by the Prime Minister fragmented even while the opening up
of press freedoms and dissent continued to raise the public
heat on his government’s performance. In September, dozens
of parliamentary members of the ruling party resigned en
masse. Two days later, the corrupt and much-feared head of
the national police, Police General Phao, was forced to resign.
In an act of ultimate irony a large crowd, roused to action by
fery speeches at the Thai version of Hyde Park the government
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128 King by Virtue King by Virtue 129
had allowed to fourish on the site of Sanam Luang, an open
feld and public square in front of the Grand Palace, as part
of the democratization program, broke into the parliament
building demanding that Phao be executed and that Prime
Minister Pibul be sent into exile.
That was September 16, 1957. Until then, King Bhumibol had
studiously stayed above the fray, refraining from direct
comment on the growing turmoil. But the day after the
spontaneous march on parliament, the King summoned
the Prime Minister to a meeting. It was the frst time the King
had used his royal prerogatives like this and exercised his
barami in a way that infuenced the outcome of a political
dilemma while at the same time enhancing, rather than
diminishing, that barami. It would not be the last time
the King acted in such a manner.
Theoretically, the Prime Minister could have declined the
royal “invitation,” but, within the context of Thai culture and
tradition, to do so would have been unthinkable. By the time
the two men met, the King had already been apprised of what
was about to occur by the principals involved in the coming
action, in all likelihood the frst time since the revolution in
1932 and certainly the frst time since King Bhumibol came to
the throne that such a courtesy was aforded to a King of
Thailand. That briefng marked the beginning of an irreversible
turning point in the fortunes of the country’s monarchy.
The day after the King’s conversation with Prime Minister
Pibul, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a bloodless coup
and decreed martial law. He sent his former ruling coalition
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130 King by Virtue King by Virtue 131
partners, Prime Minister Pibul and Police General Phao into
exile, and promised elections in a few months. His new head
of the national police promised to reopen investigations into
suspected political murders under Phao. That evening, the
King issued a decree broadcast across Thailand stating that
Pibul had lost the trust of the people and that the citizens of
the country should now “obey the orders of Field Marshal
Sarit.” A couple of weeks later, as if to add irony to insult,
the head of the pro-royalist Democrat Party accused the now
deposed Prime Minister Pibul of plotting a return to power
with his old nemesis, Pridi Banomyong. The accusation was
groundless but symbolically it signaled the collective
political burial of the generation of men who had overthrown
the absolute monarchy. Sarit’s seizure of power marked the
end of Thailand’s “soft revolution” that began in 1932.
No one could have known it at the time of course, but it
also marked the beginning of the “soft counter - revolution”
that would continue almost unabated until the last few
years and the rise of Thailand’s frst genuine mass political
party movement under future Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra.
Following new elections in December and the appointment
of Sarit’s hand-picked nominee, General Thanom Kittikachorn,
as Prime Minister, the restrictions Pibul had placed on the
movements and public appearances of the royal couple
evaporated. Early in 1958, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit
embarked upon their second tour of the north; within a
decade, King Bhumibol would become the frst monarch
in Thai history to visit every province in the country.
For the frst time since the 1932 Revolution, Thailand also
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witnessed a royal barge procession, 32 carved war canoes
accompanying the King, in the gilded, swan-headed barge
built during his great-grandfather’s reign, to bring an ofering
of robes and other gifts to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent,
which coincides with the end of Thailand’s rainy season.
That same month, another ceremony that had lapsed after
the revolution was also revived, when the King sprinkled
lustral water on a baby white elephant – white elephants being
the patron symbol of the Thai monarchy – at Dusit Zoo. The
Royal Ploughing Ceremony was likewise brought back to life.
Based on Hindu practices, the Brahman ceremony is
designed to assure a good rice harvest in the coming year –
and to acknowledge a Thai king’s standing as “Lord of the
Land.”
In a further demonstration of the royal revival, the Sarit
government in 1960 scrapped June 24 as Thailand’s
National Day and replaced it with December 5. June 24
was the anniversary of the day the People’s Party staged
its revolution. December 5 is King Bhumibol’s birthday.
That same year, the King and Queen made an international
splash when the Royal Family embarked on a three-month
tour that took them to Indonesia and Burma, and the United
States where the Royal Family got a guided tour of Disneyland
and chatted with Elvis Presley, and, on a more serious note,
the King met with the President and addressed a joint session
of Congress, impressing everyone with his fawless English.
Afterward the Royal Family toured Western Europe and the
Vatican.
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132 King by Virtue King by Virtue 133
The renewed ceremonies and the international tour simply
confrmed what had already occurred. By then, Field Marshal
Sarit had seized total control of the government of Thailand,
scrapped the 1952 constitution that the King had found
objectionable, and pledged his fealty to the monarchy – both
the man who occupied the throne and the institution itself.
In return, King Bhumibol assured the nation that Sarit’s
intentions were good. Over time the two men forged a
working relationship in which Sarit skillfully employed the
royal prestige to enhance his own position, but as a client and
faithful servant of the King. On the surface, they could not
have been more diferent. Sarit was an alcoholic – he would
die of the efects of cirrhosis of the liver in 1963 – a libertine,
militarist, and corrupt; the King was none of these things. Yet
they shared certain attributes as well. Sarit was an outsider
from rural Thailand who had worked his way up through the
ranks. In his own way, King Bhumibol was also an outsider,
raised and educated in Europe and then thrust by fate into
the role of monarch. Both were cultural conservatives who
believed that the way forward for Thailand was to preserve
and support the traditional values of the country; and both
believed that those traditional values were best served by a
benignly paternalistic form of leadership.
But even with his greatly expanded infuence, King Bhumibol
took great care not to be perceived as a partisan of any
political faction within the country. In fact, His Majesty is
acutely aware of the limitation of his constitutional role,
which is above politics. The royal discourses and addresses
during the political unrest reflected His Majesty’s deep
concern for the livelihood of the people. But in a paradox
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132 King by Virtue King by Virtue 133
that should surprise no one who is familiar with how soft
power is generated and best wielded, just as King Bhumibol
managed to confer upon himself unprecedented barami by
his receptivity to an ofering made by an elderly Isan villager,
so did His Majesty acquire a degree of power in the very
act of refraining from the overt exercise of that power except
on the rarest of occasions and always in the service of
restoring harmony at those moments when the very fate
of Thailand hung in the balance rather than pressing an
advantage for one side or another embroiled in confict.
While there is no law which requires those listening to the
King to act accordingly, all Thai people and political
organs wholeheartedly followed his advice because of his
nonpartisan nature.
True, his new power was not absolute as in the days before
1932, but nonetheless His Majesty now wielded the para-
mount, if intangible, infuence within Thai culture. And he
did this with virtually no formal sources of power at his
disposal and while having made his feelings known publicly
about issues only a handful of times over the previous
decade. To have an efect on Thailand, King Bhumibol had
to secure the assent of others who controlled the army,
the police, the government, the media, the universities, and
the private sector.
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134 King by Virtue King by Virtue 135
His Majesty granting an audience
to two political factions’ leaders, 1992.
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134 King by Virtue King by Virtue 135
Crisis Management
Over the next 30 years or so, the King would only actively
intervene in a couple of other political crises gripping
Thailand. On both occasions, His Majesty demonstrated, as
he had with Prime Minister Pibul, a mastery of soft power.
The actions he took and the words he spoke – carefully
thought out, minimal in execution – though not, to all
appearances, born of ambition, merely served to solidify
and expand his barami.
The frst of these occurred in the summer and fall of 1973.
By then, the military takeover of the government initiated by
Field Marshal Sarit had hardened into a military dictatorship
ruled by yet another triumvirate, in this case one headed by
Field Marshal Thanom, the man Sarit had chosen in 1957 to
serve as Prime Minister. In 1971, Thanom, along with Field
Marshal Praphas Charusathien and Thanom’s son, Narong
Kittikachorn, carried out yet another coup and placed
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136 King by Virtue King by Virtue 137
Thailand under martial law. Soon the trio off military
dictators, who called themselves the National Executive
Council, were being referred to by the public as The Three
Tyrants.
By the early 1970s, that era’s spirit of dissent and student
activism had spread to Thailand and there was rising
discontent with the repression, corruption, inefciency and
backwardness of the military junta. Having come to power
on the claim that martial law was needed to suppress
communist terrorists who were, the Three Tyrants claimed,
infiltrating Thailand en masse, the junta was especially
intolerant of dissent, particularly coming from students
because they were seen as vulnerable to revolutionary
sentiments.
The crisis began brewing in 1972 when the National Student
Center of Thailand (NSCT) began to serve as a representative
of students’ – and broader – displeasure with the Three
Tyrants. It erupted the following summer with the expulsion
of nine students from Ramkhamhaeng University for
publishing a newspaper that criticized the government.
The NSCT called for a demonstration at Bangkok’s Democracy
Monument, strategically located on one of the city’s busiest
thoroughfares. The idea was for the demonstrators to remain
at the monument, blocking trafc until the nine students
were reinstated. When the Three Tyrants responded by
closing all the country’s colleges and universities down in
a vain efort to curb student dissent, suddenly idle students
from as far away as Chiang Mai focked to the Democracy
Monument and the crowd swelled to more than 50,000,
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136 King by Virtue King by Virtue 137
one of the largest demonstrations in Thailand’s history.
By now, the demonstration had jumped the fence from being
just a student protest to a much wider show of dissent and
defance as the students at the monument were joined by
thousands of non-students equally fed up with the regime.
Until now, the King had not intervened in any active way,
but then, the night of the big demonstration, His Majesty
invited the members of the ruling triumvirate to meet with
him at his residence during which His Majesty politely
suggested that it would be best to reinstate the expelled
students. The Three Tyrants agreed. King Bhumibol then
met with representatives of the NSCT and told them
that their fellow students would be allowed to return to
Ramkhamhaeng University and that the rest of them
should disperse.
The next day the head of the university relented and
announced that the nine expelled students would be
reinstated. But the following day, the same ofcial announced
that while the students were no longer expelled, they were now
suspended. More protests ensued and continued sporadically
throughout the summer and early autumn. On October 6, 13
other students, including the former president of the NSCT,
were arrested for violating a new decree from the Three
Tyrants forbidding anyone not enrolled at a college or
university to speak at or join in a rally at a given school.
The response to the arrests and subsequent claim by the junta
that the 13 students were actually Communists intent on
fomenting a revolution was predictable. Thousands of students
staged a sit-down demonstration at Thammasat University,
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138 King by Virtue King by Virtue 139
the school founded by Pridi, and vowed to remain until the
students were released. Field Marshal Praphas met with
representatives of the demonstrators, refused their primary
demand but promised that a new constitution, the drafting
of which he himself would oversee, would restore civilian
government within two years.
Once again the response was predictable. The crowd of
demonstrators at Thammasat, who shrewdly but also
sincerely based their protest against martial law on the
grounds that they supported the Thai monarchy but that the
only guarantor of the monarchy was a constitution, swelled to
nearly 100,000. An even greater mass of demonstrators
had gathered around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument,
which speakers mordantly described as the burial place of Thai
democracy. Altogether it is estimated that as many as 500,000
people gathered to protest in Bangkok with the swarm of
demonstrators spilling north of Thammasat and the
Democracy Monument and surrounding Chitralada Palace.
And once again, the King intervened, not directly but by
sending Field Marshal Thanom a message that exemplifes
the skill which he navigated the path between remaining
completely aloof on the one hand and, on the other, exercising
leadership to resolve the crisis without running the risk of
“touching politics” and casting himself in the role of a partisan
fgure. There was, His Majesty informed Thanom, “nothing
to stop you from requesting a royal audience.” Thanom got
the message. At the meeting the evening of October 13
at Dusit Palace, King Bhumibol pointed out to the dictator
that, “If you don’t defuse a bomb, it will blow up.” Clearly, the
King had been moved to act on the conviction that the
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138 King by Virtue King by Virtue 139
situation could trigger civil war – and the destruction of
Thailand.
By then, it was too late to completely defuse the bomb; the
next day, October 14, Bangkok was wracked by violence as
demonstrators confronted units of the military and police,
often in circumstances of utter confusion and chaos. In
response, the King opened the gates of Chitralada Palace to
demonstrators, personally inspected the weapons of his own
guard units to make sure they were not loaded, and ordered
the palace’s medical facilities to treat the wounded. His
Majesty and other members of the royal family, including
the Princess Mother who made her way through the crowd-
flled streets from her own residence to Chitralada, walked
among the frightened and sleep-starved demonstrators
who had taken refuge at the palace grounds, talking with
people, listening to their complaints, calming everyone by
their mere presence. Nonetheless, outside the Palace gates
dozens were killed.
It was the end of the road for the Three Tyrants and martial
law. That night, the King went live on national television.
Dressed not in royal regalia, but a simple gray suit with a
white shirt and tie, His Majesty announced to the citizens
of Thailand, “Today is a day of great sorrow, the most
grievous in the history of our Thai nation.” His Majesty
went on to “call on all to eliminate the causes of violence…
in order that our country can return to normalcy as soon
as possible.” It had already been announced that, at the
urgings of the King and others, at least two of the Three
Tyrants had tendered their resignations and it was assumed
that Narong, the third of the tyrants, would follow suit shortly.
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140 King by Virtue King by Virtue 141
But now, broadcasting live, the King went even further and
announced that he was going to appoint a new, civilian Prime
Minister, Sanya Dharmasakti, the highly respected rector
of Thammasat University, as well as members of a national
convention that would draw up a new democratic constitu-
tion, and elect members of a new National Assembly.
That night, Thanom was fown to the United States and
American military transports flew Praphas and Narong
to Taiwan. The crisis was over. The next morning, the banner
headline of the Bangkok Post read “All Quiet!” The hard
power men had fed, the soft power had prevailed. The Three
Tyrants were gone, the King, his image as a compassionate,
Righteous Ruler, a dhammaraja rebalancing the wheel
of harmony enhanced even further, unchallenged by left
or right, young or old, as the moral leader of the country.
In 1992, not entirely diferent circumstances led to an even
more dramatic display of monarchial leadership.
The year before, yet another military coup, this time led by
General Suchinda Kraprayoon, overthrew the government,
dissolved the constitution and the parliament, and placed the
country under martial law. All this was done on the grounds
that the deposed Prime Minister had been corrupt and no
longer represented the people he served. Calling itself the
National Peace Keeping Council or NPKC, the junta promised
new elections in six months and then somewhat surprised
everyone (including, in the long run, probably itself) by
choosing a highly respected and, as it turned out, honest and
competent industrialist and former diplomat, Anand
Panyarachun, as the new Prime Minister.
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140 King by Virtue King by Virtue 141
The promised elections took place not six months but 13
months later. One of the candidates for Prime Minister was
another general, Chamlong Srimuang. Unlike members of
the junta, he was the head of a legitimate political party and
had served for six years as Governor of Bangkok where he
had earned a solid reputation for efciency and progressive
leadership; under Chamlong’s tenure, bids on city contracts
were awarded to vendors who actually made the lowest bid
and were competent to carry out the work, shaving millions
of baht of the budget for the city. Chamlong also negotiated
the deal to begin construction of the Sky Train, Bangkok’s
sleek, heavily used elevated mass transit line.
To no one’s great surprise, the elections were marred by
irregularities and no one party gained a majority of seats;
the leaders of fve pro-coup parties appointed the leader of
the junta, General Suchinda himself, as Prime Minister.
On May 4, two weeks after the new parliament convened
under a cloud, up to 100,000 protestors gathered at Sanam
Luang, and Chamlong himself announced that he was
embarking on a hunger strike that would either end in his
death or Suchinda’s resignation. Soon the protests spread to
other nearby areas.
Two weeks later, on orders from Suchinda, Thai military
units opened fre on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators
gathered outside a government building. Over the next
three days similar massacres occurred with dozens of people
killed, hundreds wounded, and thousands more, including
Chamlong, arrested.
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142 King by Virtue King by Virtue 143
Once again, the King held his own counsel until many began
to wonder if he would speak out at all or was himself hostage
to the Suchinda regime. And once again, as in 1972, His
Majesty concluded that the ongoing street violence threaten-
ed the stability of the kingdom and had to be stopped. In
one of the more remarkable “You Are There” moments in
television history, His Majesty summoned both Suchinda
and Chamlong to a midnight conference at Chitralada. There,
in a live broadcast shown on national television – in color
this time, as opposed to black-and-white as in 1972 – the King
held a meeting with the two men, who sat on the carpeted
floor in a traditional position of respect, their backs to
the camera. The King, meanwhile, dressed in a white suit
and gold silk tie, loomed above them, erect and self-
contained on a white settee. Also in attendance were
General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former Prime Minister
and now head of the Privy Council (and one of the King’s
closest advisers) and the King’s personal secretary. When
King Bhumibol spoke, it was in a quiet-measured tone,
though there was no mistaking his resolve – or his mastery
of the situation. “It may come as a surprise why I asked you
to come to meet in this manner,” His Majesty told his
warring visitors. “Everyone knows the situation is very
complicated… You two were invited because from the very
beginning you were confronting each other. If this were
to continue it would lead only to the destruction of
Thailand. What is the point of feeling proud to be the
winner on top of piles of debris that once constituted the
country we have spent so long building up?”
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142 King by Virtue King by Virtue 143
It only seemed like a rhetorical question. Five days later
Suchinda resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by
Anand Panyarachun who served for one year before stepping
down as he had promised to do. Many Thais consider him to
have been one of the ablest Prime Ministers in the history of
the country.
If the photo of the King accepting a lotus blossom from a
villager presents an icon of monarchical compassion and
accessibility, the TV images from the room in Chitralada
that night in 1992 are an icon of a monarch who floats
above the fray but who is quite able to “swoop down” as Thais
would later say of the meeting and intervene defnitively.
The 1992 turmoil cleared the way for the adoption in 1997
of a new constitution – the frst and, to date, only truly
democratically-drafted constitution in Thailand’s history;
many Thais, in turn, credited the King’s actions in 1992 for
laying the groundwork for this democratization.
In turn, the 1997 constitution raised hopes and motivated
millions of Thais to become politically engaged for the frst
time, a situation that prevailed until 2006. In that year,
the military staged yet another coup (the 19th since the 1932
Revolution), this time removing Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra – twice-elected with an overwhelming mandate
– from ofce on charges of corruption. Shortly thereafter, the
coup leaders suspended the 1997 Constitution, barring from
politics for several years most of the senior leadership of
Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, placing an interim Prime
Minister in ofce, and calling for elections the following
year.
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144 King by Virtue
The years between the coup and the election of Yingluck
Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, as Prime Minister in 2011,
were marred by intense political turmoil that gave rise to the
Red Shirts, a pro-Thaksin, anti-coup faction, and the Yellow
Shirts, an anti-Thaksin and generally pro-royalist faction, who
have both staged mass demonstrations and, in the case of the
Red Shirts, been involved in bloody confrontations with
the police and military.
Having achieved considerable success in economic
development through participation in globalization since
1980, Thailand’s political tensions can be traced to a confict
between its traditional Theravada sacral worldview and the
crass materialism of our contemporary global economic
system that rests so much on intense consumerism and
fnancial legerdemain on a grand scale. Thailand sufered
from the bursting of an asset bubble of too much debt and
corresponding over-production of real estate assets in 1997.
Wealthy families with questionable barami came more and
more to dominate Thai society and politics. It was said by
many in power that barami could be “bought” through
the purchase of ofce or opportunities for rent extraction in
crony capitalism. More and more personal avarice and money
politics stood in stark contrast to the norms of the Thotsaphit
Rajatham and Theravada teachings on mindfulness in seeking
the middle path through life’s temptations.
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144 King by Virtue
PART FOUR
The Developer King
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146 King by Virtue King by Virtue 147
His Majesty in discussion with officials on
agriculture and irrigation.
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146 King by Virtue King by Virtue 147
Royal Development Projects,
Royal Development Centers
It is safe to say that Chitralada Palace in Bangkok resembles
no other royal palace in the world.
True, it attracts thousands of visitors each year, just like the
Grand Palace a few miles away. But unlike visitors to the
Grand Palace, the people who come to tour this estate on
the northern end of one of the largest cities in the world are
not coming to view the furnishings and art work and other
accoutrements of a monarchial lifestyle. They have come to
look – and learn from – at the three dozen Royal Chitralada
Projects, most of them related to agriculture, that King
Bhumibol has established on approximately one square
kilometer of the palace grounds during the 60 years in
which Chitralada has been the royal family’s ofcial residence
in Bangkok. In turn, that one square kilometer represents
approximately half the total area of the palace grounds.
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148 King by Virtue King by Virtue 149
The transformation of Chitralada from royal residence to
royal residence and demonstration study center began in
the early 1950s, then picked up steam in 1961 when the King
began setting up experimental plots and labs on the grounds
to develop approaches toward agriculture, aquaculture,
forestry, animal husbandry, and food processing that could be
applied to the country’s agriculture sector. At a time when a
majority of Thais still earned their living from farming, these
early projects – which are still active – include rice felds
and paddies that cultivate some 50 diferent kinds of rice, a
demonstration forest whose foliage is dense enough that it
actually afects the palace microclimate, the fsh ponds where
the Nil tilapia species that has become an important part of
the Thai diet was first bred and fingerlings of the fish
distributed around the country, a dairy farm and a milk
processing plant that now produces cheese, butter, powder-
ed, pasteurized, UHT, and sweetened condensed milk,
yoghurt, and milk tablets that are a favorite sweet in the
country today. It was at Chitralada that the King initiated
the first experiments with vetiver grass as a tool in the
fight against soil depletion and erosion – more about
vetiver a little later in the book.
In keeping with the principles of the King’s development
philosophy, today known as Sufficiency Economy, the
projects at Chitralada Palace support each other in order to
increase efciency and lower costs and consumption of fuel
brought in from outside. A good example of this synergistic
approach can be seen in the palace’s rice operations.
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148 King by Virtue King by Virtue 149
The rice produced in the experimental felds is used in the
annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony; 30 percent is replanted.
The palace’s experimental rice mill is supplied with paddy
bought from farmers. The husk collected after milling is
compressed into husk briquettes. Some of these are sold
to outside businesses as a primary source of fuel, while some
are turned into charcoal – still a big source of cooking fuel
in Thailand. At the palace, some of the husk are used to
produce the hot water that is converted through an absorp-
tion system into chilled water cycled through the air-
conditioning at the Chitralada Visitor Center or through
the cool, dank units that house the palace’s cold-climate
mushroom culture project. Today, the Chitralada Projects
also include handicrafts – like the Sa Mulberry Paper
Production project and the Royal Candle Factory – genetics
research, several different modes of alternative energy,
and more.
Chitralada Palace was the mother ship – or greenhouse – of
one of the principal reasons why the Thai people revere King
Bhumibol. If a signifcant portion of the King’s barami has
been built upon his skillful exercise of soft power during
times of political and economic crisis, the reverence in
which the Thai people hold him derives in even greater
measure from his very visible eforts over the past 65 years
to improve the material conditions in which the vast
majority of the population live, especially those engaged in
the agricultural sector.
Thwarted in his ambition to pursue a degree in engineering
by events beyond his control, His Majesty went on to use
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150 King by Virtue King by Virtue 151
his position as monarch to become what other biographers
have called “the Developer King.” Beginning on a small
scale during the 1950s, when the range of his activities was
restricted, His Majesty has gone on to oversee the initiation
of an astonishing 4,600 development projects scattered
around every region of the country.
Over that same period of time, the King has worked closely
with teams of advisers and specialists to create organizatio-
nal structures charged with identifying, funding, launching,
and managing those thousands of projects. Some of these
projects, as in the case of the far north, have dramatically
transformed the lives of local inhabitants, helping lift them
out of poverty, disease, isolation, environmental degradation,
and political turmoil. In the past 20 years, King Bhumibol
has also presented the country with comprehensive frame-
works for how best to develop the nation’s agricultural sector
and overall economy in ways that refect the lessons learned
from the royal initiatives. Together, these frameworks, or
philosophies, have come to be known as “The New Theory” –
which is focused primarily on farming – and “The Sufciency
Economy.” Together they represent a virtual road map of a
middle path Thailand might follow as it pursues sustainable
development in an era of rapid, even rapacious globalization. It
is a middle path that, if followed, would lead to a continuation
of rising living standards in ways governed by the best of the
country’s traditional values, in particular the valorization of
achieving harmony and balance as the highest objectives for
both individuals and society at every level, from the family on
up to the national economy. As the King himself said in 1974,
in a commencement address at Kasetsart University, the
country’s oldest agricultural college:
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150 King by Virtue King by Virtue 151
“Development of the nation must be carried
out in stages, starting with the laying of a
foundation [that ensures that] the majority of the
people have their basic necessities met through
the use of economic means and [technology] in
accordance with theoretical principles… If we
were to concentrate only on fast economic
progress without allowing the plan of operation
to harmonize with the conditions of the country
and the people, an imbalance would arise and
might bring about failure in the end…” *
Since 1946, when King Bhumibol ascended the throne,
Thailand has grown exponentially by every measure. The
population, which stood at 17 million at the time, has risen to
nearly 67 million. The country has a congested modern capital
city, dozens of colleges and universities, large regional cities
with air-conditioned shopping malls, and has attracted
numerous Western residents seeking employment or
retirement.
If Thailand’s population has nearly quadrupled during the
reign of King Bhumibol, the per capita GDP, a measure of per
capita income, has multiplied by a factor of 10, with most of
that growth beginning in the early 1960s and the implementa-
tion of the country’s frst national development plan. During
that same period of time, Thailand’s overall GDP grew even
more spectacularly. As might be expected, as per capita and
............................................
*Royal address at the Commencement Ceremony at Kasetsart
University, 18 July 1974.
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152 King by Virtue King by Virtue 153
GDP have risen, the number of Thais living below the ofcial
poverty line has decreased substantially, from 45 percent in
1986 to 8.5 percent today.
The country’s rise in national income has not afected all
sectors of the society equally and it has come at the cost of
much environmental degradation. Agriculture, in particular,
has failed to keep up with the pace – this in a country where
a signifcant percentage of the population is still living on
the land or in farming villages. This is a fact that the King
has been diligent in keeping in the forefront of the public’s
understanding, as he did later in a commencement address
at Kasetsart University, in 1996, where His Majesty said true
development must begin with improving the livelihood of
all Thais, not just the urban elites, because “this constitutes
the essential foundation of peace and prosperity.” “It could
be said,” His Majesty went on, “that development entails
a war against poverty…”*
The 4,600 royal- initiated projects are distributed around the
country. Some 1,300 are located in the north, 960 in Isan,
1,100 in the central and eastern regions of the country and
some 850 in the south. Another 335 are not confned to a single
region. In turn, the projects fall roughly into eight categories:
water resources development, agriculture, environment,
occupational development, public health, transportation
and communication, social welfare, and miscellaneous
projects that might span more than one of these categories.
............................................
*Royal address at the Commencement Ceremony at Kasetsart
University, 26 July 1996.
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152 King by Virtue King by Virtue 153
The King’s direct involvement in the welfare of the Thai
people can be dated to 1950 when His Majesty provided the
country’s health department funding to buy high-grade
saline for use to keep patients alive during a cholera
epidemic then gripping the nation. The frst of what now
are called Royal Development Projects was initiated in
1952, when the King, acting through the Department of
Fisheries, acquired a variety of tilapia fingerlings from
Penang and raised them in a pond on the grounds of
Dusit Palace. In 1953, His Majesty began to distribute the
ofspring of those frst fsh to villages around the country
to be bred as a cheap, healthy – and favorful – source of
protein. Also in 1952, His Majesty initiated the frst Royal
Development Project that involved agriculture when His
Majesty donated several bulldozers to the Border Patrol
Police, with whom His Majesty would develop a close
working relationship over the coming tumultuous decade.
The bulldozers were used for building roads in the south.
In 1963 the King authorized a reservoir, also in the south in
Khao Tao village, not far from the royal palace in Hua Hin.
The origin of that reservoir 150 miles southwest of Bangkok
illustrates the voluntaristic and even haphazard nature of
these early forays into development outside the confnes of
Bangkok.
* * *
Lae Sang-suk had taught in Khao Tao, a village a few miles
from Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand, since the late 1940s;
in all those years there is one event that stands out in his
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154 King by Virtue King by Virtue 155
mind above all others – the time the King of Thailand dropped
by one evening for an informal visit.
It was in 1965, two years after the Khao Tao reservoir was
completed; the reservoir was the frst major water manage-
ment project initiated by the King, who used to roam the
countryside around the nearby royal palace in Hua Hin in
a jeep. On a couple of those occasions, he got stuck in the
marshy tidal flats, now buried beneath stored water.
Knowing that Khao Tao had little access to fresh water during
the dry season, King Bhumibol reasoned that the low-lying
area in front of the village would make a good site to construct
a reservoir.
“I had no prior notice at all,” says Lae. The frst hint he had was
when a car pulled up in front of his house, and King Bhumibol,
who was driving, got out, accompanied by the then-head of
the Thai Red Cross. Both men were wearing business suits.
“They walked through the sand to my house, which was on
stilts,” Lae recalls. “When His Majesty got to the foot of the
steps, he asked my permission to come up to the second
level.”
The visit was not entirely social in nature; the King was
seeking information, general knowledge about how one
resident of a small village lived.
“When His Majesty came into my house, he asked me which
rooms my wife and I used for sleeping and where our
children slept,” Lae says. The King then asked where
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the family cooked its meals and, when he was told that
there was a kitchen in an outbuilding behind the house,
asked Lae to take him there. “I remember that His Majesty
went directly to the stove and then to the cabinets,” Lae
says. “He was interested in what we had on hand to eat.” Back
inside the house, the King inquired about who had built
the structure. When Lae said he had done it with the help of
his neighbors, the King smiled, “His Majesty said he didn’t
realize that Ajarn (teacher) Lae was also a carpenter and
told me that he himself liked to build sailboats,” Lae recalls.
Altogether the visit lasted about a half hour and then the King
was on his way, though he – and the Princess Mother – visited
Lae again in coming years. In addition to the Khao Tao
reservoir, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit bestowed other
facilities on the village, including a new temple, school,
health care facility and weaving center – each suited to
local needs the King had come to know through personal,
on-site research.
* * *
After the fall of Prime Minister Pibul in 1957, the King’s
latitude to tour the country and engage in development
became wider and more systematic. In particular his trips
to the north and northeast touched of a dramatic growth in
royal projects all over the country.
Wherever they occur around the country, the royal projects
are all governed by a shared set of procedures and a set of
unifying principles enunciated by the King. The research-
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gathering phase includes extensive on-site interviewing of
residents to gain a clear understanding of local conditions,
topography, climate, and water sources. These talks coincide
with discussions with ofcials at all levels of government
whose jurisdiction might cover some aspects of a project.
An intensive cost-beneft analysis is part of this stage. From
there, relevant government agencies are asked to draw up
plans for the project; since the country’s constitution does
not give King Bhumibol the power to order the initiation of
a major project involving public funding and government
agencies, his initiatives are always presented as suggestions
rather than commands, though given the tendency for Thais
to respond to his suggestions as demands, His Majesty has
taken the trouble to reiterate on many occasions that his
suggestions are just that – requests and nothing more.
If the cost-beneft analysis looks good and local residents are
agreeable, the project moves forward, contractors are hired
and the work begins. After a project is up and running, the
board that oversees the Royal Development Projects is
tasked with monitoring and evaluating the outcomes.
A few guiding principles govern the approach the King and
the Royal Development Projects governing board take with all
projects. The frst, which the King describes as an “Explosions
from within,” a phrase he has often repeated over the years, is
to ensure that a region, community or village is not developed
too quickly, without regard for whether it is ready for such
changes. In seeking a balance between cost and beneft, the
King has also stressed an approach he has called “Our loss
is our gain” – a willingness to make immediate sacrifces
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of public money and expertise even if the payof for that
investment lies far in the future.
At the same time, projects are expected to enhance the
self-sufciency of a given locale. That means, among other
things, development that strengthens rather than stresses a
community, helping to maintain its cohesion and encouraging
local residents, as in Ban Yang, to remain in their towns and
villages by providing opportunities to earn a living and raise
a family without feeing to the city. Projects are also expected
to be governed by the principles of simplicity and economy,
utilizing, whenever possible, local materials and traditional
technology to get the job done; over the years it has not been
unusual for the King to ofer water bufaloes to villagers
seeking tractors and other heavy equipment to cultivate their
rice paddies with the understanding that in most places, water
bufaloes plow the felds just as efciently and with far less
cost and environmental damage than tractors.
One of the earliest of the royal initiatives was the Chitralada
Nil Fish Project. This project involved tilapia, a variety of
which was already very popular in fsh farms around the
country; as noted above, fngerlings of this variety were bred
in ponds by King Bhumibol early in the 1950s and then
distributed to fsh farmers around the country.
The project got underway in 1965 when the King received a
gift of 50 tilapias from Crown Prince Akihito (now Emperor
of Japan). This variety of tilapia was popular in the Crown
Prince’s country. Realizing the nutritional and economic
potential of the Japanese breed of tilapia, King Bhumibol
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bred the fsh given to him by the Crown Prince in concrete
ponds located within the grounds of Chitralada and named
the fsh Nil after its scientifc name Tilapia nilotica.
The breeding program was successful enough for His
Majesty to be able to give 10,000 of the tilapia to the Depart-
ment of Fisheries for further breeding with the long-term
objective of releasing masses of the fish into Thailand’s
waters while also distributing the animal to fsh farmers to
cultivate and sell commercially.
From that initial gift of 50 fsh, Nil fsh production in Thailand
has grown to a seedbed of 1.5 million fsh bred each year by
the country’s Fisheries Research and Development Center.
Today, the tilapia initiative has resulted in a low-cost, high
nutrition supply of food for Thai people living at the bottom
of the economic ladder. It also represents a growing income,
too, with sales of the fsh currently yielding about 5.6 million
baht per annum for Thailand’s commercial fsheries.
* * *
As noted earlier, soil depletion has been a major problem in
Thailand, especially since the end of the Second World War.
Evaluating how best to deal with the issue in an economical
way, the King initiated the Development and Promotion of
the Utilization of Vetiver Grass Project.
This project got its start on the plots of land at Chitralada
Villa where the King conducted agricultural and forestry
experiments beginning in the 1950s. The idea behind it is to
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provide subsistence farmers a way of protecting and
restoring soil so they no longer need to migrate from place
to place using the slash-and-burn techniques that had
deforested so much of the country.
The nationwide project began 1991, after King Bhumibol
learned from the World Bank about recent results of studies
on the use of vetiver, a wide-blade member of the grass family
that can grow several feet high, on preventing soil depletion
by fxing topsoil in place. From initial work at several of the
royal development centers the discovery was made that as
little as a month after being planted, vetiver can develop a root
system that reaches down a meter or more into the ground
and when planted in a row, these root systems form a kind of
underground barrier and fltration system; within six months,
the roots can reach depths of three meters – in some places
even deeper taking it close to the bedrock in some areas. Sown
in rows between rice paddies and other cultivated felds, the
grass also slows down the velocity of surface water drainage.
Used in this way, vetiver can decrease water loss by 25 to 70
percent, with consequent efects on preventing erosion and
depletion – without competing with food crops for space or
nutrition.
To date, seedlings from the project have been widely planted
around the country, with more than 10 million each year
transferred from the royal development centers to several
provinces in the north, Isan, and the south where hilly terrains
and other factors make erosion a particular concern. In
keeping track of the project’s progress, Thailand’s Land
Development Department shows that between 1993 and
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2009, more than 4 billion seedlings have been planted
covering almost 10 million rai (rai is the country’s basic unit
of land; it is the equivalent of about a third of an acre).
One of the benefciaries of research into vetiver grass – and
other sustainable agricultural practices – is Samrong
Tangplub, 66.
From the time he started farming more than 3o years ago until
the mid-1990s, Samrong, like many farmers in Phetchaburi
Province, used his 33 rai to grow a couple of cash crops, in his
case, sugar cane and pineapple. Both require heavy inputs,
especially in a region where widespread deforestation and
a heavy reliance on nutrient hungry crops had depleted the
sandy soil along the Western side of the Gulf of Thailand.
All his hard work had left him 700,000 baht or about $28,000
in debt: this in a country where the per capita income is a
little over $2,000 per year. The money represented the result
of the high cost of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and
water to sustain his thirsty crops coupled with falling prices for
sugar and pineapple. The double-whammy left him
wondering how he was going to be able to continue to
support himself, his wife Urai, and their fve children.
“All I could think about at the time was how much I owed,”
he recalls. “I had to take care of my children, send them to
school. There seemed like no hope, everyone was unhappy.”
In 1995, at wit’s end, he turned to the sub-district ofce of the
Ministry of Agriculture, where stafers suggested he consider
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pursuing a mixture of crops on his land as a way of ensuring
that, even if the price of one commodity fell, he might still
have another whose price might remain the same or even
rise. A natural organizer, he put together a group of eight
local farmers who began to attend seminars presented at
the sub-district agriculture ofce. All eight were given – free
of charge – 10 diferent kinds of fruit to try growing on their
land and seedlings for 10 diferent kinds of trees, including
jackfruit, mango, lime, and coconut trees.
Six years later, he was happy with the results so far, but
looking for ways to farm even more efciently. Samrong
stepped up his exploration of new approaches by joining the
Huai Sai Royal Development Study Center, one of six such
centers located around the country that, starting in
the early 1980s, have been founded at the direction of
King Bhumibol.
Huai Sai’ s primary focus has been on multiple-use
reforestation and the use of vetiver grass to restore soil
arability, but it too promotes the New Theory. Samrong
attended multiple seminars about how to produce and
use organic fertilizer, and how to produce organic fuel, among
others. As in 1995, he was also provided with seeds and
seedlings for new crops and trees. Not long after, he expanded
his integrated agricultural approach to include livestock,
including pigs, cows and chickens. Besides home-made
fertilizer, he also uses the manure they produce to make
his own methane for use in cooking, a surprisingly simple
operation that involves little more than a 20-foot long
enclosure of manure sealed under a tarp that is connected
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to a hose at one end that feeds into the kitchen at the back
of his house.
Today, his 33 rai of land is divided up proportionally
according to the dictates of the New Theory: 10 percent is
used for his house and other outbuildings, including sheds
for his livestock; 30 percent is used for his holding pond –
which this year he is deepening, a response to the drought
currently aficting the area; 30 percent is under cultivation
with rice; and the fnal 30 percent is devoted to his vegetables
and orchards.
Since converting to integrated agriculture, Samrong has
won numerous prizes. The one he is perhaps proudest of is
directly related to the work pioneered at the Huai Sai Royal
Development Study Center: a First Prize from the Chaipattana
Foundation for his use of vetiver grass to improve the quality
of the soil on his farm and retain moisture during dry years,
like the current one. Over the past 10 years he has planted
vetiver everywhere the soil on his farm needed rejuvenating.
“It’s a miracle crop,” he declares. “The roots go deep into the
ground and retrieve all the moisture that’s down there. And
if you grow it close together it also protects against erosion.”
What is more, he points out, the stalks of the vetiver make
good forage for his livestock.
In recent years, Samrong has come to see himself as a role
model for his neighbors, calling his farm “a kind of
workshop for local farmers.” In cooperation with the
agricultural sub-district ofce and the local co-op bank, he
now conducts at least 10 three-day seminars a year at his
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property, each of which attracts about 80 participants who
come to learn everything from how to use vetiver to restore
their land to how to produce organic fertilizer and the wood
vinegar that Samrong uses in place of inorganic pesticides –
his entire operation is now organic.
“I see myself as a resource person who is now devoting
himself to His Majesty to share my experiences with others
and spread the word about the New Theory,” he says. In
addition to hosting seminars for other Thai farmers, his
farm has also been visited from delegations from more than
10 countries, including not just nations in Southeast Asia,
but from Japan and the United States as well.
Samrong also calls himself “a happy man,” and not just
because he has pulled himself out of debt, earned awards
for his farming, and has, as he says, “plenty to eat” when he
is hungry.
The good fortune that has attended his transition to King
Bhumibol’s theories about agriculture has also made it
possible to gather his family nearby. His youngest son lives
and works with him on his farm and he has also created plots
of land for his other children to farm, giving them some of
his own land while also acquiring more land adjacent to his
own property. “Now each is farming 15 rai with integrated
agriculture,” he says, “and can visit me on a daily basis,
usually for dinner. It’s all I could ever ask for.”
* * *
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The Check Dam Project, one of the oldest of the ongoing
Royal Development Projects, and the Royal Project touched
upon at the beginning of the book provide further examples
of how initiatives set in motion by King Bhumibol tend to
evolve over time in response to new information and
changing local conditions and needs.
Born to address the widespread deforestation of watersheds
in the mountainous north, which is also the site of the
headwaters for almost all of Thailand’s most important
rivers, the Check Dam Project’s long-range objective has
been to create inexpensive ways to divert excessive runof
with tools that are made mostly from local materials. Begun
in 1978, it looks to traditional technology for inspiration, like
the use of bamboo pipes by Thai farmers for irrigation and
diversion. It also helps install semi-permanent dams made
of uncut stone and permanent ones constructed from
reinforced concrete. Altogether, since the dam project’s
inception, the royal development center that serves the
northern region has built some 400 large and medium-sized
check dams and more than 10,000 small dams throughout
the region.
The results have been more than encouraging. The increase
in water held in place in the forested highlands as well as
the mitigation of erosion has increased both the variety and
density of trees per rai – up from 35 diferent kinds of trees
and a density of 117 trees per rai to more than 81 diferent
varieties and a density of almost 250 trees per rai.
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In addition to the work of installing check dams carried out
by the Royal Development Project itself, the campaign has
also inspired private corporations and NGOs to lead the
way in building other dams. Over the past 30 years, these
organizations have made possible some 110,000 small dams
and dikes, another 5,000 semi-permanent dams and 2,000
permanent dams. Some two dozen primary watersheds have
been improved and forests restored around the country. The
project, then, has been particularly successful in inspiring a
sense of corporate social responsibility – to the King, one of
the keys to Thailand’s sustainable development – and in doing
so has also helped bridge the urban rural gap.
* * *
Ofcially founded in 1969, The Royal Project was placed
under the administration of The Royal Project Foundation.
As mentioned earlier, Prince Bhisadej Rajani played a key
role in establishing the Royal Project, acting as an advance
scout for the King in highland areas, then taking over as
director of the initiative.
As the Prince has said, the initial purpose of The Royal Project
was “to fnd cold weather plants to grow on the mountains,”
with the aim of eventually supplanting opium production.
Relying at frst on a variety of sources, from local residents
to experts from Kasetsart University and elsewhere, over its
40 years of existence the initiative has developed a body of
research fndings that themselves are now being published
in papers and textbooks for future generations to build on.
Through it all, in the Prince’s words, in addition to carrying out
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feldwork and research himself, King Bhumibol made it easier
to get work done “by curtailing hierarchical procedures and
eliminating unnecessary red tape” – an objective made much
more achievable given the King’s position in Thai society.
One of the earliest focuses of the Royal Project was the
cultivation of strawberries to be grown by hill tribes in the
region of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. Within
twenty years, farmers who planted the crop were earning twice
the country’s annual average per capita income. The success
of that initiative, in turn, gave rise to the transformation of
the Ang Khang Valley by the Royal Agricultural Research
Station from a place where opium planting was rampant to
one now covered in temperate zone vegetables like beans,
potatoes, corn and wheat and fruit like Chinese peaches and
pears, persimmons, plums, grapes, passion fruit, kiwi,
pomegranates, raspberries, blueberries and fgs. In addition,
under leadership of the Royal Forestry Department, the
regions around Ang Khang and other uplands have seen
the planting of stands of fast-growing trees like acadias,
pines, and cedars that now blanket – and hold in place – slopes
that had been stripped bare by logging and slash-and-burn
farming. In its earlier years, the Royal Project was also active
in providing health and nutritional services and training to
the hill tribes, building roads and other forms of critical
infrastructure, establishing primary schools and medical
care, especially to combat the widespread opium addiction
that once prevailed in the region.
Today, the Royal Project Foundation operates four research
stations and 38 royal development centers in the northern
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provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Phayao,
and Lamphun. Together they are helping some 150,000
people, including members of 13 hill tribes, to convert 150,000
rai of land to the cultivation of plants and breeding of
livestock suited to the area’s environment. From those
crops and animals, it is estimated that the participants in
the project collectively earn about 450 million baht per year
with annual household income from those earnings of about
70,000 baht per year.
In 1985, the Royal Project set up a marketing and distribution
arm that buys directly from the farmers at market prices, less
transportation costs, and brings the products to processing
centers in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. There are now three small
canning and packaging plants, the one we visited in Ban Yang,
and two more, one called the Doi Kham Food Processing
factory located in Mae Chan in Chiang Rai, the other at
Chiang Mai University. The foundation also distributes
products from the north using its own brand-names:
“Doi Kham” for processed foods and “Royal Project” on
fresh produce. Thai Airways International serves things
grown and raised by participants in The Royal Project,
as do a number of five-star luxury hotels in Bangkok,
including rainbow trout – one of the latest products
emanating from the north.
As for the opium the Royal Project was designed to supplant,
in 2003, the Colombo Plan Drug Advisory Programme, an
organization dedicated to eliminating illegal drugs in East
Asia and the western Pacifc, bestowed its Colombo Plan
Award on Thailand for being the only country in the world to
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have brought an end to opium production within its borders
through economic incentives and development assistance.
* * *
Besides the royal projects themselves, the King also initiated
the establishment of six “Royal Development Study Centers”
like the one Samrong Tangplub turned to for advise, seeds,
and starter livestock and fsh. Envisioned as a kind of one-
stop-service center for farmers and others who want to apply
the lessons learned from the royal projects on their own lands,
each center ofers classes and informational sessions in what
are called living natural museums. The earliest of the centers
was established by the King in 1979, the most recent in 1983,
though each is continually upgraded with new equipment
and programming. Wherever they are located, each of the six
centers focus on soil, water, environmental, health, economic,
and development issues germane to the region where they are
headquartered. In addition to the Huai Sai Royal Development
Study Center in the southwest of Thailand, there are fve other
centers, each tailored to the unique ecosystem of the region
of the country in which they are located.
Typical of these centers is the Phuphan Royal Development
Study Center, which opened in late 1982 and is located in the
Mueang district, in Sakon Nakhon Province, near the
northeastern edge of Isan. There, the biggest problems are
poverty, fooding and widespread erosion so the Phuphan
center focuses on development ideas that address each of
these issues. These include subjects like animal husbandry,
soil improvement, fisheries, forest ecology, cash crop
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cultivation, and the promotion of agricultural related
occupations like textile weaving and other cottage industries
whose products can be a rich source of income for farmers
and villagers in the region.
On a cool afternoon in January, Dr. Wisut Auekingpetch,
a veterinarian who is the acting chief of the livestock section
at the Phuphan Royal Development Study Center, shows of
the Phuphan black pig. A cross between a breed of pig from
China donated to the center about 20 years ago by Princess
Maha Chakri Sirindhorn with several native breeds, the new
breed was developed seven years ago. At the moment, Dr.
Wisut is pointing out the unique characteristics that have
made the Phuphan black pig a favorite among farmers in
Isan’s Sakon Nakhon Province.
“More than 50 percent of a pig’s weight is fat,” he explains.
“That cuts into profts. So we worked on reducing the fat and
then worked on improving the animals’ aesthetics by crossing
it with a local breed that had less back fat and a face that was
more attractive to local people.”
The result? “Black skin, small ears, a nice smile,” Dr. Wisut
says with justifable pride. “Plus it has more meat and is easy to
keep. It’s a good breed for both small and commercial farms.”
Besides being lean and pleasant to look at, the Phuphan
black pig has large litters and can forage anywhere, accord-
ing to Dr. Wisut.
Pigs are not the only black species of livestock Dr. Wisut has
helped breed at the center: there is also a black breed of cattle
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and three of chicken. Each is promoted using principles laid
down by King Bhumibol for the development or adaptation
of animals and crops for use by farmers in Thailand: the
animals must be easy to raise; fodder for the animals should
be easy to fnd or raise; the animals must be truly adapted
to the local climate; all experiments on the animals must be
completed before it is released for public use; and if farmers
follow proper care and feeding of the animals, they will
realize at least a modest proft.
Some 100,000 people visit the Phuphan site every year; about
half are students studying some aspects of agronomy or food
production; the rest are farmers. Besides being sites of
experimentation, the Royal Development Study Centers
were envisioned by the King as learning centers, ofering
models farmers can employ on their own holdings (in fact,
there is a 15-rai model organic farm at the Phuphan center) as
well as training sessions and classes. Twice a year, Phuphan
puts on three training programs, for chicken, pigs and cattle.
Similar programs are ofered in horticulture, mushrooms, silk
worms, food processing, rubber plants, fsh, and, of course,
rice cultivation. All the on-site training is presented free-of-
charge. Like other centers, Phuphan also has a livestock
“loan” program, as Dr. Wisut explains. “Farmers can borrow
up to fve chickens and pigs and then return them at a later
time.” He smiles. “Of course the animals they return are
not necessarily the ones they borrowed. They are often
descendents of the animals they borrow and used to breed
their own stock.”
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The efect has been potent. Phuphan chickens are now one
of the top three breeds in Thailand, while the black pigs are
ubiquitous in the surrounding areas. And though the black
breed of cattle has only been available for a couple of years,
more than 700 farms in the region are now raising the breed
developed at the center.
“We don’t try to change the farmer’s lifestyle, but to promote
breeds that can get better profts and are easy to raise,” says
Dr. Wisut. “We who were born in Isan know that livestock up
here are treated almost like pets. This is perhaps one of the
easiest regions in the country for working with farmers on
projects like this.”
As with other Royal Development Study Centers, Phuphan
is also in the business of promoting household, or cottage,
industries that, at the very least, can become the source of
tools, clothing and other essentials for use around a house or in
some cases become the source of outside income – in the case
of particularly talented artisans, this income can even evolve
into the primary source of household income. In keeping with
this objective, the center ofers training courses in a wide range
of skills, from making tools, to building looms, to weaving, to
batik-making, cloth dyeing, to furniture-making. The real time
efects of this training can be witnessed just outside the gates
of the Phuphan Royal Development Study Center in a small
Isan village, Na Nok Koa.
One evening, for example, on the open ground foor of a
wooden house in Na Nok Koa, several women who are
members of a weaving co-op employ natural dye made from
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indigo to impart a deep blue color to the cotton scarves and
shawls the co-op members created by hand. Organized by
Bang-orn Wangsida, 42 – it is the ground foor of her house
where the women gather to work – the co-op was founded
two years ago. Like other members of the co-op, she has been
weaving for most of her life but, also like other co-op members,
she was experiencing health issues because of the use of and
exposure to artifcial dyes.
“Then we learned about indigo dye from the study center,”
she says. “We began using it to dye textiles for our domestic
use, but then people started coming to the village to purchase
things!”
Bang-orn set up a small shop in her house to handle the
commercial trade, but is still very active in the dying and
weaving herself.
Using natural dyes like indigo involves a much more complex
process than is the case with artifcial dyes. At the Phuphan
center the co-op members learned the proper method for
allowing the freshly picked indigo to ferment, and then how
to mix it with water and lime from ash and tamarind juice to
bring the concoction to the proper pH needed to fx the dye
on a skein of cotton. At any given time, Bang-orn’s shop has
a dozen ceramic containers flled with the dye – the dye in
a container can only be used twice per day. “This method is
slower than using artifcial dyes,” she concedes, “but there are
no health issues involved with it – and the work we produce
is far more valuable.”
* * *
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172 King by Virtue King by Virtue 173
The lessons learned and the method of agricultural production
modeled at the Royal Development Study Center also reach
further out into the surrounding countryside. Sometimes,
this happens in ways that refect a fexible, human-scaled
approach that can allow ordinary Thais to completely
transform their lives. Take for example, Ramrai and
Ketkaew Pansandu, a couple who farm a small plot of land a
few miles from the Phupan center.
As recently as 2003, Ramrai and Ketkaew were 90,000 baht
in debt with little prospect of digging out of the hole. But that
was the same year that Ramrai, who had spent the previous
20 years working as a laborer at the Phuphan Royal Develop-
ment Study Center, volunteered to farm 8 rai of nearby land
using integrated agricultural practices – the term used for the
New Theory farming techniques when they are adapted to less
than 15 rai. The property was – and still is – owned by the
Chaipattana Foundation, which struck a deal with Ramrai and
Ketkaew: he works the land and keeps the farm productive,
and he gets to keep any proceeds from the sale of products he
grows on the land. Within three years the couple had cleared
their debt and now earns some 140,000 baht a year from the
sale of rice, vegetables and fruit.
It has been a big turnaround for Ramrai, a native of Isan, who
left the region as a young man to work in an ice factory in
Bangkok. By the time he returned to his native region, he and
his former wife had four children, and Ramrai was drinking
heavily every day. “Everything I earned I spent on liquor,”
he confesses. When he was hired by the Phupan Royal
Development Study Center, he and his family were down
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174 King by Virtue King by Virtue 175
to their last 25 baht. That first year with the center, he
earned 50 baht a day – but he also gave up drinking.
Today, he and Ketkaew grow a variety of crops on the land,
which is divided up proportionally according to the New
Theory protocol. They plant vegetables along the rice paddy
and fruit trees on another section of land. They raise Phuphan
black chickens and pigs and seed their artifcial holding pond
with Nil tilapia, catfsh and other species, which they harvest
primarily for their own consumption. In recent years, Ketkaew
has also been reaping a healthy stream of income from her
herb garden and a special herb tea blend that she sells for 100
baht a piece – demand for the blend keeps growing and she
is now seeking certifcation of its health properties from the
Thai government.
With its multitude of crops, some commercial, some for
home use, the farm is very diferent from the one where
Ramrai grew up, and still very diferent from many of the
farms in Isan. “All we grew on our farm was rice,” he recalls.
“We had a big family – seven kids in all – and could hardly
grow enough for our own consumption, let alone to sell
any of the rice for money.”
As with other Royal Development Study Centers, Phuphan
spreads knowledge about innovative farming techniques
through a system of satellite villages – 32 in all in the case of
Phuphan – that surround the center. And now Ramrai
himself has become a medium for spreading the word,
with some 24 families in his area coming to him for advice
and instruction.
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174 King by Virtue King by Virtue 175
“At frst, there wasn’t much interest,” he says. “But then
about three years ago, people around here began to see how
we were prospering and began to come by for suggestions
on crops and land preparations and fertilizers.” After these
consultations, he writes a memo recapping his advice, which
the local farmers can bring to Phuphan Royal Development
Study Center to receive seeds and fsh fngerlings and other
provisions free of charge.
One of Ramrai’s clients lives right next door – a family that
has, following his advice, transformed their 3 rai of land from
producing nothing but rice into an integrated agriculture site
that now also includes a small fsh pond, a row of banana
trees along one edge of the property and in the shade of those
trees, mango, lychee and jackfruit saplings. At the back of the
property, which borders on a stream, he has advised them to
plant a row of tall trees like teak.
Feedback from the neighbors – as with other families he has
mentored over the past few years – has been positive, which
makes Ramrai happy. “It pleases me to pass what I have
learned on to other people,” he says. “I want to see others
prosper as I have.”
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176 King by Virtue King by Virtue 177
Demonstration plot for land allocation under
the principles of ‘the New Theory’.
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176 King by Virtue King by Virtue 177
A New Theory for
Sustainable Agriculture
At frst blush, the area around Wat Mongkhon Chaipattana
looks like a communal farm on the outskirts of a village – an
impression strengthened by the presence of the wat on one
side of the cleared land. The plot of land measures about
32 rai – about 13 acres – and sits on gently rolling terrain in
the midst of the bucolic countryside of Saraburi Province,
perhaps the prototype of central Thailand’s agricultural
region.
Late on a warm July morning, bamboo groves here wave in
the breeze and tall trees line the western banks of a small
reservoir and shade leafy paths that march off to other
adjoining properties. Bags of organic compost form a
gleaming white wall near one of several outbuildings. A worker
in a straw hat grins as he passes by pushing a so-called
“mechanical bufalo” – a Thai innovation that is a long-
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178 King by Virtue King by Virtue 179
handled power cultivator ideal for working rice paddies or
felds. Other workers hoe rows of pole beans while one, armed
with a wide wooden rake, collects harvested vetiver grass
from between the trees of a small orchard. Near the wat is a
collection of buildings that include a long storage structure
made of concrete. At the southern edge of the property is a
farmhouse that, unlike traditional houses in this and other
parts of Thailand, sits on the ground.
On further inspection, it becomes clear that this is not an
everyday farm. For one, a row of sunken rice fields lies
fallow, the soil deep in alfalfa. And the concrete building is
not typical of a smallholder’s farm. It is a combination of
classroom and visitors center here at what is ofcially known
as the Royally-Initiated Wat Mongkhon Chaipattanna Area
Development Project, which was started in 1988 on a plot of
land and then expanded fve years later to its current size.
Funded by The Chaipattana Foundation, Wat Mongkhon
Chaipattana is managed by the Lopburi Agricultural Research
and Development Center. Over the past two decades the site
has been transformed into a showcase for The New Theory
of agriculture that King Bhumibol frst broached in the early
1990s and has elaborated on over the years since. Today,
the New Theory is a fully articulated and detailed rubric for
transforming farming in Thailand, a nation in which the vast
majority of holdings are small – averaging 15 rai or less –
and where all of the farms are operating in a tropical
environment governed by the monsoon cycles that alternate
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178 King by Virtue King by Virtue 179
several months of daily rain with several months when it
barely rains at all – several months, in other words, in which
downpours often trigger fooding and soil erosion, followed
by several months of drought or near-drought conditions.
It is a difficult environment in which to operate and it
has been made even more so as the country has grown
increasingly urbanized and globalized. Both of these
infuences have led farmers to move away from subsistence
agriculture into a cash crop monoculture centered on
jasmine rice, known in Thailand as “fragrant” rice, the
variety of rice that yields the highest price among wholesalers
at home and abroad.
Although the King only began using the term “The New
Theory” in the early 1990s, its roots go back much further
in the development of his thinking about agriculture – and
the future of Thai culture. As a boy he had helped his mother
tend the fower and vegetable gardens at the villa outside
Lausanne where he spent many years as a child – gardens in
which she practiced a kind of intuitive form of sustainable
agriculture, taking care to plant only trees, flowers, and
vegetables adapted to the Swiss climate and then only in
spots where the soil, light, and drainage were suitable. In the
early 1970s, His Majesty became interested in the theories
of Bill Mollison, an Australian agronomist who has become
known as the “Father of Permaculture,” which Mollison
described as a “conscious design of self-sustaining
agricultural landscapes.” That the King found Mollison’s
ideas attractive should come as no surprise, since permacul-
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180 King by Virtue King by Virtue 181
ture is, at heart, an approach to farming that embraces
the very Buddhist idea of the interconnectedness of
everything, stressing the need to take a holistic approach
to farming that encompasses land use, ecology, hydrology,
and laws governing land ownership. At ground level,
permaculture calls for management practices that include
things like using livestock for multiple purposes, such as
weed and insect control, and production of fertilizer, and
crop rotation as a means of restoring nutrients to the
ground and reducing erosion by increasing the ability of
the soil to hold and retain water.
Permaculture was, in essence, what the King had been promot-
ing since the beginning of the Royal Project but the issue took
on greater urgency as Thailand’s economy accelerated in the
1970s and 1980s and the country emerged as one of the fastest
growing of the so-called Asian Tigers. Economic growth led
to increased stress on Thailand’s resources, in particular its
farmland. In turn that stress was aggravated by the country’s
simultaneous embrace of the so-called “Green Revolution”
that promoted the consolidation of farmland, heavy
applications of petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and
herbicides, an increasingly narrow monoculture focusing
not only on a small number of cash crops but an even more
restricted choice of high yield varieties of those crops, and
the use of heavy, mechanized equipment as the key to bigger
harvests at lower costs. As elsewhere, the Green Revolution
delivered on its promise, at least in the short term. In the long
term, it also delivered widespread pollution, soil erosion, and
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180 King by Virtue King by Virtue 181
the destruction of biodiversity in pursuit of more and more
crop production.
The problems caused by the Green Revolution were perhaps
even more pronounced in Thailand than in other parts of the
world, for reasons particular to the country’s climate and soil.
Only 22 percent of Thai farmland is irrigated – by contrast, in
Japan some 60 percent of arable land is irrigated – meaning
Thai farmers are largely dependent upon the monsoon rains
to water their crops. Under those conditions, monoculture and
heavy equipment aggravated the problem of soil erosion, as
did the destruction of forests and wetlands and their
conversion into farmland.
By the end of the 1980s, only a tiny fraction of Thailand’s
millions of rai of farmland was pesticide-free, with only some
0.4 percent of Thai farms practicing some form of sustainable
agriculture. The situation was aggravated by government
promotion of an export-oriented agricultural system as
a means of prompting rapid growth of the country’s Gross
Domestic Product. During those years, Thailand’s GDP
certainly did escalate, its growth rate one of the fastest in
the world. At the same time, the economic promise of the
Green Revolution clearly passed Thai farmers by, with
average farm income remaining stagnant at less than $900
per year even as the rest of the economy boomed.
The New Theory was the King’s response to this unsustainable
situation. As the King himself said in 1995 in a statement
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182 King by Virtue King by Virtue 183
typical of him for its informal, though informative tone,
and attention to detail clearly borne of research and
personal knowledge, “…I devised the New Theory so that
people will be in a position of self-sufciency in agriculture.
In any year, when water is adequate, they will be able to
plant their usual crops or have what is called their annual
rice crop. If, after that, in the dry season, water becomes
scarce, they will still be able to use the water that has been
saved in the pond in their own plot of land to cultivate any
crop or even a second rice crop. They will not have to
depend too heavily on the main irrigation system because
they have their own supply. Moreover, they will be able to
plant vegetables or raise fsh, or do other things.”*
Water, as might be expected in a country that oscillates
between feast and famine, is at the heart of the objectives of
the New Theory to create a sustainable agricultural sector.
While the temple and classrooms at Wat Mongkhon
Chaipattana may anchor the spiritual needs of the Saraburi
project, its practical point of departure is the man-made
pond on the far side of the compound. There, water collected
from a reservoir at a nearby dam feeds other smaller
reservoirs that in turn feed water to the pond through a system
of pipelines, effectively tripling what the storage pond
would hold during the course of a year relying solely on
localized rainfall.
............................................
*Royal address given at Chitralada Villa, 4 December 1995.
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182 King by Virtue King by Virtue 183
The New Theory is particular to Thailand, geared toward the
15-rai farms that are the backbone of the country’s farming
sector, though aspects of its philosophy could be applied
anywhere in the world, based as it is upon the basic idea of
balance and harmony. As such, it is not only a model for the
operation of farms, but for society as a whole – a connection
that would become even more apparent a few years later
when the King went on to outline his vision of what he calls
the Sufciency Economy.
In essence, the New Theory begins with the idea that small
farms should be divided into four parts at a ratio of roughly
30:30:30:10. From that division of land, a farm needs to be
able to produce enough rice to feed the family living on the
farm and to bring in outside income, as well as manage water
supply to avoid drought or fooding, and run livestock and
have other plantings that also help nourish the owners of the
farm while at the same time restoring nutrients to the soil.
A typical 15-rai farm, then, would have 5 rai for rice paddies,
5 rai for feld crops, herbs and vegetables or diferent kinds
of trees – fruit trees, perennial trees, trees for construction
or frewood – 3 rai for a pond that needs to be 4 meters deep
and have a storage capacity of 19,000 cubic meters of water,
or enough to carry the farm through the long dry season, and
another 2 rai set aside for a house, levees between rice paddies,
pathways, compost sites, storage shed or other outbuildings
for chickens and livestock. Of all these sections, the pond may
be the most critical.
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184 King by Virtue King by Virtue 185
This division of land, however, comprises only the frst step in
a fully-realized New Theory farm. The New Theory also calls
for the formation of farmers’ co-ops, essentially recreating a
kind of village economy, in which neighbors share the work
of production, marketing, and building houses and
outbuildings on each other’s property. Lastly, the New Theory
calls upon farmers to join together to raise capital from
banks or private sources with which to develop their land –
provided, of course, it is done so in a sustainable way.
Returning to Wat Mongkhon Chaipattana we can see how the
New Theory works out in practice, at least at a model site.
The project employs six local residents to work its 32 rai, each
of the workers earning 200 baht a day – not munifcent but a
living wage income in rural Thailand. Under the management
of Amnaj Khammalai, who holds a degree in agriculture and
was a researcher at the Lopburi Agricultural Research and
Development Center before coming to work at Wat
Mongkhon Chaipattana some 20 years ago, the farm
produces about 3,600 kilograms of rice from the fve rai
under cultivation, 500 kilograms of krathon, a fruit popular
around the tropics, grapefruit, apples, mangoes and smaller
mixtures of other kinds of fruits and vegetables – more than
enough to sustain a farm family and to produce enough
jasmine rice to earn income and investment capital.
Just as important, in Amnaj’s eyes, the project provides a
model for something more essential than a well-run farm.
“Each plot of land is a microcosm of a society in balance,”
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184 King by Virtue King by Virtue 185
he says. “Every farm is a building block of a harmonious
society. The means and the ends must be identical. You
cannot build a peaceful harmonious society on the basis of a
non-sustainable agricultural system.”
Not long after promulgating his New Theory, King Bhumibol
would elaborate a vision of what it takes to create not just a
peaceful, harmonious countryside but an entire nation.
His Majesty did so in his new version of a classic Buddhist
text published on the eve of the economic crash that would
rattle the country’s faith in unregulated free market global
capitalism as the best path for Thailand’s national develop-
ment.
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186 King by Virtue King by Virtue 187
Mahajanaka’s book cover illustration.
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186 King by Virtue King by Virtue 187
The Mahajanaka and
Sufciency Economy Philosophy
The Jataka is a collection of stories about the Buddha’s
prior reincarnations before his last lifetime and achievement
of enlightenment and release from the cycle of rebirth and
sufering. Of these tales, the most popular are the stories of
the last 10 of his reincarnations.
For obvious reasons, the most popular of these 10 stories
is the last one narrating the Buddha’ s penultimate
reincarnation as a Prince who demonstrates generosity
and non-attachment by giving his beloved children away to
a childless beggar. So it was something of a curiosity that
when it came to choosing which of the tales to update and
write King Bhumibol chose the Mahajanaka, the story of only
the second of the fnal 10 reincarnations. As it turned out,
the choice was not so surprising.
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188 King by Virtue King by Virtue 189
According to the King’s preface his interest in the Mahajanaka
was inspired by a sermon about the story delivered by a
senior monk at a wat in Bangkok. From that sermon, the
King took away the idea that the story had important things
to say even – or especially – today to the citizens of Thailand.
Over the next decade, His Majesty says, he studied and
refected upon the story and, in 1988, sat down and began
writing his own version of it, first in Thai and then
translating the Thai rendition into English.
This was not the frst or the last book that King Bhumibol
would undertake to write or translate. By the time His
Majesty began work on his own version of the Mahajanaka,
His Majesty had already translated both a biography of Tito
and a British spy novel into Thai, both of which His Majesty
perceived as offering commentary or insight into Thai
history and its position in the world. More recently the
King published an immensely popular illustrated book
about his dog, Thongdaeng; ever the teacher, the King used
this simple story of the love and loyalty between master and
companion animal to suggest important lessons about life.
But his version of the Mahajanaka may represent the
epitome of his literary achievements. The book, lavishly
illustrated by a number of artists, was finally published
in 1996 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of King
Bhumibol’s reign.
Mahajanaka’s moral lessons are embodied in a story of armed
confict between brothers, divine interventions, and other
exotic elements, but at heart the story is a simple one.
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188 King by Virtue King by Virtue 189
In the city of Mithila, an elderly king by the name of
Mahajanaka appoints his oldest son, Aritthajanaka, successor
to the throne and his younger son, Polajanaka, chief minister.
Upon the king’s death, his older son begins to suspect that his
brother Polajanaka is plotting against him and has him locked
up. The charges are untrue and on the basis of his virtue the
young prince escapes by magically snapping his chains and
fees to the frontier where he raises an army and marches on
Mithila, his older brother’s paranoia bringing his worst fears
to life.
When Polajanaka issues an ultimatum to Aritthajanaka that
he either cede the throne or face a battle to the death, the
king chooses the latter and is slain. When she hears word of
what happened, his queen – who is now pregnant – gathers
up some valuables in a basket, dresses in rags and fees. Her
destination is the distant city of Kalachampaka to which she
is transported by Indra, the King of the Gods after he divines
that the child she is carrying in her womb is destined to do
great things.
Soon after arriving in Kalachampaka, the radiant young queen
is spotted by a prominent Brahman guru who, transfxed by
the power radiated by her still unborn child, decides that she
is his younger sister and takes her into his home for
safekeeping. In a few months time, the queen gives birth,
naming her son Mahajanaka after his grandfather.
When he reaches manhood he convinces his mother to let
him take half of the valuables that she was able to spirit away
when she fed Mithila so that he might trade them overseas in
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190 King by Virtue King by Virtue 191
the land of Suvarnabhumi. With the wealth he is sure he will
return with, he plans to retake the throne of Mithila.
After seven days at sea, the ship he has boarded with hundreds
of other merchants is swamped by a gigantic wave. While all
the other passengers moan and lament their fate, Mahajanaka
climbs to the top of the mast. While the other merchants are
being consumed by a host of sea animals, Mahajanaka faces
back toward Mithila and leaps more than 200 yards out into
the water, far past the creatures still feasting on his former
shipmates. Meanwhile, on the day Mahajanaka sets out for
Suvarnabhumi, his uncle King Polajanaka falls ill and takes
to his bed, never to rise again. His death takes place at the
same time as Mahajanaka’s heroic leap from the mast of the
doomed ship.
Mahajanaka swims for seven days without catching a glimpse
of land before his plight is fnally noticed by Mani Mekhala, a
goddess responsible for keeping watch over virtuous creatures.
She swoops down and hovers over Mahajanaka who has not
tired or despaired despite the time he has spent in the water.
After satisfying her of his determination to persist even if his
quest to reach land is doomed to fail, she fetches him from
the water and carries him to Mithila, telling him just before
he falls asleep in her arms that one day he needs to establish
an institute of higher learning where he can share the wisdom
he has acquired in the course of life’s journey.
Before dying, King Polajanaka leaves instructions about
succession to the throne. Because he has no son, he tells his
ministers of state that they should appoint a man who either
pleases the King’s only child, his daughter Sivali Deli, or who
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190 King by Virtue King by Virtue 191
can perform any of several mighty feats. It never occurs to him
that there may be a man, Mahajanaka, who is about to show
up in the city and is capable of performing both tasks.
Soon Mahajanaka is crowned king of Mithila where he
remembers the lessons of persistence he has learned in the
sea and rules as a Righteous King. One day after the birth of
his son, he goes to visit the Royal Park to witness the source
of the delicious fruit he is served each day. At the entrance to
the park, he discovers two mango trees: one heavy with fruit,
the other barren, but otherwise healthy. Before entering the
park the King tastes one of the mangoes, vowing to eat more
of the fruit when he comes back out.
But before that can happen, his retinue attacks the
fruit-bearing tree, stripping it of mangoes. They are
followed by an even more unruly mob that uses sticks to break
the branches and soon succeeds in uprooting the tree.
Discovering what has happened, the King draws the lesson
that a peaceful retirement from the throne will allow him to
live an undisturbed life, like the mango that bears no fruit,
while continuing to reign would expose him to mortal danger,
as with the fruitful mango. In that moment, he decides to
abdicate and pursue the life of a wandering ascetic.
But here King Bhumibol’s version deviates sharply from
the traditional narrative, which indeed shows Mahajanaka
following through on his resolve to leave royal life behind. In
King Bhumibol’s version, Mahajanaka retires to his palace
where he remembers Mani Mekhala’s admonition that he
would only know true happiness if he shared his wisdom with
others. He goes on to establish an institution dedicated to
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192 King by Virtue King by Virtue 193
disseminating wisdom and knowledge. He also determines to
fnd a way to revive the mango tree that has been denuded and
uprooted by the greed and heedlessness of his followers.
Under King Mahajanaka’s righteous leadership, Mithila
emerges as a harmonious society with enough for all to enjoy
a level of material well-being without overtaxing resources.
The book closes with several spreads of arresting artwork
illustrating the structure of an orderly, virtuous society
governed by a universally accepted objective of achieving
and maintaining harmony for all. That harmony is achieved
by the application of a virtuous middle path mentality to every
segment of society, from the individual on up to the state
itself, and in every economic segment, from small farms
up to large manufacturing facilities. Mithila, then, is King
Bhumibol’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, the kind of
nation he would like Thailand to become – and could
conceivably become – if it were to embrace the lessons
contained in Mahajanaka.
It was a propitious moment for the message contained in
the King’s book. The following spring, the economies of the
so-called Asian Tigers, which by now included Thailand,
collapsed following Thailand’s decision to no longer fx the
dollar value of its national currency, and more than a
decade of unprecedented economic growth – and unbridled
borrowing and real estate speculation – came grinding to a
halt. The nation’s Gross Domestic Product, which had been
growing an average of 7 percent a year for the past 40 years,
plummeted by more than 15 percent. Suddenly, the dangers
posed to the country by the forces of globalization and
fnancial speculation – dangers the King had been warning
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192 King by Virtue King by Virtue 193
about for years – were made manifest. A chastened Thailand
found itself in the mood to heed King Bhumibol’s message
of a middle path to growth and prosperity, which in his
birthday message at the end of 1997 His Majesty now
christened the Sufciency Economy.
“Recently,” His Majesty told a televised audience from
Chitralada Villa, “so many projects have been implemented,
so many factories have been built, that it was thought Thailand
would become a little tiger, and then a big tiger. People were
crazy about becoming a tiger… Being a tiger is not important.
The important thing for us is to have a Sufciency Economy.
A Sufciency Economy means to have enough to support
ourselves….Those who like modern economic theories may
not appreciate this. But we have to take a careful step
backward.”*
For a king – or any head of state, for that matter – to suggest
that a country should take a step backward, whether
carefully or not, was unprecedented, to say the least. The
King, however, made clear that by “Sufciency Economy”
he was not advocating some kind of hopeless ideal of achieving
an austere and self-punitive autarky – complete self-
sufciency – as has been the case in North Korea or Myanmar –
but a middle path, very much in the Buddhist tradition,
striking a balance between craving too much and having too
little.
“A self-sufcient economy doesn’t mean that each family must
produce its own food, or weave and sew its own clothes,”
His Majesty went on to say in his 1997 birthday address.
............................................
*Royal address given at Chitralada Villa, 4 December 1997.
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194 King by Virtue King by Virtue 195
“This is going too far, but I mean that each village or district
must have relative self-sufficiency. Things that are
produced in surplus can be sold, but should be sold in the
same region, not too far so that the transportation cost is
minimized.”*
Says Phra Anil Sakya, an assistant secretary to the Supreme
Patriarch of the Thai sangha, “The whole idea of the
Sufficiency Economy is to address the root cause of
sufering, which is craving, and to promote contentment.
Contentment is key to the Sufficiency Economy, but of
course, contentment is contextual. If you have fve baht and
that is enough, you are content. But if cofee costs 10 baht and
you want cofee, then you are not content.” Buddhism, Phra
Anil points out, is not inimical to capitalism – the religion is
not about curbing productivity, but about mastering desire.
If the country was not ready to heed the King’s birthday
message that year it certainly was not the frst time he had
issued similar notes of caution and restraint. Until 1997,
however, those cautionary notes were all but drowned out
by the spectacular – and apparently limitless – growth of the
Thai economy.
When King Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946, Thailand
was by any measure a poor country. Per capita income was
about $200 a year. The overwhelming majority of the
country’s population was just barely eking out a living on the
land, mostly through the production of rice, teak, and tin.
Rural infrastructure was primitive or non-existent. Tropical
diseases like malaria, yaws and leprosy afected vast areas
............................................
*Royal address given at Chitralada Villa, 4 December 1997.
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194 King by Virtue King by Virtue 195
of the country, limiting life expectancy, as did disorders like
goiter and beriberi caused by malnutrition and vitamin
defciencies. Bangkok, at the same time, was a medium-sized
city of just under one million people still recovering from
the hardships and deprivation wrought by the Second World
War.
Since then, Thailand’s Gross Domestic Product had grown
at an average rate of 7.6 percent – and sometimes rose into
double digits. By the time of the 1997 crash, the country’s
GDP was seven times larger than it had been in 1957. The
poverty rate dropped dramatically during the same time and
life expectancy expanded as the country made rapid progress
in nutrition and health care.
But even as successive governments continued to implement
economic policies designed to stimulate foreign investment
and industrial exports, there were some who began to question
the cost of the overheated growth and to ask if there might
not be more sustainable, even if somewhat slower, ways to
achieve a more even pace of development.
The earliest of those voices was of King Bhumibol himself,
who from the beginning questioned the headlong rush to
transform Thailand’s age-old agriculturally-based economy
into one based on industry geared toward export. In 1960,
His Majesty emphasized this fact – and the need to help
farmers frst – in a graduation speech at Kasetsart University;
in these early years, His Majesty often used graduation
speeches as venues for his analysis of economic and other
issues. His Majesty said, “Thailand’s economy mostly
depends on agriculture. Thus you must always bear this
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196 King by Virtue King by Virtue 197
fact in mind, and help our country’s farmers to prosper and
progress quickly.”*
The King, of course, was not speaking in the abstract but on
the basis of his own personal experience trying to help rural
people through his royal development projects. “Development
of the country must proceed in stages,” His Majesty said
in 1974. “First of all there must be a foundation with the
majority of the people having enough to live on by using
methods and equipment which are not only economical
but technically correct as well. When such a secure
foundation is adequately ready and operational, then it
can be gradually expanded and developed to raise prosperity
and the economic level by stages.”
“It is especially important,” His Majesty went on, “to build a
foundation in which people have an occupation and the
ability to make a living, as those who have an occupation
and reliable living can then progress upwards to higher
levels of prosperity. The promotion of progress must
proceed in stages with care, economy, and foresight to
prevent mistakes and disasters… If one focuses only
on rapid economic expansion without making sure that
such a plan is appropriate for our people and the conditions
of our country, it will inevitably result in various imbalances
and eventually end up as failure or crisis as found in other
countries.”**
............................................
*Royal address at the Commencement Ceremony at Kasetsart
University, 18 April 1960.
**Royal address at the Commencement Ceremony at Kasetsart
University, 19 July 1974.
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196 King by Virtue King by Virtue 197
By the time King Bhumibol pointed these things out, the
problems associated with Thailand’s rapid growth were
already becoming evident – and would become increasingly
so in the decades ahead. For one thing, contrary to
expectations, and even to the experiences of some of
Thailand’s neighboring countries that were also undergoing
rapid growth, income inequality within the country was
growing signifcantly worse. The great fault line here was
between rural and urban incomes. With the Thai govern-
ment’s almost exclusive emphasis on the development
of industry, investment in agriculture declined precipit-
ously. Exposure to the global market economy meant
that farmers faced growing price volatility – and a long-
term downward trend in commodity prices – even as
the appropriation of more and more natural resources for
industrial uses made it more difcult for people living of the
land to harness the water, fertile soil, and forest products they
needed to survive. As time went on, more and more farmers
left the land to fnd work in the cities, and the families that
stayed behind found themselves steadily earning less for their
cash crops and falling deeper and deeper into debt from
borrowing against future crops to purchase fertilizer,
pesticide, and equipment needed to maintain productivity.
A second major cost of rapid growth was the devastation it
wreaked on the natural environment, particularly Thailand’s
forests and watersheds, but also the country’s soil and water;
beginning with the frst Royal Projects in the north to the New
Theory of farming in the 1990s, King Bhumibol has
repeatedly stressed that the future well-being of Thailand
depended upon water management, which includes
management of watershed forests. But quite the opposite
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198 King by Virtue King by Virtue 199
took place. Between the end of the Second World War and
the 1997 collapse some two-thirds of Thailand’s once vast
forest-covered disappeared, the result of over logging,
wholesale land clearance and, in the north, slash-and-burn
agriculture. In turn that deforestation has exacerbated
problems with fooding, mudslides, drought, and pollution.
By the end of the 20th century it was clear that the country
simply could not go on squandering its natural resources as
it had over the previous generation.
Industrialization, globalization, the headlong entry into
the world market economy had other problematic efects.
Unlike in the past, Thailand was now importing equipment
and technologies from the outside, and the entire country –
including the most remote rural villages – became subject
to the vagaries of market fuctuation with its boom-and-bust
cycles. Caught up in a speculative fever, Thai companies
made costly investments in new production processes
without fully comprehending the risks involved. Rural
debt escalated as farmers borrowed more and more to keep
ahead of falling prices for rice and other commodities and
rising costs for agricultural inputs like fertilizer and
equipment.
Over the decades the dislocations caused by overheated
economic expansion led to a number of reactions, some
violent, like a Communist insurgency that began in the late
1950s and sputtered out in the 1980s, but most peaceful
and taking the form of discussion and debate, on the one
hand, and the formation of local organizations, like rice banks
and co-ops, aimed at mitigating some of the disruptions.
From the sangha to rural villages and small towns to the
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198 King by Virtue King by Virtue 199
Royal Palace people were looking for ways to regain
control, sustain Thailand’s traditions, and build in protections
against the shocks of global market forces.
It was as the economic expansion was careening toward
disaster that the King unveiled his model for the self-sufcient
farm – the Wat Mongkhon Chaipattana farm in Saraburi
Province. When economic crisis occurred in 1997, the King
explicitly extended the step-by-step, bottom-up approach of
the New Theory from agriculture to the national economy as a
whole, using his birthday speeches over the next several
years to elaborate the message. In his birthday speech of
December 1998, His Majesty clarified that “sufficiency”
did not, in his lexicon, mean cut of from the outside world,
explaining that:

“I may add that full sufciency is impossible; if a
family or even a village wants to employ a full
sufciency economy, it would be like returning
to the Stone Age… This sufciency means to have
enough to live on. Sufciency means to lead a
reasonably comfortable life, without excess, or
overindulgence in luxury, but enough. Some things
may seem extravagant, but it if brings happiness,
it is permissible so long as it is within the means of
the individual… Some people translate ‘sufciency’
from the English as: stand on one’s own feet. This
means standing on our own two legs planted on
the ground, so we can remain without falling over,
and without asking others to land us their legs to
stand on…”*
............................................
*Royal address given at Chitralada Villa, 4 December 1998.
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200 King by Virtue King by Virtue 201
A year later, His Majesty emphasized again the distinction
between a Sufficiency Economy and “self-sufficiency”
“[S]elf-sufciency is not a Sufciency Economy,” His Majesty
said, “but a Stone Age Economy. There must be some
gradual development, some exchange and cooperation
between districts, provinces and countries, something
beyond sufficiency. So a Sufficiency Economy for one
quarter is enough.”*
Still, there were enough questions about precisely what
constituted this new approach to economic development
that a working group was appointed and given the task to
draw up a comprehensive defnition that the King would
review, revise, or approve, as follows:
The Sufciency Economy is an approach to life and
conduct which is applicable at every level from the
individual through the family and community to
the management and development of the nation.
It promotes a middle path especially in developing
the economy to keep up with the world in the era
of globalization.
Sufciency has three components: moderation;
wisdom or insight; and the need for built-in
resilience against the risks, which arise from
internal or external change. In addition,
the application of theories in planning and
implementation requires great care and good
judgment at every stage.
............................................
*Royal address given at Chitralada Villa, 5 December 1999.
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200 King by Virtue King by Virtue 201
At the same time, all members of the nation –
especially ofcials, intellectuals, and business
people – need to develop their commitment to the
importance of knowledge, integrity, and honesty,
and to conduct their lives with perseverance,
toleration, wisdom, and insight, so that the
country has the strength and balance to respond
to the rapid and widespread changes in economy,
society, environment, and culture in the outside
world.
Working from notes of all the King’s speeches on economic
issues over the past several decades as well as other
documentation, yet another group was tasked with
boiling the underpinning of the Sufficiency Economy
still further. The three legs of the Sufciency Economy that
this group identifed are:
Moderation – i.e., enough in the sense of neither
too much nor too little. Moderation in this sense
is close to the Buddhist ideal of the Middle Way
between wanting and craving that inspires both
frugality and self-reliance.
Reasonableness – A true Sufciency Economy
will require a level of universal awareness when
it comes to economic decisions, with the entire
process, from initial proposal to fnal impact on
the individual, the society and the environment
thought through for long-term consequences. To
accomplish this, of course, means applying
wisdom, foresight, knowledge, analytical
reasoning, compassion and empathy.
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202 King by Virtue King by Virtue 203
Self-Immunity – or built-in resilience in order to be
able to withstand unforeseen changes in economic
forces or other unpredictable events, meeting the
future with self-reliance and self-discipline.
In turn, these three key components of Sufficiency
Economy rely on two other conditions in Thai society.
They are:
Knowledge, which in the Thai language is almost
synonymous with wisdom because it combines
both the idea of simple information with the
ability to put that information together in a way
that is both practical and prudent.
Integrity – for the Sufciency Economy to work,
there must be a widespread practice of virtue,
tolerance, honesty, a strong work ethic and a
refusal to exploit other people no matter how
great the immediate reward might be for such
behavior.
Expressed in this fashion, it is clear that the Sufciency
Economy is not just about economics and economic theory
but is a guide to living on both an individual and a national
level – Mahajanaka’s vision of a well-ordered society in
which each element, from the family farm up to the highest
reaches of government, has only one objective, to foster
harmony and well-being for everyone. While this clearly
places the King’ s ideas at odds with the rapacious
winner-take-all, short-term thinking of global capitalism at
its worst, the King has pointed out time and again, the
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202 King by Virtue King by Virtue 203
Sufciency Economy is not anti-capitalist; it merely seeks
to place the goals of production and proftability within the
larger framework of a harmonious, self-reliant society; in
other words, to take productivity and proft and turn them
from an end in themselves into the means – and just one of
the means – of a peaceful and prosperous society for all.
It is a formula that turns conventional free market theories
on their head, even though, as the King and now economists
also recognize, economic theory itself does not have to be
discarded, just put back into its proper framework as an
analysis of a part of society rather than of society as a whole.
Sufficiency Economy, in other words, is an analysis and
prescription at a cultural level and as such bears a consider-
able affinity to the Buddhist worldview in keeping with
that religion’s concept of a Righteous Ruler – a King who
reigns by virtue.
Conventional economic theory proposes that human
happiness derives from individuals’ pursuing their own
self-interest; the assumption is that the drive to enhance
one’s own benefts and increase consumption is rooted in
reason at both the individual and market levels, with the
market sorting out any inequities that might arise in the
allocation of wealth and other resources.
Such a philosophy fies in the face of Buddhism, one of whose
fundamental precepts is the interconnectedness or, actually,
interdependency of all life forms on earth, whether human
or non-human. The path to happiness, in this worldview, is
not via the pursuit of self-interest, whether rational or not
(at a deeper level, of course, such a pursuit cannot help but
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204 King by Virtue King by Virtue 205
be deeply irrational) but through compassion, empathy and
cooperation. There is no evidence that increased wealth,
consumption, or power leads to contentment; indeed,
studies going back many decades reveal exactly the opposite:
that these things increase anxiety and conflict between
individuals and diferent segments of society, while also
destroying the fnite resources – the ecosystem – upon which
civilized societies depend for their existence. An approach
to the economic sector of human life that makes sufciency
rather than endless increase its objective is far more likely to
generate individual peace and national harmony. As the King
said in his birthday speech in 1998, “Sufciency is moderation.
If one is moderate in ones desires, one will have less craving,
one will take less advantage of others. If all nations hold this
concept…without being extreme or insatiable in one’s desires,
the world will be a happier place. Being moderate does not
mean to be too strictly frugal; luxurious items are permissible
but one should not take advantage of others in the fulfllment
of one’s desires. Moderation, in other words, living within
one’s means, should dictate all actions. Act in moderation,
speak in moderation, that is, be moderate in all activities.”*
“Sufciency Economy is a way of curbing desire within the
context of reality and the Dhamma,” observes Phra Anil.
“It does not mean denying oneself, not indulging oneself. It
is the middle path” – which is not to say that the Sufciency
Economy has failed to strike a chord with members of other
religious groups in Thailand or that its precepts contradict
the basic dictates of other faiths. Since it was enunciated by
the King in the 1997, the Sufciency Economy has been taken
............................................
*Royal address given at Chitralada Villa, 4 December 1998.
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204 King by Virtue King by Virtue 205
up as a cause by Christian, Islamic and Hindu communities
in Thailand as well as by Buddhists.
Just as in his version of the Mahajanaka, King Bhumibol’s
Sufciency Economy Philosophy, as it is now widely termed,
is about more than a balanced and sustainable approach to
agriculture – like the proper care of mango trees – but for
society as a whole, and not just that part of society that is
economic in nature. It is an overall approach to human and
social development meant to encompass every level of life,
from the individual to the family to the communities in which
those families live to Thailand as a whole, and beyond; the
Sufciency Economy Philosophy is a transferable concept,
applicable to countries with either emerging or fully
developed economic systems.
Generally speaking, the term “sustainable development”
has come to mean forms of development that minimize
negative efects on the environment and natural resources,
but the Sufciency Economy Philosophy, while certainly
including those two vital factors, goes beyond to concern
itself with development that also preserves – and nourishes –
cultural heritage, social capital, individual opportunity, and
more, as Sufciency Economy Philosophy and Sustainable
Development, a recent publication from the Sufficiency
Economy Research Project, a part of Thailand’s Crown
Property Bureau, puts it:
…high growth is not the main focus; a balanced
and stable development path is more important.
Growth with instability runs the risk of creating
the sort of crisis that happened in 1997. Growth
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206 King by Virtue King by Virtue 207
with greater inequalities for a large section of the
population still immersed in poverty is likely to
create social tensions that could be disruptive to
the political and social harmony of the country.
Growth without caring for the harm done to the
environment cannot be sustainable in the long
run. Growth or development that ignores or
damages the cultural identity of the nation
is harmful to the moral fiber of the next
generation…
While recognizing that they are inextricably connected, the
Sufciency Economy Philosophy makes a distinction between
social and cultural development. Under its rubric, social
development can only take place when citizens as a whole
practice an awareness of the efect of their choices, especially
economic ones, having on others and the country as a whole.
The Sufciency Economy Philosophy does not in any way
condemn freedom of choice, but for it to work would require
a kind of Buddhist-like mindfulness of the interconnection
between all of us and a willingness to act in ways that
contribute to the good of all. This does not mean, as the King
has made clear, renouncing all of life’s luxuries; it does mean
a willingness to forego a higher and higher level of afuence
if it comes at the price of misery or even death for others.
At the same time, learning how to cope with the often rapid
and dislocating cultural changes that occur simultaneously
with globalization is also important, especially in the endeavor
to sustain what is best about a country’s cultural heritage
while adapting the best of what other cultures in the global
acumen have to offer. For example, in Thailand, the
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206 King by Virtue King by Virtue 207
Sufciency Economy Philosophy emphasizes the need for
Thais to be proud of their rich cultural heritage, which
includes not just the country’s splendid legacy of literature
and art and temples, but also the uniquely Thai approach
to living and solving life’s problems – its collective wisdom.
Meanwhile, in their willingness to adopt technologies from
the outside world, the citizens of a country should apply this
same kind of pride in preserving – and prospering – by means
of native forms of technology that are still applicable to the
modern world.
* * *
Over the past decade, Tasawang, a small village in Isan’s
Surin Province, has emerged as a model of how the
principles of Sufciency Economy can operate in practice –
and to the beneft of all.
As long as anyone can remember, Tasawang was a silk-weaving
village, with the bulk of the work associated with the weaving
of village women, who tended the mulberry trees, nurtured
the silkworms, spun the silk collected from the cocoons and
then operated the looms while the village men tended the
rice paddies.
For almost all that time, the looms were operated by hand,
the threads colored by natural dyes. But in the postwar era,
as mechanization set in, more and more of the weaving in
Tasawang was being done by automated looms and using
synthetic dyes. Tasawang was just another village without a
distinct identity, producing fabric sold under the name of the
district rather than the village.
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208 King by Virtue King by Virtue 209
“There’d been a real decline in silk weaving in the village,”
says Somsak Samrin, the head of the administrative
sub-district that includes Tasawang. “Most young people
were going of to Bangkok to get jobs.”
Even so, among the villagers a few of the older women still
worked with the traditional practices of hand-operated looms
and natural dyes. And they are what twelve years ago brought
textile artist, Weratham Trakulngeonthai, back to his native
village.
Up until then, Weratham had been serving as an assistant
instructor of embroidery with Queen Sirikit’s SUPPORT
Foundation, which she had established to promote traditional
Thai handicrafts, like silk weaving.
In returning to his home village, Weratham had no plans to
establish a textile business for himself – or to move Tasawang
into the limelight of traditional handicrafts. He was, he says
“a fne arts major with no sense of business at all.” But he
took inspiration from the Queen’s proposal that a good way
to revive handicrafts would be to work within villages where
those skills already existed, and to absorb and promote those
skills with as little disruption to village life as possible.
Weratham had other motives for returning: he wanted to be
able to take care of his mother, who still lived in Tasawang,
and to turn the family home there into his personal studio.
“At the same time, though, I saw an opportunity to document
the traditional hand-weaving methods that still hung on in
the village.”
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208 King by Virtue King by Virtue 209
After studying the old methods, Weratham designed his frst
piece of textile – the weaving itself was done by villagers under
his direction. It was a simple tube skirt that was presented to
the Queen. In response, she asked him to choose a couple of
women from the village to come to Chitralada Villa to conduct
a two-month silk weaving workshop for students and
instructors at the SUPPORT Foundation.
From that point on, Weratham began receiving regular
orders for textiles from the Royal Palace. The big break came
in 2006. That was when Tasawang received an order for shirts
and shawls – more than 40 pieces in all – to be presented
to the leaders and their spouses attending the Asia-Pacifc
Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which was held that
year in Bangkok. The efort to produce that material in time
for conference proved monumental, involving more than
150 villagers working 24 hours a day in three shifts for three
months. But the efort paid of; from that time on, Tasawang
became known as a center of traditional silk weaving and has
since turned into a major tourist attraction, with as many as
eight buses dropping of visitors who tour the area and then
buy silk products from villagers from one of the many home
stands or from the impromptu market set up right in front of
Weratham’s house.
The impact on Tasawang, needless to say, has been dramatic.
“People are not moving away anymore,” observes Somsak.
“Male villagers may still go away to fnd seasonal work, but
because their wives don’t have to travel to earn income, the
village remains the family center.”
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210 King by Virtue King by Virtue 211
But to Weratham, Tasawang’s experience in returning to its
roots is also a lesson in how the Sufciency Economy can work,
even in pursuits not purely related to agriculture. “People here
can actually earn a living now from hand-weaving silk,”
he says. “Our village can easily be seen as a model for the
whole country, not just for weaving, but for how to turn
traditional crafts of all kinds into a source of income, both
from direct sales of products and from tourism.”
* * *
Given the holistic nature of the Sufficiency Economy
Philosophy, and the need for the members of a society to
live in a mindful way in order for the Sufciency Economy
Philosophy to prevail, the pursuit of a Sufciency Economy
also entails the need to shape the way people think from
childhood on.
Since 1999, the principles of Sufciency Economy have been
integrated into Thailand’s school curriculum in four three-year
sections. The teaching is both practical and philosophical in
nature, with lower-primary school students learning from how
to make out balance sheets to working on projects revolving
around savings, recycling, and gardening. A little later in their
school life, these same children will take part in community
development projects.
A few years ago, research was done into how well the lessons
were taking. “In 2004, I did an assessment and discovered
that many teachers did not really understand the diference
between the Sufciency Economy Philosophy and the New
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210 King by Virtue King by Virtue 211
Theory for farming,” explains Priyanut Piboolsravut, Project
Director of the Sufciency Economy Research Project; prior
to her current position, she had worked for several years
with the National Economic and Social Development Board
(NESDB), which has responsibility for creating Thailand’s
fve-year economic planning programs.
Her discovery about teacher’s understanding of the Sufciency
Economy Philosophy led to a lengthy and inclusive process
involving 135 teachers to rewrite the curriculum in ways
that would increase its efectiveness – a unique approach to
rewriting curriculum in a way that teachers would be more
likely to assimilate.
“These teachers came from all over the country, stayed together
and worked together in small groups over a fve-day period,”
she recalls. “By the time the sessions ended, these people who’d
started out as strangers did not want to leave.”
However painful the departure, though, it left a lasting legacy
– the draft of a new K12 curriculum, which was published later
that year. “Unlike earlier curricula, it has become very popular
with teachers around the country,” Priyanut says, explaining
that the curriculum was disseminated rapidly on e-books that
were sent on disk to every school in the country.
The eforts to succeed in incorporating a clear understanding
of the Sufciency Economy Philosophy into the educational
system did not end with the new curriculum, however. “We
knew that we had to get school ofcials on board, too,” she
explains.
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212 King by Virtue King by Virtue 213
As a result, her committee created a program that it calls
Sufficiency Schools and invited schools from across the
country to apply for this designation. To achieve that, the
schools would have to demonstrate that not only were their
faculty teaching a correct version of the Sufciency Economy
Philosophy, and that students were absorbing those lessons,
but that the school itself was managed according to
Sufficiency Economy Philosophy principles. The several
hundred schools that passed this bar were asked to send
representatives for a two-day workshop that culminated
in a pamphlet detailing how other schools could achieve a
similar status. In the meantime, Priyanut’s group oversees
regular seminars that ofer teachers and school ofcials the
opportunity to verse themselves in the Sufciency Economy
Philosophy.
By 2009, some 1,300 schools across Thailand had qualifed
as Sufciency Schools, and by the end of 2011, 84 of those
schools had been ofcially designated Sufciency Economy
Philosophy Learning Centers – schools that are not just
models for but are also mentoring other schools in the
Sufciency Economy Philosophy. Granted, there are some
40,000 schools in Thailand, so the total number of Sufciency
Schools and Learning Centers represent only a tiny fraction
of the overall primary and secondary school apparatus. At
the same time, it should be pointed out that such incremental
growth, based upon the modeling of virtuous behavior, is
perfectly in keeping with the values and procedures
envisioned by the Sufciency Economy Philosophy.
“I think that the work Dr. Priyanut has been doing to introduce
the Sufciency Economy Philosophy into schools and school
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212 King by Virtue King by Virtue 213
curriculum is a source of tremendous optimism,” observes
Dr. Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayutthaya, the Director-General
of the Crown Property Bureau and himself a former chair of
the Sufficiency Economy Project Board now headed by
Priyanut. He points out that the Sufficiency Economy
Philosophy curriculum has been provided to institutions
of higher learning, like King Prajadhipok’s Institute.
Nonetheless, Chirayu concedes, the most important
audience for the Sufciency Economy Philosophy are children
who have not yet been entrenched in an older worldview.
And it is not just in the traditional public school system where
the principles of Sufciency Economy are integrated into
an educational system. Take for example, the school known
as Phra Dabos.
* * *
Ekkasit Wattanaprechanon has an unusual background for a
man who is co-director of a technical school. At the time that
King Bhumibol asked him a little over 10 years ago to take
on the job, Ekkasit was in charge of maintaining the palace
grounds. But for that very reason, he was a natural choice to
take on the task.
The school that Ekkasit helps run is the agriculture campus of
the Phra Dabos – or Hermit’s School – a system, which got its
start in the late 1970s when the King saw that Thailand needed
a non-formal education system to accommodate those who,
for one reason or another, were unable to take advantage of
the formal system.
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214 King by Virtue King by Virtue 215
“The King wanted to make sure that there is a chance for
people like farmers or the children of migrant laborers who
missed out on completing their elementary school education
to be able to go ahead and get vocational training,” says
Ekkasit about Phra Dabos, which takes its name from old
stories about a hermit sharing his knowledge and wisdom
with an aspirant who frst proved he had the moral fber
and intellectual rigor to beneft from the training.
The curriculum at the Phra Dabos schools consists of three
months of preparatory courses that test each student’s
perseverance, commitment and responsibility – the program
is aimed at building character as much as technical skills –
and then nine months of training in elective courses. That
might include electrical engineering, electronics, maintenance
housekeeping, carpentry, mechanical training (vehicle and
machine), and agriculture. Moreover, the schools ofer a
number of short value-added programs for agriculture
products: food processing, packaging, mushroom cultivation,
hydroponics, fower arranging, and young rice juice. Funding
for tuition comes in the form of grants from His Majesty
the King and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn as well
as from public donation. Most of the instruction is carried
out by volunteers like Ekkasit.
The agriculture campus was started soon after the 1997
economic crash on about 500 rai of land in Samut Prakan
Province that includes what used to be a communication
center for the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.
“When I came here 10 years ago, there was nothing other
than a main building and a few other structures left over
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214 King by Virtue King by Virtue 215
from the communication center and some villagers using the
land illegally,” explains Ekkasit. “Because of the Sufciency
Economy Philosophy, we renovated the structures rather
than start from scratch.”
Since its founding, the Phra Dabos schools have graduated
some 1,500 students – about 150 of those from this agricul-
tural campus. Each year, the Samut Prakan school trains
about 35 students – 20 in sustainable farming, 15 in carpentry –
and has in recent years also hosted visitors from overseas. A
couple of years ago, for example, a delegation from Swaziland
spent 25 days at the site learning about mushroom cultiva-
tion – one of the campus’ specialties – and another group
from the Maldives came to learn about hydroponics. In
addition to training, the Phra Dabos School at Samut
Prakan serves as a home for agro-tourism.
“The education here is geared toward an agricultural
development model that is completely diferent from the
West, which emphasizes large land-holdings and growth,”
observes Ekkasit. “It is geared toward a country whose
farmers are still overwhelmingly small land holders –
a country like Thailand.”
* * *
At the level of national policy, the Sufficiency Economy
Philosophy has become the centerpiece of economic
planning, which is the responsibility of the National Economic
and Development Board. Elements of Sufciency Economy
thinking were incorporated into the 1997-2001 Five-Year Plan
and in the subsequent 2002-2006 Plan but, in each case, the
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216 King by Virtue King by Virtue 217
fallout from the 1997 crash placed some constraints on the
planning. By the time of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, however,
covering the years 2007-2011, the National Economic and
Social Development Board focused on incorporating the
Sufciency Economy Philosophy into national development.

In recognition of the potential application of Sufciency
Economy Philosophy to countries and economies around the
world, in 2006 the United Nations honored King Bhumibol’s
contribution to the international debate about national and
human development – as well as his enormous contributions
0ver the past 65 years to the development of his own
homeland – by bestowing upon him a Human Development
Lifetime Achievement Award. In presenting the award, then
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “His Majesty’s
development agenda and visionary thinking are an inspiration
to his subjects, and to people everywhere.”
As of this moment, it is impossible to tell exactly how deeply
the Sufciency Economy Philosophy has penetrated the fabric
of Thai culture and society or whether it will fourish in the
face of Thailand’s still growing urbanization and integration
into the global marketplace. According to Sanerh Mulasart,
former governor of Surin Province, “The application of
Sufciency Economy principles has been most successful
among the older generations of Thais. The younger
generations have been strongly afected by consumerism.”
He is speaking here of Isan, but his comments are applicable
to the country at large. As the recently published defnitive
biography, King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work points
out:
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216 King by Virtue King by Virtue 217
More than a dozen years after the Sufciency
Economy was launched as a kind of national
agenda, it is questionable how much efect it has
had on the major trends in economy and
government. The economy has continued to
become more open and hence more vulnerable
to wayward outside forces – though the
management of the economy has so far proved to
be more prudent. There has been at most
movement towards a more balanced, inner-
driven, and sustainable growth pattern. Instead,
over-reliance on exports, inefciency in the use of
energy and damage to the natural environment
have persisted. There has been no trend toward
more sufcient agriculture. Indeed, there has been
a net shift from food to cash crops, and from
small-scale farms to large-scale plantations.
Whatever the case, Sufciency Economy stands as a model
of how a country like Thailand could continue to prosper in
a rapidly changing world, while maintaining its cultural and
environmental heritage. It bears the potential, then, of
proving to be perhaps the most signifcant legacy of a King
who has tried to reign for the good of his people by the power
of virtue and barami.
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218 King by Virtue King by Virtue 219
Villa Vadhana, Switzerland.
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218 King by Virtue King by Virtue 219
After the Deluge
The small Swiss town of Pully rises from the north shore
of Lac Léman along the eastern border of the much larger
city of Lausanne.
Today, as throughout its history over the past century or so,
Pully is a quiet place of refuge from Lausanne’s bustle.
Its streets and byways are lined with large houses and
modest estates resting discreetly behind gated walls, home
to doctors and lawyers and business professionals who make
the short commute to Lausanne to earn their living.
And it was here, in Pully, that in 1935, following the
abdication of King Prajadhipok, that the Thai government
settled the Princess Mother and her children, including the
newly appointed king.
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220 King by Virtue King by Virtue 221
It was here, in Villa Vadhana, that Ananda, Bhumibol and
their sister Galyani helped their mother tend her gardens.
It was here that they studied Thai culture and language and
began their lessons in the protocol of court culture. And it
was from here, at Villa Vadhana in Pully, that the family
ventured out into the countryside for picnics or walks in the
woods or ski trips in the high Alps.
Today, Villa Vadhana is no more. The home where King
Bhumibol spent most of his formative years – from age 8 until
his return to Thailand – has given way to a three-storey
apartment building of a vaguely modernist style, the estate and
its carefully cultivated grounds the victim of the apparently
irresistible pressure to increase the rate of return on valuable
real estate. Of the years the King and his family spent in Pully
there is not a sign anywhere. Not even a plaque.

Vadhana’s fate, of course, could serve as a metaphor about the
transitory nature of all human ventures. But Vadhana could
also serve as a metaphor for the challenges facing Thailand
and King Bhumibol’s eforts to transform his country into
a harmonious society following a path of truly sustainable
development modeled for the people of Thailand through the
royal development projects and the King’s example of personal
integrity and public virtue.
There are unanswered questions, for example, of just how
permanent the impact will be of the royal development
projects on the way the country goes about the business of
agriculture or the King’s precepts about sustainable
development on the countryside as a whole. Ask the people
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220 King by Virtue King by Virtue 221
who run the projects or the development centers how many
farmers in the region have adopted the New Theory and
you will receive information about how many seminars and
workshops are conducted each year and how many people
attend. Ask how many of those attendees actually put into
practice the principles taught in those workshops and
seminars and you will receive anecdotal evidence and the
name of a local farmer whom you can visit. But there, as far
as is known, no statistical measurement, no keeping tabs,
no overall picture of the degree to which ideals like the New
Theory or Sufciency Economy have actually penetrated into
the culture.
Many examples exist of the gap between the King’s vision
for a prosperous, harmonious kingdom and what has
actually been achieved by those charged with the task of
implementing that vision. One needs look no further than
catastrophic flooding that occurred late in 2011 in and
around the capital city, Bangkok.
After the fall of Ayudhya, King Taksin sought a site for his new
capital that would be easier to defend than the city recently
sacked by the Burmese. The place he chose – Thonburi –
turned out to be eminently defensible for a simple reason: it
was located in the middle of swampland – as was Bangkok,
the site directly across the river from Thonburi where Rama I,
the founder of the Chakri dynasty, moved the capital after
King Taksin was overthrown.
What made Bangkok good for defense has, in the rainy season,
made it the scene of almost annual fooding, especially in the
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222 King by Virtue King by Virtue 223
low-lying regions along the banks of the Chao Phraya and the
many khlongs, or canals, that cut through the city. Flooding
occurs almost every year, but at regular intervals, Bangkok
experiences major inundations, as in 1942, 1980, 1983, and
1995, which left many neighborhoods under water for weeks
and posed major risks to roads, buildings, rail lines and
other critical infrastructure. In the meantime, as the city’s
population has grown, not only does the fooding threaten the
livelihoods and health of a growing number of Thai citizens,
many of them already living on the margins and in no
position to pay for repairs to homes and places of businesses
or make up for lost income, but the very weight of the
sprawling megalopolis has caused it to sink even further –
an average of 1-2 centimeters per year it is now estimated –
making it ever more susceptible to fooding.
In response to the flooding, in the early-1990s the King
developed a wide range of proposals to prevent or mitigate
the problem in the Bangkok area. Among these were
construction of new dikes, water diversion channels and
multi-purpose dams, improvement of the existing waterways
in and around the city and development of wide foodways on
both the undeveloped eastern and western sides of the city.
Two of the projects designed to protect the capital city were
particularly noteworthy. Noting how Thailand’s monkeys will
store food and water in their cheeks until they are ready to
ingest them, King Bhumibol launched the Monkey’s Cheek
Project. It envisioned employing large areas of uninhabited
and uncultivated low-lying land as diversionary storage
areas for rising waters coupled with a systematic widening
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222 King by Virtue King by Virtue 223
and deepening of the city canals both to hold more water and
to help divert it to the monkey’s cheek low-lying regions. Since
its inception as a food control project aimed at Bangkok,
the Monkey’s Cheek Project has now been expanded to help
with mitigation and control in other food-prone regions of
the country.
Another major food control project was completed in 1999,
with the construction of the Pasak Jolasid Dam located on an
upstream tributary of the Chao Phraya. With a storage capacity
of up to 1 billion cubic meters of water, the dam is intended
to prevent fooding in the lower Chao Phraya basin while also
providing irrigation of Thailand’s most fertile region during
the dry season, where more than 100,000 rai of farmland now
receive water from the dam.
As a result of these projects – especially the Pasak Jolasid
Dam – Bangkok had in recent years avoided the kind of major
fooding that occurred in the past. That is, until unprecedented
rainfall during the spring and autumn of 2011 caused
arguably the worst fooding in Thailand’s history – fooding
so intense that it ultimately effected one-third of the
country’s most-heavily populated provinces, displacing
millions of people and destroying billions of dollars worth of
property and crops. The 2011 food also all but overwhelmed
Bangkok’s food defenses, leaving only a portion of the inner
city dry.
Many factors contributed to the severity of the 2011 fooding,
including the possibility that anthropogenic climate change
is altering the pattern of monsoon rains, making them more
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224 King by Virtue King by Virtue 225
severe and long lasting. But certainly a big chunk of the
blame for the disaster can be attributed to the fact that many
of the preventive measures urged by the King over the past
20 years have not yet been implemented and those that have
been implemented have not, in many cases, been maintained
in the ways originally intended. In the wake of the disaster,
Thailand is now undertaking a new national food mitigation
policy. When completed, it will undoubtedly contain many
of the suggestions already put forward by King Bhumibol in
the past but not yet enacted and call for the restoration and
enhancement of other key food control elements that fell by
the wayside in the headlong rush to develop Bangkok and
other urban and industrial areas upstream from the city.
The magnitude of the 2011 food takes on an even more
symbolic signifcance in terms of the long-term impact of
the King’s development projects and ideas, considering that,
from the very beginning of his reign, His Majesty has stressed
that proper water resource management is the cornerstone
of his vision for sustainable development in Thailand.
During his travels into every province of the Kingdom of
Thailand, the King witnessed frst-hand that the main reason
rural people were poor was because an insufficient or
unstable water supply made it impossible for them to grow
the crops to support themselves. His Majesty once declared
that the main principle was that there must be water for
consumption and for agriculture. If there was water, people
could survive; without water people could not.
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224 King by Virtue King by Virtue 225
Indeed, one of the enduring images of King Bhumibol is of
him trekking through felds and remote highlands, searching
for suitable places to locate reservoirs, dams both small and
large, irrigation systems, and other water-related projects,
always armed with three indispensable accessories: a two-
way radio; a camera; and a detailed map of the area he was
traversing on which he would personally make notations
with the pencils he also famously sharpened himself for the
occasion.
During more than two decades of working directly with the
King, former Director-General of the Royal Irrigation
Department, Pramote Maiklad, experienced frst-hand the
degree to which the King engaged with water management
projects.
“His Majesty was involved 100 percent,” says Pramote, who
has now been appointed to the special committee charged
with designing a nationwide food control and mitigation
plan. “His Majesty initiated projects and then continued on
working through the process of planning and implementa-
tion.”
And that kingly work, Pramote emphasized, was not
superfcial. “His Majesty didn’t just work on the surface,
but goes deep into detail and then follow-up. His Majesty is
a thinker who also works hard and is extremely industrious.”
Even during arduous upcountry treks, Pramote says,
the King, “never complained about anything. His focus
was always on helping people and improving their living
conditions.”
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226 King by Virtue King by Virtue 227
Evidence of that hard work can be seen in the explosive
growth of water management schemes during the time King
Bhumibol has been on the throne. In 1946, during his frst
year as King, there were only about 1 million rai of land
under irrigation throughout Thailand and farmers working
land in drier regions of the country could normally harvest
only one rice crop a year. Today, that fgure has grown to
25 million rai. About 500 storage dams, large and small –
to feed irrigation systems and control fooding – have been
constructed along with countless diversion dams, pumping,
drainage, and straight-forward food protection projects.
Nonetheless, other trends, both urban and rural, have served
to undermine even the King’s best efforts. Continued
deforestation of watersheds has led to further soil erosion and
more severe fooding. New industrial and commercial parks,
like those constructed on a food plain in Ayudhya, have placed
thousands of jobs, factories, and ofce buildings at risk.
Bangkok’s increasing growth and congestion makes it
increasingly vulnerable to flooding and water pollution.
During the 2011 food, eforts to clean out the city’s several
thousand miles of canals, critical for draining water away
from neighborhoods and streets and into the Chao Phraya
River, were hampered by the presence of countless makeshift
homes constructed right on the edge of those canals in
violation of setback laws.
Meanwhile, as the huge tide of foodwater made its way
south toward the Gulf of Thailand – it is estimated that the
2011 monsoon season produced 50 percent more rainfall
than normal in the Chao Phraya drainage system – the dikes
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226 King by Virtue King by Virtue 227
constructed due north of Bangkok at the King’s initiative
in 1984 kept about half of the inner city dry, but could not
protect areas further north of the city. At the same time the
natural foodway east of the city envisioned by the King at a
time when this region consisted almost entirely of rice felds
and orange groves has become increasingly urbanized;
during late 2011, instead of allowing foodwaters to fow
unimpeded down along this eastern corridor, local residents
and business owners blocked its path with sandbags and
improvised dams to protect property and commercial
inventory. Given the sheer amount of rain that fell that year,
it is likely that Bangkok and its environs would have
experienced some fooding under the best of circumstances.
But the failure to implement or properly maintain water
management systems unquestionably worsened the situation
immeasurably.
As the Bangkok Post noted in an editorial published in
November, 2011:
In 1995 His Majesty the King advised and warned
that we have allowed factories and industrial
estates to be built in natural water catchment
areas. They are located in areas where food-
waters naturally flow. His Majesty further
advised that waterways needed to be constructed
to ensure that these estates do not get fooded.
His Majesty also noted that encroachment had
occurred in many of the canals snaking through
Bangkok and in surrounding provinces. The King
urged reclamation of these canals so that food
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228 King by Virtue King by Virtue 229
waters could fow and drain more efciently.
The King also suggested that a foodway should
be constructed to avoid a repetition of the 1995
foods which struck Bangkok.
His Majesty gave all this advice 16 years ago.
Sadly, and clearly, our political leadership then,
and now, have not heeded the King’s advice.
With more supersaturated rainy seasons all but inevitable,
Thailand now faces the need to catch up to avoid future crises,
a job made all the more difcult because of the government’s
failure to fully heed the King’s advice in the past.
“We just don’t have a national policy on this,” says Pramote.
“There is no single solution. We have to develop a master plan
suitable to each region.” This is the work that he and other
members of the committee he now serves on have been
assigned to complete over the next two years.
Today, health problems, in particular afecting his lower
back, prevent the King from traveling around the country as
he did in the frst several decades of his reign. But according
to Pramote, this does not mean King Bhumib0l is not actively
involved.
“Nowadays, although His Majesty cannot immerse himself
in the planning and implementation of projects around
the kingdom, His Majesty studies and makes comments
on construction reports that government agencies submit
to him,” Promote says. The King also meets with technicians
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228 King by Virtue King by Virtue 229
and government ofcials involved in projects, giving them
direct feedback, as he did in October 2011 during a much-
publicized meeting at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital where
King Bhumibol has resided for the past three years. In
addition to direct meetings and conversations with those
in charge of water management, the King also transmits
ideas and advice through his royal private secretary.
And in the wake of the Great Flood, it is clear that the people
of Thailand are dutifully studying the things the King has
already said and done concerning water management as
the country seeks a way forward. As Pramote says, “Every
form of water management envisioned by His Majesty
needs to be accomplished to allow our people to live
happily with nature.”
* * *
Despite Thailand’s impressive material progress over the
past 65 years, despite its often interrupted but nonetheless
continual evolution into a modern, democratic state that
combines elected ofcials and a constitutional monarchy, it
is perhaps safe to say that the past 12 years have been among
the most difcult the country has faced – and among the most
challenging for King Bhumibol, even compared with his early
years on the throne when the government sought to restrict
his access to his people and his ability to reign as a Righteous
King. Since 2006 in particular, and the coup that removed
Prime Minister Thaksin from office, Thais have been
bewildered by the rise of partisan confict – some of it violent,
some of it resulting in the death of participants and
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230 King by Virtue King by Virtue 231
bystanders – in Bangkok and elsewhere and of sectarian
violence in the south, all in a culture which has always
traditionally valued harmony and a non-confrontational
approach to resolving diferences. Thais fnd themselves
distressed as well by emergence for the frst time in the
country’s history of factions and voices – both on the street
and in academia – openly questioning the need for the
institution of the monarchy and, in some cases, even calling
for its outright abolition. And everywhere in Thailand, from
the cities to the smallest villages, there is a gnawing anxiety
about the future, an anxiety that refects not just concern over
the rise of political and sectarian confict but also whether
Thailand can continue to be Thailand – a country that
participates in the global economy while maintaining its
uniquely Thai set of values and traditions.
Yet despite all the turmoil and anxiety, and despite the
inability to quantify the exact extent to which the King’s vision
of a Sufciency Economy has actually penetrated into the
daily lives of people in the villages and cities, it is also safe to
say that the overwhelming majority of Thai citizens continue
to revere him without reservation – revere him as a King who
has reigned by the ancient principles of Thotsaphit Rajatham;
as a King who has made service to his country his highest
objective; as a King who has reigned by virtue.
Typical of Thai attitudes toward the King even in these difcult
times are those expressed by Wiwit Preechakorn.
Wiwit volunteers his services planting lime trees at Chang
Hua Man, Thailand’s newest royal initiative project. This
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230 King by Virtue King by Virtue 231
project has converted land in Petchaburi Province whose soil
had been depleted because of lack of proper irrigation and
monoculture production of pineapple and eucalyptus.
The land where Wiwit now volunteers his time used to belong
to him; it was one of the parcels of land purchased to develop
the 250-rai royal project.
“Today, this land is almost completely changed from what
we used to work,” he says. “The quality of the soil has
improved and the crops have fourished.”
But beyond the contribution he has been able to make creating
a model of sustainable agriculture activity for farmers around
the region, there is an even more important reason why he
says he takes such satisfaction in the work.
“In volunteering here at the royal development project,
I know that in some small way I am serving His Majesty
the King,” he says. “That is the source of my greatest pride –
and my greatest happiness.”
* * *
These refections began by asking two questions: why is King
Bhumibol revered so widely by the Thai people and what
caused his success in having a prosperous reign of now 65
years? Both questions have an answer in the King’s
articulation of the New Theory and the related Sufciency
Economy Philosophy. Simply put, His Majesty cared about
his people and their happiness and His Majesty showed
this care through constructive actions. His Majesty went
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232 King by Virtue King by Virtue 233
out on his way to learn from them, to learn about the actual
conditions of their lives, to think about what could be
improved. His Majesty saw himself in Western terms as a
steward but in Thai terms as one who was living up to
the Thotsaphit Rajatham, as one who was personally
responsible for better outcomes.
King Bhumibol took seriously his obligations as a
Dhammaraja – a Buddhist set of personal requirements
to be mindful and follow the middle path of enlightened
self-interest – and the possibilities of having infuence that
fowed from his position as a devaraja, one who could teach
and so lead others to better ways of living in harmony with
each other and with nature.
This version of kingship, so very Thai, conferred upon King
Bhumibol signifcant barami, which brought him respect and
deference, making possible a long, successful reign as a
constitutional monarch simultaneously modern and
Buddhist.
And this work His Majesty undertook confronting the
rising tides of pervasive globalization and their disenchant-
ing of all people and all things.
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232 King by Virtue King by Virtue 233
The Ethics of Thai Kingship
Stephen B. Young
In our twenty-frst century monarchs seem anachronistic.
The march of civilization, we are told, is forward away
from the irrational ties of family, clan, tribe, and precedent
towards a more liberating future where each is free to fashion
his or her personal destiny and self-created individuals in the
aggregate vote on social and political structures suitable to
their personalities.
Jean Jacques Rousseau described this march of civilization
most famously: “Man is born free yet everywhere he is in
chains.”
The chains Rousseau objected to were not of iron only, but
mostly of culture, a dead inheritance of the past, un-chosen
by the present to be forced upon the future. The status of
monarchy derives from the past, from un-modern beliefs
and social practices. And, true enough, in the twenty-frst
century, most surviving monarchies are but shadows of
their past centrality and power. In every case except for
a few Arab kingdoms, they have been constitutionalized
whereby sovereign dominion has been taken from those
who wear the crown and turned over to elected and
appointed ministers and their subordinate ofcials.
Afterword
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234 King by Virtue King by Virtue 235
As demanded by Rousseau, the progress of humanity has been
the emasculation of cultural intensity and diversity in
favor of a homogenous rationality. The brilliant German
sociologist Max Weber is famous for describing this process
of modernization as a growing “disenchantment” with the
world. Reason as the maker of culture not only undermines
traditional values and behaviors, but it also marginalizes
religions and any similar call of the spirit to live with wonder
and reverence. But Weber noted, reason provides no
substitute for spiritual enlightenment, for meaningful
personal relationships, for a grounded personal identity,
or for love.
Reason alone leaves us disenchanted with life, no matter how
smart we are. To be happily human is to honor and to activate
a moral sense that goes where reason may not tread - towards
acceptance of perspective and humility, towards relationships
of caring and fdelity.
The current widespread disenchantment of our lives through
the application of self-centered Enlightenment Rationality
has facilitated the emergence of efficiency through the
separation of functions and division of labor coordinated
by command and control hierarchies of authority. But it
has not simultaneously given a boost to complete human
fourishing. In a completely rationalized culture, something
important is missing – the faith which leads to personal
happiness.
Recent research into organizational performance indicates
that spirituality, not efficiency, contributes to more
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happiness in life. Giacalone and Jurkiewicz state that “Data
unequivocally suggest that spiritually-based organizational
cultures are the most productive and that by maximizing
productivity they confer organizational dominance in the
market place.” Spiritual strivings are not dependent on
grand actions and goals, but seemingly small acts if connected
to the transcendent can have enormous personal meaning.
Thus the ordinary, day-to-day presentation of monarchy in
Thailand can indeed evoke an empathetic response from those
striving for spirituality in a Theravada Buddhist order. Those
with higher levels of spiritual well-being, are less depressed,
less lonely, have higher marital intimacy, and are more hardy
in confronting diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer. Koten
argues that a healthy spiritual connection to nature, place,
community, and culture – not quantity of consumption – is
fundamental to the healthy functioning and well-being of
both individuals and society. Richard D. White argues that
“Spiritual health leads people to experience consciousness
at a deeper level, improves their intuitive skills, encourages
teamwork, develops purposeful and compelling organizational
vision, and boost innovation.”
In his profound and widely admired refection on executive
leadership even in rationalized bureaucracies, Chester I.
Bernard concluded that executives – at their best – performed
a spiritual role: they provided a link between the work of the
employees and something more profound, more moral, more
transcendental. Bernard concluded specifically that
“Organizations endure, however, in proportion to the
breadth of the morality by which they are governed. This
is only to say that foresight, long purposes, high ideals, are
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the basis for persistence of cooperation… Leadership is the
indispensible social essence that gives common meaning
to common purpose, that creates the incentive that makes
other incentives efective, that infuses the subjective aspect of
countless decisions with consistency that produces the vital
cohesiveness without which cooperation is impossible.
Executive responsibility, then, is that capacity of leaders by
which, refecting attitudes, ideals, hopes, derived largely
from without themselves, they are compelled to bind
the wills of men to the accomplishment of purposes
beyond their immediate ends, beyond their times.” (p. 283)
Leadership, according to Bernard, is thus a struggle
against disenchantment and mere instrumental rationality.
There is a dimension to efective leadership that is beyond
administrative goals and objectives, power and organizational
routine, materialism and intrigue. Bernard concludes his
study thus: “out of the void comes the spirit that shapes the
ends of men.” (p. 284)
Placing the Thai monarchy, then, in Bernard’s analytical
framework brings forth the conclusion that instantiation of
the sacral – the most comprehensive value orientation of life
itself – is perhaps the highest form of leadership.
Where politics was concerned, Weber postulated that there
were only three kinds of authority: traditional, charismatic,
and rational/bureaucratic. His understanding of history
was that traditional authorities – tribal in particular – and
charismatic leaders (his model was Jesus Christ) would
fade away and become rational bureaucracies of the kind he
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saw around him in late nineteenth century Europe, most
importantly the Napoleonic state that maximized the
rationalism of the French Revolution expressed in the form
of a sovereign nation state. But Weber’s notion that some
could be led by charisma pointed to the possibility of
leadership that could triumph over disenchantment.
Weber, sadly, did not seriously consider the possibility that
charismatic leadership could survive over time. Just as Christ’s
personal ministry after his death became the institution of
the Catholic Church, in time to split into Roman and Eastern
Orthodox variants, so Weber concluded that all charismatic
systems must die along with the one who carried the charism.
Since charisma was personal to an individual, when the
individual died, the charism vanished and the followers
departed or re-organized themselves into a body politic
under hierarchical principles of order and discipline. Where
the charismatic authority relied on free will and voluntary
acceptance of the leader as possessing charisma, the new
hierarchies felt both a need to enforce doctrine and discipline
and a justifcation for so doing. Their mission had become
preservation through ritual and liturgy of immediate personal
access to the lost presence of the charism. For Catholics the
church provided in the mass and other sacraments and
through the intercession of ordained priests and saints (those
touched with some degree of charism) access to the
charismatic powers of Jesus himself. Later, for Protestant
Christians, it was a personal experience with “divine grace”
coupled with a code of personal rectitude in daily conduct
that gave the individual a feeling of kinship with Jesus and
his power.
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But the evolution of Christianity, so infuential for Max Weber,
has not been the exclusive human engagement with charism.
There is a Buddhist variant as well. For Buddhists, the charism
can appear again and again in persons of right thinking and
right acting. Buddhist understandings of the charism make it
possible for charismatics to come into our presence again
and again over the generations. Most often the Buddhist
charismatics are monks living virtuous lives inside
monasteries. But Theravada Buddhism, the older version
of the religion now dominant in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar,
Cambodia and Sri Lanka, provided as well for secular
charismatics in the person of the Chakravartin, or ruler
aligned with the Dharma.
Charisma is a personal connection to the transcendental, to
the divine source of meaning and truth held sacred by a
person or a culture. In Buddhism that charism is obtained
through self-discipline and understanding. Gaining a
“Buddha” mind that sees correctly the reality of the Dharma
and so gaining an ability to remove oneself from the froth
of “dukkha” or human anxiety can provide anyone with a
charism. Such a person would attract followers and become
a leader.
To be sure not every ruler was a Chakravartin but the religion
as given life in Theravada culture held open the possibility
that every ruler could become one through strength of
personality and dedication to right thoughts and actions.
Theravada monarchies became a process of generation and
re-generation of charismatics holding the throne.
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In practical terms, if a ruler did not develop the necessary
qualifcations – the requisite degree of personal charisma –
he was subject to removal from the throne or other forms
of dis-allegiance. Harvard sociologist Stanley Tambiah has
described how in Thai history kingdoms grew in scope
with charismatic rulers and shrank into insignifcance or
disappeared if their rulers were insufciently charismatic.
In the Chronicles of Ayutthaya there is this description of
a charismatic Theravada ruler:
“It is customary that a great king of kings who upholds the
Ten Kingly Virtues be compared to the shelter of a great holy
pipul tree and that people come to seek the protection of the
King’s accumulated merit with the hope of escaping various
calamities.” (p. 91)
Here the king as a secular charismatic is given responsibili-
ties in the world not assigned to monks seeking renunciation.
The king is to provide benefts and protection to the people
to help them live better lives. His charisma arises both from
his actions in this life and from good deeds – merit or bun –
accumulated in reincarnations in past lives.
In another passage from the Chronicle, it was explained that
because a king was endowed with the Ten Royal Virtues, and
was frmly committed to conduct benefcial to Buddhism, his
family, and the whole world besides, he was “immense” with
the magnifcent and marvelous merit of boundless wisdom and
a potent force and great power to pacify royal foes. His
overflowing penitential practices indicated that gods of
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creation, preservation and destruction were manifested
in him. Part of his virtue was to have compassion for all and
to encourage the populace to peace, happiness, and joy
through his excellent justice. His fame and renown were
widely known in every direction and tribute was sent to him
as a result. (p.199)
A closer look at the Ten Royal Virtues – the Thotsaphit
Rajatham – provides guidance as to the virtues appropriate
to a charismatic Theravada monarch. When a king exhibited
fdelity to these ten virtues, he was known as a Dhammaraja,
or Righteous King. The theme refected in each of these ten
virtues is Buddhist composure and right mindfulness
leading to restraint in action. The inner charism necessary
for this way of living is a capacity for stewardship and
service. None of these virtues comes easily; to live by them
all at once requires a remarkable character.
Dana
This virtue is the action of giving – giving knowledge and
useful advice, and basic necessities, and forgiving others. This
virtue is a counter-balance to the more normal human
propensity to take from others, to be greedy. The ofce of
king is to serve, not to be served in personal avarice. King
Bhumibol exemplifed quite straightforwardly the capacity
for showing Dana in his approach to development and his
use of knowledge and teaching rather than command and
control project implementation by his staf.
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Sila
This refers to the personal capacity to live by norms and good
practices, to have self-control and self-restraint so that
selfish thoughts and desires do not prevail. That King
Bhumibol won for himself the reputation as a king who
“never smiled” testifed to his self-control in public. Rectitude
and formalism are necessary in the conduct of a truly royal
person. This removes them from jocularity and a coarse,
perhaps hypocritical, populism.
Paricaga
This virtue requires sacrifce for a greater good. It is deeper
than giving of what one has to others and fows from viable
self-control. It calls for taking personal risks. Such a stance
fnds echoes in King Bhumibol’s following his own path with
respect to development theory and not falling in with
government experts or faction leaders in Thai politics. The
virtue of paricaga calls for diligence and persistence in
the face of opposing conditions, as King Bhumibol highlighted
in his rendition of the second Jataka story of Mahajanaka.
Ajava
This virtue is a capacity for loyalty to standards above and
beyond self. Truthfulness and honesty are two of these. To be
truthful and honest is to let other facts prevail than what one
wishes to be the case. One needs to account for one’s actions
and not hide behind pomp and circumstance and the
flattery coming from court retainers. King Bhumibol’s
reliance upon science would place him among those with
the virtue of Ajava in the eyes of many Thai, along with his
determination to intervene in politics on behalf of a higher
standard than factional advantage.
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Maddava
This is avoidance of arrogance in thinking, to be open to
advice and gentle in responding to others. King Bhumibol
has been scrupulous in presenting his ideas as suggestions,
not as commands; in resolving vexatious political confict with
gentle admonitions to all rivals at once.
Tapa
This virtue is self-discipline in the calling of royal service,
of being diligent in performance of duty and living simply
without ostentation and pomp. King Bhumibol often
demonstrated his preference for simplicity in refusing to
expand royal residences and in personally working with
carpentry, sailing small sailboats, painting and taking
photographs. These rather ordinary, hands-on hobbies
carried symbolic meaning that he was a King who understood
diligence in accomplishment of mundane tasks.
Akkodha
This virtue is purging of anger, not giving in to feelings of
vindictiveness or hatred, which are so selfsh and cloud the
mind with passion leading it away from truth and gentleness.
In his six decades on the throne there is very little evidence
of King Bhumibol expressing anger at anyone.
Avihimsa
This is a capacity for living without harming others,
prevailing in peace and tranquility. Again and again King
Bhumibol placed himself as king in a position of complement-
ing other institutions – the army, the press, political parties,
the National Assembly, business elites. He sought balance
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242 King by Virtue King by Virtue 243
and equilibrium as much as possible rather than dictated
his own preferences on social and political policies.
Khanti
This virtue calls for patience and perseverance when facing
emotions, maintaining a calm mind and a composed body.
King Bhumibol’s preference for patience and perseverance
and his self-control have distinguished his reign.
Avirodhana
This virtue is reaching out to rectify misdeeds; to reward
those who do right. It is to act counter to the selfshness of
others and align them with the just consequences of their
actions. It requires the king to act according to a higher
standard of right and wrong than political expediency or
personal interest. It would seem that King Bhumibol’s instinct
in the grave political crises of 1973 and 1992 was exactly
this spirit of counter-balance. He sought to blunt the selfsh
ambitions of military leaders who had provoked violence
out of regard for the evolution of the country towards more
responsible governance.
By no means a complete success in living up to the highest
ideals of these 10 virtues – a degree of success given to no
person living or dead – nevertheless, King Bhumibol has left
a credible public record of ruling not by his personal whim
but by culturally-received Thai Buddhist standards of
personal justice, a due proportion where desire is curbed so
that all those dependent upon one’s actions and reactions
can be assured of protection and benevolence. By aligning
his will and personal habits with the Thotsaphit Rajatham,
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King Bhumibol gave evidence that he possessed barami
and that he was accumulating more and more of this
rather spiritual quality during his reign.
Barami
An active capacity to act upon the Theravada Buddhist Ten
Royal Virtues confrms that one has “barami”, a kind of
charisma. In Thailand, to rule without having barami is
difcult. Once one’s charisma is suspected, one’s ability to
command respect is defcient. Under these conditions, others
will assert their abilities to lead instead.
More vital and explanatory insights into the politics of a
culture should be drawn from the vocabulary of that culture,
using unique, untranslatable terms like “barami”. Such
concepts, though particular in origin, have a universal
utility, both for understanding that culture and for
contrasting that culture with others. The best test of a
concept for use in understanding another culture is its
predictive capacity. Who can predict better than those
within the culture who use the conceptual modalities
that shape behavior in that psycho-social space? For
outsiders to understand a culture, they must somehow insert
themselves linguistically into the norms of those who live by
them.
Concepts taken from other cultures – such as Western
notions of rationality or individualism – when applied to
a non-Western culture cannot provide complete insight into
how people born and raised in that culture will think and
respond to events.
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Barami provides a deep structure for Thai political activity,
always pointing to an equilibrium state that Thai politics
seeks out time and again. Since the Thai people are in
constant search of leaders with charisma, Thai politics
and government respond to that imperative. Barami is
the highest form of charisma for Thais.
The Thai conception of barami permits both prediction and
explanation. Understanding what particular traits and
behaviors go into barami allows the observer, Thai or
otherwise, to predict the interaction of specifc individuals
with each other. A person with high barami will not surprise
the astute observer by his or her ability to attract clients.
An inadequacy of barami on the part of another person
can be readily detected by the same astute observer – again,
Thai or otherwise – who can then make a correct prediction
that such person will soon lose out in patron-client
relationships.
Patron/Client Dynamics
It is now accepted that traditional Thai society was
structured into fluctuating networks of patron/client
relationships. Patrons were those with relatively greater
ability to be successful in life. They had status, power, and
economic resources, all of which Thai Buddhists believe are
rewards in this life for the Buddhist merit (bun) accumulated
in past incarnations.
The capacity of a patron to deserve that status is his (or her)
barami or watsana. It is a person’s barami or watsana that
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empowers, not necessarily their education or temporary good
fortune. Resting in karmic superiority, barami and watsana
trump circumstances and provide a more permanent
foundation for wealth, advantage and power.
Watsana arises from an individual’s drives, determination,
skills, intelligence. It is an energy level and requires a certain
quantum of daring and courage. Individuals with watsana
stand out as above average in getting things done. They can
“rise above their station” as the Victorians might have put
it.
But there are boundaries to watsana – ego-centric self-
assertion per se might cause a person to stand out in Thai
society, but that forcefulness alone is not sufcient to be
watsana. There must be more. The personal dynamic
must be tied to the welfare of others – the family, a group, or
a set of pals.
Notable examples of this process in Thai history are the rise
of Phraya Taksin from soldier to king of Siam, of Chao
Phraya Chakri from ofcer, to commander, and then to king,
and the rise of Sarit Thanarat from village origins in Thailand’s
poor and politically marginal northeast to the high status of
Field Marshal and dictator.
We may think of barami as the more honorable attribute
and watsana as the personal “moxie” to open doors to
opportunity. Barami has more luster and the patina of
legitimate seniority. Once a door is opened, use of the
space behind it will determine whether or not barami will be
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acquired. Patronage of barami demands living by virtues
such as the Thotsaphit Rajatham. At the core of personal
virtue lies internalization of the Buddhist skills of
mindfulness and self-insight. Acquiring barami adds to the
power of one’s charism making one deserving of deference
and so of leadership. Social status alone without possession
of barami provides no guarantee of continued precedence in
the eyes of others.
Thai Buddhists have created out of their religion’s theology,
a cosmology whereby the universe from animals below to
demons, persons, spirits, gods, and Buddhas above is a
ranked hierarchy of beings possessing more or less efcacy for
doing good or evil. The driving force separating beings
into various ranks and positions is karma which rewards the
good merit (bun) in one’s intentions for action and punishes
one’s bad doings (bap). Bun leads to elevation in the hierarchy
and bap to degradation and greater sufering.
At the apex of the hierarchy of living beings in Thailand
traditionally has been the monarch, responsible for civil
justice in the realm but un-elected. The monarch has the
most barami; possession of that virtuous power entitles him
to hold the ofce of king. M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, journalist,
publisher, editor, novelist, Prime Minister, and advocate for
the importance of preserving “Thai-ness” in the face of
Westernization, denominated the monarch as “Phra Barami”
in his 1951 novel Four Reigns about the royal palace
hierarchy.
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Writing after his visit to Bangkok in 1833, American diplomat
Edmund Roberts reported of the Siamese monarch that
“The fact of being in high station is regarded as sufcient
evidence of exalted merit in a former state of existence. The
king is therefore considered almost, if not altogether, equal
to a deity; and is always addressed as such.”
It can be frequently observed that the holder of barami acts
somewhat diferently from one asserting watsana. Barami
seems most appropriately located in one who is reserved, easily
self-controlled, one who accepts expressions of deference with
a becoming and undemanding modesty, one who is gracious
and listening. On the other hand, the charismatic expression of
watsana powers is energy in execution – a quick wit, physical
vigor, toughness of mind, an ability to come to a decision with
resolution. The dynamics of barami and watsana nicely
balance out the individualism inherent in Thai Buddhist
cosmology with more structured patterns of communal
interaction. There is indeed a Thai social structure, but as
famously said, it is nonetheless “loosely-structured.” The
accumulations of bun and bap provide for individualism
– each individual’s balance of bun and bap is unique, so,
consequently, each individual’s balance of rewards and
punishments must also be unique. But as individuals with
lesser endowments of barami and watsana attach themselves
as clients to others with greater such endowments, more
permanent networks of reciprocal relationships arise to
create a social dynamic constraining anarchic individualism.
If one’s station in life is fxed by the quantum of accumulated
merit, one can still progress towards greater security, wealth,
and status (and so gain resources with which to make more
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248 King by Virtue King by Virtue 249
merit) by partaking of the capacity of a patron. Similarly, one
who is able to act as patron can expand his or her presence as
a social actor by “borrowing” and the lesser merits of clients
and aggregating these potentials with his or her own barami
or watsana. And, so very nicely, those who help others less
fortunate than themselves earn bun, so acting as a patron
brings about enhancement of one’s karmic prospects.
Patrons need clients in order to live well just as clients need
patrons. Reciprocity, a kind of partnership, is the essence of
the relationship that binds individuals into networks of
mutual advantage. Hanks noted that, in his opinion, “The
crowning moment of happiness [for a Thai] lies in the
knowledge of dependable benefits distributed in turn to
faithful inferiors.”
M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, himself an inheritor of barami being
born to an important lineage within the royal Chakri family,
tellingly evokes the reassurance provided by patrons to their
clients in his novel Four Reigns as he imagines lives unfolding
within palace circles. At one point Khun Prem, husband to the
novel’s principal character – Mae Ploi – becomes promoted
to the rank of Phraya, with the position of Phraya Botaman
Bamrung. Mae Ploi’s chum, Choi, comes running over upon
learning of this auspicious turn of events. Choi bubbles
forthrightly to her old friend: “Humbly I pay you my respects,
chao kha. I place myself under you protection. May your
merited fortune spread its benefcent power over me!” Ploi
has come into barami thanks to her husband’s position,
a result, of course, of his good fortune. Now, Choi seeks to be
a client to gain advantages from the combined karmic
potentials of Ploi and her husband Prem.
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Some uncertainty accompanies patron/client relationships
from the client’s perspective, leading to shifting alliances
over time as clients seek out better “quality” patrons. The
efectiveness quotient of a patron’s barami or watsana is
limited and fixed by past accumulation of bun and bap.
The qualities that support patron-ship are not infinitely
expandable; they may prove to be inadequate to prevail in
changing circumstances, leading to a failure of patron-ship.
Under those conditions, clients will desert a patron to seek
another more ft for the times. Thais need an ability to “opt
out” of a patron/client relationship. Or, sensing a slippage of
capacity, a patron may seek subordination as a client under
the benevolence of a higher patron in order to protect his or
her existing client base.
The function of a patron is to use barami and watsana
efectively on behalf of clients. A patron’s position must
be constantly afrmed through demonstrations of efcacy.
The system works as a centrifuge to draw outer and lower
levels of patrons and clients in towards a center of power and
money.
Fear of being chained to an inadequate patron lies behind
the Thai concept of freedom. The word “Thai” means free
as opposed to slave or Kha. A person is free if he or she can
switch patrons; the slave is condemned to sufer the fate of
his or her master, for richer and for poorer.
Barami and watsana create power centers in individuals
not in structures or groups, introducing the potential
for change and evolution, and even breakdown, in political
relationships.
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Concluding Observations
The ethics of kingship in Thailand may not be comfortably
folded within standard patterns of Enlightenment
Rationality with its de-sacralized self that seeks to replace
the transcendental with objective data derived from
human observation. Such hubris is only another form of
obscurantism, a pedantry that marginalizes much that is
meaningful to the dignity of many people.
To appreciate the ‘Other’ has become a contemporary
test of ethical sensitivity and multi-cultural capacity. Not
to apply Thai paradigms to Thai behavior and expectations
seems both naive and churlish. This is not to say that non-Thai
paradigms have no relevance to the modernization of Thai
cultural, society and politics but a one-sided discourse serves
no constructive purpose when cultures interact.
King Bhumibol found in alignment with fundamental
Buddhist understandings of the human condition a form
of political skill that enabled him – in Thailand and among
Thais – not only to reign unchallenged for over six decades,
but to reign well for his people.
By side-stepping the darker demands of disenchantment
King Bhumibol built his virtue; through his virtue he gained
respect and reverence; from respect and reverence came 65
years of unchallenged rule as a constructive, constitutional
monarch.
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252 King by Virtue King by Virtue 253
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William J. Gedney (Trans). New Haven: HRAF Press.
Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit. (2003). A History of Thailand.
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Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit. (Trans and eds.)(2010). The Tale
of Khun Chang Khun Phaen. Siam’s Great Folk Epic of Love
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Borwornsak Uwanno. (2006). Ten Principles of a Righteous King and
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Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya. (2009). His Majesty the King
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254 King by Virtue

Stephen B. Young
6 West Fifth St., 3
rd
Floor Saint Paul, MN 55102
Phone: (651) 223 2852
www.cauxroundtable.org
Graduated from Harvard College Magna Cum Laude and Harvard
Law School Cum Laude, Young is an expert in cross-cultural business
management and ethical issues, author of Moral Capitalism, and
the Global Executive Director of Caux Round Table, an international
organization of senior executives aiming to promote ethical
business practice. Young was educated at the International School
Bangkok, speaks Thai and has published papers on Thai politics,
village culture and sufficiency economy philosophy. He was one
of the few pioneers to have discovered the Bronze Age site of Ban
Chiang in Thailand, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Richard Broderick
296 Cecelia Place St. Paul, MN 55105
Phone: (651) 699-0890, (651) 295-4521 cell
E-mail: richb@lakecast.com
With a background as an academic, historian, journalist, playwright,
and author, Richard Broderick has taken a leadership role in his
community in media analysis and criticism as well as in developing
alternatives to the mainstream media, as in his role in helping to create
the Twin Cities Media Alliance, a non-profit organization that
produces a daily online newspaper serving Minneapolis-St. Paul and
Minnesota. He is the author of five books and is the recipient of
numerous awards and honors for his work, including fellowships
from the Minnesota State Arts board, a Minnesota Book Award,
an International Award from the Atlanta Journal and more.
56-08-084_(014),001-258-1c_p .indd 255 12/3/13 9:02:28 PM

The Thai Khadi Research Institute
Thammasat University
Prachan Road, Bangkok 10200
Thailand
http://tkri.tu.ac.th
www.facebook.com/TKRI.TU

Established in 1971, the Thai Khadi Research Institute was the
first institution in Thai universities to promote research on Thai
society and culture. Its scope of research initially focused on human-
ities and historical research and documentation and was later
expanded to social sciences and rural development. Thus, social
sciences, arts and culture, and humanities have become the main
strengths of the Institute.
In addition to research works, the Institute also plays a vital role as
an academic network. It has continued to organize academic
activities, such as seminars and training; publish documentation
in the form of journals, pamphlets and books; and encourage
institutional linkages through an exchange of information and
researchers with overseas research institutes.

56-08-084_(014),001-258-1c_p .indd 256 12/3/13 9:02:29 PM

The Publication Committee
Editorial Board
Dr. Sumet Tantivejakul
Maj Gen M.R. Supawat Kasemsri
Professor Emeritus Dr. Suchit Bunbongkarn
Dr. Kittisak Prokati
Assistant Professor Wannee Samranvedhya
Mr. Amnaj Boonsirivibul
Ms. Suntaree Arsavai
Ms. Warunee Osatharom
Ms. Pensiri Prapasapong
Ms. Narisa Dejsupa
Project Director
Dr. Anucha Thirakanont
Members
Mr. Asa Kumpha
Mr. Chalermchai Chotisut
Mr. Ekkaphob Komolchat
Ms. Hataichanok Vanvilai
Ms. Jarucha Euangmitreepirom
Ms. Juntanee Puengtuan
Ms. Kanjana Laochockchaikul
Ms. Nathaya Songchalad
Ms. Natthapatchara Nakha
Mr. Pat Srisupob
Mr. Prasan Peuakhom
Ms. Siriporn Fhutragool
Ms. Soraya Surunyapruth
Ms. Supharom Prasatkaew
Ms. Tammarin Dejsupa
56-08-084_(014),001-258-1c_p .indd 257 12/3/13 9:02:29 PM

Acknowledgements
Our thanks go to all those who have given support in sharing their
experience, knowledge, and opinion with the author; some of them,
though, prefer to remain anonymous.
His Serene Highness Prince Bhisadej Rajani
Phra Maha Ratchakru Pithee Sriwisutthikun
Phra Anil Sakya
Professor Rapee Sagarik
Dr. Chirayu Isarangkul Na Ayuthaya
Dr. Priyanut Piboonsravut
Mr. Pramote Maiklad
Mr. Ekkasit Watanapreechanon
Mr. Nome Pongkanjananukul
Mr. Lae Sang-suk
Mr. Sanerh Mulasart
Mr. Paothong Thongchua
Mr. Weratham Trakulngeonthai
Ms. Chanida Chitbundit
Ms. Xia Sang Mei
Mr. Pirat Kamdee
Ms. Alee Limvanich
Ms. Ratree Panyachareon
Mr. Somsak Samrin
Mr. Ramrai Pansandu
Ms. Ketkaew Pansandu
Ms. Bang-orn Wangsida
Mr. Wiwit Preechakorn
The Royal Agricultural Station at Ang Khang
The Royal First Factory museum
The Royal Development Centre at Mok Jam
The Royal Chitralada Projects
Chang Hua Man Project
Chaipattana Demonstration Centre at Wat Mongkhon Chaipattana
Haad Sai Yai Forest Farm
Huai Sai Royal Development Study Centre
Phuphan Royal Development Study Centre
Photographic Credits
The Bureau of the Royal Household
The Ofce of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary
Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimonmangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan
The Royal Projects Foundation
The Chaipattana Foundation
Piriya Krairiksh Foundation

56-08-084_(014),001-258-1c_p .indd 258 12/3/13 9:02:29 PM
King by Virtue
56-08-084_(014),001-258-1c_p .indd 14 12/3/13 10:27:25 PM
“It was the Princess Mother
who taught King Bhumibol to touch the earth
even as he embodies the highest position in the land,”
says Rapee Sagarik.
“It was the Princess Mother who told him
that his name means ‘The Strength of the Land’
and that is what His Majesty has tried to be.”
ISBN 978-974-466-717-5