MANY people in the United States eagerly awaited the private visit of Queen Sirikit of Thailand earlier this year. Americans are fascinated by royalty, and the coming of a reigning queen to their shores is always a stellar occasion. Her Majesty did not disappoint them. She was everything a queen should be. The dignity and yet natural friendliness with which she conducted the many social engagements won the hearts of all who met her. Whether it was dinner at the White House with the President and First Lady, a gala banquet at Palm Beach, or a less formal reception for Los Angeles' Thai community, Queen Sirikit's visit was reported in intricate detail. But in looking over those reports, it seems that one important reason for her visit was overlooked, or at least underestimated. Queen Sirikit came to. American shores on a mission-a mission she has shared with her husband King Bhumibol Adulyadej since they were crowned more than 30 years ago. On that day King Bhumibol made the traditional promise of all Thai kings: "We will reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Thai people." In their long reign together (the longest so far of any of the kings of the House of Chakri, which dates back 200 years to the founding of modern Thailand), King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit have devoted their lives to fulfilling that promise. From the beginning they have made it a practice to serve even the poorest of their people. King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit travel thousands of miles every year to all parts of Thailand. They spend long and often exhausting hours talking with their people, discussing their problems, observing firsthand their needs, and offering constructive help whenever possible. This remarkable devotion to Royal duties has strengthened the bond of love and respect that exists between the Thai people and their Monarchy, and the Thai throne is still a stable institution in a volatile part of the world. Queen Sirikit has been at her husband's side from the day she became queen. She sees herself as his loyal assistant, sharing his concern for the needs of all Thai people. It is to this that she has devoted her life. Her particular contribution has been the establishment of the SUPPORT Foundation. It was to further promote the Foundation that the Queen came to the United States.
Early in her reign, Her Majesty began to see that she could combine her interest in the traditional arts and handicrafts of Thailand with her desire to support her husband's efforts to help the rural people improve their standard of living. Most of Thailand's people live on the land, and many are very poor. In areas where the farmland will only support one crop a year there are several months where there is little for them to do. Her Majesty noticed that their clothes, jewelry, embroidery and household objects were often works of art, crafted with great skill and following time-honored designs. But as mass-produced consumer goods became readily available in Thailand, the skill to produce traditional handicrafts was dying out, and a part of Thailand's heritage was in danger of being lost forever. The Queen realized that if markets could be found for the rural people's work, the old skills could be preserved, and the months of idleness could be used for productive labor. The people would benefit from the extra income, and their standard of living would improve. This, then, is the idea behind the SUPPORT Foundation. Her Majesty has worked hard to reestablish traditional handicrafts in many regions of Thailand. For example, in the dry and agriculturally poor northeast the people are skilled silk weavers. Their specialty is tie-dyed or mudmee silk. The Queen has encouraged the women to preserve the complicated and time-consuming process, which produces a long-lasting, brilliant and beautiful fabric. In the south, Her Majesty has helped the rural people rejuvenate the art of Yan Lipao basket weaving. In the northeast and central regions, Thailand's ancient ceramic industry is being revived.
Help for the Hilltribes
The welfare of the Hilltribes of northern Thailand has long been a special concern for King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. These tribes have roamed the forests of the north, causing damage with their slash-and-burn agriculture. The Hilltribes have traditionally supplemented their meager income by cultivating the opium poppy. King Bhumibol has led the way in developing several agricultural replacement programs to encourage a more settled existence and the cultivation of alternative cash crops. Through SUPPORT, Queen Sirikit has assisted His Majesty by encouraging the production of handcrafted gold and silverware, for which the tribesmen have a natural talent. The Royal programs to help the Hilltribes have been successful, and Thailand's share of the notorious golden triangle opium harvest has dropped phenomenally. An important feature of the SUPPORT program has been the establishment of training workshops. Here villagers with inadequate incomes are invited to come for a period of training. Under expert teachers, arts and handicrafts that were in danger of being forgotten take on a new lease of life. Most trainees return to their villages with new skills that they can then teach others. Some of the most skillful are encouraged to stay longer, so they can continue to develop their abilities. The finest products of the SUPPORT workshops today rival the treasures made by Thailand's most skillful workmen of earlier times. The SUPPORT Foundation promotes the sale of these works of art, both in Thailand and around the world. The profits are passed on to the workers. Her Majesty brought to the United States a selection of fine workmanship by the SUPPORT craftsmen. The modern works of art were displayed alongside treasures from the Royal Collection of antiques from previous reigns.
Common Sense and Compassion
King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit have set the developing world a remarkable example. They have recognized that the best antidote to frustration, social unrest and revolution is to attack poverty at its source. Their way is not to make flamboyant gestures or endorse grandiose glamour projects that are too often the measure of "progress" in the developing world. Rather, the King and Queen have built a reputation based on thousands of small acts of consideration and kindness — tackling poverty at the grass-roots level. The Thai Royal family have understood how to help their freedom-loving people. They have worked to harness the natural momentum of village life rather than introduce radical change. "The spirit of self-sufficiency already exists in the remote areas," the Queen told American audiences. "We should try to promote and encourage this spirit, rather than allow it to be ended." The world should take notice of this quiet approach to nation building. Thailand may be, as Queen Sirikit self-effacingly pointed out, a "small country, half a globe away," but it conducts its affairs with common sense and responsibility. Thailand's rural poor do not ask for handouts — they ask for a chance. Through the SUPPORT Foundation, many get that chance. Their handicrafts marketed through the Foundation represent more than just a souvenir, or an exotic objet d'art from a faraway land. To own one — be it a gold masterpiece or a humble but exquisitely woven basket, an expensive silk gown or simple cotton blouse — is to own a special piece of Thailand. It is the work of a proud and free individual who is striving to build for him or herself a better future. The SUPPORT products reflect Thailand's heritage of the past and hope for the future. "We hope to contribute not only to the well-being of our own people, but also a little towards world peace and stability," the Queen explained. "With the shortage of energy looming ahead, we hope to prove that the self-sufficient village is a step forward in warding off poverty and starvation and not a step backward from modern world progress. In this manner, we shall have contributed in our small way to the world by at least being able to feed ourselves and not burdening the outside world. "And while self-sufficiency will satisfy our basic physical needs, we shall not forget to foster the old and traditional values which have satisfied our spiritual needs for the last 700 years. Therefore I hope that we shall be able to maintain, to preserve, the character of the Thai smile-serene, compassionate and friendly."
The Refugee Dilemma
Thailand's compassion has been put to the test by the hapless refugees from Laos and Cambodia who fled their homelands. Thousands of them are still huddled in temporary camps, facing an uncertain future. Queen Sirikit often referred to their plight while speaking to audiences in America. Thailand is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand "their house is full"; yet the refugees keep coming. International relief organizations help, but a great share of the load has fallen on Thailand's shoulders. The Thais have shown genuine nobleness in the handling of this desperate situation. Strained as their resources are, the Thais cannot bring themselves to abandon the refugees to their fate. It is just not the Thai way. So at sacrifice to itself, Thailand continues to bear the burdens of providing sanctuary. Queen Sirikit summed up her nation's attitude by quoting a rural farmer: "It is not that we are not poor. It is because we are poor and know [the] suffering of poverty that we must share and give help." Queen Sirikit impressed those who met her by her obvious loyalty and devotion to her duty — and to her husband. Her visit to America was a spectacular success. Her Majesty won the hearts of Americans wherever she went. But she is more than just a beautiful queen. She is also setting one of the most impressive examples of feminine leadership in the world today. While speaking in the Ambassador Auditorium on the Ambassador College campus in Pasadena, Her Majesty drew the audience's attention to one of the displays in the exhibition of Thai treasures. It was a painting depicting an important event in Thailand's history 400 years ago. In 1549 the King of Burma, at the head of a very powerful army, invaded Thailand (then known as Siam) and laid siege to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. The siege lasted for four months. Several times the Burmese nearly breached the Siamese defensesbut each time they were repulsed with heavy losses on both sides. The fighting grew more fierce with each passing day. Finally King Chakrapat of Siam decided to leave the protective walls that surrounded his capital and attack his opponent in the open in an all-out attempt to turn the tide. Unknown to him, his wife Queen Suriyodhaya disguised herself as a warrior and joined her husband in battle. At a critical point in the fighting, the Queen saw her husband was in danger of being killed. Immediately she drove her war elephant between the King and the source of danger, thus losing her own life. As she fell the Burmese general realized that he had killed a woman. He was so impressed with the courage of Queen Suriyodhaya that he withdrew his forces, even though he had gained the advantage. Queen Sirikit, in retelling this story, said that she was surprised that there is no monument in Thailand to this brave queen. But perhaps there is. Like her predecessor, Queen Sirikit has accepted her responsibility to be at her husband's side. She has placed herself in the forefront of the battle against her people's enemies today — ignorance, poverty and lack of opportunity-enemies that now pose a greater threat to the nation's welfare than any immediate invading army. May we respectfully suggest that Queen Sirikit herself is Thailand's living monument to Queen Suriyodhaya, reigning with the same loyalty and dedication as that courageous queen of long ago.