In a world where leaders often falter, Thailand's King and Queen show there is another way to reign.
WHAT is the mark of greatness that should distinguish world leaders today? Most heads of state are well-educated, hard-working men and women who desire to use their positions of authority to improve the lives of their people. But heads of state must also live with a political atmosphere of competition, envy, intrigue and petty jealousies. To often they must contend with small-minded, self-seeking subordinates who share their power, but not their dreams. Often they face pointed criticism and ridicule from the media, knowing that a small mistake, a slip of the tongue, or a well-intentioned but misguided policy will be seized upon as evidence of corruption and incompetence. For some, the price of failure is exile, imprisonment or the assassin's bullet. It should therefore not surprise us that a few disillusioned world leaders resort to oppression and brutality in order to preserve their precarious positions of power. And IS It any wonder that even in the democracies, leaders have resorted to media tricks and use of public funds to influence voters and secure reelection? Perhaps they know of no other way.
Reigning with a Difference
There is another way. A head of state can decide to lead by example. Eschewing politics and petty rivalries, a leader can magnify that position as the leader of the people by becoming the humble servant of them all. In the course of history, few have had the courage to try this way. Among the exceptions, in this generation, are King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand. We have written articles before about this dedicated Royal couple (see International Desk" The Other Land of the Free," July-August 1983). This — and we make no apology for it — is another one. For nearly four decades King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit have set the world an outstanding example. They have shown that a nation can be encouraged and the lives of its people improved when the head of state follows the path of kindness, patience and generosity — the way of giving and sharing. King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit travel thousands of miles each year learning about the needs of the people and seeking solutions to their problems. The work of the King and Queen has taken them to every part of their kingdom. No province is too small or village too remote to receive a Royal visit. We were privileged, while visiting Thailand recently with editor in chief Herbert W. Armstrong, to be able to spend several days observing the King and Queen working among their people. In a short article, we cannot describe all the events of those crowded days. But two incidents will show the style of leadership of Thailand's King and Queen — a style that marks them as leaders with a difference.
Building the Nation
At a village high in the forest — clad mountains of Chiang Mai Province the King had come to inspect the site of a new irrigation project. This was not just a ceremonial visit. His Majesty, a trained engineer, is personally concerned with all aspects of the development of rural Thailand. Thailand is making good progress. But the King knows that progress must be cautious if the countryside is not to be damaged. Thailand's upland forest reserves have already been depleted by greedy log poachers and by the indiscriminate slash-and-burn agriculture used by opium-producing Hilltribes. Such shortsighted exploitation has caused irreparable damage to Thailand's watershed areas. The whole nation would suffer serious consequences if it were allowed to continue. The Hilltribes have traditionally grown the opium poppy, and especially in recent years as a cash crop. From their limited perspective, they have not understood the damage this has inflicted on the country. The challenge is to convince them of the benefits of abandoning highly destructive opium poppy cultivation in favor of cereals, fruits, vegetables and other cash crops. They could be forced to comply, of course, but that is not King Bhumibol's way. He knows that to help the people he must win their trust, and trust can never be gained by threats. That is why he tries to visit each new site in person. The site of this proposed reservoir could only be reached by a narrow track through the open forest. The King set a fast pace, as he led the party of officials. It was an informal situation, and yet all held the King in great respect. In return, he respects his country — every square foot of it. Gently he rebuked a photographer who had been too enthusiastic in crashing through the underbrush at the side of the trail to get a better vantage point. Nature must be looked after if it is to serve us, the King reminded him. After several minutes of brisk walking we reached a point overlooking a proposed dam site. The King had significant questions to pose as he keenly observed the area with reference to a carefully marked large-scale map. The King is rarely seen without a map on his visits to rural areas. Few heads of state know their nation as well as King Bhumibol knows Thailand. During his long reign he has visited every part of his realm, and each visit is preceded by hours of careful map study. He knows that the location of even a small dam is of great importance. Where should it go so that it will do the most good for the people and yet not harm the environment?
All Sides of the Question
After discussing the project with government officials, the King next conferred with local leaders, asking them for their evaluation of the new project. He listened to them patiently, carefully noting any reluctance or hesitation. The local leaders were simple tribesmen, but His Majesty's manner quickly put them at ease. This was not a public relations exercise. The King genuinely wanted to know how they felt. He talked to them quietly, sincerely, more like their elder brother than one with great authority. As he gradually won the confidence of the tribal leaders, they began to tell him their reservations about the irrigation project. Will the new dam and reservoir flood their lands? they asked. Who will compensate them for this? And how will they live until the new fields are brought into production? How will they get their produce to market? Who will buy it? The King made a careful note of their questions. Encouraged, they opened up even more. After careful consideration of their reservations, His Majesty asked if there was perhaps an alternative site for the dam — one that would not take up their land. There was — but it was not as good from the engineering standpoint, since the resulting reservoir would hold less water. But the King agreed to consider this alternative.. After inspecting both sites he advised the local officials to go slowly. It was better first to demonstrate on a small scale the benefits of irrigation and crop substitution. Once the tribesmen were convinced, they themselves would ask for a bigger dam and more water. It would take time and patience, but in the long run it would win the people over to a more settled way of life. Those who work with the King have learned to trust his judgment in these matters. After talking further with King Bhumibol the tribesmen agreed to stop the future growing of opium poppies and to plant substitute crops with the irrigation waters provided by the new dam.
Servants of All
Come with us now to the provincial center of Phayao where the King and Queen were to spend a day visiting with the local people. Does any other nation have an occasion quite like this? There cannot be many other places on earth where the bond of love and respect between rulers and subjects is so plain to see. Under a makeshift shelter shielding them from the bright sun, a few thousand people were sitting quietly on the ground. They had been waiting since early morning. A detachment of the Royal Guards was on duty to provide coordination and security. They looked alert and competent, but at the same time, they were helpful and friendly. Theirs is a pleasant task compared to the paranoid suspicion body guards usually show. This King does not walk in fear among his people. About 1 p.m. the blue and orange royal helicopter swooped in over the trees and set down on a makeshift landing area. As the dust settled and the rotors slowed to a stop, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit stepped out to be greeted formally by local officials. Accompanying the King and Queen was their daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who shares her parents' devotion to duty and passion for hard work. The Royal Family greeted the local officials, and then quickly moved in among the people. Soon the Queen was sitting on a straw mat and talking earnestly with a peasant family. A secretary and ladies-in-waiting kneeled nearby, rapidly taking notes on the conversation. Like her husband, the Queen concerns herself with the needs of Thailand's rural poor, and the Royal Family have devoted their lives to helping wherever and whenever they can. Members of the royal staff had already spent several hours talking with the people. Those with special needs had been taken to a position where they could be sure to talk personally with the King, Queen or Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. The palace staff summarized each individual's or family's needs on sheets of paper that were pinned on their clothing. To save embarrassment some of the more intimate and confidential details were written in English, which the Royal Family understand perfectly, but the local people cannot. A widow was brought to the Queen. She was dressed in tattered clothes, and looked so sad and downcast. Her Majesty talked to her in a friendly way, while scanning the details pinned to her old coat. The widow and her children were always hungry since her husband died. Her oldest child was retarded. But the widow had no skills and could only earn 20 baht (about a dollar) a day. She needed medical aid for the children, clothes for herself and a proper home. Was there anything Her Majesty could do to help? Close by, another family was pleading their case quietly to the Princess. They also were landless. The man was a widower. He had six children, and some of them were' sick. He was desperate with worry. But as he poured out his story to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, his eyes filled with hope. The Queen and Princess always listen carefully, then ask pointed questions. Would the family members be willing to learn a trade so that they can support themselves? It is better to solve the problems permanently rather than offer short-term solutions. Thailand's rural people are potentially very talented, but often the traditional handicrafts that come from their areas show insufficient care in workmanship. The Queen has established the SUPPORT Foundation for the purpose of promoting and preserving rural handicrafts. Several workshops have been established at royal expense where the poor can be taught to produce quality work. Basket making, silk weaving, wood carving and other traditional handicrafts are taught alongside more modern vocational skills, such as dressmaking and the repairing of agricultural machinery. One of the SUPPORT workshops is on the grounds of the Phuping Palace overlooking Chiang Mai. The workshop is personally supervised by the King and Queen's youngest daughter, Princess Chulabhorn. (Her Royal Highness gave us a personal tour, even though she was ill and acting against her doctor's orders.) At these workshops, even the most destitute and handicapped Thais have an opportunity to learn to support themselves. When these training opportunities were offered to the widow and the widower from Phayao, they gratefully accepted. The Queen moved on to talk to a young mother with a bright little boy, who had been born without arms or legs. Her Majesty's eyes glistened with compassion as she sat down in front of the tragic infant. The mother needed practical help more than sympathy. Once again, training opportunities were offered, nearer to a city where the little fellow could be given specialized training. Meanwhile King Bhumibol had been talking to two sisters, reputed to be 108 and 101 years old. The elderly ladies had waited one and a half lifetimes to meet their King! He greeted them warmly and respectfully, and asked after their health. They were tired, they said. And one of them had a cough. King Bhumibol summoned his personal physician, who took a stethoscope and gave the elderly lady a checkup. Yes, there was a bit of a chest problem. The physician quickly wrote out a prescription for free medicine and vitamins. A soldier took the prescription over to the team of volunteer doctors and ladies-in-waiting volunteering as nurses who always accompany the King and Queen on their visits. The King spent several more minutes talking to the elderly sisters before moving on. In this manner the Royal Family made their unhurried progress through the ranks of patiently waiting people. Each genuine need was carefully listened to, and constructive help offered. The village people were happy. They sensed that the Royal Family's concern for them was genuine. The simple gifts that the people had brought — a few pieces of fruit perhaps, some vegetables — even a puppy — had been accepted graciously. Every effort is made to make a royal visit a positive and uplifting experience for everyone. No one, it seemed, was overlooked or brushed aside. By late afternoon the royal visit was a long way behind schedule. "It's usually this way," a palace official explained, "because nobody must ever feel left out." The helicopters eventually left long after dark, a few hours behind schedule. Tomorrow it would be the same again, and the next day, and the next. It is exhausting work, for Thailand is an extensive country and there is so much that needs to be done.
A Stable Throne
This is why the Thai Monarchy remains a stable institution in today's turbulent world. They reign with gentleness and gain cooperation with kindness. They genuinely love their people — and the people love them. King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit have shown for nearly 40 years — during which, nations around Thailand have known strife and civil wars in which leaders have been deposed, exiled or assassinated — that there is another way to lead a country. It is to their credit that their nation has remained a comparative haven of serenity. Thailand is not perfect by any means. But it is a much better place for having a Royal Family who know that heads of state must first be humble servants. Their example is contagious. All who work with King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit seem to share their spirit of sacrifice and phenomenal devotion to duty. "It is a privilege and a pleasure to serve with such a King," a senior lady-in-waiting told us. One day all the world's people will be ruled by selfless leaders. But not until this terrible age is over in which all nations — even Thailand — live under the shadow of nuclear extinction. Soon, the great Creator and Sustainer of all life will intervene to prevent humans from utterly destroying themselves. Then will dawn a wonderful age when all people — great and small — will learn to live in harmony, peace and prosperity. The day is coming when no human leader will have to live in fear, clinging to power with force and cruelty. They will learn that the way of greatness is to encourage a people and to build a nation by gentleness, kindness, generosity and patience. King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit have accepted their responsibility and have set an example by choosing this way.