“A King for All Seasons:
An article marking Thailand’s
Business Times, Friday 3 December 1999
The financial crisis that erupted in Thailand in 1997 not only sent shockwaves throughout the world. It also provoked a debate, still ongoing, about what kinds of economic development strategies are best for developing countries.
In Thailand itself, the debate has involved a considerable element of soul-searching. As the economy begins to show signs of recovery, Thais are asking themselves whether the record-setting growth the country enjoyed for one giddy decade was worth the social and environmental distress wrought in the name of progress. Once Thailand gets back on its feet, how can it achieve development that is balanced, equitable and sustainable?
The crisis has led the Thai people to discover anew the ideas of their beloved monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who celebrates his 72nd birthday anniversary, this December 5, and in whose honor the Thai people have organized special events year-round to express their devotion and gratitude.
Since he acceded to the throne 53 years ago, His Majesty has, through his ideas and actions, truly proven himself to be Thailand’s guiding light.
Although he has no political power, the reverence in which His Majesty is held by the Thai people has made him a pillar of stability and unity in the often tumultuous history of Thai political development. In the turbulent political crises that occasionally punctuated the country’s struggle towards democracy, a few words from the King, who is constitutionally above the fray of politics, would be enough to calm the raging storm.
His Majesty’s impact on rural development has also been tremendous, though not always fully appreciated by the general Thai public until the 1997 economic meltdown. The soul-searching that followed the crisis prompted the Thai people to look more closely at the life’s work of their King and what he has been saying all along.
His Majesty has long been known as a polymath, a master of diverse disciplines spanning the arts – including jazz music, literature and painting – and the sciences – including meteorology, agronomy and hydrology. His work on development reveals a passionate sense of noblesse oblige for helping the poorest and most disadvantaged of his people. It is a trait that has rubbed off on those close to him.
“Ever since I was young,” recalls his daughter, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, “I've seen that His Majesty the King, Her Majesty the Queen and Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother were always busy trying to find ways to help better the living conditions of the Thai people.
“Following him around, I have witnessed the hardship my compatriots are facing. That makes me feel I should help with whatever I could. I shouldn't be idle. So when I grew up and had the ability to help, I just did it automatically, following His Majesty's instructions and guidelines.”
Indeed, those who receive His Majesty’s greatest attention are those least able to help themselves.
Throughout his reign, His Majesty has devoted himself to improving the lot of his subjects, especially the vast rural majority of small farmers, who gained little from the economic boom years. Although praised as the backbone of the nation, Thai farmers tend to be at the mercy of the weather, government authorities and market price fluctuations.
His Majesty’s work sought to break that cycle of dependency and empower farmers to enjoy an adequate quality of life, in harmony with nature and their community surroundings.
The fruit of his efforts was a profound and profoundly pragmatic development philosophy evolved from decades of hands-on experience and experimentation.
Rather than a one-size-fits-all answer provided by central authorities, His Majesty encourages solutions to take into account local wisdom and needs, presaging the idea of “ownership” now current in development policy circles. Rather than farmers devoting all their land to growing cash crops, he has devised a formula for mixed land use, so that farmers have enough food for their own needs before selling the surplus. Rather than embracing a bigger-is-better mentality, he advocates simple technologies appropriate to local conditions and resources. Long before sustainable development became a catchphrase, His Majesty was already putting the idea into practice.
The appeal of His Majesty’s methods is that they are simple, low-cost, environment-friendly, use readily available materials, and work as intended.
As the King is a great proponent of the scientific method, each idea is carefully tested time and again both in controlled settings and in the field.
His Majesty’s approach to agriculture, known as New Theory farming, is being discovered by a growing number of Thai farmers to be an effective antidote to high-debt, cash-crop monoculture, with its reliance on the capriciousness of middlemen and far-away markets.
His Majesty’s emphasis on empowerment of people and communities is based on his intimate knowledge of the country, gleaned from travelling to every nook and cranny of Thailand, talking with the people, learning their problems, helping them find solutions.
Various institutions and learning centers have been established to disseminate these ideas to those who need them most – the villagers.
Six Royal Development Study Centers, or “living museums,” in the various regions of the country serve as laboratories where His Majesty conducts experiments in reforestation, irrigation, land development and farm technology to find effective techniques that villagers in each region can apply in line with their needs and circumstances.
Thousands of royally-initiated development projects, including the “Royal Rain” cloud-seeding program and the internationally recognized vetiver grass cultivation campaign to stop soil erosion, have brought relief and hope to villagers across the nation.
The Chaipattana Foundation, established in 1988, coordinates the various projects and serves as a valuable adjunct to government efforts at rural development, often by cutting through bureaucratic red tape and getting help to where it is most urgently needed.
His Majesty’s encyclopedic first-hand knowledge of Thailand and its people led to the conclusion that there is more than one path to – and certainly more than one definition of – development:
“I have often said that to become a ‘tiger’ is not important,” said His Majesty on December 4, 1997. “The important thing for us is to have to have a decent standard of living and sufficient food to eat – a self-sufficient economy. A self-sufficient economy means having enough to get by… It does not mean that each family must produce its own food, weave and sew its own clothes. That would be going too far, but I mean that each village or each district must have relative self-sufficiency…”
The term “self-sufficient economy” is loosely translated from the Thai “settakit por piang.” While self-sufficiency as understood in mainstream economics suggests a go-it-alone attitude in splendid isolation from the rest of the world, the Buddhist-influenced concept of settakit por piang emphasizes a reduction of greed and desire, so that the individual can live comfortably and find contentment within his means.
At a time when economic success and excess tend to be taken as synonymous, the concept of settakit por piang is a call for moderation and mindfulness, a corrective for rampant commercialization and consumerism.
His Majesty recognizes as well as anyone that the onslaught of globalization is all but irresistible and that there is no turning back the clock.
At the same time, he also recognizes that different segments of the Thai population are not equally equipped or prepared to deal with turbo-capitalism and its side effects.
Bangkok, with its more sophisticated infrastructure and population, probably has more in common with other modern megacities of the world than it does with the Thai countryside. His Majesty therefore stresses that settakit por piang does not need to apply to the entire economy: a quarter would be sufficient as a buffer against the vicissitudes of the globalized marketplace.
This self-avowed “unsophisticated” idea, which has helped countless Thai farmers emerge from debt and take charge of their own lives, is but one aspect of His Majesty’s philosophy.
Much of his vision for the country is said to be reflected in his latest literary oeuvre, Mahajanaka, a retelling of one of the Buddha’s ten lives before attaining enlightenment. With its emphasis on perseverance, self-reliance and cultivation of wisdom, this ancient allegory for modern times is regarded by many Thais as offering a viable alternative path to development which eschews the excesses of unbridled capitalism while remaining compatible with the laws of the market.
The last century for Thailand has been a time of dramatic change and upheaval. During that time, Thailand has successfully adapted to wave after wave of global change, while managing to keep its identity intact.
As the pace of change has quickened over the past few decades, Thailand has been fortunate enough to have a monarch with the wisdom, foresight and compassion to point the country in a balanced, hopeful direction as it enters the new millenium. Now that Thailand is experiencing economic recovery, the challenge for the Thai people will be to absorb the King’s message of moderation and mindfulness and follow his example.