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11 Dec, 2011

Thais paying the price of hearing but not heeding the King’s words

Originally Published: 11 December 2011

Everything, they say in Thailand, is destiny. It was perhaps destiny that Thailand marked two major events on Dec 5 – the start of clean-up campaigns after one of the worst natural disasters in Thai history and the auspicious 84th birthday of His Majesty the King, the world’s longest reigning monarch, who more than four decades ago warned the Thai people that floods would remain a major problem, and offered some very specific advice on what to do about it.

On 26 November, a remarkable book on the life and work of the King was launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Designed partly to show how the King has spent a lifetime seeking to “improve the lives of the country’s farmers, whose livelihoods were defined by the vagaries of rainfall and drought,” the book is rife with passages about the King’s advice, warnings and recommendations on many aspects of Thai social, economic and environmental development. Specifically on floods, it says:

“As early as 1971, the King warned about the dangers of deforestation. “Some people wonder why I became interested in irrigation and forestry,” (the King is quoted as saying in one of his public statements). ” I remember when I was 10 years old, a science teacher who is now dead, taught me about soil conservation. We had to write: ‘there must be a forest on the mountain or the terrain will erode the soil and damage the mountain surface.’ This is a fundamental fact of soil and forest conservation and irrigation. If we fail to maintain the Highland forest, we will have problems ranging from soil erosion to sedimentation in dams and in rivers. Both can lead to floods.”

However, the book notes that “in spite of his best efforts and many speeches, deforestation had been endemic for decades as illegal loggers and poor farmers decimated the green colour that had canopied more than two thirds of the land at the end of the Second World War. Influential politicians were among the beneficiaries from illegal timber proceeds. Comparison of aerial photos with satellite photos over three decades had revealed a shocking result: the company had lost half its forest cover, from 53% of land, in 1961 to 26% by 1993.”

It adds, “The King’s own approach to deforestation was generally to leave nature to its own devices. In 1987, for example, a policeman gave him a plot of land on which all the trees had been cut down. Left entirely alone, today it is thick with trees. The King also recommended that forestry officials tried to “plant trees first in the hearts of the people”. People might then plant real trees and care for them. Despite his efforts and influence, the King’s message of protecting the environment has frequently fallen on deaf ears.”

Those words of advice are not the only ones to have fallen on deaf years. Just about every disaster and crisis in Thailand over the last 30 years has been the result of the Thai people hearing but not heeding the King’s words. In fact, we have been doing exactly the opposite. Today, as a visibly weak and frail monarch makes what could be his final public appearances, the Thai people are realising that they have no one to blame but themselves for the consequences.

In addition to advice on the ecology of Thailand, the King also went to the root of the 1997 economic crash. Says the book, ‘“In December 1997, during the financial crisis in Asia, the King used his birthday speech to relate some sobering anecdotes about people who came to him to borrow money. The point of the stories was that those who were modest in their requests, and careful in their expenditures, were able to repay loans and prosper. Those who failed had not studied their investment, had invested too much, lost control of the expenses, or took loans with onerous interest rates.” An entire chapter is devoted to the king’s concept of “sufficiency economy” which, at its core, cautions against greed and excess.

Entitled “King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work”, the coffee-table book was published by Editions Didier Millet and written by a team of journalists, authors and writers with long connections to Thailand. The editorial was supervised by an Advisory Board chaired by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun. It is an unauthorised biography; the King himself was neither interviewed nor consulted. The advisory board denies having whetted the content but says that its presence was mainly designed to ensure accuracy and verify the sources.

One primary objective of the book is to answer the question: “Why did he become one of the most revered Kings in Thai history?” The answer lies in its references to the word “moral”.

It says, “Over the course of his reign, the king’s speeches helped establish him as moral leader in times of national crisis and, in general, as a dispenser of wisdom and (dhamma) Buddhist teachings in the vein long conceived for Buddhist kings.” Another quote reads thus: “In time, through his words and deeds, the king himself became the nation’s moral compass. He exerted this influence through public speeches, notably his birthday addresses, as well as in his speeches to top government officials and private audiences.”

This is supported by a quote from former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun who, the book notes, consulted frequently with the King during his two spells in office. “The impact of the King’s teaching does not come from this power but from the judgment, his deeds and his moral authority — his baramee, all of the cumulative merit, from over 60 years or work on behalf of the people. His Majesty is a very good teacher, but he never, ever lectures. He tells stories, or he brings up issues and just talks about them. He doesn’t try to convince you — he wants to make you think.”

Indeed, this “moral” factor offers strong pointers for leaders in general. The book says that a Buddhist monarch carries tremendous responsibility and is bound to observe the 10 virtues of kingship. They include generosity, moral conduct, self-sacrifice, honesty and integrity, gentleness, perseverance, freedom from hatred, ill-will and enmity, patience, forbearance and tolerance, and steadfastness and justice. “A king who follows these moral precepts ensures order and happiness in his kingdom.”

Says the book, “The Buddhist rules of kingship thus act to check the potentially unmitigated power of the king and present him with a clear social contract. As Sovereign, he is accorded tremendous respect and power, but he enjoys the status only because his subjects, believing in his worthiness, assent to it.”

One important feature is an account of what must have been one of the most devastating moments in the king’s life, him being there just seconds after hearing the fatal shot that killed his brother King Ananda on 9 June 1946. Clearly, an event like that does not go without scarring any individual and must have had a deep psychological impact on him, especially as its circumstances have never been clarified.

Then follows an engrossing narrative of the king’s life as Thailand battled the swirling winds of change – global and regional wars, communism, military and great power rivalries, the first major crisis in 1973, when the king was drawn for the first time into the political fray, and then again in 1992 and the various coup attempts over the years. This is clearly a king who has seen it all, and unlocks the secret of why the king never smiles – probably because he does not see much to smile about.

In fact, a close examination of book’s pictures show a clearly happy and smiling king in the early part of his reign becoming more serious, melancholy and almost despairing and depressed towards the latter part. If pictures tell a thousand words, this sequence does the job very well. For a moral king to reign over an immoral people can be a hard job, indeed.

Because it is about arguably the last great leader of his generation, the book yields critical lessons for individuals, countries, societies and even corporate leaders, and also poses the burning question: If Thailand has enjoyed the competitive advantage of being blessed with a great leader over the last six decades, why is the country cursed by being in the mess it is today?

There are two flaws in the book: The first is the inclusion of two sections that purport to take a “fresh look at the carefully examined and often misunderstood institutions related to the throne, including the Crown Property Bureau and Privy Council, and includes essays on Thailand’s law of lese majeste and the process of succession.”

These are welcome additions to public discourse but incongruous under the theme of “A Life’s Work”. Instead of keeping the attention focussed on the king’s work, they deflect from it, which is exactly what happened at the FCCT event when several questions were related to the lese majeste issue rather than the book. The section on the CPB will no doubt open a few doors for business and financial writers in Thailand to further probe its dealings.

The second flaw is the scant mention of the king’s regard for the country’s Muslim, Christian and Sikh minorities. There is ample evidence in the public domain about the king’s appreciation of the positive role the minorities have played in nation-building, especially in line with his promise to rule for ALL the people of Thailand. Most references to Muslims, for example, are in relation to the problem in South Thailand, ignoring the decades of positive contribution that its politicians, academics, businessmen, diplomats and military personnel have made, and which the King is well aware of.

Nevertheless, as Thailand begins to seriously reflect on life after the King, issues like public criticism and discourse, transparency and accountability will come to the fore. The country may realise that heeding rather than merely hearing the king’s words may be absolutely necessary if his Life’s Work is not going to be a total waste.