IN MEMORY OF HIS MAJESTY KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ
In undertaking this essay I am confronted with several problems. I feel impelled as an observer of local Thai culture to comment on the momentous passing of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of Thailand on Thursday evening, October 13, 2016. But how can I summarize 70 years of complex reign in 700 words? Should I even try? I have noticed that few of my Thai social media friends have dared to post anything and most who did, last Thursday between 4 and 8 p.m., quickly withdrew them. This is in marked contrast to previous royal events. I have decided to ignore warnings and tell you why our house enshrines appreciation for His Late Majesty.
I will write about my earliest personal reflections based on small incidents and what I have finally come to realize they meant.
In 1965 a student and I took my pea-green Honda 50 motorcycle up the challenging road to Doi Sutape Temple and on beyond to a concrete construction area where Phuping Palace was taking shape. The student’s uncle was one of the contractors. We saw an unfinished chalet, rose gardens, and then we left. The question of “Why here?” lingered. I had seen Chitlada Palace and the Grand Palace in Bangkok, both much bigger and more elaborate. Why this rather small additional one? – Phuping Palace, I believe was the first of others which signaled that the King and Queen were establishing national residence. They were not just tourists visiting every province by train, plane and van as the media this week have extensively reminded us. They were residents. They had an address up here in Chiang Mai, not just a government emissary or a representative in town. I count that as the most concrete signal the King sent that “I am your king, too.”
Not long afterward the King was presented a white elephant. Today the presentation grounds are a small sports field, parking lot and tall buildings of Maharaj Medical Center and the Chiang Mai University Faculty of Medicine. The little pavilion where the King and Queen waited is still there. The young elephant and a large procession came across the city from the railway station. There were Buddhist rites and Brahmin rites, an official naming ceremony, and a royal declaration of authenticity that this was a sacred, semi-divine being, an avatar and descendant of the gods. – The elephant was my first inkling that there are mysteries of a supernatural nature surrounding the King and his symbolic possessions. The King may be mortal, all too poignant a thought this week. He may be the scion of the social elite, and a central figure in the military-political power structure that runs the country. His prestige may ride on vast popular veneration and love from the people. But he is also the validating link between this land of plains, mountains, islands, cities and farms, and the inaccessible, eternal, cosmic, mysterious, mythic sphere of the divinities and all they represent between here and the Creator floating on the sea of milk when it all began.
Before many more weeks, Dick Mann and Rupert Nelson were leading the way to an ethnic Karen (Paw-ka-yaw) village. They were euphoric about their hill rice experiments, their few tentative coffee trees, and a gravity defying water system. I heard about Sundayevening meals when Marlene and the Queen made pizza in the just finished palace on the mountain and the “men” sat on stools and talked about agriculture. It was the servants’ night off so everyone could relax free of protocol. – To this day I believe some seeds of the King’s Royal Projects were planted there as the pizza baked. The initial effort of the Royal Projects was called “alternative crops”; they were meant to be viable alternatives to socially-destructive opium poppy growing and environmentally-destructive slash and burn hillside rice growing. By the King’s 60th anniversary on the throne in 2006 we all knew that the King had focused his whole reign on improvement of the prosperity of the agricultural population. Dependable water came first, then it got complicated, but His Majesty never, ever swerved from his interest in developing the self-sustainable welfare of his rural people. It was always about that. When we visited that Karen village the first time, the impression was they were migrants, temporary and unsure who they were. Just as importantly, others did not know who they were, either. Then the King dropped in for a visit, literally by helicopter. There was no road. He talked about agriculture. He asked what they needed to do it better. Five years later the change was amazing. Every house had a picture of the King. A couple had pictures of the King talking to residents of the house. There was a Thai flag in front of the school. There was a school! There was a road, and a pond. That village identified with the country because of the King. The governor no longer denied any knowledge of them. They belonged. Inclusion takes leadership.
My eyes mist over when I think what an accomplishment this was.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.