Visitors to Thailand are often struck by the number of portraits of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej usually with Her Majesty Queen Sirikit alongside that are prominently displayed in homes, shops, businesses, restaurants, places of entertainment, bus stations and airports. Many assume that because these pictures are so ubiquitous, their display must be mandatory.
They soon discover this is not the case at all. The pictures are displayed out of genuine respect and affection for Thailand’s monarch, and to honor the many services he has performed for his subjects out of compassion and benevolence.
During his 64-year reign, King Bhumibol has touched the lives of his people in a myriad of ways. Although he is often seen in regal splendor, gravely carrying out the arcane and ceremonial side of his duties, he is in a fact a working king in the most down-to-earth sense.
In June 2006, the kingdom celebrated the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne. One of the highlights of the occasion was a royal address to a huge crowd at Royal Plaza in the administrative heart of old Bangkok.
King Bhumibol’s speech and expression of gratitude to his subjects was instantly transmitted to the furthest reaches of his kingdom. Many in the packed crowd wept openly as they hung upon the words of the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history, revealing a heartfelt bond between monarch and subject that is widespread but private, and often very hard to explain to outsiders.
With the replacement of the absolute monarchy by constitutional democracy after the revolution of June 1932, the role of the monarch had been reduced to little more than a figurehead. Had King Bhumibol confined himself to that, enjoying life in his palace, the public, knowing the legal strictures placed on his political and administrative roles, would no doubt have accepted his choice as a rightful due. But he had other ideas.
"If people in remote areas are suffering, we cannot simply stay put in this paradise of a capital," King Bhumibol once observed.
In 1955 the royal couple made a historic journey the first-ever by a Thai monarch through Northeastern Thailand. It was an eye-opening foray into country life that revealed many instances of grinding rural poverty. As he toured, King Bhumibol talked with farming families about their aspirations and the challenges they faced.
When he returned to Bangkok, King Bhumibol ordered ponds be dug in the Chitralada Palace’s grounds. He stocked them with tilapia, a fast-growing fish whose fry could be released into rice fields to mature along with the rice. When harvested along with the rice, the fish provided families with a major source of protein and at no extra cost. Within a few years, millions of fingerlings had been donated to farmers in a royal project that continues to this day.
Drivers passing the Chitralada Palace, the main royal residence in Bangok, were soon doing double-takes as they glimpsed dairy cows grazing near the palace lawns. His Majesty built a small plant to transform the milk into tablets for distribution in hill villages beyond the reach of dairies. In other model projects, a demonstration forest was planted alongside experimental rice fields. Rice husks were meanwhile turned into long-burning logs, to preserve trees normally processed into charcoal, the traditional rural cooking fuel.
In the late 1960s, he began working with northern hill tribes, introducing lucrative new crops to wean them away from opium cultivation. Northern Thailand became abundant with produce often never tasted before: mushrooms, broccoli and apples, to name a few. Development lessons learned here have been applied in other parts of the world, most recently in Afghanistan which is still scourged by opium and poverty.
Recognizing that producing food without buyers benefits no one, King Bhumibol established marketing cooperatives, and encouraged the construction of roads to ensure that produce harvested in the hills reached Bangkok and other centres of population the next day.
A keen interest in engineering dating from his studies in Switzerland led him to tackle a key farming issue: water management and irrigation. Photographs of him striding across streambeds and fields, or talking with farmers with a contour map clutched in his hand, have become some of the defining images of the present reign. Well over 3,000 royal projects have been initiated.
So those portraits that appear on walls all across the nation have been placed there out of free choice.
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