A VISIONARY MONARCH: His Majesty the King's holistic vision of development has been widely hailed as a beacon that will guide Thailand towards a sustainable path. But what will it take to transform the royal initiatives into a working reality? Before that can happen, there must be not only long-overdue bureaucratic and educational reforms, but also a paradigm shift for each and every one of us
When the newly-graduated teacher, Somboon Seriwesarat, told her relatives she intended to be posted to Phra Saeng district in the southern province of Surat Thani, all of them were horrified. Thirty years ago, the small, remote district could only be reached by a week-long cruise along the circuitous Tapi River. It was no dreamland, either. The young teacher could expect scarcely anything but poverty, hunger and endless hardship.
But after being inspired by news footage showing His Majesty the King boarding a helicopter to help people at Phra Saeng, the then 25-year-old Khru Somboon convinced everyone she could do it.
``If even His Majesty could go to such a harsh and far-away place, why couldn't I?'', she recalled thinking at the time. ``He is the most important person in the Kingdom, but he is taking risks and enduring difficulties to help the poor people. I am just a small person. Why can't I do something good for the country?'' Since her first day at Phra Saeng's small, ramshackle school -- too old and leaky in those days even to provide shelter from the rain -- Khru Somboon has worked tirelessly, persuading children to come to study, raising funds for poor students' lunch, and establishing a public library.
Khru Somboon is now 57 years old. Her dedication has turned the tiny, leaky-roof school into a permanent building, and the number of studentsattending it has increased from fewer than one hundred to seven hundred.
The education she has worked so tirelessly to promote has also provided a firm foundation for the development work that has helped the once forsaken district to transcend its long history of poverty.
Khru Somboon's achievements have been possible because of her understanding and unwavering devotion to the rural development cause championed by the King. Sadly, few Thais have comprehended his ideas as fully as Khru Somboon has, or worked so untiringly to put them into practice.
Dr Sumet Tanti-vejkul, former secretary-general of the Office of the Board of the Royal Development Projects and one of the King's close aides, remarked that when it comes to sustainable development, His Majesty has been a solitary leader.
Why is that so? There is no doubt that the King is Thailand's best-loved guiding light. His vision of self-sufficiency governed by Buddhism, developed after several decades of working to improve the life of poor country people, has been recognised both in Thailand and abroad as wise and insightful -- a much-needed map that the country must follow if it is to survive and prosper.
When it comes to embarking on this crucial journey, however, Thailand does not seem disposed to follow the royal map. Every year, top policy makers gather to listen attentively to the King's insightful birthday speeches. But instead of taking the wisdom they contain to heart and steering the country along the course he envisions, these politicians and bureaucrats direct their efforts in the opposite direction in conformity with the profits-first modernisation paradigm that Thailand has followed during the past several decades, and which eventually led to the 1997 economic crash.
In the deep gloom that followed that disaster, the King, in his 1998 birthday speech, once again offered a ray of hope with his message of self-sufficiency and its curative properties. It caught on quickly with the public. It is no exaggeration to say that now most Thais know it by heart.
``It is not important to be an economic tiger,'' the King said. ``What matters is that we have enough to eat and to live. Self-sufficient economy will provide us just that. It h elps us to stand on our own and produce enough for our consumption.'' Everybody loves and respects the King. Many agree that His Majesty could not be more right about self-sufficient economy as a step towards a balanced development that will sustain both human beings and the natural environment. Why, then, is Thailand still aggressively pursuing the same, precarious course of economic growth that sent us into an economic tailspin only a few years ago?
SELF-SUFFICIENCY GOVERNED BY BUDDHISM
Dr Prawase Wasi, a highly-respected social critic, has noted that the reign of King Rama IX has coincided with a period of enormous transition in Thailand's economy and society. In the half-century since 1946, the year His Majesty ascended to the throne, the country has been radically reshaped by two powerful forces -- modernisation and widespread embracing of materialistic values -- both of which have had their destructive side, leading to the adoption of a money-centred strategy as the national deve lopment paradigm.
As has become increasingly evident, the unbalanced focus on economic expansion pursued by government after government has damaged the fabric of Thai society, creating wealth for a small elite while leaving the rural poor as hungry and discontented as ever. Natural resources were sold and the environment polluted to generate maximum profits in the short term. Throughout this era of increasing imbalance and deterioration, the King has been the sole integrating force of the Kingdom.
``His Majesty was born and raised in Switzerland,'' Dr Prawase said, ``but unlike many western-educated technocrats, who have simply discarded local wisdom for foreign ideas, he has a profound understanding of Thai society. He has gone out to make personal contact with the poor in all parts of the country. His Majesty is well aware of what problems the majority of people are facing.'' Firsthand knowledge, accumulated in the course of His Majesty's countless trips to almost every corner of Thai land, no matter how remote, has shaped the principles that govern the King's approach to rural development: Respect the local landscape and culture. Listen to the people; let them be your teachers. Think far and wide, but remember that its final goal is the well-being of the people. Persuade, never impose. And while pursuing material security, don't forget to strive for an inner peace of mind through spiritual purification.
These messages have been thematic in the King's numerous speeches and in the way in which he has conducted his more than 2,000 royal development projects since taking the throne 53 years ago. In contrast to the state's centralised, uniform approach to solving the problems of the poor, His Majesty emphasises that there is no ready-made formula for development that will suit the needs of everyone, everywhere. Over time, one general guiding concept, distilled after decades of working with the poor in different regions, has come to stand out, the central importance of s elf-reliance as a prerequisite for improvement in the quality of life of the rural poor.
``Developing a country must be done step by step. First, we have to build the fundamentals. The majority of people must have enough to eat and to meet their basic needs,'' the King said in one of his speeches 20 years ago.
The concept of self-reliance goes beyond managing a household or community economy -- producing enough to live on while preserving the integrity of the environment, which is the universal life-support system -- for sustainable living. It is not only a matter of physical health, but also mental balance. The key to self-sufficiency lies in the eradication of greed, in knowing what is enough. ``This does not mean becoming stagnant or shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world.
Self-reliance means ``por yuu, por kin'', or producing enough to feed ourselves. When our stomach is full and our mindattuned to the idea of moderation, we will have the basic requirements for secure living . If we expand outward from this solid base, we will not lose our way easily,'' Dr Prawase explained.
His Majesty's New Theory concept of integrated farm management is in essence a system of managing resources so that villagers have everything they need for domestic consumption right in their back yard. It helps insure farmers against external risks such as a drop in farm prices.
When the goods they produce exceed their household demand, they can sell them to the market, thus proceeding from ``por yuu, por kin'' to ``kin dee, yuu dee'', or ``eat well and live well''.
The King's farsightedness includes his emphasis on agriculture. He realises that farming has more meaning to rural families than an industrial-style system of production. For an agrarian society, farming forms culture. According to Dr Prawase, the King's maintaining a demonstration rice field and rice mill in the compound of Chitralada Palace is a subtle way of sending the message to those in power, who were loud in their cla ims that agriculture would fade as a base for Thailand's production profile. The future, they declared, would be industrialisation. It is unfortunate for Thailand that the resulting fit of materialism, manifested in an economic model based on greed, overpowered good sense. His Majesty's message of slow but stable development was lost on the country's policy makers.
It is interesting to note that the term ``khao jai'' (to understand) in Thai literally means ``to enter one's heart''.
Every new Cabinet has a chance to listen to His Majesty's speeches, with their wise insights into the situation of the nation. But obviously these ideas never Êenter their hearts''. Bent on making as much money in as short a time as possible, successive Thai governments have adopted rapid industrialisation and cash-crop monoculture as the national development strategies since the 1960s.
``His Majesty endorses a development approach that is centred on people -- how to empower them and enhance their capacity to stand on their own feet,'' Dr Sumet stressed.
``This course will lead to a more sustainable society but it also takes time. We are not talking about one or two years, but 10 years or even a lifetime. Apparently, the government, or society in general, is not that patient.'' Fast-track growth went down in 1997, causing pain to millions of people, especially those who had no financial safety net.
According to Dr Prawase, the country committed three major mistakes during the past decades. First, we traded our natural resources and the environment for money. Second, we promoted industries based on imported technology. Then, we supplied them with cheap labour, available after the above-mentioned depletion of natural resources. Third, we borrowed money to speculate in a bubble economy.
``These policies all went against the principle of self-reliance that His Majesty has been trying to teach us for so many years,'' Dr Prawase said.
A HOLISTIC APPROACH BASED ON LOCAL RESPECT
The Yadana Gas Pipeline. Pak Moon Dam. Or Ban Krud Power Plant. All of them stir up a similar train of uneasy memories. During the past few decades, news about conflicts between the government and local people, who reject what the former term a ``development project'' because it is not what they needed, has been increasingly frequent.
Locked into a Êstate-knows-best'' mentality, the government continues to conceive project after project, often without consulting the local people who will be affected by it, and then impose it on a community they assume to be in need of it. Such undertakings result in a waste of resources and failure to make life any better for the poor majority.
These bureaucrats could have learned a thing or two from their King.
Before initiating a project, His Majesty always studies the place and the people who will be affected carefully. He makes sure of what their real needs are, and then bases his work on scientific research and firsthand knowledge of the landscape and culture.
His Majesty's concern for getting things right is evident in this royal speech: ``When we set out to do development work, we use a flat piece of land as a flat piece of land and a mountain as a mountain. We design our land use planning according to the natural topography. This is because the landscape is far bigger than us. It is more difficult to move the landscape around than to move our self. In this case, our `self' means our body, brain and ideas. Going along with the geography is one principle of development.
``That is not all. There is still a sociological landscape, meaning people's lifestyle and culture. We can't force people to think the way we want them to. We can only give advice based on their way of living.
Most of the time, people do not resist advice. They resist people who seek to re-arrange their geography or society. Development workers of this type run against a wall. They end up hurting themselves while those they attempt to help feel nothing because they are behi nd the wall.
Such a practice is a waste for every party concerned,'' His Majesty said.
Dr Sumet, who has served the King for 19 years, said the first thing His Majesty always does after getting out of the car is ask people a variety of questions: their farm yields, the condition of the soil, the amount of rain or the closest waterway.
``His Majesty often said it is better to work hard first than to be exhausted later, when things do not turn out as planned. He always has his informal public hearing, talking to people for hours on end. If there are people who disagree with his project, then he sets up a committee that includes every stakeholder so that they can talk things through.'' Dr Sumet added that no work will be done unless every party agrees to do it. Some royal projects have actually been put on hold because of a lack of consensus.
The sight of His Majesty sitting on the ground talking to villagers is familiar to most Thais. It is both ironic and significant, therefore, that th e phenomenon of a high-ranking bureaucrat kneeling down to chat with villagers about their livelihood is such a rarity.
Although they are known as civil servants, many bureaucrats think of themselves as the people's masters. They think of rural villagers as backward and passive, unable to initiate anything for themselves. This attitude bars many of them from getting to know the people and whatever needs they might have.
Take the Sajja Omsap savings groups as an example. Initiated by the government in the 1980s to solve the problem of rural poverty, the informal credit union was forced on villagers in many provinces. A product of the centralised bureaucracy, the credit union came with a number of preset rules and regulations. Most are inflexible and do not respond well to the living conditions and needs of the local people.
Predictably, most of the savings groups attracted only a handful of members and soon teetered on the verge of collapse.
The situation could not have been more di fferent when the idea was taken up by local leaders. Recognising the shortcomings of state-imposed policies, the villagers took a democratic approach. Members have a say in formulating all the rules governing their communal savings. Some groups even decided they would not deposit the savings with commercial banks since it is more profitable and useful to lend it among members.
Instead of collateral, most groups opt for adhering to a personal vow of honesty, and to peer pressure, to safeguard against embezzlement and fraud.
``Given that the community is close-knit, the social punishment is harsher and thus can be more effective than the threat of legal action,'' said Khru Chop Yodkaew, a former school headmaster who led a very successful savings group in Songkhla province.
His group, which started operation in 1984, has a mutual fund of several million baht, from which members can draw in time of need.
Needless to say, the grassroots-based saving groups expanded rapidly.
Before long, mo st began to establish welfare funds for members. The Klong Pia group, for example, has a training fund for housewives and scholarships for children of members. Another credit union in Trat province, meanwhile, sets aside a certain amount for funerals and emergency.
``The villagers' groups succeed because we are directly involved in the activity,'' Khru Chob said. ``Fewer rules mean fewer wrongs. The bureaucracy has to issue a lot of regulations because it is afraid of being cheated.
``In practice, however, those bent on abusing the system can get around them. The rules, therefore, end up obstructing people who wish to do the job well. They end up blocking people's initiatives, forcing them to conform to the status quo.'' Khru Chob added that he was inspired by the King. His Sajja savings group is firmly based on self-sufficiency, the concept of sharing and the importance of maintaining one's honour in the form of a vow given to the group.
Khru Chob said that a reform is necessary if t he bureaucracy is to fulfil its role of serving the people. ``The red tape choke the system,'' he said. ``It is like a tree in a pot. There comes a point where it can't grow any further. When that happens, it is time to break the pot and transplant the tree.'' Into the fertile and unconfined ground where grasses take root and people really live, perhaps.
From 1984 to 1994, Thailand actively promoted market-oriented, export-led policies in pursuit of the Newly Industrialised Country (NIC) status. In terms of figures, the strategy seemed to work. The country's economy grew at an annual rate of 8.2 percent, outperforming even the ``tiger'' economy of South Korea.
This steep economic take-off, which nose-dived soon afterwards, was fuelled largely by depleting the country's natural resources and degrading its environment. The forest cover shrunk from 53 percent in 1961 to less than 20 percent at present.
The loss of forest land, essential to the livelihood of many o f the rural poor, has triggered a chain reaction that has created such related problems as soil erosion, desertification, and migration, unemployment, and perennial poverty among the population. Reforestation, therefore, is one of His Majesty's priorities. And just having planted a lot of trees does not mean the task is accomplished.
For the King, reforestation necessitates a thorough understanding of how different elements, both natural and human, interact. Based on this knowledge, a regeneration programme is designed.
``Some people wonder why I became interested in irrigation or forestry,'' His Majesty said in one of his speeches 30 years ago. ``I remember that 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 forest on the mountain or the rain will erode the soil and damage the mountain surface.' ``This is a fundamental fact of the conservation of soil and forest as well as of irrigation. If we fail to main tain the highland forest, we will be in a lot of trouble, ranging from soil erosion to sedimentation in dams and in rivers, which lead to floods. I have understood this relationship since I was 10.'' His is a middle path between the forestry officials' clear-cutting an area and planting the same kind of trees in neat rows in a tree-farming fashion, and the deep ecologists' total reliance on nature and leaving things to regenerate themselves.
``Never peel the land,'' His Majesty told officials from the Office of the Board of the Royal Development Projects in connection with reforestation techniques. ``Don't plough the soil surface off the way it was done earlier. It depletes the fertile top soil. That way, the survival rate of seedlings is very low. Up to 80 percent of them die.'' His Majesty also cautioned against the application of weed killers or herbicides. Never, ever, use these chemicals, he warned, because they are extremely dangerous. The toxic substance will be left in the soil f or a very long time.
Contrary to forestry officials' continued rejection of human/forest co-existence, the King has emphasised the importance of people in conserving the forest. Before growing trees on land, he believes, we must first grow an awareness in people's hearts.
The King also incorporates people's awareness of their own needs, and their traditional knowledge, in forest replanting initiatives. Villagers who have lived in an area for generations know where they should farm and where they should conserve the trees.
According to His Majesty, reforestation projects should focus on three types of useful trees. First, fuel wood, such as krathin thepa, for household use. The availability of this wood would prevent villagers from cutting down trees in the wild. Second, fruit-bearing trees, such as mangoes, for consumption. And finally, trees that have commercial value like yang na or teak. Villagers can use or sell them as construction materials.
``What His Majesty tries to do is to r evive the ecology through attention to the interdependence between soil, water, and forest,'' said Kriengsak Hongto, director of the Khao Hin Son Royal Development Study Centre in the eastern province of Chachoengsao.
``Water is particularly important. It is a life-giving force. The King always told us that we have to reforest the highland so that it acts as a water storage resource for us.'' As the first among six study centres or ``living museums'' the King set up in different regions, the Khao Hin Son site demonstrates royal effort at nursing barren, near-desert soil into a green, arable land.
Apart from being a one-stop educational service for farmers, the living museums are the King's attempt to show government officials -- who are usually focused narrowly in their assigned areas and immersed in inter-agency rivalry, a situation which results in redundant work and a waste of resources -- how to work together in harmony.
Instead of breaking a task into independent bits and pieces, he demonstrates how everything in nature is interrelated so that every agency involved, whether its central concern is forestry, community development, or irrigation, must complement the work of the other units to complete it successfully.
A Forestry Department official himself, Mr Kriengsak admitted it was not easy at first to put aside the bureaucracy's ingrained reductionistic approach and embrace His Majesty's holistic and functional strategy.
``I was a bit confused at first. In revitalising the land, the government always endorses a fast formula -- putting in chemical herbicide and fertiliser -- while the King insisted on reducing chemical input and growing many kinds of trees to create diversity,'' Mr Kriengsak said.
He added that, in contrast to the government's capital-intensive approach, the King champions the use of appropriate technology that is easily adaptable by people whose financial resources are very limited.
Mr Kriengsak asserted that the government must revamp its infle xible year-to-year budgetary system and evaluation criteria if it is to fulfil the royal initiatives. He said that apart from the notorious red tape involved -- filling in 10 forms in order to reimburse a 10-baht expenditure -- the official budget system does not mesh with His Majesty's long-term goal of ecological resuscitation.
``sometimes, the results of His Majesty's work can't even be measured in tangible terms. How can you fix a specific value to revived soil, a regenerated forest, or social improvement? Helping people so that they have hope and an occupation and stopping them from resorting to crime to obtain an income all bring enormous benefits, but these things can't be quantified in a way that convinces the bureaucracy of their value,'' Mr Kriengsak said.
THE ROAD AHEAD
According to Dr Prawase, the state has sufficient resources to bring about improvement in Thailand, but it will have to radically change its approach. Instead of compartmentalising work, the government must focus on community.
Apart from revamping the year-to-year budgetary system, which does not answer the needs of long-term development, he feels that the government must adjust its evaluation criteria to gain a proper perspective on such intangible yet crucial achievements and improved well-being for the people, or ecological stability.
``At a deeper level, a shift to less superficial shared values is necessary before sustainability can ever occur,'' he said. ``Purely materialistic goals will always undermine self-sufficiency at the social level. Even if the bureaucratic reform so urgently needed were to take place, that alone would not be enough.
``As His Majesty the King has consistently stressed, change must come from within. To attain sustainability, every part of the society must move along in unison towards the common goal.'' Dr Prawase believes that only if a series of social reforms takes place can the royal visions come true. These include a serious attempt to promote self-suffic iency and initiate reforms in the areas of macro-economics, governance, education, the media, and the law.
Dr Prawase feels that, if the King's ultimate goal is to empower people and thereby create a civil society, it can only be achieved if every social unit, from large organisations down to individual citizens, is capable of taking care of itself. ``It is said that a good society isn't something you can buy ready-made,'' he said. ``If you want one, you have to build it. Many people think that, as individuals, they are powerless.
This is not true. Each of us can make changes by joining with others and working on issues that concern us. Then, we can create a network among different groups, and once these structures are established, they will have power to influence national policies.'' He added that the government does not need to invest money to foster the development of the civil society. What it can do is allow people to use the space it controls, such as temples or schools, so that t hey have places to gather and discuss problems and what can be done about them.
Dr Sumet takes a similar view, stressing that the force that can bring people to the better state envisioned by the King flows from each individual.
``Take self-sufficiency, for example. Many people misunderstand that it applies exclusively to farmers. In fact, His Majesty provides guidance for everyone. Self-sufficiency means a good livelihood. It means living simply, in a way that is not harmful to other beings.
This is something everyone of us can begin practising immediately to fulfil His Majesty's vision.''