Many stories have been told of heroism during World War II. The bold and courageous action of Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 lives, was the basis of a novel and blockbuster movie, Schindler's List, which won seven Oscars including Best Picture in 1994. Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse, is also praised as a heroine who smuggled 2,500 children to save them from the Holocaust.
Boonpong: Fighting the good fight
In Thailand, there is a local hero who dared to risk his life and his family fortune to save the lives of numbers of Allied prisoners of war. It is estimated that at least 12,000 Allied PoWs died during almost three years, from late 1942 to August 1945, building the infamous Death Railway for the occupying Japanese. But many more would have perished had Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu not risen to the occasion.
Crises make heroes: Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu was a businessman who owned a Thai traditional medicine business and a general store in Kanchanaburi province, which had been passed to him by his father Mor Khein, a Thai traditional doctor. He was also a mayor of Kanchanaburi from 1942-45 during World War II. His public responsibilities brought him into contact with the Japanese troops, who were determined to build a bridge across the River Kwai to improve the logistics capability of the Japanese army.
Boonpong later got a contract from the Japanese to manage the canteen for prisoners in the camp, which allowed him to enter the camp with few restrictions. His regular visits allowed him to see the appalling conditions experienced by the sick and wounded, as well as dead prisoners of war of many nationalities including American, Australian, British, Dutch, Australian and others. The horror of the inhumane treatment he witnessed gave rise to compassion and drove Boonpong to create a personal mission to help these unfortunate soldiers.
As the old saying goes, "crises make heroes out of ordinary people". He secretly provided the prisoners with some necessities, such as medical supplies and radio batteries, which later led him to meet and become friends with the Australian surgeon and war hero, Sir Ernest Edward "Weary" Dunlop.
Authentic leader: Although I never had an opportunity to personally interview Boonpong (he passed away on Jan 29, 1982 at the age of 76), it was an honour for me to have had a conversation with his daughter, Mrs Panee Subhawat, and Ms Amornsri Subhawat, Boonpong's granddaughter.
Based on first-hand information combined with my desk research, I have come to the conclusion that this great but simple gentleman should be a role model for Thai people. In this regard, I recall what I have read in On Becoming a Leader, the classic book by Warren Bennis, one of the great leadership gurus, He clearly defines the "basic ingredients of leadership" under six categories:
- Clear guidance: a clear idea of what to do _ professionally and personally; strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failures.
- Conviction (Passion or Love) for what he or she does: an underlying passion for the promises of life; communicating that passion gives hope and inspiration to other people.
- Conscientiousness (Integrity, Honesty) of thought and action: steadfast devotion to principles, derived from self-knowledge, candour, and maturity.
- Confidence (Trust): the person has earned people's trust.
- Curiosity: wanting to learn as much as you can; the foundation of innovation and analytical thinking.
- Courage (Daring): willing to take risks, experiment and try new things; not worried about failure, but embracing errors, knowing they help us learn.
With the passion to help others in mind, Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu had to travel back and forth from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok in order to get medicine and necessities for the PoWs. Persistence to move forward, no matter what obstacles, setbacks or failures he faced, earned him respect and credit from others. It took a high degree of courage to do what he did so many times over many years, since getting caught would have meant certain death for him and probably his family. In fact, his only daughter was also a key player in this respect since she helped her father to deliver necessities to the prisoners.
Boonpong's courage was later recognised by the British government which honoured him as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). The Netherlands also awarded him the Order of Orange-Nassau. Sir Edward once praised Boonpong by quoting Shakespeare in Henry VI: "In thy face I see the map of honour, truth and loyalty."
Initiated by Sir Edward, the Weary Dunlop-Boonpong Exchange Fellowship was established in honour of two men in 1986, and continues through strong cooperation between the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Surgeons of Thailand. Around 90 Thai doctors from hospitals across Thailand have received scholarships to pursue further studies in Australia.
Doing a thankless job: Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a leader in the American civil rights movement, once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." I am sure that there are many untold stories of unsung heroes who dedicate themselves to doing thankless jobs to help others.
The story of Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu inspires us and shows us how normal people can do extraordinary things and contribute a major impact in society. I believe that we need many more Boonpongs, especially in today's chaotic and fast-changing domestic and global environment. We cannot take the wait-and-see approach to all the issues and problems that surround us any more. Leaders who embrace the spirit and dedication to action of Boonpong could help change the fate of Thailand and the world and build a better society.
Sorayuth Vathanavisuth, a former chief executive of the Thailand Management Association (TMA). His areas of interest are leadership development, talent management and executive coaching. He can be reached at email@example.com