Friends across oceans, over the centuries
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Friends across oceans, over the centuries

Showcase celebrates how two nations on opposite sides of the world became staunch allies By Kornchanok Raksaseri

Friends across oceans, over the centuries
LEGACY: A visitor takes a snapshot of an item in the 'Great and Good Friends' exhibition. photo: Somchai Poomlard

The 200 years of relationship between Thailand and the United States started when the latter was still very young.

Coming to Bangkok next month is Great and Good Friends, an exhibition that brings curated collections of historic gifts exchanged between the Thai monarch and noblemen and the US presidents to the eyes of the Thai people.

The exhibition is itself a gift from America to the people of Thailand, says US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T Davies.

Portrait of George Washington, attributed to Rembrandt Peale. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand, National Museum Bangkok

The Great and Good Friends exhibition will feature 79 items from 10 Smithsonian presidential libraries from around the US. Mr Davies said these items had never before been exhibited outside the United States, and many items are difficult to be seen even on American shores.

The showcase starts with a letter from "Phaja Surivongmontri" (Dit Bunnag) to US president James Monroe dated August 15, 1818, which is the earliest known correspondence between the governments of Siam and the United States.

In 1818, the United States was still "a young and small republic with little political experience beyong the Atlantic Ocean", as the ambassador puts it, and while the Chakri Dynasty was also young, a US sea ship entered the port of Bangkok seeking to buy sugar.

Not only sugar was brought back, but also the letter sent to the president through sea captain Stephen Williams, which proposed continued trade, contact and cooperation,m initiating the historic friendship.

"I think it is really interesting that it was really Siam, or Thailand, reaching out to the United States actually. That's very beautiful," the ambassador said.

"We are the opposite side of the world; it's not very likely that we should become in contact and become foreign allies."

The title Great and Good Friends actually came from the term president Abraham Lincoln used to address His Majesty King Rama IV in a letter thanking him for the presents from Siam.

Te term was deliberately used to praise the king.

"'Great' in a sense quite naturally of King Mongkut's power, and 'good' because King Mongkut [Rama IV] was virtuous and a noble spirit," the ambassador elaborated.

Besides the portrait of George Washington that was given by president Franklin Pierce to King Pinklao in 1856 which was attributed to renowned artist Rembrandt Peale, the ambassador reiterated his impressions of the "secret gift", a cigarette case bearing the Royal Cypher of King Ananda Mahidol, a gift from Luang Praditmanutham, Regent to the King, to president Franklin D Roosevelt.

Luang Praditmanutham, or Pridi Banomyong, jointly established the Serithai (Free Thai Movement) to

A ceremonial gold robe. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology

work underground against the Japanese occupation during WWII.

"The secret gift from January 1945, at a time of war when Thailand was still occupied and the US was working with the Serithai, was that there were very brave Thai patriots here, under the nose of the occupiers, who were working hard and thinking of the future and dreaming of a day when Thailand again would be free, sovereign and independent. And I'm proud of the role that the US played in helping as a partner of those brave patriots bring that about," Mr Davies said.

"It's also kind of cool when it is a cigarette case which is a very big 20th century kind of a thing, and it tells us a little bit about how even in war time, that people here understood the president of the United States liked to smoke," he said, laughing.

He also highlighted a gold Niello desk set gifted to president Dwight Eisenhower by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1960 as another must see item.

Talking about the items most difficult to bring to showcase, Ambassador Davies said some gifts were too delicate to bring to Thailand.

"There are models of royal barges. They are very beautiful, but they are wood, they are painted and they have silk. They are very delicate and very very old. And the conservators in United States said that's too delicate. We can't put them in a grate and send back half around the world. I wish we could have brought them because I thought that those were exquisite gifts," he said.

"We do have a barge, though. It is a gift from Queen Sirikit which is more modern and very beautiful."

Delicate objects are mostly kept in controlled humidity and temperatures. Most of them are now at the hand of the the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees presidential libraries, and the Library of Congress and some are at the National Museum of American History or the "America's Attic".

Before the exhibition, many items have been stored in state-of-the-art facilities and some underwent conservation including the "Chantaboon" woven reed mat with astrological sign of the dog gifted by King Chulalongkorn and the golden ceremonial robes that were presented to the Smithsonian by Prince Wan Waithayakorn.

Gifts from their majesties King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit will be showcased, along with

Gold Niello desk set, a gift from King Bhumibol to president Dwight Eisenhower, 1960. Courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum

others from King Prajadhipok (Rama VII); King Chulalongkorn (Rama V); and King Mongkut to demonstrate the continuity and development of the two countries' relations in many aspects.

"Back then, economically, we have always been a kind of partners. We always found a way to help each other prosper and make the lives of the people better by trading back and forth, and investment became ties," the ambassador said.

"So I think personal relationships, commerce, trade, that's what's important. And the best thing we do together are things that make the lives of people in Thailand and the people of the United States better, and make their futures brighter and how to preserve our freedom. That's the important thing that we do together.

"The other thing that's obvious, but you have to mention, is about the relationship between people and the fact that in the beginning, their was the wisdom of the nobleman of King Rama II to write a letter and reach out to a president of the United States."

The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej understood this, and when he spoke to the US Congress, perhaps as the youngest leader in the history to address a joint session of our Senate and House of Representatives, he talked about this.

He said that while friendship between governments is important, the most important thing is friendship between people. He understood that, and when many years later he visited the by-then retired doctor who had delivered him, he wrote on the gift: "To my first friend." He understood friendship.

MAN OF THE MISSION: US Ambassador to Thailand Glynn T Davies. photo: Somchai Poomlard

THE WRITE STUFF: Letter from “Phaja Surivongmontri” (Dit Bunnag) to President James Monroe, 1818 photos: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Great and Good Friends: Historic Gifts between Thailand and the United States, 1818-2018 exhibition will be held at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok from March 21-June 30, from 9am-4.30pm daily.

The ticket costs 150 baht for an adult and 50 baht for a student or youth aged 12-18 with and ID card. Free admission for children under 12.

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