Retaining royal legacy after final farewell

Retaining royal legacy after final farewell

Crowds throng Sanam Luang during rehearsals for the royal funeral for the late King Bhumibol earlier this week. (Photo by Sunan Lorsomsab)
Crowds throng Sanam Luang during rehearsals for the royal funeral for the late King Bhumibol earlier this week. (Photo by Sunan Lorsomsab)

As the final farewell to our revered monarch draws closer, the outpouring of public grief for the "Father of the Nation" is reaching its height. The sense of loss is immense. So is fear and trepidation about the future.

A question is hanging heavy in many people's minds: What will happen now the country's last unifying force has gone?

Grief has the power to plunge us into a dark pit of hopelessness. But grief also has equal power to strengthen our will to continue the legacy of the departed as a way to keep them in our heart.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

In the past few days, social media has been flooded with photos of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn during the rehearsal of the royal funeral procession of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Known and widely loved for her dedication to the underprivileged and her down-to-earth warmth and easy humour, the princess's grim and stoic face as she led the procession struck a chord with the public's sense of grief -- and more. Her solemn walk under the scorching sun has become a symbol of faithful determination to follow the "father's footsteps" despite unspeakable grief and endless obstacles.

The country is still facing old and new threats, domestically and globally, but the towering pillar of stability is no more? What to do now? The princess shows us how.

What to do when we have lost the symbol of selflessness to sustain our belief in goodness amid the onslaught of greed and materialism? The princess shows us how.

We feel an emptiness within when we can no longer comfort ourselves that we are loved indiscriminately by a great monarch -- and a great human being -- no matter how small we are in this increasingly cold and faceless society. The princess leads by example -- exactly like the late King -- to show us that despite the great loss, we can move on to make society a more humane place if we don't lose our empathy and determination.

Yet, there are many questions we must not push aside if we want the royal legacy to materialise systemically.

For starters, we must ask why after seven decades of the late King's dedication to improving the country's well-being, and despite rapid economic growth, the wealth disparity in Thailand is among the worst in the world. The third-worst, to be specific.

The revered King spent his life experimenting with different methods to restore the natural environment, which provides the majority of Thais with their livelihoods. He found several simple, practical, and cost-effective techniques that are easy to replicate.

Yet our soil and waterways are full of poison from toxic farm chemicals, posing serious health and environmental concerns. Meanwhile, the forests are rapidly dwindling and the oceans are nearly depleted.

In addition, the country is politically divided like never before.

Yes, empathy is necessary. But is it enough? Can we effect real change on a national scale while foregoing the temptation to use top-down power to get quick results?

Can we bring about change while retaining compassion, empathy and inclusiveness as our key values?

We must ask what are the mental and political brick walls that need to be dismantled so King Bhumibol's legacy in terms of fostering people-centric, pro-environment development can become a reality -- not a mere mantra to recite mindlessly for the narrowest purpose of eulogy the way it is now.

Actions, after all, are louder than words.

We must ask ourselves if our deep grief is a result of over-dependence. The time of loss is then a time to also grow up. Questioning the status quo and taking action for change is a necessary part of this.

First, we must question if successive governments are only paying lip service to the late King's work and legacy. Second, and more important, we must question the unjust, draconian laws that serve the autocratic, centralised bureaucracy.

As individuals, our empathy and determination to help the underprivileged may ease the plight of some, making their lives tolerable.

But without changes in oppressive officialdom and unjust laws, people will continue to suffer from an inequitable, authoritarian system.

In the past year, the late King's royal development works and royal advice have been prominently and repeatedly featured in both mainstream and social media.

They range from his espousal of a sufficiency economy, holistic development, reforestation, soil restoration, self-supporting farming, chemical-free farming, flood-prevention techniques, and the urgent need to return to moderation. The military regime has also repeatedly vowed to follow the royal legacy.

Should we let the powers-that-be stop at mere eulogy?

When the world is under threat from climate change as a result of our excessive consumption of fossil fuels and natural resources, King Bhumibol has given us the solutions to poverty and a degraded environment. If enacted fully, the royal remedies will tackle the country's gross disparity, the root cause of political divisions.

As the late King advised us: Listen to people on the ground. Learn from the locals. Study the diversity of local topographies and cultures. And respect them.

In short, he wanted the government and officials to stop their top-down mindset, to work together in an interdisciplinary team for area-based development, and allow local people to have a say on what affects their lives.

More of the royal principles from King Bhumibol's lifetime of hard work and devotion to the people are: Restore the environment, aim for self-reliance, think big but start small, research seriously, test the results before sharing with the people, and use simple, low-cost and practical technology that is easily accessible to ordinary people.

With this royal guidance, it is easy to see through all the state hypocrisy. While the late King was for inclusive and environmentally friendly development -- in line with the global call for sustainable development -- Thailand's centralised officialdom relentlessly clings to its power and pushes for environmentally destructive policies to serve big business despite singing the late monarch's praises.

As expected, the military regime has strengthened the centralised bureaucracy all the more, resulting in a barrage of policies that hurt the poor as well as the environment. For instance, violent forest evictions, renewed attempts to build coal-fired power plants, big dams, deep sea ports, economic zones and the gigantic walkway along the Chao Phraya River.

This is not to mention the military's unjustified shopping spree for weapons. People's voices and concerns are just dismissed, or silenced.

I asked a chief officer at the Huai Hong Khrai Royal Development Study Centre in Chiang Mai some years ago if the late King's integrated development approach could be replicated elsewhere. His answer was no.

The late King's area-based approach brings different agencies to work together for a common goal in a chosen area. It was possible at Huai Hong Khrai and other similar royally-initiated projects because of the late King's leadership, he said. Outside royal projects, mandarins from different state agencies clung to their power domains.

A group of villagers who are doing ecological farming in protected forests under one of the royal foundations also said they serve as exceptions to the rules.

Under the draconian forest laws, all villagers who reside there are treated as criminals for encroaching on national forests. Even for projects under royal patronage, the legal permits to use forest land are only temporary.

Even King Bhumibol himself said the forest laws violate the rights of people whose families have lived there since before they were earmarked as national forests.

Yet, these repressive laws remain intact. Worse, authorities keep expanding national forests and kicking out forest dwellers to increase their power. Big business can rent forest land cheaply and legally to make plantations and for mining.

Land rights and food security are essential to alleviate poverty. They are also crucial for peace. This was King Bhumibol's goal. Yet these areas have been shunned by the the centralised bureaucracy.

Few understand how radical King Bhumibol's New Theory farming is. This formula to manage small farms for year-round food security is only possible if farmers have at least 15 rai of land. Making it a reality on a national scale amid prevalent landlessness demands comprehensive land reform which, again, is being shunned.

Empathy can open hearts and spur efforts to help the oppressed. But to effect systemic change, to make the late King's goals a reality on a national scale, power must be decentralised.

We need local decision-making and local management of natural resources.

This will be an uphill task. But to follow the royal advice: Start small.

When our heart is in the right place, and when our goal is clear, we should take heart in King Bhumibol's words of encouragement from his landmark book The Story of Mahajanaka: Persevere.

Like Prince Mahajanaka swimming alone in the vast sea, without the shore in sight, we must keep swimming. Keep trying. And if we fail, try, we must try again. One day, with each small step, we will succeed in keeping the royal legacy and reach our goal.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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