Late King's wishes for Thai children
As Thailand celebrates National Children's Day today, I wish to share my recollection of a memorable audience with His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his profound message and wishes for the children of Thailand and the world. I had the great honour to meet the late king on Nov 12, 1998. I was then serving as Unicef's regional director for East Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok. The occasion of my audience with the late king at Chitralada Palace was to accompany visiting Unicef executive director Carol Bellamy. Also accompanying us was the late Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan.
After respectfully shaking hands with King Rama IX, as advised by the palace protocol officers, we sat down for a brief conversation which was supposed to last no more than 15 minutes. But to our pleasant surprise, the audience lasted for one hour and 15 minutes, with the late King doing most of the talking in a very deep, serious and contemplative manner.
At the outset, Ms Bellamy thanked His Majesty for his long-standing patronage and support for many Unicef-assisted programmes for public health, nutrition and education in Thailand. Introducing myself as a Nepali, I briefly mentioned how much I enjoyed reading a book authored by the former monarch entitled, The Story of Mahajanaka: The Virtuous King. In the book, King Bhumibol traced the links between the ancient Kingdom of Mithila in the southern plains of today's Nepal, to a vast geographic area in Southeast Asia, then called "Suvarnabhumi" or the Golden Land, which included contemporary Thailand. I noted how happy I was that King Bhumibol had personally chosen the name Suvarnabhumi for Bangkok's new international airport, apparently drawing on this historical link.
King Bhumibol started by praising Unicef's work for children in Thailand and around the world, and said how deeply he personally identified with this noble mission. He said most of the royal projects he was personally supporting involved promoting the well-being of children. Then he went on a long and heartfelt discourse about how children's lives have changed in Thailand during his lifetime.
He said the condition of children in Thailand in 1998 was incomparably better than during his own childhood. Virtually all Thai children by that point were going to school. They had access to fairly good-quality health care. Their nutritional intake had improved dramatically, and very few were going to bed hungry. Infant mortality had been drastically reduced, and childhood immunisation coverage was nearly universal. Children wore good clothes and shoes. They looked much smarter than Thai children of his generation.
Then, after a long pause, he said that despite such progress, there was something that troubled him about the situation children were still facing at that time, both in Thailand and around the world. He said that in the course of much material progress, Thai children seemed to have lost their sense of community and collective responsibility for their family and neighbourhood at large. He recalled how children of his generation went to temples and wats, performed community duties, and carried a sense of responsibility for their siblings, parents and neighbourhood. Today's children, he said, had become excessively self-centred, seeking instant gratification of their consumerist wishes, but did not care as much for their community.
King Bhumibol also remarked on more mundane concerns. He said during his childhood, students were encouraged to have nice handwriting, and children as well as their parents and teachers took great pride in this. He lamented how most kids in more recent years had sloppy handwriting and did not make any effort to improve it, partly because of the ready availability of typewriters, and more recently, computers and other electronic gadgets.
He said he was appalled that children had become so dependent on computers, calculators and mobile phones that they were no longer able to do simple arithmetic in their heads. Most didn't know their basic multiplication tables.
Above all, he was worried about children becoming too self-centred, frequently putting themselves before others and the community at large. He advised Unicef not only to care about children's survival and material wellbeing, but urged them to help inculcate a sense of community spirit, moral and ethical values, and a spirit of volunteerism. We deeply appreciated his wise and profound advice.
The late King also expressed deep anxiety about the financial crisis that engulfed Thailand and other Asian countries in 1997-98, and explained how poor and vulnerable communities were being impacted. He said some of the royal projects he patronised were trying to mitigate the impact of recent crises, and he constantly encouraged the government to do the same.
Switching to a more philosophical mode, he said the underlying causes of the financial crisis needed to be better understood. He felt there was a need to rethink the whole consumerist and export-oriented economic philosophy, and adopt what he called the "sufficiency economy" model of a more self-reliant and sustainable development.
He shared with us a fascinating account of how funds were raised for his royal projects. He said many rich people and businessmen wanted to contribute stacks of money for these. But, he added, he was not keen to receive such large donations. He much preferred receiving smaller contributions by a large number of ordinary people.
He then recounted the story of a sweeper who had been cleaning the outer walls of Chitralada royal palace for four decades. The late king met the menial labourer decades ago, when he was still a young man. He said that even in his advanced years, the man continued to perform his duties diligently.
King Bhumibol said the sweeper did not know he was aware of the man's hard work, and that the sweeper had been contributing 20 baht a month to royally endorsed projects without fail for about 30 years. Then, in a rather choking voice, Rama IX said that was the kind of small contribution he valued enormously, more so than the generous contributions from wealthy donors. We were very touched by the late king's heart-felt sentiments.
I mentioned to the former monarch that Unicef had a similar experience while fundraising in Thailand with the help of our goodwill ambassador and former prime minister, Khun Anand Panyarachun. We found the poor people were the most generous in helping their peers amid the financial crisis. He acknowledged and appreciated our collaboration with Khun Anand.
At the end of our audience, Rama IX complimented Unicef again for its good work in Thailand and around the world. He counseled us to pay as much attention to inculcating ethical values and community spirit in the younger generation as we cared for their physical survival and material well-being. As Unicef officials, Carol Bellamy and I fully understood and concurred with His Majesty's wise advice.
After the audience with the King Bhumibol, I went straight to the Unicef office to catch up with some pending matters. Although it was late in the afternoon, well past normal office hours, I saw that all our local staff members were still in the office, eagerly waiting for me. They wanted to know how the audience had gone and why it had lasted so much longer than originally scheduled.
We organised a quick general staff meeting and I briefed them about what had transpired during our audience. Our Thai staff listened with rapt attention as I recounted the whole proceedings at the palace. When I told them about King Bhumibol's account of the palace sweeper, I saw many staff tear up. When I shared with them his very thoughtful advice and guidance to Unicef on the need to support the holistic development of children, many staff members nodded and showed their strong agreement and gratitude for his sagacity. I could then understand, more fully than I did before, why the Thai people loved their King Bhumibol Adulyadej with such loyalty and reverence.
May Rama IX's memory and legacy continue to inspire the Thai people for generations to come, just as it has deeply inspired me as a genuine Nepali friend of the Thai people.
Kul Chandra Gautam is a former Deputy Executive Director of Unicef and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.