Today, high in the hills of Northern Thailand you will find acres upon acres of beautiful agricultural and environmental Royal Projects that have brought prosperity, education and health to a nation that less than half a century ago was in the grip of the worst opium crisis the world has known.
This change was brought about by a man who was raised in the West but at a young age was thrust into a life of duty much earlier than he had expected.
He was a quiet man, with a love for science and the environment, for photography and who was an accomplished jazz musician.
He would become the longest reigning monarch and a much revered and loved King who would leave a legacy to his country and his people recognised the world over.
This is the story of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced Phoo-mi-Pohn uh Doon-Ja-deht) or Rama IX, of Thailand, his legacy to his nation and his people.
His Majesty Rama IX was born in the United States, in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 5, 1927, the third and youngest child of Their Royal Highness Prince and Princess Mahidol of Songkhla and grandson of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V.
He had an elder sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana and an elder brother, Ananda Mahidol.
The family were in the United States because the father, Prince Mahidol, was studying at Harvard University. They all returned to Thailand in 1928, where Prince Mahidol took up an internship in a hospital in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Sadly though, he was in poor health and died the following year.
At the time of his death, Rama VII was in power; he was the last of the absolute monarchs. In June 1932, there was a coup d’état, brought about by a small group of military and civilians, who formed Siam’s first political party, the Peoples’ Party. The coup brought an end to absolute monarchy replacing it with a constitutional monarchy.
This was a crucial turning point in Thai history. It ended almost 800 years of absolute rule of Kings over Thai history. It also resulted in the people of Siam being granted their first constitution.
Following this coup and concerned for their safety, Princess Mahidol took her daughter and her two young sons to Switzerland the following year. The children were placed in Swiss schools.
Rama VII abdicated in 1935 in favour of his nephew Prince Ananda Mahidol.
Meanwhile, Bhumibol continued his secondary education in Lausanne and then he entered Lausanne University to study sciences.
His brother, now King Ananda Mahidol reigned for 11 years until 1946 when on June 9, he was shot in suspicious circumstances that have never been fully resolved. His younger brother was only 19 years old at the time and still studying in Switzerland when the shocking news arrived.
The death of his elder brother changed the course of Bhumibol’s life completely. He was no longer able to pursue the course and career he wanted but was now the ruler of a nation that he had spent little time in.
He did however take his duties very seriously and cared for his country and its people very much.
Becoming King of Thailand
In 1949, he met and became engaged to Mom Rajawongse Sirikit, a distant cousin. They were married on April 28, 1950 in Bangkok; she was 17 and he was 22. He was crowned King of Thailand one week later.
On his coronation, he promised that
“We shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people”. His 70-year reign embodied those words throughout.
Thailand – History and Culture
To better understand the King’s place in the recent history of Thailand and the influence he brought we first need to understand a little more about the country.
Thailand, is a country of contrasts, immense beauty with a strong cultural heritage and tradition, but it has struggled with political unrest, significant poverty and health issues for many years. That said the people of Thailand of, which there are around 69 million are a loyal, deeply spiritual and welcoming nation.
The country covers about 198,000 square miles at the heart of South East Asia. It is bordered by Myanmar(or Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.
Thailand was officially called Siam until 1939 and until the second half of the 20th century was predominantly an agricultural country.
Since the 1960s and the increase in tourism to the region there have been large influxes to the cities of Bangkok, its metropolitan area and the other cities such as Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Udon Thani.
The capital, Bangkok and the surrounding metropolitan area account for close to 14 million people or 22% of the total population. Most of Thailand’s population are ethnic Thais (about 80%) with the rest either Chinese, Malay, Khmer, Mon or Vietnamese.
Thailand’s long and varied history has since the 18th century been dominated and ruled over by the Chakri Dynasty first established by Chao Phraya Chakri or Rama I in 1782. Every ruler since then has been part of the Chakri dynasty, King Bhumibol being Rama IX.
For more than 100 years, Thai kings followed an isolationist policy towards the Europeans. When Britain declared war on the Burmese kingdom in 1824, Rama III feared that the British might also attack Siam. He subsequently agreed to sign the Burney Treaty (1826), which set conditions for the conduct of trade between the two countries. A similar treaty with the United States was signed in 1833. Siam remained independent however and was never colonised.
During the nineteenth century, the Europeans swept across Asia. Burma and Malaysia became British whilst Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to the French.
For centuries, Southeast Asia’s diverse and independent hill peoples lived well by the forest following the ancient agricultural cycle of slashing, burning, cultivating and then moving on.
As rising pressure for land in modern times destroyed the natural equilibrium, the forest began to die. This brought drought and floods to the plains and poverty to the hills. Hard pressed, the hill people in northern Thailand and neighbouring Burma and Laos, turned to the production of poppy fields.
In the mid-19th century, the British East India company was looking for new export markets and whilst Siam was not a colony, it was pressured into opening new trade routes.
In 1852 King Rama IV bowed to pressure and established an opium franchise that was given to local entrepreneurs. These were mostly Chinese businessmen and new opium, gambling and alcohol permits were released. By the end of the 19th century 40-50% of the taxes in Siam were from these permits.
In 1907, the Siamese government eliminated the Chinese middleman and assumed direct responsibility for the management of the opium trade. Royal administration did not impede progress. But despite the ready market for opium, there was surprisingly little poppy cultivation in Thailand until the 1940s.
Before WWII, all countries in SE Asia did not see the sale and consumption of opium as illegal; it was the smuggling of opium that was the issue.
By the late 1960s, when agriculture started to decline and people moved to the cities for work, the hill tribes people developed their skills and cultivated poppies. By the late 1960s northern Thailand alone was producing 150 tons of opium per year.
The Golden Triangle
The area, of Laos, Burma and Thailand is known as the Golden Triangle, an area covering 367,000 square miles. The landscape is hilly, divided by the Ruak River that flows into the Mekong (Mae Khong) River. These rivers form a natural boundary between the three countries Laos (to the east of the Mekong), Burma (to the north of the Ruak), and Thailand (to the west of the Mae Khong).
The strength of the trading routes developed in the Golden Triangle grew and by the 1980s, this area produced more than 70% of all opium sold worldwide. Today that production is now less than 5%, thanks, in the main to King Bhumibol and his Royal Projects.
Over 95% of all the world’s opium is now produced in Afghanistan and The Golden Triangle once synonymous with opium production is now a much sought after tourist destination.
The Royal Projects
The development of the hill regions and the work with the hill tribes all started shortly after the new King, was crowned. Immensely concerned with the effect the opium trade had on the people, the land and the economy, he looked for alternatives. His Majesty, in the early days of his reign, paid constant visits to every region of the country, particularly in remote and underdeveloped rural areas.
The King and his family would often visit the Bhuping palace in the Chiang Mai region of Northern Thailand and during these visits the King would always take long walks in the hills and forests.
He was concerned about the forests following the decades of slash and burn techniques. He was also deeply concerned by the poverty and ill health of the hill tribes people; he knew the devastation the opium trade was causing.
On one of his visits to the area in 1969 he learned of an opium growing hill tribe called Doi Pui who were also harvesting peaches. He found out that despite the small number of peaches that were being grown, they were bringing the same level of income as the opium trade.
He learned that the local University was running some research into different peach varieties and so he asked them to carry out research to find out if peach varieties could be cultivated in the same temperate climate as the hill regions and thus look to replace the income from opium with that of cultivated crops.
The King bestowed 200,000 baht to the University to enable them to carry out the research and buy a plot of land to cultivate the peach trees. This was the first Royal Project.
The King was always on hand for the development of the project and would interview the local people, the officials, academics and the developers. Coming from a scientific background the detail was important; he took detailed information about the topography of the area himself so he would have first-hand information to enable him to make the correct decisions about the projects.
Scenes of His Majesty sitting on the ground or standing shoulder to shoulder with his subjects, engaged in conversation, became a familiar sight that touched all Thai people.
The Royal Development Projects (RDPs) were directly inspired by the insight His Majesty gained while visiting rural areas. He realized that any projects that truly improved the lives of the people must go hand in hand with protection of the environment and sustainable use of natural resources.
The RDP buys produce from hill farmers, then grades, packages, and markets it. Once imported luxuries, many temperate climate fruits and vegetables are now readily available to Thai consumers. The RDP also processes jams, canned vegetables, dried fruits, and flowers for export.
The work that these projects have instituted have not only brought immediate relief to the local people but have also encouraged investment from across the world and has benefited the environment enormously as well.
Throughout his work with the Royal Projects, the King has always believed that progress comes from within. If you teach someone how to be sufficient then they can develop their own rewards and teach others going forward.
During his reign the King oversaw the development of more than 4,000 Royal Projects throughout Thailand covering a multitude of programs. Although agriculture features prominently, the initiatives also extend to education, healthcare, handicrafts, research and water management.
The constant commitment of His Majesty Rama IX to improve the quality of life of the Thai people has been recognized through numerous awards, both national and international.
On May 26, 2006 on the 60th anniversary of His Majesty’s accession to the throne, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented the King with the first United Nations Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award, a special prize given to leaders who have exemplified dedication to human development and environmental sustainability.
In his presentation speech, Secretary General Annan told the King:
“Your Majesty has made an extraordinary contribution to human development. You have reached out to the poorest and the most vulnerable people in Thailand regardless of their status, ethnicity or religion, listened to their problems and empowered them to take their lives in their own hands.
“As a visionary thinker, Your Majesty has played an invaluable role in shaping the global development dialogue. “
In later years, when asked why he developed the projects, the King said that
“as a citizen of Thailand I was saddened by the poor lives the hill tribes people led.
Further, their lifestyle was an enormous cost to Thailand because they practiced shifting cultivation and produced opium which destroyed lives around the world.
We are now eliminating opium by the gentle and productive way of giving hill farmers other crops that make them richer.”
In later life King Bhumibol suffered ill health and was not seen publicly very much. He died on 13 October 2016 after 70 years of reign.
He left a nation bereft but stronger and a world with thanks for his inspiration, commitment and dedication.
To listen to the episode of the Wonder podcast about The Royal Projects – head on over to Wonder Podcast Season 1 Episode 8
Until Next Time – Have a great day!