My Utmost Admiration for King Rama IX
30 October 2016
30 October 2016
Shortly after the passing of King Rama IX, eulogies from numerous authors were published in local newspapers and magazines. Such testimonies indicated the King’s popularity, which resulted from his generosity towards the Thai people in diverse areas like rural development, agricultural irrigation, public health, education, art & culture, to name only a few. Many articles appeared to be reviews of His Majesty’s over 5,000 Royal Projects. Others came from direct experience of the authors, who had been working on some of His Majesty’s undertakings. These articles reminded me of an audience I had with the King just before I left the country for university education abroad. Although the instance was rather short in duration and the substance was rather minor compared to other people’s recollections, it gave me direct exposure to the King’s ingenuity and wisdom that are not likely to be published elsewhere. The present write-up is inspired by that particular audience with the King and is my tribute to our late, beloved monarch.
Over four decades ago, I had an audience with King Rama IX just before I went to study in the US under King’s Scholarship. The award program was revived in 1965 by King Rama IX based on the original King’s Scholarship that King Rama V established in 1897 but was later abolished in 1932 during the reign of King Rama VII when absolute monarchy was changed to constitutional monarchy by a bloodless revolution.
At 12.05 pm on August 14, 1973, Colonel Chinda Na Songkhla, Secretary General of the Thai Civil Service Commission (CSC), formally presented to the King the six recipients of King’s Scholarships for that year. Besides myself, our group consisted of Dumrong Kasemset, Suwat Thaniyavarn, Witit Rachatatanan, Pasakorn Khannapa, and Kobkul Wongpoonsin (later changed to Rayanakorn after her marriage). We were supposed to receive His Majesty’s royal blessing and farewell. The photo above shows the King sitting on a royal couch, with six of us kneeling on the floor according to traditional protocols. Colonel Na Songkhla, in white uniform, can be seen presenting us.
After the King finished his speech, something about diligence in studying, His Majesty stood up in preparation for leaving the room. All six of us were ready to move our arms and legs that were infused with tingling sensations as a result of kneeling on the floor in a stationary posture for half and hour. Suddenly, the CSC Secretary General quickly informed His Majesty that one of us, Pasakorn Khannapa, who graduated from Chitralada School, located within the walls of Chitralada Palace (the King’s residence), requested “Pra Somdej Chitrlada,” a small amulet in the shape of sitting Buddha, for each of us in order to serve as an anchor for our belief and an inspiration for us to finish our studies.
For readers not accustomed to Thai superstition, I’d like to digress here a bit. “Pra Somdej Chitrlada” is one of the rarest and most sacred amulets according to Thai belief. Each amulet contains sacred materials that were meticulously obtained from all provinces of Thailand, plus constituents, typically the hair, of the His Majesty himself. The King was known to personally press these powdered materials into a mold in order to form each amulet. His Majesty then gave about 2,500 of these talismans, along with serial numbers and certificates of authenticity, to civil servants, police officers, and soldiers who operated in remote areas of the country against political terrorists in the 1970s, overtly or quite often covertly. Readers who are familiar with Thai tradition should know that Thais love to coat the outer surface of Buddha amulets with 22K gold leafs. The King anticipated that fact and was reported to verbally instruct each recipient of Pra Somdej Chitrlada to apply the gold coating only to the rear side of the Buddha amulet. Symbolically, this means the recipient of the amulet is willing to perform good deeds without wanting any acknowledgment from others, i.e. ones who see the front side of the amulet. Success in carrying out duties should be viewed as representing consummate reward in itself. Nowadays most people do not see Pra Somdej Chitrlada as a shrewd strategy to encourage civil servants to perform their duties without the need for recognition. Instead, each Pra Somdej Chitrlada is viewed as a “limited edition” sacred object and its aftermarket value can easily exceed a million Baht.
Instead of leaving the room, the King slowly sat back down on the couch to give us a new, extra, discourse. His opening remark was quite memorable: “Whether we are good or bad doesn’t depend on what [amulet] we wear on our neck but depends on our own actions.” He then went into lengthy details about the consequence of our actions being more powerful than any sacred or supernatural force. I estimated from the numbness of my legs that this portion of the King’s speech must have taken at least fifteen minutes. The King finally refused to grant the request for the amulets and then left the room.
The extra discourse we received from the King, instead of the amulets, gave me nothing but strong admiration for His Majesty. In addition to his preeminent ingenuity that are well documented, it occurred to me that His Majesty also commanded a practical balance between natural and political sciences, as evident in his choice of clever strategies to motivate different groups of people to do things that benefit the public.
I was reminded of an old documentary about King Rama IX that was filmed at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Originally, the King was enrolled in the area of natural science, his favorite subject. After his accidental accession to the throne in 1946, His Majesty diverted his field of study to social science, especially politics. Reportedly, His Majesty also signed up for a few law courses during his final academic year. Such information as well as that from other documentaries allowed me to piece together successive events that followed His Majesty’s return to Thailand in 1950 for the royal matrimony and the coronation ceremony.
Fifteen years after his coronation, the cold war between the world’s superpowers, along with their respective allies, was still ongoing. Thailand naturally needed to survive the threats of these superpowers. One of them was supporting terrorist activities in remote provinces of Thailand according to the “Domino Theory” that was popularized by the other superpower that wanted to use our country as a military base for Southeast Asia. The Thais, meanwhile, were trying to eradicate rural poverty as well as the opium business of some minority ethnic groups. Against this backdrop, the King utilized his social and political science talents to cleverly invent Pra Somdej Chitrlada specifically for civil servants who needed some kind of supernatural reassurance to hold on to while carrying out official duties that were exceptionally difficult or involving grave danger. For reasons of national as well as personal security, however, their accomplishments were to be kept secret.
Nevertheless, when dealing with King Scholarship recipients, who were only 18 years old but had enormous potentials to do extraordinary things for the country, the King chose to teach us to rely solely on ourselves instead of supernatural power of sacred origins. In other words, His Majesty was teaching us to use scientific reasoning and to observe the rule of karma according to the teaching in Buddhism. His Majesty’s insight and ingenuity in scientific thinking was unexpected and has been the source of my admiration.
A decade after our audience with the King, when I was a doctoral degree candidate in the US. A high-ranking official who was also a distant relative of the royal family mentioned to me that the King “complained” to him in passing about King Scholars. “They came to say goodbye [to me] before leaving [Thailand] but they have all disappeared ever since.” This is why I was perhaps the first King Scholar in my group to return home after finishing my doctoral program and my postdoctoral training. At the end of the 1980s, I brainstormed with some high-ranking CSC officers to interpret the intention of King Rama IX when His Majesty mentioned that King Scholars seemed to disappear after having an audience with him. Finally, the CSC decided to amend the basic definition of King Scholarships, from being pure awards (as established by King Rama V) to awards with requirement for recipients to return to Thailand and stay for a while (as King Rama IX’s comment was interpreted). The amended CSC rule required former King Scholars to remain in Thailand for at least the duration of the scholarship, with no stipulation about the sector in which they were supposed to work. In comparison, regular Thai government scholarships required working for the government for twice or three times the length of the funding.
Another decade went by. In 1996, the King translated and published “The Story of Mahajanaka” in celebration of the golden jubilee (50th anniversary) of His Majesty’s accession to the throne. There are multiple moral bottom lines in this story, such as taking an action with diligence, problem-solving based on knowledge and wisdom, having clear goals in life, having mindful consciousness, etc. The moral lesson from this story that made me recall His Majesty’s discourse, however, was self-reliance. Briefly stated, even if one is in trouble, he should stand on his own feet instead of begging any supernatural being for help. In the story, Prince Mahajanaka (who would become Buddha in the subsequent life) was swimming in the ocean for 7 days without seeing any shore. When the goddess of the sea appeared in front of him, expecting him to beg for mercy, he did not ask for any help. He just kept swimming while telling the goddess that he believed his attempts would not be in vein. The goddess was so fascinated and impressed with Mahajanaka’s determination to complete his work that she helped teleport the then unconscious prince to his destination.
For almost 50 years, I have been relying on myself instead of any sacred entity, in accordance with the King’s principle. During that time, I have also been “applying gold leaves on the back side of the Buddha” even when I wasn’t given the physical amulet to literally apply the gold leafs on. For believers, if any supernatural power is involved here, the power is likely to be vested in the King’s remarks given to the six of us. By following his principle of self-reliance, I managed to gracefully get myself out of danger on several occasions and was given opportunities to do good things for my country before I retired. For these reasons, I am grateful for the King’s remark that demonstrated His Majesty’s skill in balancing between wisdoms in science and politics.
The author thanks Assistant Professors Niramol Swadibut and Kwisra Ratanakorn, both from the Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University for reviewing the Thai manuscript of this article.
Basic Information on Pra Somdej Chitralada comes from an article written by the late Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn, http://thaprajan.blogspot.com/2011/07/blog-post.html (accessed in October, 2016).
The author thanks Nantadej Choketavorn, who released a photo of Pra Somdej Chitralada into the public domain. Source: https://th.wikipedia.org/wiki/พระสมเด็จจิตรลดา#/media/ไฟล์:พระสมเด็จจิตรลดา12may2014.PNG
The author, Lerson Tanasugarn, was a King Scholar from 1973 to 1978. He was Science and Technology Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan from 1988-1991. He was also a member of the 3rd CSC Extraordinary Subcommittee on Public Sector Human Resource Management: Government Scholarships and Manpower Planning.