Special

 

Her Majesty Queen Sirikit: Caring Mother of the Thai nation

Happy Birthday Your Majesty August 12, 2003

by Peter Cummins
Photos courtesy of
The Bureau of the
Royal Household

The whole Kingdom of Thailand rejoices and celebrates the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, the “Mother of the Nation” and, by extension, pays a tribute to Thai Motherhood, as Thailand also honours “Mothers’ Day” at this time.

Shortly after Her Majesty’s 70th birthday last year, a splendid gala featuring a Thai silk fashion show appropriately called “Queen of Silk”, was held in Her Majesty’s honour at Government House. The highlight of the spectacular evening was the conferring upon the Queen, the Louis Pasteur Award, by the International Sericultural Commission and the Brussels Eureka 2001, conferred by the National Research Council of Thailand.

As an added honour, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives commissioned a special musical tribute called “Mai Rak” (Love of Silk), “in appreciation of Her Majesty’s role and activities in Thai silk and developing it to a world standard over the past five decades.”

The awards coincided with the staging of the 19th Congress of the International Sericultural Commission - the first time Thailand has ever had the honour of holding this prestigious event. Thus it was a fitting tribute to Her Majesty, witnessed by some 500 sericulture experts from more than 23 countries who attended the Congress.

Of course, a familiar sight to the Thai people and, certainly those at the Congress, is the Queen attired in Thai silk, particularly Mudmee (known also as Ikat), Korat and Chiang Mai silks.

During her trips around the Kingdom and abroad, the Queen invariably wears Thai silk, as do those of her staff who accompany her. As a result of this exposure, the international community has learned to admire the beauty of Thai silk and to appreciate a handicraft that is uniquely Thai.

In the beginning

On the fifth of May, 1950, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was crowned King of Thailand and his first official proclamation was to elevate his bride of just one week, the Thai Ambassador to London’s beautiful daughter Sirikit - the name appropriately meaning beauty and honour - to become Queen Somdej Phranang Chao.

The new King of Thailand, in turn, gave to the Thai people a beautiful and loving Queen who has spent a lifetime contributing to their welfare.

Early in their reign, when visiting remote areas, the Royal Couple were disturbed by the plight of the rural people, the lack of educational and medical facilities and, not the least, poor nutrition which aggravated all other problems. The King determined to take positive action to help the farmers, while Her Majesty focused on “the home”, seeking ways to enable the women-folk to earn cash to help alleviate the grinding and debilitating poverty.

As recently as last year, in fact, with the welfare of the hilltribe people foremost in her mind, the Queen asked the Third Army to drop its plans of moving them to lowlands, fearing “such re-location will affect their way of life”.

The SUPPORT Foundation

Almost coinciding with Her Majesty’s 71st birthday next week, is the 27th anniversary of the founding, on 21 July 1976, of the Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques, popularly known by the acronym SUPPORT. The foundation was established to place, on a more formal basis, the activities started by the Queen, to initiate cottage industries for village and farm women, without the necessity of leaving home.

From her own personal funds, Her Majesty supplied weaving looms and materials to make fabrics, clothing and soft goods, as well as providing equipment to produce other marketable items. Having lived in Europe for many years, the Queen was conversant with the enormous diversity of European arts and culture and thus recognized the variety of crafts and styles distinctive to different regions of Thailand: hand-woven fabrics, basket-ware and rattan products, utensils and a myriad other artefacts.

Her Majesty is justifiably well known for her clear perception and this rose to remarkable heights with her outstanding vision for making SUPPORT into a viable proposition. She brought back from retirement former court artisans to teach presumably lost crafts to a ‘new generation’ - even grandmothers. The Queen’s advice to the ‘retirees’ was that, “Before they urged the villagers to make anything, they must be certain that the end-product is marketable - and not made for charity alone which does not provide a real livelihood. SUPPORT is designed to make the villagers self-reliant,” the Queen emphasized.

Particular stress was placed upon bringing physically-handicapped people to work at SUPPORT projects, raising their confidence and creating a satisfaction for each person who was, thus, achieving a level of self-reliance by being able to earn an income - and not having to rely on charity or handouts to survive.

Mudmee Silk is but one of the Queen’s legacies to the Foundation. It was Her Majesty who ‘resurrected’ this almost-forgotten weaving craft, indigenous to the northeast. Mudmee, meaning literally ‘tied threads’, is an intricate ‘tie and die’ process which produces brilliant colours, each piece being unique and the pattern is the individual imagination of the weaver - there are no blueprints to follow. Due to Her Majesty’s guidance, as well as to her wearing of Mudmee at official functions in Thailand and abroad, Mudmee silk is universally known as a distinctive, exotic and outstandingly beautiful Thai artefact.

This writer had the good fortune to visit the Silk Museum, adjacent to the Community College, Ban Kookard, in Khon Kaen Province, when undertaking an educational assignment commissioned by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) last year. It was a journey into a hall of beautiful, shimmering and intricate design, carefully laid out.

Many projects to raise living
standards

Although probably best known for the SUPPORT project, the Queen’s great determination to raise the living standards and improve the quality of life for the Thai people has led to many other projects, beneficial to the people and Nature equally. For example, there are the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, The Forest Loves Water and The Little House in the Big Forest Projects.

During her ongoing visits - often with the King and other members of the Royal Family - to the remotest and poorest areas of the country, Her Majesty soon realized that it was preservation and wise use of the natural resources and environmental protection which were the imperative components in striking a balance between the welfare of human settlements and Nature.

The Queen was most disturbed by the deterioration of these vital elements, particularly the water resources, which she observed on each visit, were either becoming depleted or badly degraded. The end result was a further blow to the well-being and improved way of life for even her least subjects.

The Queen encouraged the people, “To bond together in order to protect the forests which are sources of the watershed and natural food,” and at the same time, “Encouraging the people to use natural resources properly and efficiently, to achieve sustainable benefits.” The Queen also urged the people to become self-reliant and, “To grow food and garden crops, to undertake a comprehensive cultivation of herbal plants and raise animals as a food source.”

One outcome of this loving care for even the least of her subjects has been the establishment in 1996 of the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, located at the Mae Rim District in Chiang Mai Province. The Garden was opened to serve as a Thai plant conservation centre where botanical research and study is undertaken to maintain the vast biodiversity of Thai flora. This includes collection and propagation of indigenous, rare and endangered species of flora. Thai orchids, herbal plants and a vast array of native woods are conserved here, as part of the Queen’s legacy to present and future generations.

In 1997 and 1998, the Queen initiated a project to establish three demonstration farms, two of which are in Chiang Mai Province at Baan Khun Tae, Moo 5, Chom Thong District and at Baan Mae Tungting, Moo 5 Samoeng District. The third is located in Chiang Rai Province, at Baan Rom Fah Thong, Moo 9, Viang Kaen District.

H.M. the Queen regularly visits these remote areas to see at first-hand how the quality of life is improving for the farmers who now have secure occupations, are husbanding different types of animals for food and, equally-importantly, are now protecting the forest, wildlife and the watershed - in fact, the environment as a whole - from any further degradation.

Just recently, in fact, the Queen “urged Thais to feel more grateful for their blessed country - the golden lands that have provided them with shelter and the abundant resources that have sustained their lives”.

In Ubon Ratchathani, close by the border of Laos, lies a natural forest called Dong Na Tham, a huge area covering some 50,000 rai (approx. 80 m sq. metres). The hardships and poverty of the people in the surrounding villages had caused the villagers to encroach on the natural reserve, with disastrous results to the environment and ecology.

Based on His Majesty the King’s philosophy of a “sufficiency economy”, the Queen initiated a number of alternatives to the near-destitute farmers, with a most positive change, both to the people’s lives and the surrounding environment.

The Queen recently pointed out that, “The forest is a water resource for the people. Without forests, or if we keep destroying the trees, though we gain more land, we will lose all water supply. The land ... will become a desert. Forests should exist to preserve life and water and maintain the rainfall which helps us to a better living...” These are just some of Her Majesty’s initiatives which, over a lifetime of devotion and dedication to Her people, have certainly improved the life of Her subjects.

This brief dedication could be summed up in Her Majesty’s own words, emphasizing her humanity, goodwill and, not the least, her humour. “Has HM the King encouraged you to concentrate on work for the well-being of the people?” the Queen was once asked in an interview. “He did not encourage me at all ... he ordered me to,” the Queen replied. “I will look after the land and the farmers and you must look after their families,” the King said.

Happy Birthday Your Majesty from us all at the Chiangmai Mail!