Thailand's Princess

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
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Saturday, April 3, 2004

I quite like this article. It covers some of what I love about being in Thailand.

I hope it makes you wonder what your Royal family is doing. (In 30 years of living in Australia I cannot think of 1 thing the British Royal family has done to benefit poor Australians and certainly they would never pay out of their own pocket. I am still stunned that people voted to keep them).

Also perhaps you could question your own government about their treatment of refugees and poor communities. I like some of the attitudes here much more.

Anyway I hope this article helps explain something about Thailand to you.


PRINCESS OF COMPASSION

Mercy mission to the highlands
How best to help disadvantaged children cope with rapid and hostile changes? Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who celebrates her 49th birthday tomorrow, believes education is the key. Hence her tireless efforts, travelling to every nook and cranny in the country, to arm youngsters with a good education.



Until last year, Pada had to trek across rugged terrain for almost two hours to get to school in the village of Ban Lehtor on the other side of the mountain. He thought himself lucky. Many parents didn't allow their children to go at all.

''It was a difficult journey during the rainy season,'' said the shy, 12-year-old Thai-Karen boy, speaking in slightly accented Thai. ''That's why we always wanted to have a school at home.''

He never thought this would be possible, though.

Ban Wagalekoh, Pada's home village, is atop a mountain deep in the forests of Mae Ramad in the border province of Tak. Home to only 37 ethnic-Karen peasant families, this backwater is typical of hill settlements in the mountainous North.

Thanks to the Princess' compassion, children living in remote hill villages get the chance to obtain proper education.

Hilltribe children in remote villages along Thailand's borders now have an opportunity to study and to improve their health.
These unregistered hamlets are accessible only in the dry season. When the rains come, walking is the only way to reach the outside world. For residents of Ban Wagalekoh, the nearest town in the district is 40 kilometres away. Like other subsistence-level highlanders, they adhere to ancestral traditions, can barely understand Thai and suffer chronic food shortages.

Given their inaccessibility, the language problem and their small size, it is simply not cost-effective to set up formal schools in these isolated villages.

Fortunately, HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn believes otherwise.

A devoted educator, the Princess believes that access to education is a child's basic right and that schools, if given proper support, can be an important catalyst in helping the needy improve their quality of life.

Although the national education and health-care systems cover much of the Kingdom, the Princess knows firsthand from her regular upcountry visits that many villages in remote areas still fall through the cracks _ and that this is particularly true of the small ethnic-minority settlements in the forested highlands.

She has taken it upon herself to reach out to these hamlets.

''At first I didn't know what to do when I saw with my own eyes how bad the situation was,'' the Princess said during a recent visit to community schools she helped set up in the mountains.

''Health officials might come to help once in a while, but they could not stay. No one can withstand the harsh conditions, except the teachers who are locals.

''That's why our volunteer teachers must do many things, not only teaching reading and writing.

''They must help with the children's health, especially with preventable diseases. They must be able to give the villagers advice. They must know who and where to go to get help when villagers need it, be it about vaccinations, hygiene, birth registration, illness or whatnot.

''In other words, teachers must know how to make the voices of the villagers heard.''

During a tour she made in 2002 to mountainous parts of Tak, the Princess reached Ban Lehtor near Ban Wagalekoh. As on trips she'd made elsewhere in the Kingdom, she asked officials if there were other communities in the area that still needed schools.

Border Patrol Police and members of the royal project team surveyed the vicinity together and made a list of mountain settlements in need of schools. Then the Princess personally paid for building the schools, officially called ''community learning centres'', for students' lunches and for salaries and social-security contributions for locally hired teachers.

Since these poor villages do not have electricity, the Princess also financed solar-cell systems, satellite and electronic equipment so that the children could learn from modern teaching media and their parents obtain more information about the outside world. The Princess also took care of the installation of pipes to bring clean drinking water down from the mountains.

Her only proviso was that the parents supply labour to build the schools and that mothers take turns to cook school lunches for the children.

The locals' sense of ownership and pride is the key to a fruitful project, she believes.

Like her own simple, down-to-earth personality, the schools the Princess sponsored are basic, cost-effective and multi-purpose. When they are finished, she pays a visit, no matter how far away they are, to make sure for herself that everything is going well. And to find new ways, and new communities, to help.

This is how Pada and countless other needy children in the hills got the chance of a proper education and better opportunities in life.

Supa: "The Princess gave us a chance."

HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn sports a big smile on a visit to a school for hilltribe children.
''Lunch at school is the only full meal I get,'' said Pada whose Thai name is Somchai Pokpongsakulna. ''The teachers are kind and good fun too. I want to be a teacher too when I grow up so I can help other kids in the village.''

At present, Pada is happy that he can at least help his parents. ''Every night I teach them how to speak and read Thai,'' he reported proudly.

The school in his village was the first of 10 in remote mountainous areas of Tak and Chiang Mai that Princess Sirindhorn recently visited. There was much evidence on this busy, three-day trip of her boundless compassion, her education philosophy, eye for detail and unbelievable stamina.

Dressed in a simple trouser suit, with her slightly curly short hair blowing in the wind, she looked fresh and cheerful when the royal helicopter landed at the Wagalekoh Border Police Learning Centre which is surrounded by an expanse of mountains.

Armed with a notebook and pen, the Princess listened attentively to the teacher's reports on royally initiated projects, constantly jotting down information and observations. In what would become standard procedure for the rest of the trip, the report covered various aspects that affect conditions for the children. These include the village's history, population and topography, residents' citizenship status, literacy levels, livelihoods and income plus the prevalency of goitre in the vicinity.

All too often there was plenty of bad news to relate, adding to the urgency of the Princess' efforts to improve highland children's health as well as their communications and maths skills so that they'll be able to cope with the forces of the outside world with which they'll soon have to contend.

Such reports go into such minute detail as the children's weight, height, nutrition, iodine-deficiency and physical-development levels. As she jotted them down, the Princess was clearly taking these figures seriously, for they are not only indicators of a project's progress but also the basis for future improvements.

Regular agenda items on these trips are the royally supported ''agriculture for school lunch'' programme, free milk, food and vitamin supplements and each school's food-generating schemes such as vegetable-growing and chicken-raising. A child does not learn very well on an empty stomach, after all.

It was noticeable that whenever the Princess asked about a project, she was interested not so much in the achievements but in the obstacles encountered and how to overcome them.

Reflecting her concern for environmental and cultural matters, the Princess' highland-school projects also includes inculcating in the young an interest in forest conservation and the preservation of traditional knowledge.

After a few of these school visits, you'd expect a blur to descend as the heat, dust and the monotonous sound of helicopter engines, as the gravity-defying treks and the similarly distressing information encountered at every village started to take their toll.

Not the Princess, though.

Some began to seek shade but the Princess was always out in the harsh sunlight _ inspecting vegetable plots, enquiring about villagers' health problems and whatnot _ ever focused on how best to help the hill people overcome their problems.

''Can you grow your own herbs?,'' the Princess, unperturbed by beads of fine sweat on her forehead, asked during a visit to the Mae Fah Luang Community Learning Centre at Huay Pah Dam village in Tak. The nearest health station and school is seven hours' walk away.

''The hill people have good herbal medicines,'' she noted. ''We've compiled lists of herbs used by the Karen to find out their scientific names and value. Really, we should conduct some training to share that knowledge. Living this far way, these villagers can't rely on getting medicines from outside.''

Helping the villagers become self-reliant is the Princess' main concern. Yet, she is ever sensitive to their needs and to local constraints.

''We must think about the villagers' eating habits and start from there,'' she noted when someone suggested giving them dried soya-bean protein. ''We should try and help them produce food locally. They can't depend on getting it from outside.''

Or when someone suggested giving the hill children more teaching software. The Princess responded in her trademark practical vein: ''Books are better. It takes all day to charge the batteries for two hours of screening.

''Also, electronic machines might not survive transportation over this rough terrain. Books ... we need more books,'' she said.

Even during a routine examination of one school's kitchen, a boring task for most, the Princess' sharp eye for detail showed that she is truly concerned about the villagers' food security. An item on the blackboard menu read ''pork soup with vegetables''. ''Where did you get the pork,'' she asked, clearly relieved when assured that it hadn't been specially flown in for her visit.

''What about fish supplies locally, is there enough for the villagers?'', she queried, then let out a sigh when informed that there was little left in the creek.

''And eggs?,'' she asked. ''But then again, bringing in chicken feed for the hens is just impossible. What about natural chicken-raising?

''Indeed, there must be some way.'' Then she fell silent, deep in thought, trying to find a way to meet this challenge, undaunted by the scorching sun which had reddened her face.

At some villages, the annual income per person is less than 1,500 baht. ''But when we think of ways to help them earn more, we must always ask if that is what the villagers want. We must also think of the constraints they face.''

Many villages are so isolated, she noted, that transportation costs make some income-generating efforts pointless to pursue. ''The main goal is to help them improve on what they are already growing well so that they get enough food.''

For many hill people, the Princess' visit doesn't just bring better education for their children; it's a real life-saver.

Jae Yong, 10, for example, has a chronic cough which has weakened his health. Chuay Yaseh, 32, has tuberculosis. Jeh Meuy, 25, has a heart problem. Masuay, 70, can't see. Wiji, 36, has skin cancer. They are among 50-odd patients that the Princess took into royal care during the three-day trip.

''I'm glad she came,'' said Jae Yong, trying to suppress a cough. ''I want to be able to play like other boys.''

The end of each long day didn't see any let-up on the Princess' part. While others were able to relax over dinner, at the royal table the Princess shared what she'd discovered that day, bringing the needs of little people to the attention of high-ranking officials in the area. Laughter could occasionally be heard from her table. The Princess, ever considerate, was putting her famous good humour to work, magically relaxing those overawed in the presence of royalty.

Dinner was followed by a 10-kilometre walk, an evening routine the Princess rarely misses in her determination to keep fit for her demanding duties.

Though youngish and energetic, the Princess, who will turn 50 next year, sometimes endures health irritations. ''For me, exercise has proven better than taking modern medicines,'' she insisted, smiling.

The following morning the Princess was up before many of the others, getting ready for the long day ahead by going on a five-kilometre walk.

The final day of non-stop activity saw her attentiveness wane not one whit. Her powers of observation remained as keen as ever; her thoughtfulness touched many.

Each school, for example, has a small corner for children and parents to watch educational TV programmes. The Princess inspected each one as if it were her first.

''When you come to watch TV at night, do you have problems with mosquitoes,'' she asked. It was a question only a loving parent would think of.

''And what about the women? Do mothers come here after work to watch programmes too?

''When I was a child, I did my homework inside a mosquito net, and while watching TV too, you know?'' She laughed as she shared this moment from her childhood, something she did often during the trip.

Such as when she discussed integrated teaching methods for mixed classes, which is necessary in small remote schools which can't afford one teacher per classroom.

''When Their Majesties took four of us along on a royal trip overseas, we also studied in what was supposed to be a mixed class. But it wasn't (mixed) since I had to wait so long, with nothing to do, until my turn came,'' she said.

''We have to think of better ways to do this,'' she added.

The Princess knows that only teachers can help her attain the goals she's set. And that she must help them.

Since most qualified teachers avoid hardship posts, the Princess opted to hire local people who showed aptitude for teaching, and then helping them attain their qualifications later. Apart from paying their salaries and social-security contributions, she also sponsored them on bachelor's-degree and teacher-training programmes so that they are better equipped to help the hill children back home.

''I'm most grateful,'' said Supa Wasansamran, 21, a Thai-Karen teacher at Ban Lehtor who graduated from Mathayom 3.

Supa was the only one in her village who got the chance to go to school. ''I had to leave my family to study in Mae Ramad district. I wasn't able to go home. I missed my mother so. But I had to grit my teeth. It was so hard for a little girl.''

Things are different now thanks to the Princess' compassion for the hill people, Supa said. ''Now every child in my village can study in the village.''

The Princess' project to sponsor higher education for hilltribe teachers has also restored a dream cut short by poverty when Supa was a girl.

''What the Princess has given us is very important,'' said Supa, holding her baby daughter in her arms. ''She gave us a chance.''
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