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November 30, 2000

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DECEMBER 3, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 48

Back To Basics
The King warns against an unheeding rush to wealth
By JULIAN GEARING Huai Hong Khrai, northern Thailand

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Thailand needed an economic crisis for it to become clear that alternative strategies to greedy and unsustainable methods of economic development were vital. And who better to pass on that message than King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in a number of pre-Crisis speeches had already warned of the dangers of a headlong rush to economic growth?

"I have repeatedly said that striving to become a 'tiger' is not our main concern," the King said in a speech on Dec. 4, 1997, on the eve of his birthday. "What is important for us is to have a decent standard of living and sufficient food to eat, as well as to maintain a self-sufficient economy. The key word, 'sufficient,' here implies that one should aim at becoming self-reliant."

The King's message was a logical culmination of the years he has spent getting his hands and feet dirty, walking the fields and back roads of the country, attending to the problems of grass-roots society. Thousands of Royal Development Projects have been undertaken over the past three decades, dealing with such areas as irrigation, water-resources management, forest and fishery conservation, soil erosion and improvement, crop substitution, reforestation, land development, rural and community growth, primary health care, eradication of leprosy, education, flood control, environmental protection and even Bangkok's traffic jams.

Now the King has gone one step further. His "New Theory" offers Thailand and its crisis-ridden agricultural sector a chance to move onto a more sustainable plain with a "back-to-basics" approach that focuses on maximizing natural resources. Some farmers have already responded and adapted their agricultural practices.

A number of influential people have jumped on the bandwagon, introducing the King's terms into academic and business circles. But it is not clear if this is making a difference. "I wish more people would take more seriously [the King's] words, his counseling, his advice, and really translate them into deeds and actions," says former premier Anand Panyarachun. According to a spokesman for the Office of the Royal Development Projects Board, the King does not want "yes men," but would like his ideas to be accepted for serious consideration. If there is value to a project, it should be undertaken.

Are people willing to put the King's words into practice? It's too soon to tell. And Thailand may not have a lot of time to spare.

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