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Thailand: Pause on Fighting for King’s Birthday

04 December 2013

I am in Turkey to study the Syrian civil war.  Yet this is also a crucial moment in Thailand.  A few words on the Kingdom are due.

December 5 is His Majesty’s birthday. As an American, I was raised since birth to reject all kings. That is our upbringing and what we are taught in school, and with good reason.

The King of Thailand is a rare exception.

King Bhumibol and his wife have earned tremendous respect from other world leaders.  Thai do not call him “the King,” but “my King,” just as we would say “my grandfather.”  King Bhumibol is the deeply loved grandfather of modern Thailand.

The Royal family has invested great effort into women’s education, conservation, and bringing peace, where possible, between people who in other countries would be at war.  Personally, I like that the King can be seen in many photographs carrying a camera, but not a rifle.

The King had a crucial hand in replacing the scourge of opium with coffee plants, other crops, and commercial flowers. This is why I often buy street flowers in Thailand.

Barry McCaffrey is a retired US Army four-star General.  General McCaffrey is also a former US “drug czar.”  I went to his office to ask about Mexico issues, and what we could do about opium in Afghanistan.  General McCaffrey told me the King of Thailand was crucial for replacing opium in Thailand, and without the King, it likely never would have been accomplished.

The King was the only person with the credibility to make the change.  As General McCaffrey explained, there is no such person in Afghanistan, or Mexico or anywhere on earth, who can say, “We are Thai, and Thai do not grow opium.  We will help you grow something else.”  And for holdouts, there was of course the Army and police, but most of the magic was in the King himself.

Back in Thailand, I met with a close friend of the King who arranged for me a private tour of the Royal Projects Foundation.  This tour and further study revealed that much of that opium was replaced with commercial flowers.  This is why my friends see me buy flowers in Thailand.  I buy flowers because I know it is feeding a farmer who otherwise might grow opium.

And so my visiting friends sometimes ask, “Why do you buy flowers from a street peddler?”  I say, listen, and I will explain.  Some will say, then buy the flowers at a shop, and I say the street peddler has better prices and needs to eat, too.  If I did not buy the flowers, the farmer would grow opium and the peddler would sell it.  If I buy enough flowers, another kid might go to university.  Consider me the last stop on the Royal Project.

I also buy local Thai coffee, and am partial to the Akha brand, which is raised by Akha hill tribe folks who previously grew opium.  I have visited their farms.  The people still live rough but there is improvement and many schools.  Akha people do not even drink coffee, but with help of the Thai government and the Royal Project Foundation, today many hill tribe folks are coffee farmers.

A co-founder of Akha Ama Coffee is a hill tribesman who does not even know his true birthday.  His name is Lee Ayu Chuepa.  I saw Mr. Chuepa speak at a TED Talk in Chiang Mai. His parents never went to school, and his village had no school.

Under the King’s leadership, that ended, and his Akha village got a simple school four kilometers distant, and he asked his parents, “What is a school?”  His parents did not fully know what a school was, and tried to explain.  He learned to read.

Today Mr. Chuepa is an educated man who graduated from a university and he owns a large coffee business.  The beans are grown by the hill tribes.  If he never had that simple school, he might be a guerrilla leader or drug dealer of substantial proportion.  Instead, he travelled to the USA to learn the art of coffee roasting.

These are a few examples of thousands of why the Thai revere their King.

And so, even during this unfortunate fighting, all sides are taking a time out to honor His Majesty’s birthday on December 5th.

Of course, on December 6 the fighting might start again, but at least everyone will take a moment to think before going to fists and triggers.

It is a moment of pride to mention that the King was born in the Massachusetts, and that his family has always been a friend of the United States.  Again, Americans usually have no patience for royalty.  This time it works.

If you are in Thailand, the King’s birthday is a good moment to try a local coffee, and to buy a flower.  



Lee Ayu Chuepa speaks at TED in Chiang Mai.

The unique Royal Projects Foundation.

Great Akha Coffee.

Tribute to the King, sent to me in Turkey, from Thailand

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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