At 49, Thailand's Resolute Queen Sirikit Proves There's More to Royalty Than Weddings

Queen Sirikit of Thailand was vexed at the interruption of her two-hour evening prayer ritual in Bangkok’s Chitralada Palace last spring. She reminded her retainer in no uncertain terms that it was 11 p.m. If the general on the telephone wanted to talk to her, he could very well ring back in the morning. Minutes later the retainer returned, saying that the caller was insistent. Her Majesty let half an hour pass before she picked up the phone and discovered that a segment of Thailand’s army had captured the Prime Minister and was bent on forming a new government. Troops loyal to the Prime Minister were ready to march on Bangkok, said the young general, if only the palace would give the word.

The response was a difficult one in Thailand, where the monarchy is excluded from politics by law. In any case, the decision properly belonged to her husband, King Bhumibol. But the country’s religious tradition gives the King the status of a demigod; mere mortals are loath to approach him directly. So Sirikit took the Prime Minister’s release into her own hands. Just after midnight she phoned his residence and talked with one of the colonels behind the coup. She told the officer he had 30 minutes to release the PM. If he didn’t, the Queen warned, she would come and free him herself. He was released straightaway and the next day joined the King and Queen in the garrison town of Korat. Later a brief statement from Sirikit, calling for national unity, was aired by a provincial radio station—and within 24 hours the revolt collapsed.

The “April Fool’s coup,” as the New York Times called it, was a dramatic instance of the poise of Queen Sirikit and of the power of the 199-year-old Chakri dynasty of which both Bhumibol and his distant cousin, Sirikit, are members. Peasants fall to their knees when either the King or Queen enters a village. Portraits of them are everywhere. A military coup half a century ago placed constitutional limitations on the monarchy, but the royal family still wields astonishing power. Even in jaded Bangkok, a metropolis of five million, the monarchy is held in such lofty awe that it is often referred to as “the Sky.”

Sirikit turned 49 last week, and after 31 years on the throne she and her 53-year-old husband, who usually work side by side, are still putting in 10-hour days visiting irrigation projects, experimental farms, silk weavers and artist cooperatives in backwater villages. In October Sirikit will visit the U.S. to promote Thai products which will be exhibited at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. The Queen will also have an opportunity to meet with her black sheep daughter, Ubol Ratana, who was scorned after marrying an American engineer, Peter Jensen, in 1972. Ubol Ratana returned to favor last year after her husband won an audience with Sirikit, who conceded, “He’s a good man.” The Jensens continue to live in Newport Beach, Calif.

On the surface the Queen’s life seems exotic, played out as it is against picture postcard settings. She winters in a mountain palace bounded by towering trees and rose gardens. Summer finds her in a Mediterranean-style villa that fronts on the most pristine beach in Asia. In autumn she lives far to the south in a modern glass-and-brick manse amid the orchid jungles that border on Malaysia. But wherever the royal couple move, usually in their yellow Rolls-Royce, masses of needy countrymen follow, filing into the palace grounds. There are often hill tribesmen, Burmese refugees, waifs and toothless crones. “Because all these people are poor and have no land to plow, we take them in and teach them a skill,” explains Sirikit’s 24-year-old daughter Chulabhorn. “It’s like an open university.”

The Chakri monarchy has grown remarkably democratic since 1879, when a royal consort drowned as servants stood helplessly by, fearing to touch her body. Sirikit logs about 730 public appearances a year, and few are merely ceremonial occasions. In part because of royal efforts, Thailand has a 90 percent literacy rate and no malnutrition. But the annual average income is only $590, and Sirikit is encouraging the rural poor to augment their farm income with traditional crafts like weaving luxurious silk cloth and strikingly complex fern handbags.

The royal couple usually spend 10 months a year traveling through the countryside. Often they must ford streams to reach villages. “Why pay a king and queen to sit still in Bangkok?” Sirikit asks. “That would be silly. Our people are poor and, in some cases, threatened by Communist insurgents. It is our duty to go out and discuss their problems.”

The trips into the mountains and jungle can involve danger. During a 1977 tour of Yala province, Muslim secessionists exploded a bomb 50 yards from the royal couple. On another occasion, Sirikit’s lady-in-waiting, a passenger in a police helicopter, was killed by ground fire from rebels. “There’s no such thing as security,” says Sirikit. “It is impossible to protect us, but danger is part of the job. We can’t let ourselves be afraid of death.”

Typically, on a visit to a village, the King and Queen are preceded by police who push back the locals. Still, the peasants press in on the royal couple with urgency, presenting bouquets and baskets of fruit which conceal notes that complain about bureaucratic corruption, Communist terrorism or perhaps the police. A royal visit is often the only time a villager can deal directly with even-handed authority. On one recent foray to an isolated settlement, peasants clamored for attention. “Come here, Queen!” summoned one rice farmer. “Solve this yourself,” he whispered while passing her a crumpled piece of paper. “Don’t give it to the district chief.”

“The majority of the Thai people we see never have had the chance to taste real democracy,” says Sirikit. National elections are held, but the military holds sway. The Queen concedes, “Villagers are forced into the hills by terrorists.” She adds, “Some people criticize us for being ‘political’ when we accept these petitions. But how can we spend all our time in Bangkok lighting candles at ceremonial functions when schools are burned and land stolen by the greedy?” Local officials or palace aides investigate all complaints, and the royal staff then reviews their decisions.

Sirikit has established medical centers in remote areas that double as community libraries and has set up Red Cross shelters for orphans fleeing from the civil war in Cambodia. Yet her proudest achievement has been promoting the export of handicrafts. Nearly 20,000 rural Thais are benefiting from the Queen’s schemes to earn them money in foreign markets. Because she likes to work from 2 to 11 p.m., the royal household keeps the same hours, and visitors arriving at the palace at the cocktail hour often find the ladies-in-waiting grading extravagantly colored silk and sorting jewelry for shipping abroad. Eighty percent of the revenues will be returned to the peasant craftsmen.

Bhumibol and Sirikit’s idealism springs from a philosophy that they and their children are national property. The 29-year-old Crown Prince, a paratrooper with a wife and young child, spends most of his time as commanding officer of the King’s Own Bodyguard Battalion, but the two youngest princesses, Chulabhorn and Sirindhorn, 26, minister to the people at their mother’s side. They have been educated in Thailand and their contacts with Westerners are limited, possibly because it was while she was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that their older sister met her American husband.

Sirikit and Bhumibol were educated in Switzerland, where they courted, returning home in 1950 to marry and assume the throne. Ever since they have been resolute in their devotion to serve. “I don’t have a private life at all,” Sirikit allows. “But it doesn’t bother me. You can’t take Sunday off. The people don’t understand that you need a holiday. If you’re jealous of your privacy,” she concludes, “it’s best to abdicate.”

Related Articles