King Bhumibol sowed the seeds of a new economic doctrine

To measure the monarch and how Thais feel toward him, October 26 is a key barometer, but it is just one of many. PHOTO: AFP

His Majesty the King Rama IX of Thailand has been a huge jigsaw.

If one looks too close, one can miss the big, overall picture. Too far out and important details can go unnoticed. Even when Thais say their last goodbye to the late beloved monarch, overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly, it is not easy for foreign observers to really comprehend the whole thing.

The world is seeing massive oceans of black-wearing Thais gathering for a grand funeral ceremony, the scale of which has been unseen in modern Thai history and rare by global standards. The parades are culturally exquisite and the pavilion reflects all the traditional Thai grandeur.

All of these, however, are not even half the story.

Now, the world knows that here was a very hard-working, multi-talented King, who devoted himself to helping Thais get a better life, who rebuilt a monarchy that was facing a formidable test of time, and did so with maps, cameras, pens and pointers, not with a sword.

His integrity was unquestionable, and the much-scrutinised laws that guarded him could be summed up by the words of a government official, who could have sounded belligerent or rude to reporters a couple of years ago: "Others don't have what we have, so it's up to us, not to them, when it comes to protecting it."

It's his key philosophy, the Sufficient Economy, that may still have puzzled many including a lot of Thais. 

He preached it, gently and subtly, but the idea was set against a glaring backdrop of a conventional economy that has been in place for a long time and firmly supported and cocooned by superpower nations.

His Sufficiency Economy idea is, in fact, simple. It advocates getting back to basics and not biting off more than one can chew.

In elementary school terms, the existing mainstream economy in its most complex but widespread form goes like this: Village A bets on how many fish Village B will catch three years from now. In many cases, money is borrowed from Village C to place the bets. Village D insures the debts, some of which are to be bought by Village E if they go bad. When the bad debts get worse, Village F become a rescuer by buying all.

King Rama XI's idea has you catch your own fish just enough to put some on the table and sell the rest in the nearest market so you can buy additional healthy food. Simple? 

Yes, but it's hard to do nonetheless.

One may say he was a dreamer, but the six-village complexity a few years ago triggered the world's biggest economic meltdown in recent memory, which came at a time when human beings were better equipped than at any point in history to put food in every mouth on the planet. 

In other words, the near-collapse of the world economy has more to do with digital numbers whirling on computer screens at financial institutions across the globe than genuine human abilities to create food, shelters or medicine.

Again, if one looks "too close", one will claim an "irony". 

King Rama XI didn't really have to catch fish for a living, some argue. This, however, is more or less the same as criticising the "humiliation" of pledging to "serve under Your Majesty's feet in every life" while the crucial fact that it was always him who did the serving is ignored, or bemoaning the obligatory standing up in the movie theatres while waiting in a Starbucks queue may take a lot longer.

If one looks from afar, important details could be missed. Television footages in honour of the late monarch can be bland if one does not think along. Every one of them features the green of veggies and crops, the dark brown of soil, the translucence of water and the limited number of farm animals. One will claim that the "bland" footages are nothing about an obligatory routine.

Nobility is in the details, in this case. The monarch's idea is that if you can make good use of the soil, keep the veggies and the crops green, maintain the flow of the water and raise an appropriate number of farm animals, you will really need little else. You will be happy, fulfilled and dignified.

Nobody ever heard His Majesty the King Rama XI criticise any economic system that he might have disagreed with. The "obligatory" TV footages carry absolutely no political message, with interviewees, in a matter-of-fact manner, only thanking him and talking about how to get enough water and keep the soil rich. They never went out of their way to ask others to do the same. They only look genuinely happy and sincerely grateful.

The economic status quo is very omnipresent and deep-rooted, and King Rama XI was certainly well aware of that. He also appreciated the fact that the Thai people are an unavoidable part of it, particularly because this is an era of "globalisation". His Majesty passed away in October last year, certainly realising that his Sufficiency Economy idea will take time to grow.

One of the biggest funerals the world has ever seen has passed.

Again, if one concentrates too much on the "scale", some very important things that King Rama XI has done or conceived could be overlooked.

To measure the monarch and how Thais feel toward him, October 26 is a key barometer, but it is just one of many.

He must have wanted his Sufficiency Economy philosophy to be up for the judgement, though. As an outgrowth of a system called "absolute", challenged by something called "democracy", His Majesty the King Rama XI espoused an idea that sought to create genuine dignity and equality. 

He has sown the seeds, which can wait patiently underground, for as long as it takes.

Tulsathit Taptim is Editor-at-large, The Nation, Thailand.

This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.

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