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The history of Her Majesty’s championship of the rural poor and her patronage and promotion of traditional handicrafts dates back virtually to the beginning of the reign, and underscores the essential concept of monarchy as interpreted and practiced by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.
In 1955, just a few years after ascending the throne, His Majesty the King, accompanied by the Queen, made a 22-day tour of Northeast Thailand, the most neglected and poorest area of the country. The people, most of whom had never seen a Thai monarch in person before, flocked to pay homage to Their Majesties.
This pioneering tour was to set the pattern for the reign and every year the King spends seven to eight months outside of Bangkok touring all parts of the country. These provincial tours, usually made in the company of the Queen, are far more than mere exercises in public relations and serve very practical ends. A man of considerable personal accomplishment, King Bhumibol takes a direct hand in initiating and promoting development projects, especially those concerned with agriculture, and those designed to eradicate poverty and boost national growth.
In this work, His Majesty is admirably supported by Queen Sirikit who, in a 1979 interview, remarked; “If you cannot abolish poverty, you cannot bring peace to your country, or help your government.”
With a great personal interest in science and technology, King Bhumibol concentrates on major development projects as wide ranging as irrigation and crop substitution programs. As the perfect complement to such endeavors, Her Majesty has focused attention on the family and, in particular, the role of rural women. Thai women have traditionally been adept at all manner of handicrafts, weaving the family cloth being just the most obvious example. The family unit and craft production have thus historically gone largely hand in hand, and it has been Queen Sirikit’s genius to see that what has served the past can also serve the present. While Her Majesty extends assistance in many ways and through diverse development schemes, it is her promotion of traditional arts and crafts that best epitomizes her endeavors. Through encouraging and providing the means for the rural poor to revive old hadicrafts, the Queen shows a way for families to secure a source of valuable supplementary income while, at the same time, a fresh lease of life is given to time-honored crafts that may otherwise die out.
The origins of Queen Sirikit’s specific involvement with indigenous handicrafts dates from the early 1970s, where a disastrous flood in Thailand’s northeast region destroyed crops and caused widespread misery and deprivation. Their Majesties visited the stricken area and provided food and other necessities for the immediate relief of the flood victims, but the tragedy remained indelibly in the Queen’s mind.
For the longer term benefit of the rural poor, Her Majesty instructed a team to visit villagers in the northeast and to urge them to produce more of their beautiful mudmee tie (dyed silk) that is traditional to the region. The idea was that a revival of local handicrafts could help provide additional income to supplement the livelihood of farming communities. This was the beginning of what today has become the widely effective SUPPORT project.
Officially known as the Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques, SUPPORT was personally established by the Queen in July 1976. “It was the intention of Her Majesty to create work that would provide a supplementary income for poor farming families and so help prevent them being driven from their land by burdensome debts,” said a royal official. “Her Majesty was concerned that Thailand as a rice producing country might lose land only to industry, and she desired that the people should be able to continue producing food to feed the whole country and to export to the rest of the world.”
Another important aim of SUPPORT is to revive and preserve ancient Thai handicrafts that are in danger of becoming extinct. Besides the northeast’s famous mudmee silk, these include prae-wo embroidered silk, delicate yan lipao basketry, nielloware and the intricate gold and silver decorated inlay known as khram. In total, 26 crafts were identified, all of which not only require a great deal of skill, time and patience, but also then had few surviving practitioners. For example, with only one teacher in the entire country, khram inlay work was very real danger of vanishing completely.
To achieve her dual objective of helping the rural poor preserve traditional crafts, Her Majesty established SUPPORT with initially one training centre at Chitralada Palace in Bangkok. She interviewed poor families to select trainees. They are given an allowance, as well as board and lodging, while undergoing training in the craft of their choice. For some activities, such as embroidery or artificial flower making, skills can be acquired in two to three months; for others, melloware, for example, training can take up to three years. At the end of their course the most able students are asked to become teachers in their turn, thus ensuring that skills will be handed on to the next generation.
The SUPPORT of the SUPPORT programme has been so successful that today there are training centres in all regions of the country, the biggest at Chitralada Palace which has up to 500 trainees at any one time. In total, more than 50,000 otherwise uneducated rural workers and hill tribe people have graduated from the programme to date.
As a well-rounded scheme, SUPPORT follows up training and production with marketing and promotion. Finished goods are bought at fair prices and sold through the Foundation's own Chitralada shops and other non-profit institutions. Indeed, the work is no charitable cosmetic and is grounded in an essentially practical philosophy. In the words of Her Majesty, "Before urging villagers to make anything, we must be certain that the products will be marketable, not for charity only. Charitable merchandise does not provide real support. We must put them on their way so that they can stand on their own feet."
A commentator has remarked that Her Majesty is "a very active president of SUPPORT, not just a figurehead. She inspects each piece and will make criticisms if it is not up to standard. She always emphasizes quality over quantity."
This is really the key to the enormous success of SUPPORT. The work of the Foundation is nothing if not practical. Villagers learn or re-learn how to make traditional handicrafts not so much as craft for crafts' sake (although the preservation of dying techniques is part of it) but more because Queen Sirikit has been instrumental showing that those handicrafts continue to have a real market value.
Indeed, Her Majesty is SUPPORT's best customer, using handicraft products as gifts to visiting heads of state. Moreover, the Queen has personally demonstrated that traditional handicrafts still have a practical role to play. For example, valuable publicity for mudmee silk was generated by Her Majesty when she commissioned a wardrobe of the material specially designed by Eric Mortenson of the House of Balmain.
In popularizing the handicrafts - and hence enhancing their marketability - Queen Sirikit has played as vital a role as in her primary efforts to initiate the various projects. She has advised on the design of National Costumes for Thai women and has used not only mudmee silk and cotton in her own clothes, but also other traditional materials, such as hill tribe embroidery and chok woven silk and woven brocade.
Accessories, too, have been personally popularized by Her Majesty who has again revitalized dying crafts by exemplifying how they can serve today's fashions. Most striking is the case of yan lipao vine weaving, an old craft from southern Thailand. Various durable household utensils - bowls, trays, betel-nut boxes, tea caddies and more - can be woven from this particular species of either black or brown vine; but today, it is best known in the form of exquisite and strikingly unusual handbags.
Queen Sirikit's attention was first drawn to yan lipao several years ago when she visited an exhibition of intricately-woven items produced by the disabled. Impressed by what she saw, she spearheaded a yan lipao weaving teaching project. Since then, the popularity of yan lipao handbags has soared, largely through Her Majesty's example of showing how they are a most attractive accessory, superb in themselves and the perfect complement to clothes fashioned from traditional Thai materials.
The result of Her Majesty's efforts and the ongoing work of the SUPPORT foundation are seen not merely in the revival of old crafts and the creation of new fashions. For the rural poor trained in these various handicrafts, family incomes can be doubled, thus encouraging self-support and providing the means to be free from total dependence on agriculture that is subject to the vagaries of nature.
And the work not only continues, but is ever seeking to expand into new areas. Efforts towards the preservation of Thai arts and crafts underpin the Foundation; but today its help and interest pervade every aspect of village life, from medical care to land management and the more judicious use of natural resources.
In recognition of her work, Queen Sirikit has been the recipient of several prestigious international awards. The citation of one of them - the 1979 Ceres Gold Medal of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization - offers perhaps the finest, truest praise of all. The Queen, it said, has helped rural communities "look well into their households and profit from the fruit of their own hands."
One might add that in helping the rural poor and personally promoting the products of their labor, Her Majesty has further given countless other people joy in rediscovering the rich variety and enduring beauty of Thailand’s crafts.