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Falling Apart at the Seams

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On a recent trip to Thailand I was fortunate enough to visit the Doitung project in the northern part of the country in an area formerly known as the Golden Triangle sharing its borders with Laos and Myanmar. Over two decades ago this highland was an opium growing area ruled by local warlords (Kun Sha was an infamous one) who traded opium for guns, money and influence. The farmers were indigenous hill tribes or migrants with no legal identity or hope for the future. Their sources of livelihood ranged from opium growing, drug trafficking and for the women, as sex workers. The mountain area succumbed to deforestation. The hill tribes, to opium addiction, ill health, poverty and lack of education.

The motivation once fulfilled will be replaced by another form of dissatisfaction and so on in a never-ending cycle of want. The company ends up with a bunch employees that are almost always unhappy and certainly rarely giving their one hundred per cent.

Twenty years later Doitung is a tourist attraction and a showcase for sustainable community development project. The area is a forest of pines. The hill tribes are legitimate workers producing high value goods in the form of macadamia goods, high quality coffee, hand woven textiles, handcrafted ceramics, hybrid orchids and other products with strong consumer demands. The children go to Montessori schools. More importantly however, the people in the area find they could create better lives for themselves through alternative livelihoods and thus abandoning the need for growing opium. And becoming legitimate citizens.

The key is more than just a clear vision, realistic targets and systematic implementation following strict guidelines by the Foundation. Not to mention long-term commitment and continuous assessment. What made the project successful I think is the leadership that drove the project to what it is now. It was initiated by the Thai Royal family’s Princess Mother (the mother of the present king) whose motherly presence and down to earth approach symbolized genuine concern for the welfare of a group of people that had so far been overlooked.

But the real implementer of the project, the Secretary General of the Foundation, the person in charge of continuing the works of the Princess Mother when she passed away in 1994, is Kun Chai, a relative of the present king and great grandson of King Rama IV (the Yul Brynner character in The King and I). At almost the age of 70 Kun Chai has the energy of a man half his age, a lively sense of humour, warmth, abundance of charm, humility and good nature that altogether makes him an infectiously inspiring man.

Kun Chai is, in effect, the persona of ‘noblesse oblige’ – the great sense of public responsibility and moral ethics and decency that those born of nobility and privilege are supposed to have and rarely found in these days of petty politics and even pettier politicians. He is someone who was born with a clear sense of purpose (to serve) and a philosophy that rests on optimism about the goodness of human nature.

On the illegal opium trade Kun Chai did not set out to eradicate it and all its evils. ‘People don’t want set out to be bad guys,’ he said. ‘They just lack the opportunity to do good things.’ Kun Chai did not preach. He gave them a solution and he showed them how. Pie Chai, a former opium addict is now a proud gardener looking after the beautiful gardens in what was formerly the opium trail road and owns a motorbike. Young women who would once become sex workers now weave beautiful cloths made of vetiver grass for high prices. Young men without skills or education are turned into artistic potters turning out designer vases and ceramic tableware. Former gun traders own shares in the factories and could now afford to send their children abroad.

‘It’s all about just doing it,’ said Kun Chai, ‘and keeping it simple.’ Simple but far from easy. The process requires a step by step following of clear and targeted plans and getting the buy in of everybody from the local government to the local leaders. From getting the initial ‘quick hits’ to the complete transformation of the people until they become self-sufficient took decades of hard work, tireless persistence and commitment.

This is where the ‘noblesse oblige’ comes in. Something that government officials, politicians and people with shortsighted self interests don’t generally have – that is, a sincere, committed desire to serve the people with no thought of private gain or personal glory but purely out of a sense of duty and purpose for a meaningful life. A nobility that everyone who is in power should cultivate and nurture if they were to do their job properly.