Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Mae Fah Luang: Thailand's Princess Mother and the Border Patrol Police during the Cold War

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Mae Fah Luang: Thailand's Princess Mother and the Border Patrol Police during the Cold War

Article excerpt

The mother of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Princess Mother Sangwan, was the royal patron of the Thai Border Patrol Police (BPP) and an ardent supporter of its Cold War era civic action programmes. This article surveys the special relationship between the Princess Mother and the BPP and their development of royal projects among the highland minorities in northern Thailand to illuminate the implications of this collaboration for the spread of royalist nationalism and the evolving role of the monarchy from the 1960s to the present. 

Upon hearing the loud helicopter propeller, the villagers begin to sit down on the hastily paved road, and the teachers from the Border Patrol Police (BPP, tamruat trawen chaidaen) school check the students lined up in the schoolyard for the last time. When the Royal Thai Police helicopter lands, a tiny old lady steps out to greet the BPP commanders, provincial governors, and other local politicians who have been awaiting her arrival. The lady and her entourage then walk quickly towards the school, leaving behind the villagers in their ethnic dress. The Princess Mother begins her royal duties by inspecting the school grounds along the designated route, officially opening school buildings, and distributing the gifts she has brought from the lowlands to the students and villagers. (1) These are the scenes that created the legend of Mae Fah Luang, 'Royal Mother from the Sky'. (2)

The mother of the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej, Her Royal Highness Princess Sinakharinthra (Somdet Phra Sinakharinthra Boromratchachonani nee Sangwan Talapat), was a royal patron of the BPP, the paramilitary intelligence unit founded at the beginning of the Cold War. She was an ardent supporter of the BPP's 'civic action' programmes until her passing in 1995. This article examines the historical and political context of the Princess Mother's patronage of the BPP and its programmes targeting highland minorities in northern Thailand in particular. To understand the special relationship between the royal family and the BPP, and the subsequent transformation of the BPP from its origins as a United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed counterinsurgency unit into a symbolic missionary of royalist nationalism, this survey focuses on three questions: First, in what context did the Princess Mother become the BPP's royal patron? Second, what were the shared objectives and consequent impacts of the BPP's civic action programmes and the Princess Mother's royal projects in northern Thailand during the Cold War? Third, what were the implications of the Princess Mother's projects with the BPP for the spread of royalist nationalism in Thailand, up to the present day?

I will argue that her sponsorship and participation in the BPP's programmes in the remote border areas during the Cold War played a pivotal role in generating the image of the late king Bhumibol as a benevolent, professional and modern monarch. The making of the 'development king' was a collective project of the royal family and royalist network who sought to enhance their political legitimacy and authority. The Princess Mother's support for the BPP in the early 1960s and dramatic expansion of her own projects among northern Thailand's highland minorities contributed to spreading the image of a professional monarchy and the idea of a royalist nationalism, thereby enabling the monarchy to enjoy irreproachable influence into the twenty-first century.

Border patrol police, 'My children'

Before the 1960s the royal family had focused mainly on charitable activities. One of the earliest royal charities, the Ananda Mahidol scholarship, was launched in 1955 and awarded scholarships to medical students seeking advanced degrees abroad. In 1959, the programme evolved into the first royally sponsored organisation, the Ananda Mahidol Scholarship Foundation. (3) The royals also made regular donations to other scholarships, as well as rural temples, hospitals and schools. …

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