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One year on, King Bhumibol's development legacy to Thailand

From opium eradication to biomedicines, late king was a pioneer in many fields

King Bhumibol Adulyadej receives a small rose plant from a local woman as he makes a visit to one of his crop substitution projects in Northern Thailand, Feb. 16, 1981.   © AP

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- When Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej died a year ago today, Namo Mancherng, an 89-year-old hill-tribe farmer living in Angkhang along the hilly border with Myanmar, was in despair and did not eat for four days.  

For the next three months, Namo remained in the village temple praying: "If the king comes to life again, please let me be his subject again."

A member of the Palong tribe, Namo is originally from Myanmar -- one of thousands from ethnic minorities whose lives improved drastically because of the late king's initiatives to rid the hills of opium.

When Namo settled along the border in the 1970s, the Angkhang hillsides were deforested from slash-and-burn agriculture, and covered in bright opium poppies. Like many of his fellow tribesmen, Namo cultivated poppies to make opium that could be traded for rice and salt. He knew the harvest was illegal, but it seemed to be the only way to earn money to feed his wife and eight children.

Namo Mancherng, right, an 89-year-old farmer living in the northern highlands of Thailand, has a huge picture of his meeting the late king hanging in his home. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

Much of the 130 tons of opium produced in the area each year was refined into heroin at laboratories along the border. The hillsides are quite different today, covered with a deep green canopy, orchards and tea plantations. The breathtaking scenery attracts many tourists. The transformation was brought about by King Bhumibol after he surveyed the devastated area on his first visit in 1967.

Two years later, he bought some land with his own funds, and established a research station to test crops suited to the cool climate 1,400 meters above sea level. Perhaps an alternative to opium could be found for the farmers.

Based on that early research, farmers were trained to grow coffee and various fruits and vegetables. Namo took to cabbages that eventually earned him ten times as much as his opium efforts.

Early Royal Projects of this kind multiplied to number eventually around 4,600, encompassing everything from water resource management to schools and medical services. Almost all were initiated by the king himself.

The lush green hills of Angkhang were once covered in opium poppies (Photo by Yukako Ono)

"The strong leadership of the king enabled the orchestration of various organizations in large-scale projects," Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University, told the Nikkei Asian Review. For the Angkhang project, the king also enlisted support from diplomats in Bangkok for international funding and technical support for opium replacement.  

The Angkhang model was later implemented in the neighboring province of Chiang Rai in the so-called Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. The area has long been known as one of the world's major drug-trafficking areas. 

The Royal Projects earned international accolades, including from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and promoted the king's image as the caring and hardworking Father of the Nation.

"All my life, I have seen the king devote his life to helping the Thai people," said Wooth, a 49-year-old taxi driver in Chiang Mai. "He worked harder than any prime minister."

"In some years, the king was away from Bangkok for more than seven months," said Pramote Maiklad, a former director general of the Royal Irrigation Department. Pramote  travelled with the king for nearly two decades, surveying potential irrigation projects and following up on existing ones. 

Photographs of King Bhumibol studying maps in remote jungles, or sitting listening to local people, the sweat running off him, are still commonplace throughout the kingdom.  

King Bhumibol's only son and successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, has spent much of his time in recent years in Germany, and has always been less involved in the Royal Projects than his second sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. 

King Bhumibol Adulyadej with his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, in the 1970s. (Reginald Davis/Rex Features via AP Images

"With King Bhumibol's death, Thailand must rethink its social development," said Chayan. "We cannot always look for someone to help us -- we should move forward by ourselves."

There are some encouraging developments. Aeta, a 26-year-old member of the Black Lahu tribe living in Angkhang, teaches fellow tribesmen in other parts of northern Thailand to grow strawberries and stay away from the narcotics trade. "I want to pass on what the king initiated in Angkhang to others who deserve a better life," he said. Last year, the first batch of strawberries under this initiative was harvested by one of the families he oversees, and this year more households will start selling produce.  

The Royal Projects have influenced other development projects. King Bhumibol's interest in water management came into play influencing the irrigation department after major flooding in 1980 of Bangkok. Dikes were built to control water levels in the capital that helped mitigate flood damage later, including during serious flooding in 2011.

One of King Bhumibol's earliest projects in the medical arena was a simple saline solution plant. Things have come a long way. Earlier this month, Siam Bioscience, a pharmaceutical company funded by the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the royal family's assets, entered a joint venture with Cuba's Cimab to research and develop biomedicine for cancer and auto-immune diseases. Siam Bioscience, Thailand's only producer of biomedicines, already produces two Cimab medicines under license. The drugs were launched last year and are 70% cheaper than similar products from multinational pharmaceutical companies.

"His Majesty had always had the wish to make advanced medication affordable for the people of Thailand," said Snoh Unakul, chairman of Siam Bioscience. "We will continue trying hard to meet his wishes."

King Bhumibol Adulyadej's era ends with a grand cremation ceremony on Oct. 26 and the conclusion of a year-long mourning period on Oct. 29.

Mourners pay final respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Oct. 12 ahead of a grand cremation ceremony at the end of the month. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

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