The King of Education: An interview with Privy Council Kasem Wattanachai


2016 was a sad year for Thailand. The country lost the great monarch and Thai people lost the guiding light. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the 9th of Chakri Dynasty, ruled the country with love and led it with compassion and commitment to uplift his people out of poverty and illiteracy.

To commemorate his legacy in education and development, Privy Council Kasem Wattanachai sat down with Rattana Lao – the recipient of the Anandamahidol Foundation, to talk about His Majesty’s life work and reflecting on the monumental role His Majesty played as the King of Education.

What did His Majesty do to develop Thailand? What was his focus?

During the seventy years of his reign, his projects were divided into different groups. Each decade he tackled different issues related to Thai development. The first few decade he focused on health because diseases took away thousand of lives. He focused on Cholera, Tuberculosis, Poleo and Leprosy. Then he focused on nutrition and health of Thai people. He became interested in poverty and the livelihood of the people through agricultural works. The last few decades he focused on education and the development of human capital.

What was His Majesty thought on education?

In the year 1962, at a commencement ceremony at Chulalongkorn University, he said “the country is going to be developed or deteriorated depending on the education of its people.” Notice he used the word “education of its people” he did not use the word schooling for students. This is very important. Since 1962 what he was speaking of was the concept of Lifelong Learning. In another occasion, at Srinakarinwiroj University, he said “the role of teachers and lecturers are to teach and discipline”. Today we are beginning to talk about characters education, that educational institutions need to set characters for its students. Later he said that students must posses three characters: knowledge, ability to work and goodness. He was very visionary and advanced of his time.

What were His projects regarding education?

When he resided at Siriraj hospital, he called upon 4 to 5 Privy Council to meet and gave us his seed funding to found The Education Foundation. He wanted us to use this money to uplift the least performing schools along the Central Plain and border areas to make them more educated, more ready. Everyone has to be ready. The principals need to be ready to lead, the teachers need to be ready to teach, the students need to be ready to learn. Another objective of these schools is to make students “good” for the society. Now we have 155 schools like these throughout the country.

How did he view the roles of teachers and students?

In 2012, during his illness, there was a small note from him to all of the Privy Councils. Three of the main messages were: 1.) teachers need to love students and students need to love teachers, 2.) students must be generous toward each other and 3.) students must learn the value of teamwork. We were guided by his thought and we used it to improve the quality of 155 schools. We asked educators from Srinakarinwiroj University to evaluate. It is evident that there is a vast improvement: better quality, better environment, better standards. It’s not just 5% improvement in ONET – but there is an overall improvement of the school.

He founded the Anandamahidol Foundation to send the young Thai scholars to be educated abroad for the past 61 years. What was his idea behind the Anandamahidol Foundation?

He believed that education must empower the people to be self-sufficient. The Anandamahidol Foundation is an evident of this. He wanted to support the best and the brightest students who graduated from higher education institutions in the country to attain world class institutions. He believed that they can work anywhere they like as long as they contribute back to the society, dedicate their intellect to the improvement of Thailand. It does not matter if they come back to work in Thailand or they go abroad.

There is also a different foundation that targeted education, it’s Phradabos Foundation. What does it do and how does it contribute to Thai society? Can you tell us more about it?

Phradabos Foundation targeted a different group of students. These are students who need to leave the education institutions and become adults. The foundation provided 1 year of training for them to be equipped with necessary skills to take care of themselves. He believed if they can take care of themselves financially, they can take care of their families, and subsequently they can contribute back to the society. This is a prototype of non-formal education in Thailand.

He did tremendous jobs in education projects. There are variety of names throughout the country.

How does Rama the Tenth envision education for Thailand? What does he have in mind?

On the 23rd of January 2017, Rama the Tenth asked 7 Privy Councils to meet and share his vision on education for Thailand. He believed education must deliver four main functions. 1.) Students must have the right attitude toward the nation, religion and the monarchy. 2.) Students must create stability for students. Students must be able to differentiate between the good and the bad. 3.) Education must empower young students to have employment. 4.) Education must make students to become good citizens. If we embrace the educational philosophy of Rama the Ninth and Rama the Tenth, we will be able to produce education that serves the development of Thailand.

First published in Bangkok Post

Rattana Lao
Rattana Lao
Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.