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Thailand's future is in the lap of the gods

January 26, 2001

Well-known Thammasat economist Rangsun Thanapornphun said earlier this week he does not believe Thai Rak Thai's economic programme could damage Thailand. This is because the guardian angel known as Phra Siamdevathiraj, which does exist, he says, will protect the country and prevent the Thaksin government from lasting more than six months.

Rangsun was, of course, being sarcastic. Yet Phra Siamdevathiraj, or "the city angel", has increasingly become a recurring theme in modern Thai consciousness. For any time the country is in deep peril, Thais will pin their faith on Phra Siamdevathiraj in the belief that eventually the city angel will come to the country's rescue.

This is part of the ancient belief in gods that are omnipresent, residing in water, trees, the forest, practically everywhere. The beliefs date back long before Buddhism entered this country.

In the 19th century, King Mongkut, or Rama IV, believed strongly in the gods, or the superior beings, which he felt were protecting him, the royal family and Siam from all evils besetting their world. During his time, Burma, Malaya and Vietnam fell to Western imperialism. The king more often than not thanked Phra Siamdevathiraj for guarding Siam.

The Chatri Dynasty regards Phra Siamdevathiraj with the utmost reverence. A statue depicting the angel, all in gold and currently situated in the Dusit Palace inside the Grand Palace, is in a standing position and eight inches high. It is meticulously dressed in the form of a mythical god descending from heaven. In its right hand is a sword, while the left hand stretches out at breast level in a blessing posture.

Phra Siamdevathiraj also appears in different form in literature. Banthoon Lamsam, the president of Thai Farmers Bank, interpreted Mani Mekhala, a goddess in "The Story of Mahajanaka" written by His Majesty the King, as a sort of Phra Siamdevathiraj.

In this classic story, which is a best-seller, Mani Mekhala, assigned by the Four World Watchers to look after all virtuous creatures, descended from heaven to rescue the Great Being, who was Prince Mahajanaka. Prince Mahajanaka, or the prince who would be born Buddha, had been swimming in the deep sea for seven days. But as a virtuous prince, endowed with the virtue of perseverance, he was destined to be saved so that he could accomplish the greater goal.

But first he had to satisfy Mani Mekhala by correctly responding to three riddles. This he was able to do, and so Mani Mekhala rescued him from the sea and took him to his destination.

This story provides moral guidance for Thais who wish to succeed. The gods will only help those who help themselves first, or those who have the wisdom to persevere.

Shortly after the 1997 economic crisis there were fears among Thai conservatives that Phra Siamdevathiraj might forsake Thailand, which could face complete ruin from the plummeting baht, bank runs, runaway inflation, skyrocketing unemployment and social crisis. But as it turned out, the crisis was contained between 1997 and 1999.

This could only be interpreted as Phra Siamdevathiraj still protecting Thailand. The flexibility and strength of Thai society and the perseverance of Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda, for all the criticism against him, has played a big part in saving Thailand from complete ruin.

If you travel around Ratanakosin Island, Old Bangkok remains unchanged. It stands elegantly against the test of time. But outside of Old Bangkok is New Bangkok and it has been crumbling since 1997 from its financial sins.




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