Sirikit (1932—)

views updated

Sirikit (1932—)

Queen and regent of Thailand. Name variations: Princess Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara or Mom Rajawong Sirikit Kitiyakara; Sirikit Kitiyakara. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 12, 1932; daughter of Prince Chandaburi Suranath (Nakkhatra Mongkol Kitiyakara), a diplomat, and Mom Luang Bua (Snidwongse) Kitiyakara; educated at St. Francis XavierSchool in Bangkok, later at schools in France, Denmark, England, and Switzerland; married Bhumibol Adulyadej also known as King Rama IX, on April 28, 1950; children: Princess Ubol Ratana (b. 1951); Prince Ma Ha Vajiralongkorn (b. 1952); Crown Princess Sirindhorn (b. 1955); Princess Chulabhorn (b. 1957).

Crowned queen of Thailand (1950); acted as regent (1956); active in Thai Red Cross and public health issues; promoted Thai cottage industries by establishing (1976) the Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques.

Queen Sirikit has been an untiring advocate for the well-being of the people of Thailand, whether it be their access to adequate health care or promotion of their livelihoods. Born a princess as the daughter of Prince Chandaburi Saranath and Mom Luang Bua Kitiyakara on August 12, 1932, she was educated at a French Catholic school in Bangkok until her father's work in the diplomatic service moved the family to Europe. There she studied in France, Denmark and England, learning to speak both French and English fluently.

While pursuing her studies in Lausanne, Switzerland, Sirikit became reacquainted with Bhumibol Adulyadej, another Thai student and a distant cousin. Bhumibol had succeeded unexpectedly to the Thai throne in June 1946 after his elder brother was found shot to death in the royal palace. Feeling that he needed more preparation before becoming head of state, Bhumibol postponed his coronation and went to Switzerland to study political science. In the summer of 1949, he announced his engagement to Sirikit, and on April 28, 1950, they were married in Bangkok in a brief Buddhist ceremony, much simpler than those usually held for royal weddings. Bhumibol was crowned King Rama IX on May 5 of that year, and Sirikit was crowned queen. The couple spent another year in Switzerland before returning to Bangkok to settle in the royal palace. Between 1951 and 1957, Sirikit had four children, three girls and one boy, and devoted as much time as she could to overseeing their upbringing.

Much admired by the public for her beauty, warmth, and grace, Queen Sirikit made the promotion of cottage industries her special project, especially the production and export of hand-woven Thai silk. She encouraged rural people to practice their traditional crafts, obtaining markets for their products, and, in cases where traditional knowledge had been lost, sending instructors to help the people rediscover lost art forms

and craft techniques. The Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (SUPPORT), which she founded in 1976, created a chain of shops to sell native crafts, gave rural women training in indigenous arts, and provided training and materials to establish artists' cooperatives.

Sirikit also had great interest in the health of the Thai people, participating regularly in fund raising for the Red Cross. On August 12, 1956, she became president of the Thai Red Cross, and in 1959, after the death of the executive vice-president, took over those duties as well. She worked to improve the public health system; organized aid for refugees, orphans, wounded soldiers and flood victims; and visited leper colonies and village health centers in remote areas of the country where the royal family had never been before. She also campaigned for a vaccination program that was credited with saving the nation's poultry industry.

In 1956, the king, who in Thai tradition also serves as a Buddhist priest, took a sabbatical from his governmental responsibilities, from October 22 to December 7, in order to fulfill his religious duties. He named Sirikit to rule in his place. At the conclusion of her brief tenure, she was granted by the government the title of Somdech Phraborom Rajininath, a high honor, in recognition of the excellence with which she had fulfilled the office of regent.

The royal couple wanted to know firsthand the conditions and needs of the people throughout Thailand. They also subscribed to the philosophy that part of royal responsibility is to bring together other countries and improve world relationships. To this end they promoted assimilation of foreigners, especially refugees, into Thai culture and made several tours of state to foreign countries around the world. In 1959 and 1960, they visited Vietnam, Burma (now Myanmar), and Indonesia, and in June 1960 took a six-month tour of the West, beginning in the United States where Bhumibol had been born.

Queen Sirikit made the conservation of Thailand's forests a high priority. As a member of the World Wildlife Fund, she promoted the afforestation of one of Thailand's most arid regions and worked to protect wildlife habitats, particularly those of endangered species. In recognition of her efforts, in 1986 the chair of the board of directors for the World Wildlife Fund named her an outstanding protector of the environment.

In 1979, the brilliant and popular Princess Sirindhorn , Sirikit's second daughter and third child, received from the National Assembly the special dynastic title of Ma Ha Chakri, naming her crown princess because her brother, Prince Ma Ha Vajiralongkorn, was uninterested in the monarchy, and her elder sister, Princess Ubol Ratana , an MIT graduate, had renounced her title and married a U.S. citizen. This historic event was followed in the early 1980s by the Thai Parliament's revising the succession laws to permit a female monarch for the first time. (Sirikit's last-born child, Princess Chulabhorn , a gifted scientist with a doctorate in organic chemistry, received the coveted Einstein Gold Medal in 1986 and set up the Chulabhorn Research Institute to promote scientific research in Thailand.)

In 1985, exhausted by her hectic schedule, Queen Sirikit retired from public life for several years. She returned after some needed rest to accompany her husband on the diplomatic circuit, visiting many foreign countries in both the East and the West. Sirikit's popularity is evident in the many buildings and centers named after her, including the large convention center in Bangkok. Her birthday is a national holiday set aside to honor mothers.

Sirikit also received several prestigious honors from outside Thailand's borders in recognition of her humanitarian efforts. Several United Nations organizations honored her with awards, including the Food and Agriculture Organization which bestowed on her the Ceres Medal for her work among rural Thai women in 1979. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) likewise honored her with the Borobudur Gold Medal in 1992 for her efforts to preserve Thailand's cultural heritage, and both UNICEF and UNIFEM recognized her efforts on behalf of Thai women that same year. The Royal College of Physicians in Great Britain awarded her an honorary fellowship for her "deep concern for the health and welfare of the people of Thailand," the highest honor conferred by the 470-year old institution, in 1988. Her part in helping homeless refugees earned her the Center for Migration Studies Immigration and Refugees Policy Award two years later, and in 1991 she became the first foreigner to receive the International Humanitarian Award from the Friends of the Capital Children's Museum of Washington, D.C., for her work in providing children in remote areas with educational opportunities.

While speaking of her active involvement in the monarchy and the many responsibilities she has shouldered during her life, Queen Sirikit said of Thai women: "they never had the feeling of being inferior to their menfolk." She became proof of that as an indispensable and visible part of her husband's public life with an active interest in the continuing changes taking place in her beloved Thailand.


Current Biography 1960. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1960.

Jackson, Guida M. Women Who Ruled. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1990.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts