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Congress Logo 33rd World Vegetarian Congress
Chiang Mai, Thailand, January 4 - 10, 1999
'Vegetarianism is the Way'
an unforgettable visual, cultural and gastronomic experience

"The King and I"

The recent report that Thailand refused Hollywood moguls permission to utilize the Kingdom for a re-make of the spectacular 50's film called "The King and I," caused my imagination to reel and spurred me to action.

I applaud and respect the Thais' reasons for doing so. They felt the movie showed gross disrespect in its depiction of their highly revered King Mongkut, Great Grandfather to the present King Rama IX, His Majesty King Bhumipol Aduledej.

Only those familiar with the Thai culture would understand. For most, Hollywood's creation, as adapted from "Anna and the King of Siam," a book by an English Governess who reputedly taught King Mongut's children English, was a wonderful story that forever whetted their appetites for more, and in fact probably did more to promote Thai tourism than any other effort. Additionally, the Broadway play by the same name, as well as the movie, had awesome sets and costumes along with memorable songs: What romantic could not identify with the beautiful lyrics and music to: "I Could Have Danced All Night," and "Getting To Know You."

It seems a shame, I thought, because the leading lady will be the fine Academy Award winning actress, Jody Foster, whose choice of roles and portrayal of characters is always outstanding. It occurred to me to see if I might somehow get in touch with Miss Foster, explain the concern of the Thais, get the offending portions rewritten, and possibly act as intermediator with all concerned.

Considering all the modern technology now available, the remake would be able to capture the true pomp and circumstance of Thailand's unique and exotic culture, celebrations and splendour: The Grand Palace, The Emerald Buddha, the magnificent Royal Barge ceremony, the Giant Swing, the Loy Krathong Holiday, the famed Oriental Hotel on The River of Kings, to name a few.

And the present King, who this year celebrates his 6th Cycle (72nd year), sets a profound altruistic example of what the Thai people had in mind when they decided to elevate to the highest honor a specially selected individual to "rule with righteousness for the benefit of the Thai people."

King Bhumipol, perhaps more than any in Thai history -- and there have been many exceptional Kings in the present dynasty alone -- and his dedicated and beautiful consort Queen Sirikit, have provided the substance and glue that has held the Kingdom together over the thick and thin of many tumultuous years, 8 of them while I was there.

Thailand's history with the U.S. goes back to the time of President Abraham Lincoln when diplomatic ties were first established. A good friend from Thailand, with whom I've recently reunited, brought history to life for me. Her great, great, great grandfather was the first Thai Ambassador to the United States. That was during the Civil War era when American President Abraham Lincoln was enmeshed in the Civil War.

As the story goes, King Mongkut was reining as an Absolute Monarch over the Kingdom formerly known as Siam (meaning yellow-skinned people: Siam was renamed Thailand, meaning "Land of the Free" because it more accurately described their chosen land. ). When the King learned of President Lincoln's goal to free the slaves, the King offered to send him the Thai equivalent of a tank to help turn the tide: 5 fully equipped War Elephants. Though touched by the offer, President Lincoln was said to have politely declined, and the friendship between the two countries continued to flourish.

In more recent history, Thailand was the only US ally in that part of the world during the Vietnam War. When my family arrived, in October of 1966, Americans were highly respected and could do no wrong. (Would that it were that way today.) Thailand had been a Constitutional Monarchy since a bloodless coup d'etat back in 1939. During our nearly ten years there, we witnessed several other coups as the new democracy went through "growing pains."

During one in particular, I sat next to then Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, at a Press Club meeting where he was the guest speaker. Unbeknown to us journalists, armed soldiers and tanks were rumbling down the streets as another military coup was being staged. A short time later, that same Foreign Minister resigned his position and went to a monastery to absolve himself of his sins, a not uncommon custom in Thailand.

A few years later, for the first time in Thai history, students assembled from all over the Kingdom to protest a power hungry ruling triumvirate mockingly dubbed "The Father, Son, and Not-so-holy-Ghost." Children and the elderly are revered in Thailand, so when soldiers were ordered to fire upon the millions of students who had begun burning down buildings and torching cars, the usually passive populace were outraged. Everything came to a halt and Bangkok was literally plunged into darkness as stores, offices, even the electricity was closed down. The profound silence and fear was contagious. People were afraid to venture from their homes, and there were no food vendors, shops or the like available to replenish resources.

Always above politics and ill-begotten deeds of sometimes greedy politicians, the King and Queen provided the stabilizing rudder then, as in other turbulent times. Following orders to seize the leaders of the student led revolution, soldiers herded many of them up to the Palace gates. They had no where else to go when suddenly the Palace gates swung open and students were offered refuge by their beloved King.

This became the turning point. The soldiers refused to use force against their King. Many of them threw down their arms and went into hiding rather than carry out the orders of the high command. As did the police. For over a week, the metropolis of 6 million was in complete chaos. Finally, boy scouts and students took over the duties of the police and traffic cops. Adults praised their initiative, and gradually order came back into place. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the Triumvirate fled the country and a new officials took over so the path to true democracy might continue.

"Sunday, Bloody Sunday," blared the headlines when newspapers were able to again go into operation. An indelible image in my mind is a picture of a Bangkok Post photographer with tears streaming down his face as he took pictures of the sordid aftermath. Bodies of slain students strewn in the streets. It was a rude awakening and a period of great growth.

As this and other memories came flooding back, I reflected again on the privileged experiences I had had, during my life in Thailand during that important time in world history. And then I had an even more outlandish thought: Why not sack the old story line of "The King and I," and do an updated, accurate, modern-day version that could be authenticated called "The King (and Queen and Princess Mother) and I." I would of course write the story line and the screenplay.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered "Why Not?" My own story is surely every bit as dramatic in its own way as Anna's was. And what's more, it can be verified.

I have vivid memories, pictures and faded newspaper articles written when, as fate would have it, I was the only journalist privileged to travel with and report on the Royal Family. Little did I know at the time, the pictures I took of Their Majesties in personal, tender moments, were so rare they and my text were used, without my knowledge, in memoirs on His Majesty released by the Royal Palace.

Ahh, truth is far more exciting than fiction. Whoever would have guessed that this native of a small town in upstate New York, one of six siblings, including a twin brother, would some day mingle with people from all walks of life, including rascals, rulers and royalty.

My father was in the Air Force and we traveled a lot before settling in Phoenix, Arizona, where I finished high school before moving to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, to stay with my sister whose husband was going through Airborne training. I became transfixed by the idea of jumping out of airplanes and was soon doing PLF's (Parachute Landing Falls) off the back steps, roof and the tops of cars. "Legs," was the wimpish term for any soldier or civilian who didn't have the privilege of wearing bloused boots (distinguishing those who had completed "Jump School").

I was working at the Officers' Club where I met my husband-to-be, a recent graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. He was the Assistant Club Officer, I his secretary, but frankly, I wasn't interested in him until I learned he had access to an airplane and a couple parachutes. Four years and as many children later, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see my feet again, when I found out what caused them (Smile.), and stopped.

After returning from a hardship tour in Korea, my husband, Ray, was teaching the mountaineer segment of Ranger School located near Dahlonega, Georgia. One day he brought home Pete, one of the two West Point classmates from Thailand who was in the States to take the Ranger training.

It was the first time I knew the fabled Kingdom brought to life in the movie "The King and I" was real. Pete was kind, soft spoken and gentle and adored our four children. He talked about how much he missed his own children. I had no idea that someday we would live in Pete's hometown of Bangkok, and I would come to think of it as my very own. Or that I would live and learn and do more things than few could ever conceive in his or her wildest dreams.

I'll save the rest of that story for the movie (Smile).

Gerry Coffey

P.S. Pete won much glory and prestige through his military endeavors in Vietnam and eventually became Commander-in-Chief of the Thai Army and confidant of Their Majesties, the King and Queen.