King Rama IX builds and binds a nation, trying to avoid politics

He is defender of the Buddhist faith and all faiths. He is the calm center and unifier in times of division. He is the head of state and the very model of a modern monarch. He can do no wrong.

He does not rule, he reigns. He does not ask, he merely makes known a need. He is the fount of honor and bestower of the Order of the White Elephant.

He composes music. He plays jazz. He fights heroin traffic. He jogs. He tries to make rain. He sails. He plans irrigation ditches. He shoots photographs. He flies in helicopters to remote villages. He battles terrorism. He breeds cattle.

He is King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or King Rama IX under the 200-year-old Chakri dynasty, the longest-lasting dynasty in Thailand.

A day's trip with the King in the northern hills of Thailand reveals just how much love and reverence the monarchy - and particularly this King - hold among his people.

His white Jet Ranger helicopter, escorted by several Army choppers and two dozen jeeps on the ground, floats out of the jungle's hazy sky into a village. The people, on their knees, are awed and silent. Their shoulders are slouched, their heads lower than his when he nears. As he passes, they offer a deep ''wa, '' placing their hands together in respect.

When he sees a group of squatters have set up huts on a hill, he asks a government official to help form a cooperative. His finger punctuates the air as he gives advice on irrigation, crop management, marketing, or tree replanting.

This King works, actively, for his people. In that Buddhist way he lowers his desires to help others, and thus he is exalted. Only twice since his coronation in 1950 has he intervened in a political crisis - in the 1973 student riots and in last year's coup attempt.

Since the monarchy came under a constitution in 1932, the King's role has been to stay above politics. If the monarchy ever appears to be taking sides politically, it could be the beginning of the end for the deep-seated respect it holds among the people.

Meanwhile, the King finds there is much he can do outside politics to help his people.

Alarmed by the opium-growing and communist infiltration in the poor, rural hills of the north, he and the Queen spend much of their time in the villages, reassuring people with their presence. Yearly, they return to check progress, taking notes, suggesting changes to civil servants. Everywhere he goes, the King carries a map and a camera.

Last year, the government set up a $13 million fund to assist the King in his many projects. Before, he was dependent on separate agencies with many budgets.

He has sponsored over 35 integrated-development projects in various watersheds and over 300 small-scale irrigation schemes. He started a ''bank'' of buffaloes for farmers to borrow for plowing and other special needs. He has found new species for fish farming, experimented with artificial rainmaking, and given away over 20,000 acres to landless farmers.

His top priority is helping various ethnic tribes voluntarily stop growing poppies for the heroin trade and start to grow more stable, and usually more lucrative, crops. Coffee, kidney beans, flowers, and strawberries have proven the best alternatives, but the lack of market roads and steady buyers remains a problem.

Before he leaves a village, the King is presented with the bounty of progress made on the farms - samples of orchids, pumpkins, bananas, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, and sugar cane. It's the people's way of paying tribute to a King who is above them, but reaches them like no other man.

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