A century after her birth, one of the kingdom's most devoted royals is honoured by United Nations
THE UNITED NATIONS has gilded commemorations for this year’s centenary of the birth of Princess Prem (Ngarmchit) Purachatra – a granddaughter-in-law of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) – by naming her to its list of eminent world personalities. Princess Ngarmchit died in 1983.
The prestigious honours list appended annually since 1956 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) acknowledges the global significance of the named individuals. Among Thais previously deemed eminent personalities are King Mongkut (Rama IV), King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) Queens Sri Savarindira and Sri Bajarindra, musician-composer Euah Suntornsanan and writer-politician Kukrit Pramoj.
Princess Prem was born Ngarmchit Sarasana on June 7, 1915, the second child of Lt-General Phra Sarasas Palakant, and was educated at Jane Hays Memorial School and the Wattana Wittaya Academy before moving to France, where her father served at the embassy in Paris.
After three years studying pharmacy at Sorbonne University, she apprenticed with a Paris drug retailer until World War II began in 1939 and she returned to Thailand. The following year Ngarmchit married His Highness Prince Prem Purachatra, an art lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, and began a notable career of her own in communications and the arts. With her husband she founded the weekly English-language newspaper The Standard to promote awareness of Thai culture and current events among foreigners.
“The Princess was the newspaper’s editor for more than 20 years,” says Somporn Thepsithar, president of the Princess Ngarmchit Foundation. “The idea of an English newspaper in Thailand was really groundbreaking at that time, but Prince and Princess Prem were quite determined. His Majesty King Bhumibol even contributed to the newspaper for a time as a photographer.”
Somporn points out that the Princess was a pioneer in social welfare as well. “She was very enthusiastic about rural development, education and culture. And she worked with an international women’s organisation to promote women’s rights worldwide.”
This was the International Council of Women, which she ultimately served as president, from 1976 to ’79, the only Thai and only the second Asian to hold the post.
“Princess Ngarmchit was a very kind person – I learned a lot from her,” Somporn says, his eyes alight at the memory. “She was a rare gem, so hard to find among people. She was thoroughly dedicated to her causes, living life to give, to work and to pay the country back. She taught me to work for the sake of working and for the benefit of others, not merely for money. People these days tend to forget the joy of work because they’re so focused on the money.”
Somporn regards her as an ideal role model, particularly for the younger generation. “These days most people are only concerned about what benefits they can gain. They hardly ever think about giving and sharing. When people stop thinking about helping others, society starts to crumble.
“But Princess Ngarmchit was true to her name, which means ‘good heart’. I never heard her say anything bad about others, and when ill-intentioned people said something unkind about her, she just kept silent and let it go. She was always thinking about helping others so they could have a better life or a better education. She never thought about how she might benefit.”
Her determination to always be doing good had its humorous side, Somporn chuckles. “Anyone who worked with her or knew her shared the same friendly joke – we were afraid to be around Princess Ngarmchit, not because she is mean, of course, but because once you started talking to her, you’d end up donating money to one of her charities or even working your heart out for them!”
In 1982, to commemorate Bangkok’s 200th anniversary, Princess Ngarmchit established the Ruamchit Nomklao Foundation for Youth under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen. It continues to provide scholarships for students in need at every educational level.
“Children were truly dear to the Princess,” Somporn says. “She saw them as our future, so she would do anything to help underprivileged children have a better chance in life, like a better education and a better standard of living.
“After many long years she told me we’d helped many poor kids go to school, and now we should also help the children in terms of religion. So the foundation began providing scholarships for young boys who wanted to be ordained as novices and learn the dharma and the Pali language.”
The Princess lived for three things, says Somporn. “The first was giving – she always gave everybody her love and compassion, especially underprivileged people. She always brought happiness to those around her. She was like a magnet, pulling people toward good deeds and charitable work. She put her whole self into her charity work and never asked anything in return.
“The second was work. She founded many charitable organisations and she was happy just to be working for the good of the needy. I have to thank Princess Ngarmchit for teaching me how to be happy while working. Look at me – I’m 89 years old and still happy working for others!
“And the third thing she lived for was the country, religion and the King. Princess Ngarmchit really loved Thailand and she always did her best for the country and the King. She also supported religions, because religions are people’s spiritual anchors.”
The Princess died in October 1983, two years after her husband, but her legacy is such that her memory hasn’t faded. “It’s wonderful that Unesco and Thailand are celebrating the centenary of her birth,” says Somporn, “so that the younger generation will know just how remarkable she was and how much she did for the country and the world.
“We should be proud of her and follow in her footsteps. If people learn to be genuine givers like Princess Ngarmchit, the country and even the world would be more peaceful.”
A MONTH OF TRIBUTES
Events paying tribute to Princess Prem include:
- Awards to be presented at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 7 to people who have made significant contributions to society in the realms of education, the mass media, culture, morality and social service. Among them are Suthichai Yoon, The Nation’s Adviser to the Editorial Board, Chalermchai Kositpipat, artist, and professor Rapee Sakarik. Her Royal Highness Princess Soamsavali will preside;
- An exhibition on the Princess' life and work to be staged from June 14 to July 12 at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre;
- A touring exhibition on the Princess’ work to visit Khon Kaen, Chonburi, Chiang Mai and Songkhla;
- Commemorative postage stamps to be issued marking the Princess’ recognition as a World Eminent Personality;
- Seminars to be held on the Princess’ efforts in public welfare, women’s rights, and rural and educational development.
- Find out more at www.PrincessNgarmchit.org.