Sunday, October 25, 2020

Prof Tlou recalls near-encounter with deceased Thai king

When she visited Thailand in 2014 to receive the Princess Srinagarindra Award, former health minister, Professor Sheila Tlou, made one very important stop at an upscale Thailand hospital. This visit had been arranged by the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn whom she had met earlier. The award she was to receive is named after the king’s mother who was recuperating after an appendectomy. Tlou meeting the king seemed the most natural thing but that was not to be for two reasons. For starters, King Adulyadej Bhumibol was very sick and it was not going to be possible for Tlou, who was accompanied by her mother on this visit, to have a one-on-one with him.

Her stopping by was to merely enable her to visit his bedside and be appraised of his condition by those ministering to him. Because of whom it is named after, the Princess Srinagarindra Award is one of the most prestigious in Thailand and Tlou had a retinue of escorts and press people in tow. Held in high regard by the Thai people who called him “Our Father, the Peacemaker”, the king was a hugely popular figure. Tlou (who is always keen to reveal the fact that her close friends call her “Shegal”) would discover how popular the king was when she and her retinue arrived at the hospital. Thousands had come to pay their respects and gaining access to the king’s ward proved an insurmountable challenge. Ultimately, Tlou was only able to go as far as a room with a huge portrait of the king and leave a message in a get-well-soon book.  

The letter notifying Tlou about the Thai award had suggested that there would be pomp and ceremony but it was not until she got to the airport that she realised just how much prestige is attached to the award and how “exhilarating” her experience would be. She and her mother were given royal treatment every step of the way and at one point “The pomp and circumstance was so much … that mom actually shed a tear.” Getting off the plane at the airport, Tlou walked into a reception laid out for her and afterwards was whisked to the head of each queue in the airport terminal as she cleared customs and immigration. “As long as I was in a section, the poor tourists were made to wait in line until I finished with the section,” she recalled afterwards.

Then it was the VIP lounge where she was interviewed by the national media. When she was done with the interviews, she was led to a gleaming Mercedes Benz with a royal crest and chauffeured to her hotel under police escort.

After the hospital visit, Tlou toured the Royal Grand Palace where she later received her award in the Mulasathan Boroma Asana Hall. Appointed health minister in 2004 by Festus Mogae, Tlou was dropped from cabinet four years later upon Ian Khama’s ascension. She later relocated to Johannesburg where she currently works as Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa at UNAIDS. One of the wealthiest monarchs in the world, King Bhumibol died last Thursday leaving behind personal fortune estimated at more than US$30billion.

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