Rumsfeld Visits Cultural Sites, Government Leaders in Bangkok
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
BANGKOK, Thailand, Jun. 6, 2005 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took a brief break from his whirlwind overseas trip today to do some sightseeing here -- but many of the tourists seemed more excited to see him than their actual destination.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, left, exits the Temple of the Emerald Buddha during a visit to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, June 6. Rumsfeld is in Thailand to strengthen U.S.-Thai relationships following a three-day Asia-Pacific security conference in Singapore. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
During a tour of Thailand's "Grand Palace," begun in 1782 by King Rama I, Rumsfeld's presence caused quite a stir among visitors to the site -- one of Thailand's most famous tourist attractions and an important religious site.
As the secretary's motorcade arrived, an audible stir passed through the large crowd of international tourists. Murmurs of "Donald Rumsfeld" and "the American defense secretary" could be heard moving down the long line of people waiting to enter the "Throne Hall," an inner building of the palace site.
Conservative dress is mandatory to enter the Throne Hall, and women staff members wearing slacks or not-below-the-knee skirts were not allowed to enter the building. All members of the entourage also removed their shoes as a show of respect.
The Grand Palace complex houses Thailand's famous "Emerald Buddha," one of Buddhism's most sacred relics. The statue, carved from a solid piece of jade, was discovered in northern Thailand in 1434. The statue was found encased in plaster, and as pieces of the covering flaked off and the green color shone through, the abbot of the temple where it was discovered believed it was emerald.
Since 1784, the statue has been housed in its current temple upon a gold throne. As Rumsfeld passed through the temple, some 100 people were worshipping and meditating at the base of the gilded altar. Thai legend states that the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the repository of the soul of the Thai people.
The diminutive 26-inch-high statue has three "outfits" of gold. In elaborate ceremonies, the king changes the statue's "attire" for summer, winter and the rainy season.
As Rumsfeld wandered the grounds examining and admiring the intricate craftsmanship of the buildings and statues, he played the gracious visitor. He repeatedly greeted other visitors who recognized him. Many waved, and he returned the greeting, often nodding in their direction and saying, "Hello, nice to see you."
One excited American woman rushed up to her traveling companion: "I saw him! Oh my God, I saw him!" she said while bouncing up and down.
Rumsfeld began his day in Bangkok with a visit to the Ministry of Defense. A large sign at the entrance to the compound welcomed him, and a military full-honors welcome ceremony awaited the secretary. Thai soldiers in red coats, sailors in black, and airmen in brilliant peacock-blue uniforms stood at attention while a military band played first the American and then the Thai national anthems.
Next Rumsfeld had a congenial meeting with Prime Minister Chinnawat Thaksin in the country's "Government House," or seat of government. During a brief photo opportunity at the opening of the meeting, Rumsfeld told the prime minister he had "just had a good meeting" with the defense minister, Gen. Itsarangkun na Ayutthaya Thammarat.
Sitting under a full-length portrait of King Adunyadet Phumiphon in an ornate gilt frame, Rumsfeld and the prime minister chatted amiably about Rumsfeld's age -- he'll be 73 next month, he said -- and the length of the flight from the United States. Rumsfeld explained that his traveling party was able to make the trip to the region in one 19.5-hour leg because the KC-10 is able to refuel in flight.
The secretary completed his official visits for the day with lunch at the Royal Thai Navy Institute, headquarters for the country's navy. Thai sailors in dress uniforms served a traditional lunch in a large hall overlooking the Chao Phraya River, or the "River of Kings."
Later in the day, Rumsfeld reflected on his Bangkok visit.
"The military-to-military relationship with Thailand is an important one for the United States," he said. "I appreciate the cooperation that exists between our two militaries.
"My trip to Thailand was an opportunity to express that appreciation directly to officials in the Thai government, to discuss many matters important to both our countries, and to experience some of the richness of the Thai culture and history."
The secretary travels to Stavanger, Norway, June 7 to visit a NATO training facility and winds up his overseas trip June 9-10 at a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels, Belgium.