Editor’s note: This is a guest blog written by Fred Perry and Peter Boonjarern.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana University, its Kelley School of Business and, most importantly, the Kingdom of Thailand said goodbye to a modern-day hero, IU alumnus and friend, Mom Rajawongse Disnadda Diskul.
Affectionately known to those who knew him well as “Khun Chai,” the 1964 Kelley alumnus was and remains a part of an incredible legacy and long-lasting relationship between Thailand and IU. He died on Oct. 18. Funeral rites ran until Oct. 25 and a royally sponsored cremation ceremony took place on Oct 26.
To former IU men’s soccer coach Jerry Yeagley, he was known simply as “Chai” when he was the team captain for the first team he coached. Through all of Coach Yeagley’s NCAA Championship teams, Khun Chai set the bar for leadership and the fighting spirit that he held his players to and his legacy lives on today almost 60 years later. Coach and player had a memorable reunion in Bloomington in 2016, which was presented in a mini-documentary that can be watched online.
As a Kelley (before the school was named for another impactful alumnus, E.W Kelley), Khun Chai embodied what we say about our students today. He had the talent to succeed, the humility to grow and the tenacity to persevere.
It was here that Khun Chai said he “learned how to fail, how to win and then learned how to redo and redo and redo … (and) never ever stop. That made a fighter out of me.”
Among an important generation of Thai students at IU
Back in the early 1960s, no one on campus — including Yeagley — knew that Khun Chai was a descendant of Thai royalty. It was not something he shared with friends and teammates in his new Indiana home. Khun Chai was a great grandson of King Mongkut (Rama IV), who U.S. President Abraham Lincoln praised as a “Great and Good Friend” for his power and virtuous noble spirit, noting Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonized by a Western power.
In 1948, Thailand’s education minister, Mom Luang Pin Malakul, met with then IU President Herman B Wells, which led to the development of the Prasarnmitr College of Education (now known as Srinakharinwirote University) and the Institute for Public Administration at Thammasat University (now known as the National Institute for Development Administration), with whom IU continues to have a strong partnership.
A surge of Thai students came to study education, government, public administration, physical education and business. To this day descendants of these alumni study at IU and have become global Hoosiers who call Bloomington home. Dozens of IU and Kelley alumni are now leaders of industry, education, artistic expression and social impact organizations in Thailand.
Today, Bangkok is home to the Indiana University ASEAN Gateway office, led by a 2000 Kelley alumnus and one of the authors of this remembrance. We have diligently worked to rekindle and strengthen IU’s relationship with Thailand and throughout Asia, including with Khun Chai and the Thai Royal Family.
A series of significant exchanges followed Wells’ meeting, including his receiving the Royal Decorations of Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant in 1962 and Knight Commander (Second Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown from the late King Bhumibol as well as an Honorary Degree from Srinakharinwirot University in 1968. In 1960, the Thai Royal Family in cooperation with President Eisenhower sent a collection of Thai Royal art to be exhibited at IU, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and 6 other art institutions across the US. The curator who led this exhibit was Professor Mom Chao Subhadradis Diskul, Khun Chai’s uncle.
Using his IU business degree for the good of his people
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from IU, Khun Chai later become the private secretary for the late Princess Srinagarindra, King Bhumibol’s mother otherwise known as Mae Fah Luang (The Heavenly Royal Mother). From 1972 until his time of passing, Khun Chai served in top leadership positions for the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which was founded by the princess to address the social problems of the ethnic minorities along the Thai, Laos and Myanmar borders, also known as the Golden Triangle.
Opium trade and weapon smuggling dominated the mountainous border area leading to vast deforestation, food insecurity and poverty. Over the years the Mae Fah Luang Foundation and the Doi Tung Development Project have worked peacefully with these communities to where they are now prospering with reclaimed forests, coffee and macadamia production, tourism, handicrafts and fashion.
Families who once were running opium and guns are now producing pottery for IKEA and MUJI and textiles for Onitsuka Tiger. Their children are attending universities and the local economy is thriving.
Leaving a lasting legacy
IU’s long and rich history with Thailand and the Thai Royal family led to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn receiving an honorary IU doctorate in 2010 from President Michael McRobbie in recognition of her efforts to expand and improve public education throughout Thailand. Khun Chai was pivotal in continuing to bridge the friendship between the princess and the university.
In 2016, McRobbie, Kelley Dean Idalene “Idie” Kesner and a delegation of university leaders visited Khun Chai in Doi Tung, located north of Chiang Rai, Thailand, to tour, witness and learn about the incredible impact that the Mae Fah Luang Foundation has had in the Golden Triangle. It was during this trip that McRobbie bestowed upon Khun Chai one of the university’s highest honors, the Thomas Hart Benton Medallion. Khun Chai, his wife and lifelong partner Khunying Puangroi as well as his senior staff then visited Bloomington for the first time since he graduated.
This led to IU students interning with Doi Tung and two Kelley Direct AGILE consulting projects. Subsequently, Khun Chai helped strengthen the pride and deep relationship with our alumni and among Thai and American students at IU.
Khun Chai often said, “You have to feel it,” to understand, to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
“We were so grateful that in this last decade we have been fortunate to rekindle a relationship with Khun Chai, his family and the broader Thai alumni community,” Kesner, who also is the Frank P. Popoff Chair of Strategic Management, told us. “We would not have been able to rebuild the Indiana University and Kelley School community in Thailand without him. During that time, our students, faculty and staff’s lives have been changed forever. Through internships, visits and consulting exchanges, we have been inspired and motivated to use the precious time we have on this earth to impact positive change.”
Khun Chai is survived by his life partner and wife, Khunying Puangroi, sons Mom Luang Santidis and Mom Luang Dispannada, his daughter-in-law Whan Pimpan Diskul and six grandchildren. M.L. Dispannada is now carrying on his father’s work as the CEO of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation.
Legacy matters and Khun Chai’s life and story reminds us of how incredibly rich and deep the Kelley School’s engagement is not only here in Indiana, but across the globe. Our place in the world originated among the limestone quarries of Indiana, but has sent ripple effects into every corner of the world. The life he lived after leaving Bloomington illustrates that what we do matter and can bring change and improve people’s lives. This is our legacy as Global Hoosiers, whether you hail from Wabash, Indiana or Bangkok, Thailand.
Fred Perry is senior director of international advancement at the IU Kelley School of Business. Peter Boonjarern has been director of the IU ASEAN Gateway since 2017 and also is director of development for Asia at IU Global. Both are IU alumni.