When tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees spilled over the Thai border in 1979, fleeing from the battles between the Khmer Rouge and the invading Vietnamese army, Queen Sirikit was quick to move. In her role as president of the Thai Red Cross Society, she flew to the border flashpoint in the province of Trat, mobilised aid workers and set up the Khao Larn Red Cross Centre. About 40,000 refugees - mainly peasant families with small children and unaccompanied orphans - were given food, shelter and medical care. The centre remained a refuge for displaced people for many years. The enduring images of the Queen of Thailand walking about the camp, talking to refugees and aid workers were seen around the world. To many people outside Thailand this was their first look at the queen and admiration for her work at Khao Larn was universal. But to Thais, the queen was simply doing what she does best - helping people. During the last 48 years, for eight months of every year, the queen has accompanied her husband, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to every region in Thailand talking to the ordinary people. Through this contact, they have gained first-hand knowledge of the social and economic problems that confront the 80 per cent of Thais who live in rural communities. Thousands of projects - small and large - have been launched under the king's patronage, confronting the agricultural, health and welfare problems of the rural people. Projects range from crop substitution and irrigation, to roads and bridges linking villages to markets, to medical aid and hospital care for the sick. 'We feel a tremendous responsibility for the well-being of the Thai people, particularly the underprivileged and deprived,' Queen Sirikit said. 'It is a formidable responsibility, and there is not a single day that this responsibility is not at the forefront of my thoughts.' The queen has sought and found an active role in all this. Her presidency of the Red Cross is one example of a long list of her involvement over the years. She has also taken on the mantle of president of the Council of Social Welfare; an organisation comprising about 150 private and public social welfare units throughout Thailand. The queen founded the Sai Jai Thai Foundation - an organisation which helps soldiers, policemen and civilian volunteers wounded or disabled in the line of duty. She also oversees the medical and public health conditions in the villages the royal couple visit. Physicians assigned to the royal household travel with the king and queen. These doctors look after villagers who are sick. Those who need further attention are transferred to hospitals in the nearest town or to Bangkok and are treated at royal expense. Specialists are often chosen by the queen to visit the patients in hospitals and monitor their progress. Several medical assistance programmes have been set up by the queen to help the more isolated villages. She also takes an active role in conservation, serving as the patron of the Thailand World Wide Fund for Nature. Her efforts have been widely recognised. Tufts University in the United States has awarded her an honorary doctorate in humane letters, in recognition of her work in her capacity as chairperson of the Thai Red Cross Society. The Royal College of Physicians of London has presented her with an honorary fellowship for her work with the injured and sick in rural areas. Conservation has become a cornerstone for the queen's attempts to help the rural poor. 'In the long run, to be able to improve our people's lives, we must be able to make a serious attempt to protect our remaining forests and allow some ecosystems to recover,' she said. 'Then we will be able to help ourselves the way we always have for centuries. 'It is essential we plan to adequately maintain a good balance between satisfying the needs of an ever-growing population and the conservation of nature.'