In Thailand, mass circulation newspapers are called ‘hua sii” or “color heading” papers because of their distinctively toned logos and layout (Thai Rath is green and Daily News is a pinkish red, for example). Manager Daily maybe joining the club with its all yellow, royalist heading:
As covered by 2bangkok.com and BangkokPundit, the controversial biography of the King, Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles made the front page of Manager Daily with the accusation that the Thaksin administration has done nothing to stop the release of book. Sigh… I hope the Sondhi gang find a better outlet for their energy and newsprint.
What of the actually content of the book? So far a few other people have reviewed the (no Thais in the list, not surprisingly):
- FriskoDude has an early review which calls the book “largely complimentary to the Thai king.”
- Matthew Hunt says “Handley’s book is unique in that it does not blindly accept the conventional, uncritical public viewpoint: it challenges the accepted view of Bhumibol’s reign.”
- Another expat-blogger has just started the book and quotes Handley as being “aware of the risks going in” in writing the book.
- The only review in print I’ve seen was in the Wall Street Journal Asia (I’ve scanned the article here). Ironically the reviewer is the author of another biography of the King that was banned, William Stevenson. He has some pretty harsh words saying in summary that Handley “had largely turn Bhumipol’s story into a political screed to suit the prejudices of those with a stake in sidelining the monarch.”
As much as I respect the King and his contributions to Thai society, I don’t think the official biography, which is endlessly repeated on Thai television and glosses over some of the conflicts he has had to overcome, truly honors his achievements. Hopefully I’ll get hold of the book and be able to give a Thai perspective on it.
Mean while I’ve been reading another book on the Thai monarchy: Kings, Country and Constitutions: Thailand’s Poltical Development 1932-2000 by Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian.
It’s a detailed (see if you can keep track of all the royal Princes mentioned), but no- too-academic study of how the constitutional monarchy in Thailand developed since the reign of Rama VII. I like the middle part of the book (after skipping the ‘constitutions’ chapter) which analyses the circumstances leading the end of absolute monarchy. Kobkua argues that the royalist version of history, which sees King Prajadhipok “as a ruler on the brink of presenting his people with a democratic Constitution” but was pre-empted was the impatient Promoters of the 1932 revolution, is not entirely accurate.
The bulk of the last half of the book outlines the current King’s “royal climb to the pinnicle of the nation” which will serve as a good counter point to the Handley book. It devotes a lot of time to explain how the unique position of the monarchy in Thailand’s democratic system developed, from the ‘partnership with the military junta’ during the Sarit period to to more recent very public influence the King had during the Prem years.
Though the tone of the book is extremely deferential to the King, Kobkua faithfully includes many facts and analyses that maybe considered as critical to the monarchy. A section called ‘Royal Liabilities’ includes a frank discussion of the succession and the crown prince.
At the end of an early chapter, Kobkua asks some prescient questions:
Many Thais have regarded the supreme authority of the Throne over the affairs of the nation as stemming mainly from the political retardation of democracy in the country. Would the principle of constitutional monarchy as practice by King Bhumibol be fundamentally affected by a people’s Parliament? Would there be a clash of soverign will, the Throne’s and Parliament’s? Would the monarchy retreat behind the official facade of pomp and ceremony? The answers to these intriguing questions are unclear.
And it’s still unclear today.
Update: The Economist has a review of the Handley book in their July 29th issue, a relatively positive one.
King Bhumibol’s only other English biography, “The Revolutionary King” by William Stevenson, argues that his interventions have been effective precisely because they have been guarded and infrequent. But Mr Handley has another explanation for the rarity of the king’s democratic sorties: that Bhumibol has little faith in democracy, and sees the monarchy, abetted by authoritarian rulers, as a better guardian of the people’s welfare.
That argument is quite persuasive. The king does, after all, surround himself with soldiers and bureaucrats, but gives politicians and activists a wide berth. His dream of a “sufficiency economy”, where people seek only to cater to their basic needs, seems far removed from the brute materialism of Thai politics.
Strong words, but I’d guess will have to read the book myself to see if Handley’s point is ‘persuasive’ or not.