The King Never Smiles

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:

Manager Daily - 17 July 2006

As covered by 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.


11 responses to “The King Never Smiles

  1. I had a look through Kuhn Kobkua’s book recently on the 1932 coup and the Constitution adopted, but might give it another look.

    One of the biggest problems with limits being placed on what you can discuss about the royal family is that it just leads to rumours and speculation. There are often different levels of rumours with some being very mild to others casting certain people in a very bad light.

    I am interested in reading The King Never Smiles

  2. One of the biggest problems with limits being placed on what you can discuss about the royal family is that it just leads to rumours and speculation.

    Very true indeed. And so much of these rumours and speculation are often used towards political ends.

    I was just reading the latest issue of the “progressive” (haha) periodical Fah Diew Kan, which had an interview with David Streckfuss (PDF) (he of the PhD dissertation on lese majeste). He compares the limits you are talking about as creating a “black hole” in Thai political discourse. Interesting read.

  3. Naphat

    Streckfuss’ Ph.D dissertation is really interesting. I would recommend you try to locate a copy one day and read it. It is very detailed and well-researched. Streckfuss does look at freedom of speech generally in Thailand and how it has been restricted. I remember him beginning his dissertation by briefly comparing Thailand with Japan pre-WWII (Tettyan, are you there?).

    I’ll have a look at the Fah Diew Kan article – they are of course having their own problems with lese majeste.

  4. JW – thanks for the tip, will try to get hold of that dissertation. You also remind me that I should try to finish Herbert Bix’s massive biography of Emporer Hirohito.

    If you look at the homepage, my favorite progressives at the Midnight University are facing some issues with lese majeste as well.

  5. Actually, Handley makes extensive use of Kobkua’s biography of Marshal Plaek Phibulsonkram in his sections on the 1940s-1950s. Most interesting is the way Handley describes the coup of 1951 (the only post 1932 that didn’t have the support of the King) and Sarit’s overthrow of Marshal P. (which leaves absolutely no doubt who was the power behind the coup).

    Read the book. It is one of the most incisive, accurate, and most well researched books I’ve read on Thai history in some time.

  6. Pingback: Manuel L. Quezon III: The Daily Dose » Blog Archive » Referendum on Estrada·

  7. patiwat: I’ve read about half way through the book already and I would agree with some of your assessment. I think it’s still flawed though – I think it assumes that the worse of the King in almost all situations, even though the evidence doesn’t warrant it. Hopefully I can post my impressions here later.

  8. I have not read the book, although I intend to do so very soon. I would just like to comment on one point that critics of King Bhumibol (or indeed of other rulers whose systems are not “like ours”) seem to feel that US-style democracy is the BEST form of government we know to date, and that “dhammocracy” by not being like it, is therefore “bad” or “autocratic,” the latter being an anathematised buzzword in American minds, very much like its opposite, “socialistic.” We in the West probably don’t fully understand the concept of dharma anyway, and we might as well apply the pejorative reading of it to the Dalai Lama, whom Westerners adore!And, if US democracy is such a perfect system, how does it go so far off its trolley as to twice result in the election of George Bush as President? Given a choice, I would take King Bhumibol any day!

  9. Just put a library request for this. Reading much on Thailand, the king has done lots of great stuff for his country and has reached out to many poor people. He’s done far more than leaders in my USA.

    But, the lese majeste disturbs me… How can the Thais really have an objectively positive view without critical discourse? This unanimous 99.99% respect has firm roots in mass indoctrination. From your infancy, you’re repeatedly told only positive things. Everyday in school, everyone is required to worship his picture. Multiply this by multiple generations. It’s extremely one-sided.

    Only a repeal of lese majeste laws will test the 99.99% statistic.

    Interestingly he invited criticism back in 2005 speech. If he dislikes lese majeste, why hasn’t he been pushing for its removal? Why is it he’s only pardoned foreigners after appologizing?

    Native Thai’s fare far worse. Da Torpedo was thrown away for 18 years and NO pardon.

  10. Troubling questions about Bhumibol:

    Why does he live in a beautiful expensive palace while most of his citizenry are dirt poor?

    Why is there largely unchecked underage sex tourism?

    Thai law enforcement is thoroughly corrupt. Why?

    I know he’s contributed to hundreds of royal projects and greeted needy citizenry and halped them plant crops. Obviously he’s made significant contributions. But why such large remaining ills as listed?

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