The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyade

Wednesday, January 2:  Before we went on our Study Abroad trip to Singapore and Thailand, I had to pick a book from a list of recommended readings, read it and write a review of it.  I wrote the following.

THE KING NEVER SMILES: A BIOGRAPHY OF THAILAND’S BHUMIBOL ADULYADE

J.  By Paul M. Handley.  499 pages. Yale University Press. 2006.

This book is, according to the book jacket, the “first independent biography of Thailand’s monarch.”  It tells the story of King Bhumibol’s life and sixty-year rule.  Author Paul Handley is a freelance journalist who “lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia for more than 20 years, including thirteen in Thailand.”  Handley’s book was published six years after the first biography of the monarch, The Revolutionary King by William Stevenson.  This biography, which Handley discusses in his book, was commissioned by the King himself, whereas Handley’s biography was not authorized.  The fact that the King did not have his hand in shaping Handley’s book is its greatest strength.

Though Stevenson did not have access to internal documents or archives, he was given extensive research support and granted interviews with the court and the king.  He presented the king as “truly inviolate, magical, and godly (437).”   Handley, on the other hand, presents a much more realistic and critical view of the king and the monarchy, revealing Bhumibol’s highly political and autocratic nature.  The King is portrayed as an anti-democratic monarch seeking at all times to protect his power and image, leaning heavily on the highly corrupt military to protect his position.

Handley takes aim at the Thai monarchy, trying to break down the royally-contrived mythology surrounding Bhumibol.   The monarch has perpetuated the image of himself as a sacred leader governing according to Buddhist principles; he takes on the role of both political and spiritual leader, practicing dhamma himself at the highest level.  Dhamma is the truth taught by Buddha that unfolds gradually, with deliberate practice.

The biography begins with a brief history of the monarch’s predecessors and then focuses on the 1932 coup by non-royal army and navy officers and civilian bureaucratic allies.  This coup sought to strip the throne of its powers and create a constitutional government.  The Thai constitution is discussed at great length throughout the biography.  There is revealed a constant striving to define the nature of the king’s powers in the document; it is essential that such constitution “defend the king’s inviolateness and endorse the blood mythology that underpins royal succession…The constitution usually establishes the king’s traditional position as the source of justice, the leader of the military, and the head of the church, even if he lacks full power over those institutions (47).”  During King Bhumibol’s reign, the constitution has been rewritten innumerable times; the king regards it as an impermanent and unnecessary document. Handley’s biography goes to great lengths to show Bhumibol’s consistent and long-time disdain for Western-imported democracy and constitutional government.

Bhumibol’s mother Sangwal was determined to have both of her sons, Ananda and Bhumibol, educated in Switzerland; she did not want to expose them too early in their lives to the rigors of kingship.  Ananda was originally crowned as king but then was killed by a single bullet to the head.  The case was never solved, though there were multitudes of rumors about how he was killed.  Bhumibol became king and was never again seen smiling in public.  Thus the title to the biography: The King Never Smiles.

The book presents a long history of alliance between the palace and a highly corrupt military.  Military coups supported by the quietly assenting monarch are repeated too many times to count during Bhumibol’s reign.  Elected governments have rarely been kept in place for long; the highly critical king persistently undermines them.  He continually reiterates his position that elected governments and constitutions are imports from Western societies that do not fit with Thai society and tradition.  He believes that Thais need a benevolent king who will look out for their interests; he believes government is too unwieldy and inefficient to ever get anything of value accomplished. Handley reports throughout his biography how Bhumibol goes to great lengths to make a show of helping the people in Thai society; his rural visits, water projects, and charities showcase his ability to get things accomplished that the lumbering government is unable to solve.

The king undertook frequent rituals to establish himself firmly as a source of justice and wisdom: ritual court appearances were one of these.  He also sought to sustain his identity as head of state by requiring people to prostrate themselves before him.  He visited Buddhist shrines, handed out diplomas at university graduations, and visited the rural countryside to show his care of the people. He steadily met with government officials, diplomats and rural civil servants.  He continually made “calculated, discreet aspersions of the government (121).”  He emphasized charity by making contributions for scholarships, temples, hospitals and schools.  There was a constant effort to promote the image of the royal family as the source of well-being in the kingdom.

In addition, the king promoted himself as a virtuous Buddhist ruler who had a strong religious practice and was close to true enlightenment.  There was much truth to this image as he did have a true Buddhist practice; however, those who have perpetuated the image of king as god have obviously exaggerated Bhumibol’s supernatural capabilities.

The king was close to the military hard-liners and during the Cold War undermined liberal politicians who he insinuated had communist leanings.  Student protests were put down violently by the military in efforts to contain the communist threat.  The Communist movement never seriously presented a threat in Thailand, according to Handley, yet the king and the military exaggerated the threat to justify violent actions against student demonstrators in Bangkok and peasants in the countryside.

At other times during his reign, the king has presented himself as a benefactor of the poor; he denigrated the government’s ability to solve water and traffic problems, and he took on major hydropower or irrigation projects as if he were the only person qualified to come up with efficient solutions.  He promoted himself as working tirelessly for the people on problems he was best equipped, by virtue of his superior wisdom, to solve.  At the same time, he sat by as the military, in coup after coup, overthrew elected governments and abrogated the constitution.  He was complicit in counter-insurgency efforts that violently put to death purported communists and other anti-royalists.

Handley is methodical in his coverage of Bhumibol’s reign; the book is a seemingly well-researched history of the entire period from the Cold War to the new millennium.  International events and their effects on Thailand’s geopolitics and economy are tied in meaningfully to royal family turmoil.  Handley effectively shows the interconnections between Thailand’s Buddhist traditions, its Cold War experiences, its regional struggles with neighbors China, Vietnam and Burma, the country’s economic and political woes, and the waxing and waning power of the king.  The book surveys in great detail the struggles between the military, the government, and the king, as well as inner struggles within the royal family.  The hot and cold relationship with the United States is also explored.

Paul Handley’s book is more than a biography.  It is a history.  It looks unabashedly at the King in his milieu, showing Bhumibol’s positive accomplishments as well as his questionable actions and affiliations.   It shows an often benevolent and wise king who uses his power when it suits him, but fails to build enduring democratic institutions so that his sweeping rescues become unnecessary.  He maneuvers in a Machiavellian way to manufacture his image to advantage.

After Handley’s book was published, the Royal Thai army staged a 2006 coup following a year-long political crisis of the sitting government and just before House elections were to be held.  The military cancelled elections, “suspended the Constitution, dissolved Parliament, banned protests and all political activities, suppressed and censored the media, declared martial law and arrested Cabinet members (Wikipedia: 2006 Thai coup d’état).”  Apparently this coup was the country’s first non-constitutional change of government in 15 years.  However, Handley’s biography shows this kind of action by the military, probably with the king’s quiet acquiescence, is the same old tired story with Thailand.

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