An Interview with Author Paul Handley

In a far-ranging interview with the Australia-based New Mandala website, Journalist-author Paul Handley describes the events that led to the writing of his widely praised book on Thailand’s royal family, The King Never Smiles. With stunning, if coincidental timing, the book came out almost on the eve of Thailand’s 2006 coup and was prescient in describing the royal family’s hidden but considerable effect on Thai politics.

We present here the first part of the interview. The rest can be found at http://rspas.anu.edu.au/rmap/newmandala/2007/09/19/interview-with-paul-handley/

New Mandala: The fifth in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with author and journalist Paul Handley.

Nicholas Farrelly: Paul, thanks for taking the time to do an interview with New Mandala. Most of our readers know you as the author of The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej but, of course, you were writing about Thailand for years before the book was published. Can you tell us about how you first came to Thailand? What brought you to the country?

Paul Handley: I originally went to Asia after graduating from university (American U. in Washington DC, International Studies) to study Chinese. After three years doing that in Taiwan, I got a job with a Hong Kong-based oil industry magazine that sent me to … Indonesia. It turned out to be a great move. After a few years there I got some opportunities to work for Far Eastern Economic Review and, when the Suharto regime tossed me out in 1986 for writing about the sons’ business, FEER gave me a full time job in Hong Kong, for which I am eternally grateful (to the old FEER regime, Derek Davies, Philip Bowring et al.).

After a while in Hong Kong I pitched for a posting to Taiwan or Korea and they sent me to Bangkok. Once again, not my choice but a great move anyway. My second day there I walked from Wireless to Sukhumvit 49 in 1-2 feet of floodwater. Loved it ever since.

Nicholas Farrelly: For a bit of history, I’m sure that many of our readers will be interested to hear of some of the big stories that you wrote during your early years as a journalist in Thailand. What were some of the highlights of that work?

Paul Handley: I arrived in Thailand in September 1987, just as the Southeast Asian economies were beginning to take off, Thailand in the forefront. It was a great education in economics – even moreso when, finally, the bust came 10 years later.

There were so many stories, about new businesses, about the strains of growth on not only economic management but on the democratic process, conflicts of the golf courses-vs-the-environment kind, the new consumerism sweeping into the countryside. So much was about the nexus of politics and capital, many stories were about the conflicts. I got into writing about mega-projects – remember the traffic back then, pre-skytrain? – and how unmanageable they were in a wild democracy like Thailand. I think the earliest articles were about the battle over the goodies between Banharn and Samak, two of the sleaziest people you can imagine. Now I see they are back. Hmm, plus ca change … Eventually I turned all the knowledge about the projects into a big feature for Institutional Investor and a paper for the Asia Research Center at Murdoch University (great people there!), both using examples of privatised infrastructure from Pakistan and India to China to show why the projects were not working and would collapse financially. Which they did. I still think it is one of the major features, but little understood, of the politics and heady financial zeitgeist of the Asian boom.

Some of the heaviest stories I covered were of the 1991 coup and its denouement in the May 1992 bloodshed. Because there was a lot of shadow play going on with the palace, which I did not understand, it planted the seed in my mind for my book.

For the rest of the interview, go to

http://rspas.anu.edu.au/rmap/newmandala/2007/09/19/interview-with-paul-handley/