Revival, Renewal and Reinvention: The Complex Life of Thailand’s Monarch

Paul M. Handley, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. 498pp.

Related Links: Royal Maneuvers The King Never Smiles: Book Excerpt Paul Handley, a former Far Eastern Economic Review journalist, approaches his task in much the same way that biographies are written of presidents and premiers. The book has been banned in Thailand, and some pressure was brought to bear on Yale University Press to drop the publication. Websites have been crackling with criticism of this book, mostly by people who have not read it. There seems to be a quiet campaign to suggest that the book is poorly researched, and fixated by the idea that the king is anti-democratic - on this, more below.

The book tells the usual story of the revival of a monarchy which seemed, like many others, on the lip of history’s dustbin. The 1932 revolution had imposed a constitution and parliament, impelled the reigning king into abdication and exile, and dissipated the royal property. Bhumibol Adulyadej came from a remote royal line and was preceded by an elder brother. He was born in the US and brought up in Switzerland, and might easily have joined the copious ranks of the 20th century’s remaindered royalty.

Then chance intervened. Superior royal lines collapsed. His brother died from a mysterious gunshot (on which Handley summarizes the arguments but provides nothing new). The sprawling royal clan, the product of six generations of spectacular polygamy, mounted a spirited comeback in the political disorder after the Second World War. On 9 June 1946, at the age of 18, Bhumibol was crowned king.

In the first stage of the revival, he was a passive player, still completing his education in Europe. The key figures were some senior princes, especially Dhani and Rangsit, and some lesser royal figures ready to enter the political fray, especially Kukrit and Seni Pramoj. They reclaimed the royal property, giving the dynasty a vital independent base. They tried to revive much of the power of absolutism through the constitution – a supremely ironic use of the device which the 1932 rebels had introduced. They almost succeeded. But on the eve of Bhumibol’s return to reside and rule in 1951, the remnants of 1932 tore up this constitution.

This ended the attempt to revive monarchy by constitutional engineering, and paved the way for something much more original.

The world had changed. The US had appointed itself as Thailand’s patron, and was preparing to make the country a base for prosecuting the Cold War in Asia. Washington wanted military strongmen to run things and a king to act as its cultural focus, so they shepherded these two institutions to work together. The division of roles was worked out during the premiership of Sarit Thanarat from 1957 to 1963. Though the king was projected as a ruler of Buddhist righteousness, and Sarit was a coarse, corrupt, dipsomaniacal womanizer, this little difference was not allowed to get in the way.

With this shelter, Bhumibol built a new monarchy through three devices. First, through public ritual, including the revival of archaisms like prostration and the arcane royal language, all of which served to make the monarchy appear very special and remote – a reversal of the trend to modernize and de-ritualize the institution over the previous four reigns.

Second, was the wise use of donations. The king accepted donations from members of the public who thereby gained merit in a way analogous to donating to religion. The king then donated the proceeds to the needy, gilding his image as a bountiful leader. This “magic cycle of merit”, as Handley nicely calls it, was especially important in according social recognition to the newly-rich Sino-Thai class, and binding their loyalty with reciprocal gratitude.

Third, projects of rural uplift were undertaken which portrayed the king as caring about his people, especially the smallholders being swept aside by the development policies promoted by the military and their Sino-Thai business cronies.

This new model of monarchy was a brilliant invention with only slender roots in Thai tradition. It worked well for over a decade under Sarit and his military successors. It struck trouble in the 1970s when the US began to withdraw from Southeast Asia, and activist students pioneered a resurgence of democratic politics against military rule.

Handley suggests that Bhumibol was never happy with this democratizing trend. In the early 1970s, he often lectured students to stay out of politics, but this failed to prevent the 1973 revolution overthrowing military rule. Handley shows in great detail how closely the royal family was involved in the moves that led to the return of military rule and the bloody massacre at Thammasat University in October 1976. After this event, the king appointed a prime minister who was so anti-democratic that even the generals could not abide him.

After this crisis, the nature of the monarchy shifted again. First, the king became more immersed in Buddhism, while his reign steadily accrued the prestige which accompanies age and longevity. Through speeches and writings which had much of the feel of sermons, he became the moral critic of the society, and especially of the politicians, in a way that monks had once been the moral critics of kings.

Second, he devoted himself more to his rural development projects, and articulated a “small is beautiful” development philosophy which contrasted with the economic strategy of the national government.

Third, the reign became the focus of a constant series of anniversaries, festivals, and celebrations, featured heavily in the electronic media which now blanketed the nation.

Through the 1980s, parliamentary politics recovered, and a new culture of NGOs, protest politics, and popular participation took off. The king showed his scepticism, and tangled with NGOs that opposed some of his rural schemes. When the military again moved in 1991, and claimed royal endorsement, the king showed no objection. When the generals planned to change the constitution to institutionalize their dominance, the king advised the protesters to back off. Bhumibol’s dramatic role in ending the subsequent bloody clash is famous. Handley dwells pointedly on the events leading to the clash, which are often forgotten.

In sum, this is the classic story of an exceptional man recrafting a monarchy against the grain of the era. But with a difference.

Handley’s central argument is that “Bhumibol made himself a full-fledged political actor.” On purely a priori grounds it would be surprising if there was not some tension between a monarchism based on the specialness of the king, and democracy which starts from the idea that all men are equal. Handley points out that Bhumibol has surrounded himself with advisers (Prince Dhani, Tongnoi Tongyai, Thongthong Chandrangsu, Tanin Kraivixien) who argued openly that constitutions are a foreign import, that only a king “represents” the Thai people, and that elections and parliaments are “un-Thai” and unnecessary. The king often shows his frustration at the democratic process, and claims his development projects are better than those launched by elected governments. While royal honours have been showered on generals and rich tycoons, none have recognized those who campaign for democracy, human rights, and freedoms.

But Handley has missed an important point, or omitted it in the pursuit of simplicity. Since the 1976 drama, an important section of the Thai elite and middle class has needed to imagine the king as a symbol of democracy, particularly in opposition to the soldiers who wanted to suppress it with guns, and the businessmen who wanted to subvert it with money. These people want to make use of the great moral authority of the monarchy, without paying attention to the politics. They have been complicit in rewriting history to cast the king as a peace-maker in 1973 and 1992, glossing over 1976 altogether, and ignoring the 1932 revolution to make democracy seem to be a gift from the throne.

This is key to understanding the extraordinary events of the past year. Handley has tried to keep the book current by adding bits down to the wire. Unfortunately these sections include factual errors and careless judgements. More importantly, his analysis fails to understand why various groups should have seized on the monarchy as the focus of opposition to the current corrupt, authoritarian government. His book exposes the ironies in the anti-Thaksin camp’s position, but in the fevered state of current Thai politics, this subtlety will be missed.

Handley introduces very little that is new for cognoscenti, but that in a way is the book’s strength. It brings everything together, including many obscure sources. It connects the dots of a complex and important story with great narrative skill and very elegant prose. It does not stray off to imagine what is going on in the king’s mind. It relates all the Bangkok gossip on the family, but is quite honest at indicating that this is gossip. The book is far from perfect, but it is streets ahead of the competition, especially the hilariously error-prone effort of William Stevenson seven years ago.

For too long, the issue of the monarchy has been the prone elephant that analysts of Thai history and politics have had to tread carefully around. That era should now pass. In his birthday speech of 2005, King Bhumibol himself insisted that the king is not above criticism. Hopefully Handley’s book will impel those who believe it is poorly researched and misguided to produce alternative histories with at least equal professionalism.