Related Links: The King Never Smiles: Book Excerpt Revival, Renewal and Reinvention: The Complex Life of Thailand’s Monarch When I started out on my biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, I understood that whatever I wrote would not be received well by a palace used to unqualified adulation and the absolute power to shape its own story. But I was encouraged to press on by many Thais. They feared that the throne, wrapped in its own zealously constructed image, was leaving itself vulnerable to potent challenges, especially when the time comes for Bhumibol, nearly 79, to bequeath his crown to a successor.
I could hardly have imagined though that the book would come out smack in the middle of the biggest challenge Bhumibol’s Ninth Reign has faced in decades, from Thaksin Shinawatra. But the way the palace and the government focused on my book as a threat, while mishandling Thaksin, says a lot about how ill-prepared the throne is for politics in the 21st century.
The government banned “The King Never Smiles” as soon as it was announced on the website of Yale University Press in January, well before the book even went to the printer! They smartly maintained an unofficial blackout on mention of the book domestically, but also blocked Internet users in Thailand from accessing the Yale University Press and Amazon pages of the book, to little real effect.
They were particularly concerned about the planned release date, coincidentally set just a couple of weeks before the June 9 celebration of Bhumibol's 60th anniversary on the throne. In early April cabinet secretary Bowornsak Uwanno quietly traveled to the US to try and block, or at least delay, the book. Thai cabinet documents show he went to great lengths, tapping into friendly congressmen, diplomats and Yale University alumnus, former president George Herbert Walker Bush, to get the book's release postponed several weeks. The Thais also persuaded Congress to put through a resolution heralding King Bhumibol on his anniversary as an apparent riposte.
None of that was really surprising the palace has gone much, much farther than that in its determination to defend Bhumibol's image, as the book details. One of my book’s arguments, though, is that the palace has spent far too much effort on its image while ignoring the need to plan strategically for a changing world. There is no better illustration of that than the ongoing, epic political slugfest with Thaksin in which the throne is not doing nearly as well for itself as it did with my book.
This has been brewing for years. Every monarchy in a liberalizing state eventually goes to battle with a popularly elected executive or legislature over power. The crown usually loses the fight, eventually. Indeed, Bhumibol's first 11 years were spent jousting with governments and military bosses unwilling to cede back to the throne the powers taken away in the 1932 revolution against the absolute monarchy.
The fight resumed in 1988 when Bhumibol's hand-picked prime minister of eight years, army boss Prem Tinsulanonda, was forced from office in an election framed around the issue of who picks the country's executive the king and a loyal military, or voters. While the king installed Prem to head his privy council, the new Prime Minister, the freewheeling Chatichai Choonhavan, attempted to dismantle the King-Prem power base in the bureaucracy. That ended with the military coup of early 1991, itself reversed in the bloody May 1992 uprising.
The palace spent the 1990s trying to recover what it lost with Chatichai the image that the king was the source of all good things in the kingdom and that an independent premier was a path to perdition. This effort was somewhat successful, especially after the 1997 economic collapse. Prem even sought a comeback as the king's designated executive late that year, only to be stymied by the constitution’s rules that the elected parliament decides who leads the government.
With Prem and his cohorts in the Privy Council still working hard to maintain palace influence through the bureaucracy and especially the army, an open clash remained inevitable.
It came in the enormous fortune, ego and surprising foolishness of Thaksin, the telecoms tycoon and self-styled "CEO Prime Minister" elected in 2001 and re-elected in 2005. With no sense of finesse, Thaksin did the palace's bidding when it suited him and snubbed Prem and the king when their bidding was inconvenient. Meanwhile he competed with the king for the hearts of the people. It wasn't long before Bhumibol's supporters branded Thaksin a usurper.
The battle has many fronts – political power, money, business, the constitution, and succession. At each, the palace has shown more than enough inconsistency to allow Thaksin to compete with the king's reputation for good intentions and superior judgment. Basically, Thaksin has leveraged his knowledge of royal weaknesses and unseemly compromises to stay in the game.
The palace can’t be blamed for Thaksin’s rise. But it can be faulted for playing around in Thaksin’s league while not planning for the day such an opponent would emerge. It failed to insist on well-defined constitutional rules to protect itself, the rule of law, and real examples of honesty and transparency.
Thaksin knows palace weaknesses intimately. Already in the 1990s, the crown prince and other members of the royal family and palace retinue were enjoying the fruits of his “largesse”, never imagining this would compromise them. He knows how the palace has protected those favorites who are guilty of indiscretions and illegalities. And he knows very well how the throne depended on the government to save palace-controlled Siam Commercial Bank after the 1997 crash. He himself had a big role when he took the bankrupt iTV television station off the bank’s hands for far more than the station was worth. He predictably turned it into a medium to promote his own political career.
And he knows for sure how many tens of millions of dollars Siam Commercial Bank earned by helping engineer the tax-free deal to sell his Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings, even as Thai nationalists lambasted Thaksin (though not the palace) for selling out a powerful Thai semi-monopoly to foreign control.
Thaksin is foolish, of course, to think this knowledge can conquer a king with six decades of experience brushing off impertinent politicians and an equally long time solidifying his popularity with the people. But Thaksin’s ability to exploit palace weaknesses has left the throne with few tools to protect itself, forcing it into an uncomfortable corner. Attempts to use law to oust Thaksin have failed due to a weak constitution and weaker judiciary, things the throne has never before experienced as a problem.
The public as an ally also proved problematic. Bhumibol has always sold himself as the protector of the people against politicians like Thaksin. But the masses calling for his intervention now are led by businessman Sondhi Limthongkul, who has a history thick with shady business deals (including with Thaksin) and a political position as flaky as a croissant. And among the legions joining Sondhi’s anti-Thaksin mobilizations are a lot of people skeptical of the palace’s virtue.
That has left the monarchy, faced with Thaksin’s refusal to disappear from the scene, to fall back on the military, where the prime minister and Prem have vied to keep their own men in power. This came to a head in July when Prem – the king’s top advisor – dusted off his military uniform to level a threat of an army coup against Thaksin's government. As bad is Thaksin is, this took Thailand back decades, when coups were the accepted method of changing the government.
Prem and Bhumibol will almost surely win this battle. With his allies dropping out from his Thai Rak Thai party, Thaksin could be replaced by either weak surrogates or the hapless Democrats in the elections to come. In whatever case, the government will not be a strong one and the palace will get its way on what it thinks matters.
But that won't eliminate potent assaults on royal power in the future. Bhumibol’s dependence on the combination of his prestige and lèse majesté laws to protect him is no longer enough. Thaksin’s challenge provoked, for instance, the public discussion of the king’s official powers, something unseen since the 1940s, in books, pamphlets, magazines, newspaper pieces and, of course, on the Internet, where blogs, chat rooms and a smart new website called Midnight University opened up the topic.
But blackouts, as with my book, and the lèse majesté charges leveled against mere pundits, will only slow this trend. By baring the throne's vulnerabilities and drawing out the palace to its ugliest – the king’s agent threatening a military coup – Thaksin has introduced a new generation of Thais to issues the palace thought it had buried almost a generation ago.
King Bhumibol is lucky that Thaksin is as crude and foolish as he is rich. The Chakri throne now really has to figure out how it should change to avoid this situation in the future. That very well could require pulling back from political activism and becoming a true force for rule of law, transparency and good government. Obedient executives are just not enough.