First published at Mekong Review, a quarterly literary journal based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej took the Chakri throne in June 1946. His remarkable 70-year reign is now the longest in Thai history, straddling multiple generations and a period of immense economic, political and technological change. As time marches on, the proportion of the Thai population that has known any other monarch has vanished. Where others have faded, King Bhumibol has survived.
In the decade since Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles: A biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej was published, Thai society has lost its democratic facade. There have been two military coups, dozens of violent clashes in Bangkok, and hundreds of people have been locked up after finding themselves on the wrong side of callous political determinations. Others have been forced to seek sanctuary abroad. This chapter in King Bhumibol’s long reign has seen a miserable confrontation between duelling elites and the stark polarisation of political opinion in the provinces.
At the street level, this conflict has usually been painted in hues of ‘red’ and ‘yellow’, but anyone who watches closely knows it is more complicated than that. The reality can prove brutally disheartening. Like in many drawn-out political battles, much of the aggression is reserved for perceived traitors and deviants. Nonetheless, while the ‘yellows’ continue to exalt in the reflected glory of Bhumibol’s charismatic eminence, there are some courageous voices in the ‘red’ corner that ask penetrating questions of the royals and this noteworthy reign. These still have Handley to thank for presenting a considered rebuke to the painstakingly manicured mythology of a royal household above politics, supposedly disconnected from petty financial or personal concerns.
Handley invested many years disentangling the offcial narrative from the facts. His book is critical, yes, but also ultimately empathetic in its portrayal of a king whose ascension came at a moment of unspeakable personal, dynastic and national tragedy. Handley suggests that King Bhumibol never fully recovered from the death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, and the shock of his own elevation to the throne. This dark shadow, like much else in Handley’s book, is not supposed to be discussed in Thailand. Since the publication of The King Never Smiles, the country’s draconian and vindictive lèse majesté law has become the preferred weapon for battering the vulnerable and the brave. It has been used with increasing enthusiasm by weak governments, including today’s militocracy, looking to buttress their royalist credentials. In practice, the law is used to stamp out dissent and punish opponents. It is ludicrously difficult to mount any effective defence to a lèse majesté charge, and the accused often end up seeking a reduction in punishment with a guilty plea.
Handley’s book has been caught up in these proceedings. Joe Gordon, a Thai American, spent thirteen months in jail for translating portions of the text. A full Thai language translation has been available, online, for years, but it is dangerous to ‘like’ or ‘share’ it. In the recent past, before the relative anarchy offered by the online realm, it was possible to maintain a single version of the royal truth. Today’s multiplicity of perspectives and narratives makes that impossible.
In response, there has been a massive investment made in fortifying the story of King Bhumibol as Thailand’s exemplary centre, a semi-divine presence bestowing prosperity and security on the common people. In 2012, for example, the palace supported the publication of the epic King Bhumibol: A life’s work, which offers a favourable interpretation of his role in the country’s development. This lavish rejoinder is not without merit, but should, in all circumstances, be read alongside The King Never Smiles. The problem is that Handley’s work is still deemed far too explosive to be openly available inside Thailand. Following a pattern established in the final year of Thaksin Shinawatra’s prime ministership, subsequent Thai governments have kept up the fiction that the book poses a credible threat to national security. Over time, this directive has been extended to other writers, websites and publications.
Yet the official Thai retort to Handley’s exertion has failed. Handley’s work still motivates some good analysis of the royal family across its economic, political and cultural dimensions. We now know much more about the holdings of the Crown Property Bureau, thanks in large part to the impressive sleuthing of Porphant Ouyyanont. Regarding politics, a rising generation of Thai scholars has grappled with a re-militarised and contentious landscape, with notable contributions by writers like Aim Sinpeng, Prajak Kongkirati and Pitch Pongsawat. Then there is the story of the king as a cultural icon. Perhaps the most incisive analysis of this issue is by the impressive young German scholar, Serhat Ünaldi. Other durable writers like Kevin Hewison, Duncan McCargo, Nick Nostitz, and Andrew MacGregor Marshall, have also made an impact.
It is MacGregor Marshall who has kept up the most consistent criticism of the political and economic meddling of the royal family. His A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century draws on a wide range of source material, including Wikileaks cables, to eviscerate royalist mythology. His account of recent Thai political conflict argues that the succession remains unresolved. MacGregor Marshall insists there is deep unease among the country’s power brokers over Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s prospective elevation to the throne. From this perspective, the 2006 and 2014 coups make sense as preparation for handling a crisis right at the apex of Thai society.
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Nicholas Farrelly is co-founder of New Mandala.