Nicholas Grossman and Dominic Faulder, eds.,
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life’s Work: Thailand’s Monarchy in Perspective.
Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2011. Pp. 383; ills., map, notes, bib., index, picture credits.
Reviewed by Paul M. Handley.
For King Bhumibol’s fiftieth anniversary on the throne in 1996, the palace put forth a large-format book on his life and works that offered a new rendering of the Ninth Reign. It was overdue: Thailand was at the peak of a transformational ten-year boom that had given society a new can-do spirit, marked by ultra-capitalism and consumerism and calls for better, more democratic government. The boom had left the monarchy in the dust. Of course, the crash would come within a year, but no one knew that. Something had to make the monarchy pertinent to the age.
Hence Thailand’s Guiding Light (1), published by the Bangkok Post, but clearly with the palace’s imprimatur. Inside, Sumet Tantivejkul and Anand Panyarachun cautiously delivered the monarchy in modern terms. Sumet, the king’s development advisor, portrayed the king as a modern “Environmental Activist”, with green sensibilities that predated the green movement. Amid calls for more democratic public hearings on big projects that affected villagers, Sumet said: “His Majesty has been holding public hearings for the last 30 years … It’s an untainted process of public hearing, unorganized and natural.”
Anand, who had risen to the status of statesman with one foot inside the palace, described Bhumibol as an accountable constitutionalist:
Thailand is now a constitutional monarchy and a country aspiring to become a newly developed society, but the traditional principles of righteous Buddhist kingship and kingly virtues remain of paramount importance to the present monarchy. His Majesty has displayed, and continues to display, a profound understanding of constitutional kingship as well as the traditional sources and symbols of Thai monarchical tradition.
Breaking with the past, Anand confirmed that the king does in fact intervene in politics, meeting the prime minister weekly on policy: “His indirect influence on governments’ policies and measures cannot, therefore, be underestimated.” This was fresh and constructive, and democratic in the modern spirit. Anand said that the king had this constitutional right, though he cited not the Thai charter but nineteenth-century British constitutional expert Walter Bagehot, who said that the (British) constitutional monarch had three rights: to be consulted, to warn, and to encourage. Anand added, “He is also accountable. What he does is seen by the public. Not accountable in the legal sense of the word … but there is transparency …”
This new portrayal did not exactly place the monarchy squarely into the age of the boom, but it did bring it forward. The economy’s collapse the following year temporarily set things in reverse, and suddenly Bhumibol was perfectly positioned, sitting smack at the center of the new Zeitgeist of moderation and simplicity. The Sufficiency Theory was there to explain it all. He ate brown rice, and everyone followed suit, knowing that he had been right all along.
A decade and a half later, another anniversary–Bhumibol’s seventh-cycle birthday–and another wave of change that left the palace lagging brings a new book, again with Anand and Sumet leading the effort. Again, too, they take Bhumibol’s monarchy forward. And again, hampered by excessive caution and some glaring equivocation, they fall short of where they need to be for the institution’s sake. But they go far enough to preserve Bhumibol’s image. And that seems to be the priority these days.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life’s Work is a handsome volume from Singapore-based publisher Didier Millet. It was written by seasoned Thailand hands: academics Chris Baker, David Streckfuss, and Porphant Ouyyanont; current and former journalists Dominic Faulder, Julian Gearing, Richard Erlich, Paul Wedel, Robert Horn, and Robert Woodrow; and travel writer Joe Cummings.
Above them was an editorial advisory board that is, in a way, the modernizing arm of the palace: Anand, Sumet, Putrie Viravaidya, Pramote Maiklad, Theerakun Niyom, Wissanu Krea-ngam, and others.
With the Ninth Reign nearing its end, and after the turmoil of the past several years, which has given rise to a large amount of open discussion and criticism of the monarchy (including my own), King Bhumibol deserves a new official book on his life and his work. One that need not be critical, but that fills in the big holes left by the potted biographies of the past, gets the dates and names right, presenting rather than glorifying his life. After sixty-five years on the throne, the myth-making takes care of itself.
The subtitle of this new book suggests a second mission: Thailand’s Monarchy in Perspective. It signals that, while this book is not directly a reply to The King Never Smiles (2, hereafter TKNS) and other recent critiques, it is a response. It is about reclaiming the narrative, from TKNS, from Streckfuss (3), and from the media and human-rights organizations on lèse majesté, from Porphant (4) and Forbes (5) on royal wealth, and from others who have shaped the king’s modern image without input from inside the walls of Chitrlada and Wat Phra Kaew.
The palace also has a few things to set straight: the monarchy is under threat, and so the lèse majesté law is necessary; the palace fortune is its own, and not the public’s; and Prince Vajiralongkorn will indeed succeed his father.
Nothing wrong with clarifying its position. The palace needs to catch up, maybe not with Prachatai.com and chat-rooms, but with academic forums, foreign media, and the undeniable political realities of the 2000s. And it needs to curb speculation especially on succession.
Style-wise, this book is a jumble: a history of kingship in Siam, Bhumibol’s life by twelve-year cycle, his development work, and then, a section on hot issues around the monarchy: its wealth, the royal advisors, succession, and lèse majesté. We do not know who wrote and amended the different sections, but it seems clear that the editorial board kept the writers from going too far. Since the writers were some of the very people with which the palace needed to catch up and since they have reputations to protect, however, A Life’s Work is not a whitewash. It does not exactly seize control of the narrative, but it eases the palace into the twenty-first century.
Anand’s foreward sets out how the palace sees the new information world it faces, highlighting an approach of “balance, objectivity, accuracy”, all “of timely interest for a widening audience” (p. 11).
The description of the monarchic tradition is fairly standard, describing a developing concept of a Buddhist king, democratic in spirit, that was weak in Ayutthaya but firmed up in the Chakri era. Its recap of the Chakri kings is less mythologizing than others, allowing hints at the disaster that was the Sixth Reign, acknowledging the weaknesses that brought about the 1932 revolution, and not demonizing those behind that revolution. The 1935 abdication of King Prajadhipok is barely mentioned. But that also drops the usually availed opportunity to reprint the outgoing king’s claim of moral superiority to the politicians in Bangkok grabbing for both power and spoils. It does label Bhumibol a “most brilliant” (p. 41) candidate to restore the throne, but the book is thankfully light on glorification.
The biography section of A Life’s Work is the best so far in official media. It hits most of the key events and themes of the period, weaving politics in with the king’s personal development, family, and projects. Ananda’s death is covered, with all the acceptable theories – fratricide is excluded. There is, unsurprisingly, no new nuance added, leaving the affair, as the palace holds it, an unsolved mystery.
The turbulence of the mid-1970s comes off with a few odd, insistent points. In December 1975 the king was “unperturbed by the falling dominoes of Indochina” (p. 133). In September 1976 the king and queen never met with Thanom Kittikachorn after he returned and checked into Wat Bovornives. On 6-7 October, the king ate dinner with visiting Princess Alix of Belgium, then met with donors to rural projects, and then went jogging, “alone with his thoughts” (p. 137).
The 1991-92 coup and uprising is covered more from the protestors’ viewpoint, though without really taking sides.
What is most interesting is that the book includes in the story the political figures with whom Bhumibol had to contend. Past official accounts and school books leave out Phibul and Pridi, and nearly all the prime ministers except perhaps Sarit and Prem. In official culture, they disappear: Thongdaeng lands on postage stamps, but not Pridi or Prem.
The roles that these politicians played during Bhumibol’s reign are still sketchy in this book, but it does show that there was interaction, and differences, on political issues that were problems for both sides. Phibul led a “charmed existence” and was “indestructible” (p. 94). Sarit was more loyal of course, but the warts of his reputation are there. On Thanom and Praphas almost nothing is said, but what is said is relatively negative. Kriengsak had a “moderating” effect (p. 137).
This relatively even-handed coverage extends to Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts-Yellow Shirts battles. The book recognizes Thaksin’s electoral popularity and effective leadership style. Thaksin appears to be a loyal monarchist. Both the Reds and Yellows generated chaos and destruction, and the Reds come off just a shade worse. The 2006 coup was “a disaster for the palace” (p. 178) and privy councilor Surayud Chulanont a flop as prime minister.
And the book even notes almost disapprovingly that “some members of the royal family” had “attracted criticism” for attending the funeral of a yellow shirt protestor (p. 180), and that there was much gossip about palace sympathies in the turmoil. However, the book insists, “The king himself showed no sign of playing favorites” (p. 180). And in 2006 he remained correctly above the fray when constitutional issues came to the forefront.
While an improvement over earlier official histories, this one is still unsatisfying. Not because of one’s own biases, but because it takes a Forrest Gump approach to history: in the movie a generation of events whiz by in a nostalgic haze. None is really bad or good; they just happened out of spontaneous generation, and Forrest was there for them all.
Here the 1932 coup, Ananda’s death and the fall of Phibul and of Pridi, the 1970s and 1992 violence, all just happened. The various sides clashed, and peace came back, and Thailand went on. It is never clear out of just what any of those figures and events arose. The king was there for it all, constant and consistent, on the side of the people. Anand here again sums up that he has the role of consulting, encouraging and warning governments. But “like monarchs around the world” he holds his tongue in public.
The second section of the book covers the king’s work in health, education, and rural development and, lastly, the Sufficiency Economy concept. Little here is new, though some details appear to address criticisms of royal project outcomes. The Sufficiency Economy section repeats much of the 2007 UNDP report on the idea. It mainly aims to correct the record: King Bhumibol was misunderstood by critics, for his concept was one of general principles and not a development plan; and he meant sufficiency, not self-sufficiency. There is still hope that academics will come around:
Perhaps a mere handful of years are too few to assess the impact of the Sufficiency Economy. Advocates of the theory stress that what is needed is a comprehensive change in the national mindset. That might already be under way, but it will have to await the rise of a generation educated in the Sufficiency Economy at school. (p. 279)
Part III of A Life’s Work, “The Crown”, leaves Bhumibol behind for what can best be called “Issues we feel obliged to weigh in on because people won’t stop talking about them.” That is, royal family wealth, lèse majesté, succession, and the Privy Council. Each one is dealt with in a historical and legalistic way, and this section of the book represents a welcome increase in transparency.
On privy councilors, the book insists they have a limited role and no authority. They exist mainly to oversee royal projects and review pardon applications. According to privy councilor Kasem Watanachai, it is only that people believe that they have power because of their fancy titles, and because journalists and academics always repeat what they say. “Thais believe anything exalted has authority or power,” the book says, citing Kasem (p. 322).
Still, it acknowledges that the council “has rather suddenly become the subject of much discussion” (p. 323), including allegations that privy councillors were involved in the 2006 coup. It does not deny this, but says that, if so, privy councillors would have been “acting in a private capacity” (p. 323). Prem’s well publicised talks to military units ahead of the coup “were not made in his capacity as Privy Council president” (p. 323).
On succession, the book details the legal and historical foundations, maintaining that the Chakri tradition is “that the wisest and most capable possible successor should be chosen” (p. 327). It notes the king’s right to decide on whom he wants, whatever the constitution and the 1924 succession law, the kot monthianban, say about lineage and priority.
It strangely notes that since 1974 constitutions have allowed for a female successor without explaining why – that the bloodline had dried up and Prince Vajiralongkorn was the only qualified male left in his generation. It does not say how the constitution and the 1924 law, which stipulates that women cannot hold the throne, are to be reconciled. There is absolutely no mention of Princess Sirindhorn in the chapter on succession, despite her popularity and the 1977 royal promotion implying that she is the designated alternate. Instead, it bluntly concludes:
There remains a sustained belief … that the next succession is not entirely decided … As things stand in 2011, the cabinet will inform the president of the parliament who will invite Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to become king. (p. 333)
The section on royal wealth and the Crown Property Bureau is noteworthy for recognizing Porphant’s great work, setting a $33 billion value on the holdings (in 2005) that became the basis for Forbes labeling Bhumibol the world’s richest royal (remarkably ignoring the oil wealth of the Gulf’s absolute monarchs). CPB head Chirayu Isarangkul na Ayutthaya, who clearly helped here, seems to accept the light thrown on the institution, adding some new historical detail. He sets the record somewhat straight: the CPB is not the king’s private property – though the law gives him all authority over it – but belongs “to the monarchy as an institution” (p. 283). It is not obligated in any way to the people. Transparency also has its limits: “Excessive curiosity,” Chirayu is quoted as saying, “can also lower a dignified and trusting relationship. The increasing interest in the CPB in today’s world makes me seriously think all the time about this appropriate balance” (p. 301).
Finally, there is lèse majesté. With so many people now facing charges or already in prison for lèse majesté, the palace can hardly avoid addressing it. The book acknowledges a “major spike” (p. 303) in cases, though without saying just why. The Computer Crimes Act just appeared. Charges are just made in a vacuum, get taken up by the bureaucracy, and are nearly impossible to dismiss. The odds against acquittal are “overwhelming” (p. 309).
This is all a problem, the book says, but not because the law exists. Instead, it is the frequency of application, the severity of the punishment, and that the law has been used as a political weapon, especially since 2006. If that suggests that the palace here might be signaling its opposition to the law, that is not the case. For, at the same time, it explains why such a law is necessary, even if the king himself “has never sued any of his subjects, or for that matter initiated a lèse majesté charge” (p. 309).
For one, the law is rooted in Thai culture and the Thai people’s “unique” (p. 312) relationship to the monarchy, royalist legal expert Bowornsak Uwanno explains. Anand says: “I am sure that the king does not mind whether the law exists or not, but the Thai people never, never tolerate criticism of the king” (p. 313).
On top of that is the real threat to the institution, the book says. The Abhisit government’s Advisory Committee on the Security of the Kingdom examined how the law’s application might be damaging the country and the monarchy. But its key conclusions were that “The lèse majesté law is still justified for those intentionally conspiring to overthrow the monarchy” and “the committee contemplates no changes to lèse majesté law since there is a real threat to the institution that cannot be ignored” (p. 312). The book further explains:
There is no question that a significantly increased number of premeditated attacks have been made against the king, members of the royal family and the royal institution on the internet and in public speeches – much of which are grounds for seeking legal redress. (p. 308)
Exactly what the threat is, and from whom it comes, we are not told. And there are no comments directly from palace officials on this. But for anyone holding out hope that King Bhumibol’s critical references to the law could be invoked to curtail its use, I say that repeating these justifications is a pretty clear statement of what they really think. According to the book, the palace does see some classes of offenders as truly dangerous while others – academics, journalists, drunken foreigners – as just wayward and not meriting significant punishment. But besides accepting that not all people are equal under the law, that fails to answer the question what about a Thai who republishes something written by one of these foreign academics or journalists? Is there any consistent and justifiable way to enforce this law that is not essentially political in nature?
As a commemorative volume for King Bhumibol’s reign, this book–including the rare pictures of him smiling!–works fine, adequately updating and burnishing his reputation. While it becomes a completely different book in Part III, one would like to give the palace kudos for being up front on the hot issues covered there. But surely at this point the time has come to set out some guidelines for the next reign, which will not have Bhumibol’s barami to hang onto. Instead, it gives Queen Sirikit and Vajiralongkorn all the arguments needed to not change. Somehow that does not seem a strategy for survival.
Paul M. Handley, a journalist with Agence France-Presse in Washington, is the author of the landmark work, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej (http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300106824).
1. King Bhumibol Adulyadej : Thailand’s Guiding Light (Bangkok: Post Publishing, 1996).
2. Paul M. Handley, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulaydej (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
3. David Streckfuss, Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-majsté (Milton Park, Oxon., and New York: Routledge, 2011).
4. For example, Porphant Ouyyanont, “The Crown Property Bureau from Crisis to Opportunity,” pp. 155-186 in Pasuk Phongphaichit and Chris Baker, Thai Capital after the 1997 Crisis (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2008).
5. See, most recently, “The World’s Richest Royals,” Forbes, 29 April 2011, at http://www.forbes.com/sites/investopedia/2011/04/29/the-worlds-richest-royals/.