Nuanced Views of the King
One would hardly know from Grant Evans’ September review of my book, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, that it highlights the political philosophy behind the Thai monarchy’s support for military coups against elected governments over the past six decades. Nor did Mr. Evans reveal that another main theme is how King Bhumibol mastered and adapted traditional ritual to restore power to the throne and build an overwhelming popularity among the Thai people.
Both themes, of course, are germane to the September coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The palace’s implicit support for the coup would make any assessment of King Bhumibol’s political life and thought useful, whether one agrees with the conclusions or not. Mr. Evans, though, ignores my book’s core theses to instead condemn me as simply a hater of monarchy, traditional Asian culture and King Bhumibol himself.
To reach such malicious conclusions, Mr. Evans distorts and even fabricates the book’s content. For instance, he brands my coverage of the shooting death of the previous king, Ananda Mahidol, Bhumibol’s elder brother, as “jaundiced,” even though I have said little new from what has been in print for years.
And he strongly suggests I assert that Bhumibol himself killed Ananda because he “coveted the throne.” There is nothing in the book to support this borderline libelous statement. I have no idea whether Ananda shot himself or was killed by Bhumibol, the two possibilities most accepted among historians. If the latter, I clearly term it an accident that occurred in play.
Mr. Evans says Ananda’s death was used by former Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram to tar “leftists,” like former Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong. Yet my book makes meticulously clear that it was the royalists, the palace’s highest princes and their backers, who campaigned to smear Pridi with Ananda’s death. This point is crucial to understanding King Bhumibol’s restoration of royal power, but again Mr. Evans misrepresents the book.
While he offers other such distortions, more astounding is Mr. Evans’s attempt to suggest I dismiss the ritual, visual symbols and other traditions which shore up Bhumibol’s image as a saintly Buddhist king. Mr. Evans calls me galled and puzzled by such rituals: “That these rituals strike a deep chord across Thai society is clearly beyond Mr. Handley’s imagination.”
That’s funny, because so much of my book, including most of the first chapter, details the centrality of traditional rituals and symbols in Bhumibol’s restoration. Indeed, I titled the book The King Never Smiles to emphasize this, explaining very early on that the king’s conscious avoidance of smiling, and the lack of him doing so in almost all official portraiture, is to project himself as an impeccable bodhisattva. But Mr. Evans, who as an anthropologist should get the importance of ritual imagery in modern politics, calls the title “supercilious,” saying I really want King Bhumibol to “go around glad-handing people with smiles plastered on [his] face in the manner of U.S. politicians.”
If I sum up Mr. Evans’ assessment of my book, it is the mindless work of a Western-fixated, unqualified and insensitive mere reporter who scorns Thai culture and people, hates monarchies, and depends mostly on unsourced gossip to fashion an ugly picture of a monarch that he doesn’t realize is genuinely loved by the Thai people. This is strikingly similar to the Thai palace and government’s official view of my book, designed to convince people to dismiss it without reading it.