Over the coming months, New Mandala will continue to publish a series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies. These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field.

The fifth in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with author and journalist Paul Handley.

Nicholas Farrelly: Paul, thanks for taking the time to do an interview with New Mandala. Most of our readers know you as the author of The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej but, of course, you were writing about Thailand for years before the book was published. Can you tell us about how you first came to Thailand? What brought you to the country?

Paul Handley: I originally went to Asia after graduating from university (American U. in Washington DC, International Studies) to study Chinese. After three years doing that in Taiwan, I got a job with a Hong Kong-based oil industry magazine that sent me to … Indonesia. It turned out to be a great move. After a few years there I got some opportunities to work for Far Eastern Economic Review and, when the Suharto regime tossed me out in 1986 for writing about the sons’ business, FEER gave me a full time job in Hong Kong, for which I am eternally grateful (to the old FEER regime, Derek Davies, Philip Bowring et al.).

After a while in Hong Kong I pitched for a posting to Taiwan or Korea and they sent me to Bangkok. Once again, not my choice but a great move anyway. My second day there I walked from Wireless to Sukhumvit 49 in 1-2 feet of floodwater. Loved it ever since.

Nicholas Farrelly: For a bit of history, I’m sure that many of our readers will be interested to hear of some of the big stories that you wrote during your early years as a journalist in Thailand. What were some of the highlights of that work?

Paul Handley: I arrived in Thailand in September 1987, just as the Southeast Asian economies were beginning to take off, Thailand in the forefront. It was a great education in economics – even moreso when, finally, the bust came 10 years later.

There were so many stories, about new businesses, about the strains of growth on not only economic management but on the democratic process, conflicts of the golf courses-vs-the-environment kind, the new consumerism sweeping into the countryside. So much was about the nexus of politics and capital, many stories were about the conflicts. I got into writing about mega-projects – remember the traffic back then, pre-skytrain? – and how unmanageable they were in a wild democracy like Thailand. I think the earliest articles were about the battle over the goodies between Banharn and Samak, two of the sleaziest people you can imagine. Now I see they are back. Hmm, plus ca change … Eventually I turned all the knowledge about the projects into a big feature for Institutional Investor and a paper for the Asia Research Center at Murdoch University (great people there!), both using examples of privatised infrastructure from Pakistan and India to China to show why the projects were not working and would collapse financially. Which they did. I still think it is one of the major features, but little understood, of the politics and heady financial zeitgeist of the Asian boom.

Some of the heaviest stories I covered were of the 1991 coup and its denouement in the May 1992 bloodshed. Because there was a lot of shadow play going on with the palace, which I did not understand, it planted the seed in my mind for my book.

Nicholas Farrelly: So when did you actually decide to write a biography of King Bhumibol? What influence did your years in Thailand have on the book?

Paul Handley: I quit FEER in 1994 and was thinking about leaving Thailand. I thought I would like to write a long magazine-type article about the monarchy, which I had become much more aware of in politics and in national culture after so many years there. I started to research, about monarchies as a modern political institution, and about this one, and the story got more and more interesting. Eventually I got so deep I was – my critics will cheer this admission – pretty well in over my head. So it took a long time and a few fundamental restarts to sort out the whole thing.

Nicholas Farrelly: Since its release in 2006, the book has obviously generated a huge amount of interest. Many people have come out to support your argument and its importance. On New Mandala alone, the book has provoked hundreds of comments. Of course, many others have criticised your research and tried to highlight what they see as your “agenda”. What was your own motivation for writing the book? When you started, did you ever expect the sort of reaction that it has received?

Paul Handley: You know, I have been asked by all types of people, from a very canny top Thai diplomat to academics who one would think would know better, “Why did you write the book?” The answer is, in truth, why hasn’t someone done this before me? Here you have the world’s longest-serving living head of state, a king more adored by his people than any other, a monarchy styled on what I call a Buddhist theocracy, and so on. And no one has ever sat down and written about the secret of his success, his philosophy, his approach to the job, his family (as dysfunctional as any royalty), his contribution to the world, his kingship as one in the rarefied world of sovereign monarchs. A popular and respected king for six decades. What is a more obvious subject that that? I admit I have never been enamoured by monarchy, but there was no agenda, and I altered my view of King Bhumibol several times during the process of researching the book.

As for the reaction, there has been little that I did not expect. The only surprise was the confluence of events – the book finally being completed and ready for publishing at the same time Thaksin was being pushed from power by the yellow-shirted masses, all on the 60th anniversary of Bhumibol’s reign.

Nicholas Farrelly: According to the publisher’s description of The King Never Smiles, it is “an extensively researched, factual account of the king’s youth and personal development, ascent to the throne, skilful political manoeuvrings, and attempt to shape Thailand as a Buddhist kingdom”. I think it would be helpful if you told us more precisely about how you researched the book. What was your methodology?

Paul Handley: I’m a journalist, not a historian, and I went at it a little ass-backwards, digging through popular accounts and histories before I got into the heavy stuff written, some of it just being written at the time, by real historians. I went through a lot of old newspapers and magazines, Thai and foreign, a lot of official publications, commemorative books, anything I could find that mentioned the royals – in libraries, in the old book and magazine stalls in Chatuchak, in people’s homes. I studied the pictures and the dates, and put together a timeline that I realized after a while did not always really match the official accounts. For instance, there are a lot of official palace accounts which say the king began building dams, or raising Tilapia, or such things at a certain date. And then you would find a picture and caption in a magazine that had it five years earlier. Some were benign, but some of the discrepancies had real meaning. For that reason there is a perhaps inordinate emphasis on dates in the book, but a lot was to make points. Bhumibol’s image is always working, that his tour to the US and Europe in 1960 was all work, and then you find out that he spent most of the time vacationing. Nothing wrong with that, it is just that in the official view he never took vacations.

That deconstruction-reconstruction process took me a long time, and then I worked on the more dense historical records of the time, and then the greater history and culture of Thailand and the Thai monarchy which helped shape a perspective. And of course talking to anyone I could in Thailand, admittedly many times asking people questions about the monarchy under the cover of interviews on entirely different subjects. But I could not tell many people I was doing such a book.

And I indulged myself in the royal culture when and how I could – going to his appearances and ceremonies when possible, listening to his music, going to art exhibits with his paintings, whatever I could to get a feel. I still could have done a lot more, but eventually you have to stop and write.

Nicholas Farrelly: What efforts did you make to interview King Bhumibol and other members of the palace? How were any approaches received?

Paul Handley: This is a clear shortcoming of the book. Seeing the skittish reaction to my project from a number of Thais – including a few academics known to your readers – made me conclude that I could not approach anyone in the palace until the very end. But by the time I got a solid draft together and a publisher signed on, I decided that it would be useless and possibly interfere with getting the book out. The king and the palace are extremely reticent about interviews, and would have demanded to see the book as a condition of even considering whether to see me. I decided, after consulting my publisher and several Thai experts, that there was no chance of success and a great chance that the palace/government would do whatever it could to block the book. As they did.

Nicholas Farrelly: One of major criticisms of the book is that it relies on “gossip” and “rumour”. How do you respond to this?

Paul Handley: The palace lives on gossip and rumor, at least that which benefits it. For instance, in the early 1990s there were widespread stories that the king drove around incognito to experience the hell of Bangkok’s traffic. Everyone heard the stories, everyone believed them – that the king was suffering just like they were. No one I met ever had first-hand information on this, it was just rumor. Rumor that benefitted the monarchy. There are countless examples like this which shape the king’s image, and image is crucial.

The critics focus though on the negative rumors that I repeat. Most of these are rumors that either I believe to be true, or that are probably not true but nevertheless have substantial impact on the image of the throne and the royal family. Positive or negative, what people believe about the king, whom they adore so, and about his family, with whom they are less enamored, is essential to the success and problems of his reign.

One other class of rumor I got into was very speculative, I admit – on the king’s love life. But I believe that this issue is also essential to his image and his personality, especially in a place like Thailand where philandering is a hobby, mia nois are family, and where previous kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn have been, well, unrestrained with women. One has to examine all of the facets of his image to see if they hold up in reality, and one facet is Bhumibol as a faithful family man. I also maintain that his only having one son was a fateful decision contrary to the need of the dynasty, and so one has to examine his love life in this regard.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a 2007 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation you said that “The constitutions changed, political leaders changed and all the time there was this promotion of the King as a good, honest leader. Slowly I think the people really accepted that, really believed that, and they started to believe all the mythology about the King that was promoted. Nothing was said bad about the King, everything was good, and in that kind of environment, you sort of say, ‘Well it seems not to be bad’”. Do you think that the mythology that surrounds King Bhumibol has been threatened since the September 2006 coup?

Paul Handley: Not so much. He has always had these moments where a lot more Thais – never the majority – question what he is doing, but eventually the image recovers. I think it is pretty bulletproof. Whatever I wrote, Thais will love him, and worship him after he dies.

Nicholas Farrelly: In that same interview you reflected that “what I’m saying in this interview right now could be construed as lese-majeste in Thailand, and if I was in Thailand I could be arrested for just suggesting that there might be another story. And this has worked incredibly effectively to protect his image, to make sure that everyone believes that he – King Bhumibol – and the institution he leads, the institution of the monarchy, is only a force for the good in Thailand, and only has good ideas and he’s truly a wise sovereign who only does the correct thing”. Since publishing The King Never Smiles can you return to Thailand? Would you want to? Have you ever been formally warned or reprimanded by Thai authorities? Or by anybody else?

Paul Handley: Of course I would want to. It’s a lovely place, I have friends there, it was a big part of my life, altogether 13 years or so. Can you really get good Thai food outside the country? But I understood in writing this book that I would not be welcomed back. I have received no warning or threat, I haven’t checked whether they have me on any blacklist. I know of no charges filed in absentia. Remember, the official view of my book is, it doesn’t exist. So filing charges against me would just recognize it. I have not been threatened by any one. I think all the attention has really been on Thaksin anyway. The bloody scene-stealer.

Nicholas Farrelly: Before we finish, I thought it was worth raising one of the big issues that has been partially illuminated by your account: succession. It is an issue that has been very widely discussed in the wake of The King Never Smiles. At least in Thailand, this is one aspect of palace politics that is off limits for public discussion and is often only whispered about. As his unofficial biographer, what lessons do you think Bhumibol’s reign offers for future kings or queens?

Paul Handley: The positive lessons: try to be a force for social good, to recognize that you have a role to help the little people against the hefty forces of freewheeling capitalism, that you have to keep the long-term view when others are short-term.

The negative lessons: remember that everything is not about you, that your institution is vulnerable to mismanagement by your heirs and so the country needs other firm institutions – and by the way, that is not the military. And that electoral democracy, as they say, is a rotten system except for all the others, which are all worse.

Nicholas Farrelly: At the end of the book, you conclude that for the institution’s survival “ultimately, members of the royal family will have to make use of one of the monarchy’s greatest unspoken prerogatives: the alchemic ability and right to remake itself before others do it”. What changes do you think the royal family need to make if they hope to see future monarchs take the throne in a peaceful and prosperous country?

Paul Handley: They need to desacralize the monarchy, themselves, to become working royals as in Europe, without the air of holiness. Europe’s royals show you can still be wonderful, beloved, adored, without assuming religious status and demanding fealty. Perhaps the Mahidols are already going down that road. But they also have to shed their haughtiness, and only Princess Sirindhorn has managed that.

Nicholas Farrelly: And, finally, what are your professional plans now? I assume that a quiet retirement at a Thai beach resort is out of the question. Do you have any other major projects in the pipeline?

Paul Handley: I have an unsexy job at a news agency in Washington DC and I am dreaming of getting a posting somewhere else, back to Asia would be great. One book was enough for the moment. I don’t recommend it.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thanks for taking part in New Mandala’s interview series. It has been a pleasure having you involved.

Paul Handley: Thanks to you and your readers for interest in the book, the compliments, snipes and stones. A great website that is getting better all the time.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thanks! Readers can find some of Paul Handley’s replies to questions and comments in this follow-up post.