This post is a follow-up to the New Mandala interview with Paul Handley posted on 19 September 2007.

Thanks for all the comments and interest in The King Never Smiles. I’m still a bit frustrated over the lack of discussion here and elsewhere over specific themes and content of the book. Everyone still focuses on the book’s existence and my intentions. Both Sidh S. and Republican here, for example. But anyway, here’s some comments and answers to your questions.

Start with Khun Sidh .. hey, it’s Handley, with an “l”. Sidh, I really wish you would read the book because your comments on specifics would be interesting. By your statement “I am an animist-Buddhist Thai who considers HM the King semi-divine through his life-long work for the good of the people. Through his perseverance in being ‘thamma-racha’, he achieved ‘deva-racha,’” you provide strong support for one of the book’s more controversial themes, that the palace has knowingly presented the king as a bodhisattva and devaraja.

On the other hand, your remarks about westerners and cold calculation and my intent are just silly, as if Thai leaders and the palace aren’t given to cold calculation. My intent, as I have said time and time again, was to satisfy my own curiosity and do the best job I could to tell the story of King Bhumibol’s reign. You say you are “more interested in a more comprehensive, even-handed treatment that considers all players/institutions specific historical and cultural contexts,” but without reading the book , how do you know that it isn’t that? Essentially you say that only a true Thai and true believer – one and the same in your view – can write the book. But of course no true believer/true Thai would do so, preferring like yourself to preserve the “beautiful mystery” of the Chakri monarchy. But anyway, read the book … it addresses lots of the points you raise.

Teth: Re your reference to Spain’s king … I tried to write the book as an example of one contemporary monarchy, since they all operate in similar structures. I would like to see more broadly discussed how similar (or not) the Thai monarchy is to other monarchies in the world. Sidh suggests it is too unique to compare, but that is simply wrong.

Somsak: I suppose… how would you put it?

Nganadeeleg: The publisher decided not to include pictures, for budgetary reasons I think. I hoped to use some of the iconic pictures to back up my arguments about how he is presented to the people. Unfortunately they also did not want the family tree I created which I thought was a wonderful illustration of the inbreeding and apparent results thereof.

Craig: I think also that the Thai royals found Sihanouk flaky and not adequately committed to classical monarchism. Probably a good call.

Observer: Just because it is Yale or an academic press does not make it right. Suffice it to say that the book was closely vetted and endorsed by several experts, some anonymously, in Thai studies and political science. Any book has to stand on its own, whoever the publisher is.

Col. Jeru: We obviously disagree: you separate the military’s interest from the king’s, while my book argues that from 1957 onward they have coincided, with the result of stifling development of civilian politics. Certainly the king didn’t like what he saw in Banharn, Chavalit and Thaksin, but each in his way owes his rise to the palace. If Prem – the king’s close aide – valued the rule of law perhaps neither Chavalit nor Banharn would have risen very high, as corrupt as both are. I do not believe that what Prem does and what the king does are separable.

Grasshopper and Tosakan: as Polo said, huh?. I’m not skilled with political theory. But I wrote the book in hopes that it might be useful to those who indulge in that, and I am glad it can spark some debate. Still, I’d rather first see a debate on what it says.

Republican: having seen your other comments on this blog, I think we might disagree as much as I would with Sidh. I’m no royalist, but it’s the hand that was dealt. Highly revered? Absolutely. If you could convincingly drop lese majeste laws, I believe you would get a massive majority polling great respect for Bhumibol – for better or for worse. As a friend last year said of Thaksin’s rural base: if they were convinced that Thaksin was a threat to the king they would drop him in an instant, as did the urban middle class. In the absence of polls, I think the evidence of people’s behavior by choice is overwhelming.

The comparison to Suharto always struck me as well.. Pak Harto and Ibu Tien also collected donations and recycled them as their own largesse, and it elevated them. He used his farm and his simple appearance to show he was a man of the people. Ultimately it was his kids who wrecked everything, for they turned the tide against the technocrats who kept things relatively stable. Suharto and his wife as a matter of policy backed their children’s plundering the economy. Tommy Suharto was already a billionaire in his 30s. In Thailand, something – the king perhaps? – has prevented the Mahidol children from being that rapacious, if they had it in them. Thaksin’s family was taking that path though.

As for King Ananda’s death, lots of people criticize that I did not “solve” the case. To claim in a book that King Bhumibol killed his brother requires incontrovertible evidence. This is not available. The evidence was deliberately corrupted, the truth deliberately obscured. Only one person alive today has direct knowledge of what happened – the king. The book is out enough on a limb that I was not going to take that step. (Which is to say that some of the “rumors” in the book have a lot more behind them than all the testimony in the Ananda case.) You haven’t said, in fact, why a decisive conclusion on this would make a difference. As I made clear, it was not the truth of the matter which ultimately counted but how it was spun. The truth matters perhaps in Bhumibol’s conscience but psychoanalysis is, for this book, another weak limb
to crawl out on.

You are right, of course, to say that change is forced on monarchies. I’m not na├пve – I point out all the pressures already there and the risks of going down the wrong path. That’s maybe not the kind of force you mean, but it’s still coercive. The fact is, it took Bhumibol a long time to build what he has, and it is not completely transferable, and everyone with some amnaj knows that. That in itself is pressure.