The King Never Smiles

I have just finished reading Paul Handley’s biography of Thailand’s King Bhumiphol. The book is banned in Thailand and there are even reports that access to the web site of the book’s publisher has been blocked by Thai internet service providers. There is certainly much in the book that would cause grave offence to Thais, especially given the current outpouring of love and respect that has marked the sixtieth anniversary of the King’s reign. I have heard some Thais here in Australia dismiss the book as “biased” or as containing a lot of “gossip”. Handley is, no doubt, critical of what he sees as the persistently anti-democratic tendencies of the monarchy in Thailand. And there is a sprinkling of salacious gossip about the royal family. But the criticisms are placed in the context of a detailed political history of Thailand since the early decades of the twentieth century. This political history strikes me as an important contribution to Thai scholarship and, while there is much room for debate about specific findings, there are many insights which contribute to an understanding of Thailand’s current political mess. And, yes, there is some gossip (though most of Handley’s material seems to come from well documented sources). But, from an Australian perspective, this seems rather mild, especially when compared to the extraordinary dissection of our own royal family’s woes.

Over the past few months in Thailand there has been much discussion about the importance of democratic institutions beyond the electoral process. Should those institutions cater for free publication of political opinion, even if that opinion involves criticism of a figure as revered as the King? What role do lèse-majesté laws have to play in a modern democracy? To me it is clear that there is enormous respect for the King throughout Thailand. Banning an informed, if critical, political commentary on his reign seems to involve an underestimation of the strength and resilience of this sentiment.┬К