In June 2006, the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s coronation brought royals from around the world to celebrate in Bangkok. While Thailand is famous for its deference to its own royalty, it was Bhutan’s Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck who unexpectedly stole the show. Adoring fans—most of them female—tracked his every move, smitten by his charisma and boyish good looks. Oxford-educated, and with a Buddhist kingdom of his own, Jigme became Thailand’s adopted ‘Prince Charming.’ Enquiries from Thai tourists eager to visit Bhutan have reportedly skyrocketed. Such was the love affair that when Jigme returned to Bangkok in November 2006, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Rangsit University.
Soon after, in December 2006, Jigme’s father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated. The timing of this transition came as a surprise—the handover was originally planned for 2008. ‘Prince Charming’ became the King of Bhutan. It is no light burden: he has the task of leading his country from absolute monarchy to a constitutional system with a democratically elected parliament. The Thai press has fulsomely welcomed his accession to the Bhutanese throne. In their collective view, a moral, handsome and, fundamentally, desirable Prince has become King. Effusive praise for this peaceful and effective transition has filtered down to the Thai public. Succession is on many of their minds, too.
Every monarchy inevitably confronts the issue of succession at the end of a long reign. Just as Britain’s Prince Charles has waited in his mother’s shadow, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been on the throne for so many decades that speculation about the monarchy’s future has fermented for far longer than usual. In this time, Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, a middle-aged military-man with a reputation for haughtiness and womanising, has largely failed to endear himself to his subjects. His image is not helped by the forces that hide the role of the palace in elite life. The politics of monarchy in Thailand are secretive and, at times, tinged with violence, providing a stark contrast to the smiling, happy-go-lucky image that Thailand tries to present to the world.
That image of Southeast Asia’s ‘Land of Smiles’ was most recently tested in September 2006 when a group of generals staged an overnight coup. Every observer wanted to know: would this ‘intervention’ mark a return to the bad old days of cyclical coups and counter-coups? Thailand has experienced seventeen coups since the Second World War and before 2006 the last was in 1992. Since the late 1990s, many had assumed that everything (the constitution, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law) had been settled once and for all. The feeling, then, was that the soldiers were back in the barracks for good and that Bhumibol had finally helped install sustainable democratic traditions. That consensus was wrong.
Anybody hoping to confirm just how wrong that consensus had become must read Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. It traces the life of Thailand’s King in an unprecedented and critical attempt to understand the political and social role of the monarchy. At the same time, it shines light on the dark spaces surrounding the Thai royalist and politico-military elite. This is uncertain and potentially dangerous terrain. Yale University Press and Handley himself have been subjected to great pressure to stop the publication. They have not buckled to royalist intimidation, or the palace’s public relations machine. The worldwide study of democratic transitions, and elite military interventions, is much better for it. Thankfully, careful image management does not always triumph.
Other efforts to manage perceptions of Thailand have been more successful. In the days following the coup, the junta’s public relations efforts went global. Through these efforts, and a sympathetic worldwide audience, there was hardly a moment when Thailand’s carefully cultivated image of tranquillity and hospitality was questioned. The coup was widely acclaimed as a bloodless intervention to remove the divisive Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The generals seized full control and Thaksin, the three-times elected telecommunications tycoon cum maverick Prime Minister, was stranded at the United Nations in New York. Grumbles from some Western governments, and consternation from a handful of academic doubters, did nothing to tarnish the coup-makers’ positive glow. Pictures of dazzled tourists posing in front of tanks, alongside smiling soldiers, graced the pages of newspapers around the world.
Many in Thailand and elsewhere, in fact, breathed a sigh of relief after months of unremitting tension. The world was relieved by Thailand’s civilised coup; what else could be expected from a land of smiling people? We were told that there was no bloodshed —just a handful of arrests and no real reason to get concerned. The generals went on television and proclaimed that it was business as usual. They smiled and posed for pictures. The King, a man who has learned a thing or two about coups during his 60-year reign, was also snapped consulting with the coup-makers. Many took this as a sign that the King endorsed his generals and their well-timed intervention.
The generals cancelled the elections that were scheduled for October and Thaksin was forced to decamp to London’s poshest neighbourhoods. Many Thais cheered his ousting, particularly in Bangkok. The urban middle-class had grown weary of what they saw as the immorality, corruption and violence of his ‘regime.’ Under Thaksin there were many problems including nefarious commercial dealings, accusations of corruption and megalomania, and the bloody 2003 ‘War on Drugs.’ Nonetheless, criticisms of Thaksin failed to dent his unprecedented electoral success and his political opponents were so neutered that they were forced to boycott the most recent election. The problems of Thaksin’s rule were no worse than those that many critics attribute to, say, Tony Blair or George W. Bush. So the question remains, why was it Thaksinm who suffered the indignity of a coup while abroad, speaking at the United Nations?
When the tanks rolled into Bangkok none of his wealth, connections or status could save Thaksin’s mandate to rule. Six months on, the coup-makers and the government they installed are well entrenched. Worries, however, remain about their future intentions and about their ability to effectively manage the country and its troubles. The simmering Muslim insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost border provinces and a stagnating economy remain major concerns. In response, the generals, and especially junta-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, talk of ‘sufficiency economy.’ This vague conception of simplicity and sustainability is muddied by its own self-satisfaction and ambiguity. It is, most importantly, the brainchild of King Bhumibol and his advisors. Inside the Kingdom, its tenets are above reproach
During Thailand’s financial crisis in the late 1990s, Bhumibol used his personal cachet and finely honed image as national saviour to promote his own vision of national social and economic development. Sometimes called ‘the new theory,’
it is built around a conception of rustic self-sufficiency: ‘enough to live on and enough to eat.’ Oddly, its proponents use the same language that has made Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ a famous countercultural exoticism. Anybody who has recently passed through Bangkok will see the immediate disjuncture between modern Thailand and this royal ideology. As one illustration, the newest mega-mall, the ostentatious £230 million Siam Paragon in central Bangkok, is even built on land leased from the Crown Property Bureau. Regardless of the many contradictions, before the coup the theory of ‘sufficiency economy’ was of largely academic interest. It was rhetorically significant but lacked any serious grounding in government policy. Now with a royally-aligned, palace-supported military leadership in charge, the implementation of the King’s economic ideas has full government backing.
One reason there is little public criticism of the King’s theory is because questioning the King, or anybody aligned with the monarchy is not merely dangerous but illegal in Thailand. Foreigners are not immune to charges of lèse majesté. A Frenchman was arrested in 1995 in a bizarre confrontation on a Thai Airways flight when he was accused of making a derogatory comment about a Thai princess. In two very different incidents, a spat in 2002 saw two prominent Far Eastern Economic Review journalists accused of lèse majesté and in 2007 a Swiss man was arrested and threatened with 75 years in jail for allegedly defacing images of the King. When foreigners are not involved, charges of being ‘against the King’ are often deployed to silence opponents in political disputes. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sparring partner, media entrepreneur Sondhi Limthongkul, both used this tactic during their 2005-2006 showdowns over the country’s political future. Neither side could claim the full endorsement of the King: the resulting stalemate was only broken by the coup.
Such restrictions on public commentary are especially relevant to my discussion because the recent book by veteran journalist, Paul Handley, directly confronts the Thai use of lèse majesté. Handley’s tome is banned in Thailand and the Yale University Press website advertising its publication has been intermittently blocked in the Kingdom. Observers widely agree that by writing this unauthorised biography of Bhumibol, Handley may never be allowed back to Thailand.
Handley’s The King Never Smiles is one of the very rare books about Southeast Asia that has actually motivated a wide-ranging discussion, particularly outside Thailand. Months after its first release, the book continues to be reviewed and debated. Curiously, there are many who claim to have not read the book but yet still feel aggrieved by its publication. Those who dismiss the book tend to do so on the grounds that it is virulently anti-monarchy or, even more simplistically, anti-Thai. Handley’s book is, on the contrary, simply the best introduction for anybody hoping to understand the ongoing tensions racking the Thai body politic. It is the story of the royal network—what political scientist Duncan McCargo has recently dubbed ‘network monarchy’—and the ongoing cultivation of the throne’s matrix of power.
It is obviously a controversial and complex story. Handley begins by noting that Bhumibol is the only King to have ever been born in the United States. Raised mainly outside Thailand, he was educated in Europe as the second son of Prince Mahidol Adulyadej. Bhumibol’s older brother, Ananda Mahidol, was made a boy-King in 1935 but, even before he was formally crowned, was found shot dead in mysterious circumstances in 1946. The details of that death remain hazy. Handley explains the various theories and concludes that any of the remaining evidence is inadequate proof. A hasty cover-up ensured that few, if any, real answers may ever emerge. Handley writes that in the immediate aftermath, Bhumibol, ‘the bright, often smiling and joking prince…[was] named king of a country in which he had spent less than 5 of his 18 years.’ According to Handley, the new King ‘would almost never be seen smiling in public again.’
Bhumibol assumed a weakened throne during a time of dictators, geo-political intrigue and, of course, sporadic military coups. Handley argues that ‘ever since the day his brother mysteriously died, he seemed never to be seen smiling, instead displaying an apparent penitential pleasurelessness in the trappings and burdens of the throne.’ In Handley’s account, we learn a great deal about the triumphs and tribulations of this enigmatic and private man, struggling with the public machinations of over 60 years as King. In his analysis Handley is often forced to rely on rumours to support his points, a product of circumstance rather than choice. Such is the tight control exercised by the Palace that most information about the dynamics of palace power can be conveniently dismissed as mere ‘rumour.’
In Thailand the whispered rumours are many but they are not the full story of Bhumibol or his reign. Handley’s account offers an unusually nuanced interpretation of a tightly controlled political machine. According to Handley, when he became King, ‘Bhumibol left behind his European-bred modernist persona to guide his kingdom in the millennium-old tradition of the dhammaraja, the selfless king who rules by the Buddhist code of dhamma.’ Drawing on the legitimacy of old royal patterns, Bhumibol has been cultivated as a figure of adoration. And adored he is. For many months every year, towns and cities across Thailand are festooned with banners, lights and installations marking the King’s achievements and royal milestones. Handley gives a good example of this cult of Bhumibol. He writes that ‘when in December 1997 the palace revealed that the king had set a world record for university degrees, afterward Kasetsart University tossed off all restraint and awarded him ten honorary doctorates at once.’
While Bhumibol has amassed honours at home and abroad, his son and heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has not always matched popular expectations of royal stock. Handley argues that from very early on ‘Bhumibol certainly understood that Vajiralongkorn was a problem.’ It is with the prince that the monarchy’s future is most tested. His sister, the popular and well-loved Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, would be many Thais’ first choice but, over the years, her elevation ahead of Vajiralonkorn has remained problematic. According to Handley, ‘Bhumibol’s most fundamental failing is the Achilles’ heel of every monarchy; he has been unable to guarantee an orderly succession to a wise, selfless, and munificent king like himself.’
Such an ‘orderly succession’ has occurred in Bhutan and Handley does not discount that it will eventually happen in Thailand. Handley concludes that for its very 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.’ In this context, can Vajiralongkorn reform perceptions of his character and behaviour? Could he be made over in the model of Bhutan’s ‘Prince Charming’? Handley shows that remaking the monarchy is the only way that the institution has survived since the founding of the Chakri dynasty in 1782. Through countless political ructions, not to mention the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932, the Thai royal family has not only survived—it has prospered. That Handley’s contribution is the first independent book about the man at the heart of this modern story of royal power and success is remarkable. Under such difficult circumstances, and with imperfect access, it is hardly surprising that the The King Never Smiles has some flaws or that it has weathered much criticism. Nonetheless, for many people it is a confronting and difficult book. Many are seemingly unwilling to approach it with an open mind, read the book thoroughly and digest its analysis. To some, its uncensored version of events and personalities bears little relationship to the royal biography with which they are familiar.
But the numerous reviews of this wide-ranging biography are generally very positive. The most critical review, by Hong Kong based anthropologist Grant Evans, drew a reply from Handley himself. Handley retaliated that Evans’s review was ‘strikingly similar to the Thai palace and government’s official view of my book, designed to convince people to dismiss it without reading it.’ Other reviewers—anthropologist Andrew Walker, political scientist Duncan McCargo, author Ian Buruma and prolific Bangkok-based pundit Chris Baker—have given the book strong, positive reviews. Duncan McCargo’s effort for New Left Review puts it best when he describes the book and its credible, Thai-speaking author as ‘the worst nightmare of the guardians of the Chakri dynasty.’ McCargo argues that from the palace’s perspective ‘Handley’s moves to undermine decades of propaganda and mystique surrounding the royal institution border on sacrilege.’
The great strength of The King Never Smiles is that Handley is not blind to the robust network of people around Bhumibol who have developed his public persona and shielded him from criticism. What should already be clear is that this book should be read by anybody serious about studying democratic transitions and, in particular, the way that Thailand has struggled to reconcile ancient and modern institutions. In this context, those who continue to ignore the political role of Thailand’s King, and his backers, are naïve and short-sighted. That Bhumibol supported the coup to thwart Thaksin’s parallel power structure is, in the judgement of the best informed observers, beyond doubt. But many questions remain about the potential of any future sovereign to assert a similarly strong political role. Handley’s story of royalty in Thailand does not echo the Bhutanese Himalayan fairytale. Instead, The King Never Smiles provides unprecedented access to the hard fought battles that have come and gone in Bangkok’s sweltering heat.
Thailand now drifts along without even an emerging democratic tradition. Recent events show that the King and his generals are more than willing to displace elected representatives at their whim. Will Bhumibol’s legacy be the renewed assertion of royal prerogatives and extra-democratic intervention? As a strong and much loved monarch, Bhumibol has managed the potential fallout from this ongoing political role by drawing on reservoirs of popular goodwill and patience. Future Kings (or Queens) may not be so indulged. And, most importantly, there is no guarantee that Bhumibol has arranged ‘an orderly succession to a wise, selfless, and munificent king like himself.’ Bhutan provides the contrast. As Jigme’s sun rises in the high Himalaya, Bhumibol’s shadow only gets longer in Thailand. His long and fruitful reign is coming to an end; but in these, its final years, it has become a reign of uncertainty. For the moment, the people of the ‘Land of Smiles’ find themselves staring at new and unwanted strife.
Nicholas Farrelly is an MPhil student in development studies at Balliol College, Oxford, and an editor of The Oxonian Review of Books. He is co-founder of the New Mandala website, a daily source of information on Southeast Asian affairs.