23 January 2010

Book: The King Never Smiles

The meaning of democracy and democratic rule in Thailand, a constitutional monarchy frequently subjected to military coups, have been hotly contested for decades. The first unauthorized biography of the King of Thailand tries to shed light on an underappreciated component of it – Paul M. Handley's "The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej" (Yale University Press, 2006):


From the publisher's description: "Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej, the only king ever born in the United States, came to the throne of his country in 1946 and is now the world's longest-serving monarch. The King Never Smiles [...] tells the unexpected story [...] how a Western-raised boy came to be seen by his people as a living Buddha, and how a king widely seen as beneficent and apolitical could in fact be so deeply political and autocratic. [...] [L]ooking beyond the widely accepted image of the king as egalitarian and virtuous, Handley portrays an anti-democratic monarch who, together with allies in big business and the corrupt Thai military, has protected a centuries-old, barely modified feudal dynasty.

"When at nineteen Bhumibol assumed the throne, the Thai monarchy had been stripped of power and prestige. Over the ensuing decades, Bhumibol became the paramount political actor in the kingdom, silencing critics while winning the hearts and minds of his people. The book details this process and depicts Thailand's unique constitutional monarch – his life, his thinking, and his ruling philosophy."

Reviews: "For too long, the issue of the monarchy has been the prone elephant that analysts of Thai history and politics have had to treat carefully around. That era should now pass. ... In sum, this is the classic story of an exceptional man recrafting a monarchy against the grain of an era." (Chris Baker, "Asia Sentinel")

"A new and comprehensive history of the Thai modern monarchy ... [which] presents a direct counterpoint to years of methodical royal image-making." (Jane Perlez, "The Sunday Telegraph")

"This work is essential to understanding Thailand's modern political history and, particularly, the latest coup." (Major Dewayne J. Creamer, "Proceedings"/US Naval Institute)

Excerpt: "[U]nquestioning adoration also arises from the toughly enforced law of lèse-majesté protecting his inviolateness. Embedded within national security statutes, the lèse-majesté law is applied to protect not only the person of the king and his immediate family but the institution of the monarchy itself, both current and historical. Maligning even a previous king can bring charges, conviction for which could bring over ten years' imprisonment. [...]

"[O]ver time he concluded that elected parliaments were self-serving and unrepresentative of the people's true needs. He decided that constitutional law in practice benefited the non-royal elite and didn't protect his subjects. Ultimately, he believed, European-style democracy, constitutionalism, and capitalism only divided the people, undermining the unifying and justice-dispensing role of the dhammaraja [king]. In his alternative vision, the modern Thai state would be guided by the king and the laws of dhamma, and administered by virtuous, loyal, able, and also tough men, neo-princes found in the top ranks of the military and civil service who worked at their jobs under the king's guidance for the good of the whole."

For reasons of lèse-majesté, the book has been banned in Thailand and local authorities blocked access to websites advertising it. It is also not for sale in many other Asian countries.

The book is fully searchable on Google Book Search (including table of contents):


Paul M. Handley is a freelance journalist who lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Thailand for thirteen years.

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