There is really no polite way of saying this. King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work is a staggeringly awful book. The content is overwhelmingly inane, the style is relentlessly inept, and the entire project is tainted by a corrosive dishonesty that renders it worthless.
To get a sense of the scale of dishonesty, let’s begin on page 11, the foreword by Anand Panyarachun. It is the first substantive piece of writing in the book after the credits and contents. Anand begins the book like this:
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand succeeded to the throne on 9 June 1946. He left the kingdom shortly afterwards to complete his university education in Switzerland.
This is the first paragraph of King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work (henceforth to be referred to as KBAALW for the sake of brevity) and already Anand is being economical with the truth. Bhumibol may hold the world record for the biggest number of honorary degrees (Paul Handley recounts how in 1997, “Kasetsart University tossed off all restraint and awarded him ten honorary doctorates at once, in subjects from biology and geology to linguistics and business administration”), but he has never received a genuine university degree. Although it is true, technically, that Bhumibol left Siam in 1946 intending to complete his university education, he never actually did so. He dropped out of Lausanne University in 1948 after he crashed his Fiat 500 Topolino sports car into a truck and lost his sight in one eye, and never finished his formal studies. By the second sentence of KBAALW, in the foreword, before the main body of the book even begins, readers are already being misled. This is not a promising start.
Anand continues by making more bold claims about the book:
King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work provides an account of the king’s life and work. The book strives for balance, objectivity, accuracy and readability so that it may stand the test of time, helping any reader, today or in the future, to understand Thailand better and to learn more about its head of state, the world’s longest reigning monarch.
The editors and contributing writers, among them respected academics and journalists, worked independently to draft the volume in its entirety. The role of the board was to critique the manuscript for accuracy, balance and relevance.
This dialogue between Thai experts, many of whom have enjoyed decades of personal interaction with the king in their official capacities, and the mostly international editorial team proved to be very effective, enlightening and spirited. Differing opinions and perspectives were exchanged freely and forthrightly to achieve the finished volume.
The book’ quality, however, is for readers to judge. Our hope is that, by reading the passages that follow, you will gain a better understanding of Thailand and its monarchy, as well as a deeper insight into His Majesty King Bhumibol’s lifelong work in fulfillment of his promise to the people. [p.11]
Contrary to Anand’s assertions, balance and objectivity are in short supply in KBAALW. But the unevenness of the text shows that some of the foreign authors did make an attempt to introduce some reality into the fairy tale, only to have it squashed by the heavy handed advisory committee. Authors who worked on the book describe a painful and dispiriting process of composition: each contributor was assigned specific chapters to work on, and periodically would meet with one or more members of the committee to have their efforts vetted. Some committee members, including Anand, were widely described as relatively reasonable; others were excruciatingly pedantic and blinkered. The “enlightening and spirited” dialogue between the writers and overseers that Anand mentions was almost never about the important issues and debates facing Thailand’s monarchy in the 21st century, but minor points of protocol and detail. A close reading of the text can uncover the fossilized remains of a better and more interesting book hidden beneath the surface, the legacy of battles over KBAALW‘s content.
The book’s introductory chapter, “A History of Kings”, illustrates this clearly. A quick chronological canter from prehistory to the reign of Rama IX, with a brief summary of the theology of Thai kingship thrown in, the chapter contains some intelligent prose that suggests the work of Chris Baker. But another authorial voice — clearly, one or more of the committee — keeps butting in with oversimplistic homilies just when things are getting interesting. It is particularly ironic because one of the points the introduction quite rightly makes is that much of the history taught to Thais is bunk:
Behind the narrative commonly presented in Thai textbooks of four successive Siamese kingdoms — Sukhothai (c. 1249—1378), Ayudhya (c. 1351—1767), Thon Buri (1767—82) and Rattanakosin (1782—present) — lies a more complex history of competition, warfare, consolidation and transformation… [p.17]
Children attending state schools in Thailand are taught that the Sukhothai kingdom… was the first independent state founded by the Siamese people. They are told its first king helped break the yoke of Hindu Angkor, and that its reach once spread as far north as Luang Prabang (in modern-day Laos), as far south as Nakhon Si Thammarat province (in peninsular Thailand) and all the way to Hongsawadi (in modern-day Myanmar, formerly Burma). Most importantly, they learn that the kings of Sukhothai ruled paternalistically according to the Buddhist ideal. Indeed, this history is inextricably linked to the Siamese conception of kingship.
Much of this history was disseminated by the military governments of the 1930s as part of a nationalist movement. It was formalised, however, during the early 20th century reign of the sixth king in the Royal House of Chakri, King Vajiravudh (r. 1910-1925), who sought to define the origins of the native Siamese and engender patriotism among them. [p.21-22]
This is an explicit admission that much official Thai history was largely invented over the past century, a set of myths and legends formulated by royalists in an effort to stoke nationalist fervour and support for the monarchy. The fact that KBAALW is conceding this right at the start leads the reader to expect that a revisionist and game-changing text of real value lies ahead. But while the introduction contains plenty of interesting material, it is never allowed to properly develop the intriguing issues it raises.
It is absolutely correct that an idealized view of history is central to the ideology of kingship propagated in modern Thailand to justify the power and prestige of the monarchy. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued in his brilliant essay Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power, in any complex society the ruling elite “justify their existence and order their actions in terms of a collection of stories, ceremonies, insignia, formalities, and appurtenances that they have either inherited or, in more revolutionary situations, invented”. Siam’s elite uses a fairytale version of history and Thai culture as the basis for so-called “Thai-style democracy”, which royalists like to claim is far superior to imported “Western” models of governance.
Thai-style democracy is basically normal democracy minus all the exasperating stuff about the people actually having a say in how their country is governed and being able to hold their leaders to account. In other words, it is democracy without the democratic parts. The justification for this startlingly counterintuitive form of democracy goes something like this. First, democracy is defined broadly in terms of its desired outcome: it is a system that ensures the country is governed for the common good of the people, and prevents power being monopolized by any group seeking only to advance its own narrow self-interest. Any system that reliably produces this outcome, the argument goes, can be said to be democratic. Secondly, Thailand is portrayed as a country with unique cultural and social conditions. In particular, it is blessed with an ancient tradition of innately benevolent and virtuous monarchs who have always sought to promote the common good of all their people, and who have fostered the emergence of a cadre of loyal and well-educated “good men” also devoted to selflessly serving the kingdom. On the downside, the ordinary people who make up the majority of the population remain poorly educated and lacking in moral virtue, and if allowed to decide how Thailand is governed, the misguided masses are liable to be tricked or bribed into supporting villainous leaders who will rule only for the benefit of themselves and their cronies. Thirdly, putting these two elements together, it becomes clear that in Thailand the interests of democracy are best served by a system which enables the monarch and his loyal circle of royalists to play a central role guiding the government of the country, and which restricts the influence of politicians elected by the masses. One unspecified day in the future, as the education and morals of ordinary people improve, a more “Western-style” democracy may be introduced, but for now, the common good of the people is best served by this unique Thai political invention.
The introduction is also spot on in identifying the mysterious Sukhothai Inscription One as a crucial element of the myth. This was a text inscribed on a stone obelisk supposedly discovered by the future King Mongkut in 1833 while he was in the monkhood (Mongkut had an excellent claim to the throne when Rama II died in 1824, but a half-brother whose mother was a royal concubine rather than queen was installed instead as Rama III, putting Mongkut in a very precarious position given the long Siamese tradition of monarchs murdering powerful rivals; he protected himself by ostentatiously abandoning worldly desires and becoming a monk for 27 years until he became Rama IV in 1851). Ostensibly written more than seven centuries ago in 1292 during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, the inscription describes a prosperous and paradisal realm in which fish and rice are plentiful and everybody is happy and free. Ruling over this arcadian land is the benevolent fatherly figure of King Ramkhamhaeng:
He has hung a bell in the opening of the gate over there: if any commoner in the land has a grievance which sickens his belly and gripes his heart, and which he wants to make known to his ruler and lord, it is easy; he goes and strikes the bell which the king has hung there; King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler of the kingdom, hears the call; he goes and questions the man, examines the case, and decides it justly for him. So the people of … Sukhothai praise him…
This is the idealized template of the Thai monarch: a paternal king wielding unchallenged moral authority who ensures harmony, happiness and prosperity across the land. The fact that anyone could get a fair ruling from the king by ringing a bell near his palace is, according to Thai royalists, proof that Siamese monarchs were fundamentally democratic centuries before formal elections were ever held. As the KBAALW introduction says:
Sukhothai Inscription One is a pivotal historical document that has, as scholar Michael Wright notes, “taken on a sacred character, symbol of the nation, first constitution, enshrining the essence of all that ‘Thainess’ meant” …. Its story of the bell, for example, shows that even Siamese kings of yore have been accessible and responsive to the needs of their subjects. [p.23]
Ignoring for a moment the fact that this book really does use phrases like “kings of yore” without apparent irony (I will get onto its stylistic atrocities later), there are two problems with using the Ramkhamhaeng inscription as a foundation for the whole theoretical edifice of modern “democratic” Thai kingship, and to its credit the introduction of KBAALW touches on both of them. The first is that the inscription may not be genuine. It is, perhaps, itself a piece of forged royalist propaganda:
In recent decades, there has been controversy over the authenticity of this inscription. While most historians believe that it is either the actual work of King Ramkhamhaeng or produced by a later Sukhothai king to glorify the dynasty, a few argue that the inscription is a forgery produced by King Mongkut, who they say hoped to convince encroaching Western powers of Siam’s long and rich history. [p.22]
But whether or not the inscription is genuine, and gives a genuine account of what life was like in Sukhothai under Ramkhamhaeng, is really beside the point. The more serious problem for the royalist myths based on the obelisk is that, for seven centuries at least, Siamese society has not resembled in the slightest this idealized nirvana. The idea that at any time an aggrieved Thai citizen could just rock up to the palace and jingle a bell to receive a fair ruling on whatever was bothering him is pure fantasy. And the contention that all citizens were free is equally bogus. The introduction does not attempt to hide this:
The kings of Ayudhya codified a highly original, hierarchical and bureaucratic system that placed all but the nobles, monks and foreign traders into a rigid framework known as sakdina. Titles and numerical units were allotted to every member of society, from top to bottom, rigidly defining his or her position in the hierarchy. Slaves, for example, received a sakdina of five units while the highest ministers received 10,000 units. This system persisted into the late-1800s.
In Ayudhya there was no standing army or official salaries. Instead, manpower and land were the key forms of capital that defined the sakdina system. By the 17th century, an estimated two thousand people and their families formed a nobility that controlled the entire population of Ayudhya under the unseen gaze of the king. The common people (called phrai) owed up to six months a year in service to the crown… Some fled to the forests. Enemies captured during warfare were resettled in the capital and became slaves. [p.24-25]
Slavery was not formally abolished until 1912, and echoes of the sakdina system persist throughout Thailand, particularly in the ubiquity of official corruption and the insistence of many Thais on maintaining strict gradations of social hierarchy and deference. During the 19th century, when Chakri kings conquered more territory, particularly in Lao regions, the local population was forcibly tattooed with numbers on their wrists to indicate whose property they were. This was hardly a democratic and free society ruled over by enlightened and beneficent monarchs.
H.G. Quaritch Wales, who was totally in favour of absolute monarchial rule, nevertheless had no illusions about what life was like for ordinary people. As he wrote in Siamese State Ceremonies:
In old Siam the inhabitants of the country were considered only as the goods and chattels of the king, who had absolute power over their lives and property, and could use them as best suited his purpose. Otherwise they were of no importance whatever… The absolutism of the monarch was accompanied and indeed maintained by the utmost severity, kings … practising cruelties on their subjects for no other purpose than that of imbuing them with humility and meekness. Indeed, more gentle methods would have been looked upon as signs of weakness, since fear was the only attitude towards the throne which was understood, and tyranny the only means by which the government could be maintained. Despite the fact that all were equally of no account in the presence of the king, a many-graded social organization had been evolved, and the ingrained habit of fear and obedience produced a deep reverence for all forms of authority.
Furthermore, the history of Siamese monarchy is a blood-soaked tale of murder, conflict and internecine savagery. As the introduction of KBAALW says of Ayudhya:
Internally, competition for the throne, which had accrued enormous wealth, was intense. Succession laws were unclear. Intrigue was rife. When a king died, bloodline was a significant determinant of the heir but so too was clout. Hoping to advance their own status and and gain the spoils of increased manpower for themselves, factions of nobles surrounding the court lobbied in the name of rival heirs. Foreign traders and monks patronised by high princes also exerted influence over the selection. The losers in the succession dramas often lost their lives, and their entire families and allies were violently purged. [p,25-26]
Readers may well ask themselves, upon reading this passage, how much has really changed even in 21st century Thailand.
The introduction deals only cursorily, and rather simplistically, with the fact that while the majority of Thailand’s people are Buddhist, the ceremonies, symbolism and iconography of the Siamese monarchy are overwhelmingly Hindu, a fact many royalists appear to consider embarrassing. Royal ideology also contains a complex mix of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, plus plenty of animism, and it is rather misleading to say, as KBAALW does, that:
While the sophisticated social structure and elaborate court rituals and customs of Angkor would strongly influence the Siamese conception of monarchy, it was the Buddhist ideal that was to become the defining paradigm of Siamese kingship. [p.18]
But it is certainly true that the Buddhist ideal of the virtuous dhammaraja monarch, like the Ramkhamhaeng inscription, has become part of the official royalist narrative in Thailand. The story goes like this:
A Buddhist monarch … carries tremendous responsibility. He is bound to observe the Ten Virtues of the King (dosapit rajadhamma). They include dana (generosity), sila (moral conduct), paricagga (self-sacrifice), ajjava (honesty and integrity), maddava (gentleness), tapa (perseverance), akkodha (freedom from hatred, ill-will and enmity), avihisma (causing no harm to others), khanti (patience, forbearance and tolerance) ad avirodhana (steadfastness and justice).
A king who follows these moral precepts ensures order and happiness in his kingdom. Those who ignore them will lead the kingdom into chaos…
The Buddhist rules of kingship thus act to check the potentially unmitigated power of the king and present him with a clear social contract. As sovereign, he is accorded tremendous respect and power, but he enjoys this status only because his subjects, believing in his worthiness, assent to it. As a result, the individual personality and abilities of the “Great Elect” (mahasammata, as he is sometimes called) become a significant variable in determining the strength of his reign. A good king who fulfils the expectations of the Buddhist ideal can command enormous reverence and authority. A bad king rules weakly. [p.21]
This is all very well in theory, as an idealized model, but royalist claims that the Thai monarchy functions this way in practice are, once again, fanciful. For one thing, a monarch who was gentle, tolerant, and avoided ever causing harm to others would not have lasted long in the vicious intrigue of court politics during most of Siam’s history, and anyone who says otherwise should work on their ajjava. Secondly, even in modern Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, claims that the rule of the king is somehow inherently democratic are simply not supportable. Bhumibol told Life magazine in 1967 that:
I really am an elected king. If the people do not want me, they can throw me out, eh? Then I will be out of a job.
But how exactly do the Thai people give their assent to a good king, or withdraw it from a bad king? What is the mechanism for them to make their views known? As King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, wrote in a letter to U.S. adviser Francis Sayre, quoted in KBAALW:
As you well know, the king has absolute power in everything. This principle is very good, and very suitable for the country, as long as we have a good king. If the king is really an “elected king”, it is probable that he would be a fairly good king. But this idea of election is really a theoretical one… [p.38]
In any event, in contemporary Thailand, with the military sworn to defend the monarchy no matter what, and the lèse majesté law punishing anyone critical of the palace with years behind bars, the claim the king is somehow “elected” is fantastical. One of the great ironies of the modern Thai monarchy is that royalists insist that the king rules with popular assent and at the same time frantically suppress any open democratic debate about his rule. KBAALW states boldly that:
In the 20th century, monarchies around Southeast Asia and the world were toppled. Yet nothing has changed the fact that the Siamese choose to place a king at their head. [p.17]
But how was this choice made? Can it be reversed? How does it reconcile with Thailand’s oppressive lèse majesté laws? As Streckfuss says in Truth on Trial in Thailand:
The difficulty for defenders of the law is to explain how the institution of Thai monarchy could be so utterly loved if it required the most repressive lèse majesté law the modern world has known.
Editorial tension is apparent throughout the introduction, giving it a schizophrenic tone. Some issues are dealt with relatively fairly, including the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, a very sensitive subject because King Bhuddha Yod Fa Chulalok, or Rama I, took power in 1782 after the violent overthrow of King Taksin, who was executed. Monarchies are built on myths of permanence and inviolability, and the fact that the dynasty was begun only 230 years ago by a general who was not part of the royal line but managed to usurp the throne is a matter of considerable embarrassment, not usually discussed. The issue is given extra piquancy by the belief of some Thais — including allegedly some key protagonists in the current political crisis — that Thaksin Shinawatra is a reincarnation of King Taksin, back to get his revenge on the Chakri dynasty.
The overthrow of King Taksin is often explained away in official narratives with the claim that he had gone insane, but KBAALW avoids this and tells the story relatively straight. The introduction also reminds readers that a century later, in 1873, King Chulalongkorn, who reigned as Rama V and is the most revered Chakri king besides Bhumibol, abolished the practice of prostration. As he told an assembled gathering in the Grand Palace:
His Majesty has noticed that the great countries and powers in Asia where oppression existed, compelling inferiors to prostate and worship their masters, have ceased these customs… They have done so to make manifest there shall be no more oppression… His Majesty therefore proposes to substitute, in place of crouching and crawling on all-fours, standing upright with a graceful bow of the head… [p.36]
It is welcome to have this detail included because it is also not widely known, or discussed, due to the rather uncomfortable fact that Bhumibol and Thailand’s royalist establishment have reintroduced the practice of crouching and crawling on all-fours. Prostration is not obligatory, but it is widely believed to be, and Bhumibol and his family clearly expect their Thai subjects to prostrate themselves when they have an official audience.
An extraordinary televised interview of Bhumibol’s youngest offspring Princess Chulabhorn by talkshow host Woody Milintachinda in April 2011 demonstrates how much has changed since Chulalongkorn told his people to stand tall and recognise royalty with a graceful bow of the head: Woody spends most of the programme grovelling on the floor in a variety of locations, and at one stage enthusiastically shares food for the princess’s pet dog.
But elsewhere in the introduction, dubious assertions are suddenly made without any attempt to back them up, clear examples of the process through which the book was written, with the royalist advisory committee scrambling to insert the accepted official narrative. So KBAALW repeats the standard story that the Chakri kings were always eager to give the people more democracy as soon as they were ready for it (a very controversial argument, to say the least) and makes no mention of the Bowaradet Rebellion in 1933 when the royalists tried to restore the absolute monarchy by force. And discussing the monarchy’s collapse in influence and status following the bloodless coup that ended absolute Chakri rule in 1932 and the abdication of Prajadhipok in 1935, it states:
The Siamese people still had a king — a republic was unthinkable — but the status of monarchy had reached its nadir. [p.41]
In fact, a republic was actively considered by many of those involved in the 1932 revolution, and military leader Phibun Songgkram made a real effort to slowly strangle the monarchy during the late 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s. A republic was by no means unthinkable for 20th century Thailand, and nor is it in the 21st century.
Overall, the introduction is clearly a once impressive and thought-provoking piece of writing that has been ruined by clumsy editing and censoring, turning it into an intellectual slalom ride veering back and forth between insight and risibility. It still manages to get the point across — despite this being heresy to contemporary royalists — that the history of the Siamese kings, including the Chakri dynasty, is one of power struggles, despotic even if intermittently intelligent rule, and systematic oppression of those on the lower rungs of society. It also makes clear that the official version of Thai history is a fictional construct explicitly created for the purposes of cementing the social and political status quo and creating a fake rationale for royalty.
But then, in another white-knuckle wrenching change in tone, it brings us up to the current reign and gives this summary of King Bhumibol’s rule:
Extremely disciplined, meticulous and imbued with a great sense of duty following the death of his brother, he assiduously fulfilled his obligations as monarch and maintained the visual language, customs and trappings of the crown, for which the Thais had an inherent and deeply ingrained understanding and respect… Potent ritual symbolism — such as an annual ploughing ceremony linking the monarch to the farmers — was resurrected during his reign. By applying the royal code of conduct emphasising the 10 virtues of kingship and conscientiously performing royal rituals, his public image was beyond tarnish.
King Bhumibol also energetically enacted the paternalistic and righteous Buddhist concept of kingship of the Sukhothai ideal. Travelling the country and meeting his subjects, listening to their problems and creating solutions, the king initiated projects on behalf of the most needy. Possessing a passion for science like his great grandfather King Mongkut, this modern-day Lord of the Land has spent many days and nights seeking answers to the nitty-gritty problems faced by the majority of his subjects: drought and deforestation, nutrition and disease, and later even traffic. His abiding passion became sustainable development. Personal visits to villages and farms across the country led directly to thousands of small-scale irrigation, soil and natural resource projects. Through his many, mostly Western hobbies — jazz, radio, sailing, photography and oil painting — he even fulfilled his kingly duty to delight and impress his subjects with his contemporary skills and talents.
Although the palace still maintained Hindu and Brahman rituals, mainly in the form of public ceremonies and iconography, such traditions were eclipsed by the personally inspired activities of King Bhumibol. The public once again came to revere their king as a modern-day dhammaraja, trusting him to preside over the security and welfare of the nation – and monarchy once again came to occupy the heart of Thai life. Daily television broadcasts followed the king’s travels through the country and cinemas paid tribute to him before every film. Both the wealth of the crown and country soared. With his reign proving so auspicious, the king could do no wrong in the eyes of an adoring public.
The reverence he earned and the influence he gained were all the more impressive given they were realised under the new, constitutional form of monarchy for which he has been the key shaper. In this role, the monarch functions as the head of state and armed forces. He exercises the power of royal assent, signing new legislation into law. He also holds various royal prerogatives such as naming his heir and members of his Privy Council, and granting pardons. Through private audiences with the prime minister and cabinet ministers, he has the royal prerogative to be consulted, to warn and to encourage. In addition, his public statements and addresses have undertones of warning and encouragement, but in general his powers are limited. Yet King Bhumibol, using tradition, discipline and ingenuity, has played a decisive role in the nation’s modern development and history. At the peak of his reign, the longest in Siamese history, the unexpected monarch was seen by almost all his subjects as the “father” of the people… [p.41-42]
This is a stunning passage. It is pure and unadulterated royalist hagiography, of exactly the kind Anand had promised KBAALW would not peddle. It could have been transposed virtually verbatim from any of the sycophantic coffee-table volumes glorifying Rama IX’s reign that dominate the bookshelves at Suvarnabhumi airport shops alongside prison memoirs of unlucky drug smugglers and prurient tales of the sex trade (and it does in fact bear striking similarities to the analysis of the monarchy by Anand Panyarachun in the Bangkok Post’s adulatory and glossy 1996 publication Thailand’s Guiding Light). Whoever wrote it has been living in a parallel universe in which the Thai monarchy is not in crisis, The King Never Smiles was never written, and the “cheerful, childlike citizens” of “slumbrous, easy-going Siam” (as Time magazine has described the Thais) universally worship their beloved Bhumibol. It is at this point that the pervasive dishonesty of KBAALW becomes clear. Anand was not only being economical with the truth in his opening remarks: he was also lying when he claimed before publication that the book would not retreat from debate or present a “sugar-coated” account of the monarchy. It is hard to conceive of a more saccharine and less intellectually rigorous summary of Bhumibol’s reign than the passage that confronts readers at the end of KBAALW‘s introduction.
To find a concise and compelling counternarrative, Thongchai Winichakul’s Toppling Democracy in the Journal of Contemporary Asia in 2008 is a useful place to start. Thongchai discusses how royal ritual under Bhumibol was not only resurrected, but often invented, part of a deliberate campaign to resacralize the throne:
The deification rituals are not necessarily ancient ones. Several traditions have been invented, both by the government and by civil society. The important point is that they enhance the monarchy’s perceived barami (virtuous or moral power), an ancient concept of power innate to the righteous king. Among the prominent invented rituals is the royal birthday celebration that became a major annual festival for the entire country. The king’s birthday has been designated “Father’s Day” and the queen’s birthday as “Mother’s Day,” and there are grander celebrations every tenth anniversary and every twelve-year cycle for each of them. The birthday rituals reinforce the cultivated notion that they are the parents of all Thais. Grand celebrations for the Silver, Golden and Diamond jubilees for the reign, and so on, have reinforced the idea of King Bhumibol as Dhammaraja. A year hardly goes by without a grand royal celebration for one occasion or another.
Thongchai also notes that the king’s ceaselessly promoted royal development projects and travels around the country were a central part of the myth created around him:
The monarch has been highly praised for his dedication to royal development projects that aim at helping the poor, particularly the rural and highland people. Beginning in the 1950s, the breadth and scope of the royal projects expanded enormously especially during the Cold War and after 1973. Several of them began as non-governmental but eventually most of them were integrated into government bureaucracies and budgets. The truth about these projects, and their successes and failures, will probably remain unknown for years to come, given that public accountability and transparency for royal activities is unthinkable. Suffice it to say that the endlessly repeated images of the monarch travelling through remote areas, walking tirelessly along dirt roads, muddy paths and puddles, with maps, pens and a notebook in hand, a camera and sometimes a pair of binoculars around his neck, are common in the media, in public buildings and private homes. These images have captured the popular imagination during the past several decades. Bhumibol is portrayed as a popular king, a down-to-earth monarch who works tirelessly for his people and, we may say, has been in touch with his constituents for decades long before any politicians in the current generation began their career.
He points out the constant glorification of even the king’s most ordinary deeds — “any accomplishments were and are celebrated to the highest level” — and concludes:
All of this means that Thais who are currently sixty years old or younger grew up under the pervasive aura of an unprecedented royal cult.
Many people might find such an analysis of Bhumibol’s reign unduly harsh. They would argue that despite the often ridiculous propaganda, the king has worked extremely hard during his life in a genuine effort to help Thailand’s poor. It is certainly a debate worth having as the country seeks consensus on the appropriate role of the palace in Bhumibol’s twilight years and beyond. But KBAALW refuses to even get close to engaging in such a debate. Instead of tacking commentators like Handley and Thongchai head-on, treating their arguments as serious and formulating a credible attempt at rebuttal, the book pretends opposing views do not exist. The King Never Smiles is mentioned only once in KBAALW, on page 179:
The King Never Smiles, written by an American journalist, Paul Handley, and published by Yale University Press in 2006, was a harbinger of … more intense journalistic and academic scrutiny of the crown. The only critical biography of King Bhumibol ever printed, many in Thailand dismissed it for its gossipy content, inaccuracies and mean spiritedness. It was nevertheless a new departure in commentaries on Thai society and its workings. The book, which has not been distributed in Thailand, offers a stark counterpoint to any treatment of the monarchy hitherto seen.
Whatever one’s view of The King Never Smiles, no serious work on the life of King Bhumibol can afford to dismiss it so superficially. It betrays an attitude of profound ignorance. (Handley’s remarkably restrained review of KBAALW, meanwhile, can be read here.)
As the book unfolds, a further aspect of its intrinsic and distasteful dishonesty becomes apparent. After the introduction, the main body of the work is divided into three parts: “The Life”, a 124-page chronological biography of Bhumibol with a chapter for each of the seven 12-year astrological cycles he has lived through; “The Work”, a 78-page assessment of four key themes that supposedly characterized his reign; and “The Crown”, 54 pages which focus on five aspects of the modern Thai monarchy: the royal finances, the lèse majesté law, the privy council, the issue of succession, and royal ceremonies. The first two sections are almost uniformly atrocious, but the third contains some interesting and useful material. Discussions with contributors revealed the reason why: KBAALW was constructed in assembly-line fashion, not dissimilar to how a canned-fish factory might be managed, with different people responsible working on different sections under the watchful gaze of the monarchist overseers. Most of “The Life” and “The Work” were written by the journeyman journalists on the team. The academics only worked on a few very specific parts of the book. Baker was responsible mainly for the introduction and the chapter in section two on the king’s sufficiency economy philosophy; Streckfuss wrote the chapters on lèse majesté, succession and the privy council, and Porphant did the chapter on the Crown Property Bureau. All three academics are acknowledged experts in their fields, and while their contributions to KBAALW are disfigured by the crude meddling of the editorial advisory board in places, the chapters they worked on remain worthwhile. Indeed, they are the only worthwhile parts of the book. But these sections are essentially appendices to the main thrust of the narrative.
(According to Richard Ehrlich, one of the journalists on the project, he only contributed to one section, the chapter on “Ceremonies and Regalia”, and also did not participate in the key parts of the book.)
Porphant, Baker and Streckfuss had nothing to do with the bulk of KBAALW, and the crassly simplistic and obsequious portrayal of the monarchy that imbues “The Life” and “The Work” sections in particular runs wholly contrary to the nuanced views that emerge from their own writings. But their names have been prominently promoted as if they were heavily involved in all aspects of the project, and as if the overall narrative bears their professional stamp of approval. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is really quite extraordinary: KBAALW is a book so deceitful that its backers even deliberately misrepresented its authorship to give it an entirely spurious aura of credibility. It seemed bad enough that the dishonesty began in the second sentence of Anand’s foreword on page 11, but in fact the level of fraud is even worse: the deception begins on page 4, in the list of contributors, where the names of Baker, Streckfuss and Porphant are prominently displayed ahead of the journalists who actually authored the vast majority of the work (one might argue, in fact, that the lies begin right on the front cover — the book’s subtitle is Thailand’s Monarchy in Perspective). KBAALW has hijacked the reputations of three respected academics to dress itself up in fake academic integrity.
What makes this all the more incredible is that it is just so inept. Did the people who put this book together really think nobody would call them on these issues? Or did they just not care? Is this kind of shoddy chicanery really the best that Bhumibol’s leading acolytes can offer on the occasion of his seventh-cycle birthday? The book is intended to glorify Bhumibol and enable future generations to learn of his greatness, but it only succeeds in making him look ridiculous. This is not the king’s fault: it is the responsibility of Anand and his advisory board, as well as editor-in-chief Nicholas Grossman and senior editor Dominic Faulder. With friends like these, who needs enemies? I can only hope none of them ever gives me a birthday present. Mercifully I suspect it is very unlikely now that they ever will.
To see how ludicrous KBAALW‘s sycophancy is, let’s jump to pages 47-48, where the glorious birth of baby Bhumibol has just been described in worshipful prose:
Since 1946, King Bhumibol’s reign has notched up some singular firsts. He is the only monarch in the world to have been born in the US, one of the world’s proudest republics. King Bhumibol has lived longer than any Chakri king, and the duration of his reign has greatly exceeded all others in Siamese history. Unlike virtually all of his predecessors, King Bhumibol has reigned not as an absolute monarch but as a constitutional monarch. With the death at age 83 in November 1989 of Franz Josef II, hereditary prince of Liechtenstein since 1938, King Bhumibol became the longest reigning monarch in the world. By the middle of 2011, King Bhumibol’s reign had spanned 65 years, exceeding the reigns of Queen Victoria of Great Britain (63 years) in the 19th century and Emperor Hirohito of Japan (62 years) in the 20th century. King Bhumibol’s reign straddles two centuries and represents one of the longest tenures by any head of state in recorded history. The Royal House of Chakri has stood through nine reigns and 229 years since 1782; nearly three out of every ten of those years have been with the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty, King Bhumibol, as monarch.
My life, too, has straddled two centuries. Perhaps I am an overachiever, but I have to say that until now I had never really considered this to be among my most singular accomplishments. To be honest, I didn’t even realize it was an achievement at all. Out of the long list above, the only element that Bhumibol had even modest control over was the fact that he has managed to live to 84 years. All the rest had nothing to do with him whatsoever. This is not to say that Bhumibol has achieved nothing worth celebrating during his reign: he has had an extraordinary life and whatever one’s view of his overall contribution to Thailand, few would begrudge him praise and respect for some of the things that he has done. But pretending that mere accidents of history are fabulous feats that incontrovertibly prove his greatness does him no service whatsoever.
KBAALW somehow manages to tell the remarkable story of Bhumibol’s life in a way that makes it excruciatingly tedious. One is often tempted to throw the book across the room, but given its vast bulk this could result in structural damage. The breathless and sycophantic tone continues throughout the long account of Bhumibol’s life and becomes increasingly wearying. On page 103, for example, KBAALW recounts how Bhumibol entered the monkhood for 15 days in 1956. A few weeks later, he played jazz with legendary U.S. clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman. Now, both of these episodes showed Bhumibol in a genuinely engaging light and contributed to the great affection that most Thais felt towards their king. But KBAALW doesn’t say that. Instead, it portentously informs us:
Just weeks after King Bhumibol’s time in the monkhood, Benny Goodman, the “king of jazz”, and his band arrived in town and “played the palace” three times with King Bhumibol always sitting in. It was a dramatic change of roles, and a remarkable shift from an ancient world to a contemporary one.
This is just superficial, stupid, vacuous prose. Earlier today I watered the plants on my apartment’s roof garden, tending to my crops as humans have done ever since they stopped being hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago in the prehistoric past. Just moments later I checked my Facebook messages on my iPhone. This, too, was a dramatic change of roles and a remarkable shift from an ancient world to a contemporary one. Big deal. Aside from undiscovered tribes living deep in the rainforests of the Amazon basin or New Guinea, moving between ancient activities and more modern ones is something everybody does frequently every single day of their lives.
It gets worse. On page 114, with Bhumibol now in his mid-30s, “a picture of vigour and health” whose “sporting and cultural achievements … won genuine admiration at home and abroad”, KBAALW turns to his frequent journeys to remote areas to inspect royal projects and talk to villagers:
Wherever he went, the king projected order and purpose. On his carefully planned forays into the Thai hinterland, he carried detailed maps that he taped together himself and carefully annotated.
“When he made a personal trip in casual wear, a small row of sharpened pencils were [sic] usually tucked inside his shirt pocket,” wrote Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn, a former chief of the royal court police, in his personal memoir, In His Majesty’s Footsteps. “He preferred to do things himself. Sharpening pencils was one of them.” In private, members of his Aw Saw Friday Band saw him clean and care for his own instruments.
Is there no end to the man’s greatness? Does he trim his own toenails too?
The flipside of this relentless exaltation of mundane things is that the tragedies and struggles of Bhumibol’s life are underplayed throughout KBAALW. Presumably the authors wanted to maintain an unremittingly jaunty tone, fearing that any genuine drama or sorrow would spoil the adulatory mood. Bhumibol became King Rama IX on June 9, 1946 in hideous circumstances: his elder brother, constant companion and only friend, Ananda, was shot through the head in bed in the Grand Palace. A contemporary British news report describes what happened:
It must have been an utterly harrowing time for the 18-year-old Bhumibol. His mother, Sangwan, was distraught and heartbroken. Together with her, Bhumibol had to prepare his brother’s corpse the day after his death in accordance with royal rituals, described by South African author Rayne Kruger in The Devil’s Discuss:
The first ceremony was ritual bathing. The new King, his mother, senior princes and officers of the State in turn poured scented water, which had been blessed by monks and kept in crystal vessels, over Ananda’s feet. Next, the special section of pages permitted to touch the royal person dressed him in the glittering robes he would have worn for his coronation…
He was placed in a sitting posture with his legs crossed and drawn close to his body, his hands clasped together holding incense sticks and a candle as if he prayed to the Buddha, and strips of white cloth were tightly wrapped round him like the bandaging of a mummy. Thus trussed and swathed he was put, still upright, in a silver urn – wedged, rather, for the fit was very tight. All this had to be watched by Bhoomipol, who then placed a crown on the corpse’s head, before finally the lid of the urn, following the contoured spire of the Siamese crown, was locked shut.
As part of this process, some of Ananda’s bones had to be broken by Bhumibol and Sangwan, to get his corpse into the required position to be placed in the urn. For weeks afterwards, each afternoon, towards dusk, Bhumibol and his mother came to the Grand Palace throne hall to sit quietly in front of the urn, along with Thais who had come to pay their respects. As Thai historian Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian wrote in her book Kings, Country and Constitutions:
The King’s attachment to his elder brother was much evident during the last month in Bangkok prior to His Majesty’s departure for further study in Switzerland. Bhumibol never failed to pay a daily visit to King Ananda’s remains in the golden urn.
Bhumibol’s dignified behaviour and stoicism during this dreadful period were truly admirable. Despite his sorrow, he conducted himself with grace and courage. During the 1990s, Bhumibol gave Canadian author William Stevenson unprecedented access to the royal court to write a biography, published in 1999 as The Revolutionary King. The book was catastrophically flawed in many ways, but at least it made a genuine effort to treat Bhumibol like a real human being with real human emotions, and to capture the utter desolation and profound grief that Bhumibol had to endure. He was an 18-year-old youth and he had just been given the overwhelming and unwanted role of king of Siam, a country that he barely knew or understood, after the sudden and shocking death of a brother to whom he was exceptionally close. Lesser men would have fallen apart.
Stevenson describes the urn that Bhumibol and Sangwan visited daily (inside, Ananda’s corpse was slowly decomposing):
The eight outer sections of gem-encrusted gold unfolded Nan. Through the perforated floor, bodily fluids would be drawn off daily through a stop-cock until the corpse became dry.
He recounts comments from Prince Chakrabandhu, who had sometimes played jazz with the two brothers, and had been due to meet them for a music session at 9 a.m. on the morning of Ananda’s death:
‘On that last Sunday, the boys were late for a nine o’clock appointment. I was thinking they were playing another of their tricks on me. .. But when they should be making music, His Majesty was already dead. I heard the shouts and hurried to the mansion. Among all those dignitaries, I felt out of place. Much later, I tried to tip-toe away.’
The new king caught him at a side door. ‘Don’t go! I need you. The only close friend I had was my brother. Please be my friend.’
‘But you have many friends,’ said the prince.
‘Acquaintances. At school. On the ski slopes. Not friends. And nobody here.’
‘Then,’ said the old prince, ‘my king for the first time cried.’
There is nothing so affecting and empathetic in KBAALW. The king is a cypher in its pages, his inner world never explored, as if human emotions do not affect him. Famously, Bhumibol’s whole personality and demeanour were radically altered by Ananda’s death, and he was rarely seen smiling in public ever again. As Rayne Kruger says in The Devil’s Discus, Bhumibol underwent an “extraordinary change from gaiety throughout his seventeen years preceding Ananda’s death to unsmiling gravity…” But instead of attempting to understand and evoke how Bhumibol must have felt as he began his reign, KBAALW strikes a jarringly ill-judged tone. On page 45 it tells us:
In 1946, at the age of 18, his life took a dramatic turn. His beloved brother, King Ananda Mahidol, died unexpectedly, and the young prince acceded to the throne as the ninth king in the Royal House of Chakri.
Lest anybody think that this rather inadequate phraseology was a one-off aberration, an even more startling example appears on page 83 at the start of the section that describes Ananda’s death in more detail. This passage follows on from an account of Bhumibol’s enthusiasm for music, and begins:
Musical pursuits, however, took a back seat after a tragic turn of events.
Of all the ways one could possibly think of to introduce an account of the death of King Rama VIII, an event which profoundly changed Bhumibol and Thailand forever, this must surely be among the most surreal and incompetent.
Just as the psychological drama of Bhumibol’s life — his hopes, fears, doubts, stoicism, determination, growing self-confidence — is utterly excised from the sterile chronology of events in KBAALW, the authors also appear to have felt that the setbacks and controversies of Bhumibol’s reign should be mentioned only in passing, if at all. No real sense is given of the tension and conflict of the 1950s in which the young Bhumibol showed real courage and resolve standing up to military leader Field Marshal Phibun Songgkram and notorious police chief Phao Sriyanond. Bhumibol waged this struggle for six years until Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat deposed Phibun and Phao in a 1957 coup and formed a very fruitful political alliance with the palace. Until then, Bhumibol was often treated by Thailand’s military leaders with undisguised contempt. There is little of this drama in KBAALW. Here is how it summarizes the issue on page 96:
Academic accounts of this period focus on the inevitable tension between King Bhumibol, who had sworn at his coronation to reign for the benefit and happiness of his people, and the first prime minister in Thailand to test the workings of a constitutional monarchy with the reigning king firmly in place. It was never a close working relationship, and they remained distant for the next six years.
This kind of bland understatement is typical, and it makes KBAALW‘s account of Bhumibol’s life boring beyond belief. Perhaps the authors felt it would be somehow disrespectful to Bhumibol or distressing to readers to provide too much detail about a period in which the king was not treated with total deference. Also, of course, the writers were instructed to stick to the fiction that Bhumibol has never interfered in politics and only intervenes reluctantly at times of great crisis. This myth was comprehensively and categorically debunked by The King Never Smiles. As Kevin Hewison wrote in A Book, the King and the 2006 Coup, an academic assessment of Handley’s book and its impact:
By focusing on the palace’s comeback from its dark days of 1932, Handley charts the course of modern Thai political history. For students of Thailand, Handley completes a long-neglected task: he writes the monarchy back into the political events from 1932 to 2005. Indeed, he allocates a central political role to the palace.
Identifying this political role for the monarch is controversial. The palace spinmeisters regularly assert that the king is above politics and that he carefully maintains his constitutional position… In fact, one of the great values of Handley’s study is that he demonstrates that this particular argument, borrowed from palace propaganda, can no longer be accepted by serious scholars.
It may not be accepted by serious scholars, but the creators of KBAALW appear to believe this particular argument can still be peddled with abandon.
In support of their efforts to airbrush any controversy out of Bhumibol’s past actions while still claiming he has done immense good work for Thailand, the authors use various rhetorical tricks. One of them, very familiar to me as a former Reuters journalist (wire agencies do it all the time) is the strategic use of quotations by alleged experts to support spurious assertions. Instead of analysing an issue in detail, just fling in a quote that seems convincing from somebody with an impressive-sounding title and move on as quickly as possible before anybody spots the sleight-of-hand. Chulalongkorn University professor Suchit Bunbongkarn is used repeatedly for this purpose. On page 96 he makes the questionable assertion that in the 1950s the relationship between Bhumibol and Phibun was characterized by “inevitable points of friction…rather than outright antagonism”, and on page 105 he says of Sarit’s coup of September 1957:
The coup had nothing to do with the king but with the deep rivalry between Phao and Sarit. It was a rivalry in terms of almost everything — politically, economically, even the opium trade.
In fact, Bhumibol and the royalists were aware in advance of Sarit’s coup plans and fully co-operated. In a cable to London on September 21, 1957, British ambassador Sir Richard Whittington reported that Prince Dhani, one of the key royalist figures behind the throne, “assured me personally that the coup is ‘just what the royalists wanted’.”
On page 178, Suchit is back again, this time sharing his wisdom on the 2006 coup that turned Thailand’s political divisions into a full-blown crisis:
I would say the king did not have anything to do with the coup. It turned out to be a disaster for the palace.
The second part of his statement is very true, but does not follow logically from the first, which is extremely questionable, to say the least, and undermined by several cables from the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, among other evidence. Besides, if Bhumibol had really been against the coup and knew it would be a disaster, why did he give it his blessing so readily? He had stood against coup attempts several times before. He could have done so again. But there is no rigorous discussion of any of these issues. Suchit is given a cameo appearance to deliver a throwaway line claiming the king was not inappropriately meddling in Thai politics, and that is supposed to be that.
Had the creators of KBAALW bothered to ask David Streckfuss about the 2006 coup — after all, he was one of the contributing academics so surely he could have been consulted— he might have told them something like the following, taken from Truth on Trial in Thailand, to explain why it has been such a catastrophe for the monarchy:
The 2006 coup was different from the previous 18 ones punctuating Thai history over the past 60 years. This coup and its aftermath laid bare the peculiar anatomy of the Thai body politic for closer examination; it exposed fissures which previously obscured a clearer view of this peculiar social, cultural and political landscape.
Instead, however, they chose to quote Suchit, whose opinion about the coup is considerably less credible. How strange.
Another frequently used stylistic device is the passive voice: sentences are constructed in a way that informs the reader that something happened while obscuring who caused it to happen. This is extremely common in public discourse in Thailand, and Streckfuss has something to say about it too in Truth on Trial in Thailand. Commenting on the military’s report on the Black May violence of 1992 (it was, of course, a whitewash), he writes:
History becomes magically mechanized by anonymous action, movements of undifferentiated masses and mobs, and shouting in the night, without actual agency, without people doing things. No blood, no shootings, no orders, no death appear in the military’s report on the 1992 uprising. All that happened was the movement of dark forces, gangs, factions, rumours, behind the scenes maneuvering, and the prompting of masses on the streets to march towards their own suppression.
The official history is that of bright, shining faces, of great men whose names ring out as their accomplishments are proclaimed. It is ever the glorious times of a happy people: the general reaches down and pats a child on the head; the grandma, smiling, raises her hands in devotion and obeisance.
Exactly the same kind of style permeates KBAALW. As long as the narrative can skip forward with a cloyingly upbeat and cheerful tone, all is well, but when history moves through dark and difficult phases (which is fairly often, this being Thailand) then suddenly the passive voice takes over. It is also useful when something embarrassing happens (also fairly often). And so, for example, when dealing with the thoroughly discredited attempt by William Stevenson’s book The Revolutionary King to pin the blame for the death of King Ananda on a Japanese agent who supposedly snuck into the Grand Palace disguised as a monk, KBAALW states:
In the late 1990s, a theory based on unidentified sources was advanced that King Ananda’s death was the work of Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, a Japanese “spy”…
Neither Stevenson nor his book are named, and it is also not stated that The Revolutionary King was commissioned by Bhumibol himself. But since any informed reader will know these details, and will find the omission of them striking and strange, this approach by those behind KBAALW only succeeds in making them look ridiculous.
More seriously, the account of the appalling 1976 massacre at Thammasat University is cursory and inadequate and depicts the royal family as being helpless witnesses to the events that led to the carnage.
KBAALW makes the extraordinary claim that we still do not really know whether the Thammasat massacre was the culmination of a deliberate campaign of ultra-right-wing royalist agitation or just a shocking accident:
Whether this agitation was deliberately instigated, or was the outcome of a terrible series of ill-considered escalating acts of violence, is still hotly debated. What is not in dispute is that early on the morning of 6 October, a brutal assault was mounted on Thammasat University campus by police, soldiers, Village Scouts, Red Gaurs, Nawaphon and vocational students. Although a few students were armed and were reported to have fired back, the overwhelming force was irresistible. A terrible maelstrom of pent-up rage and anti-communist hysteria was unleashed. Students on the campus and Sanam Luang were beaten, stripped, humiliated, shot, lynched and burned alive. The lucky ones were arrested without serious misadventure. [p.136]
KBAALW does not say by whom the events of October 6, 1976, are hotly debated. In fact, what happened that day is rarely discussed in Thailand because it conflicts so starkly with what everybody is taught about the monarchy. The official story is that the royals are above politics, never take sides, and promote peace and unity. It would be very embarrassing to acknowledge that Bhumibol and Sirikit had become associated with extreme rightist groups and that while they may not have ordered or directly encouraged the massacre (the extent of their direct involvement remains unconfirmed and controversial), they undoubtedly contributed to the paranoid and violent climate that allowed it to happen. To quote Paul Handley:
One one level, King Bhumibol’s embrace of the violent right, as both its leader and its tool, was understandable. The cardinal duty of any sovereign king is to defend and sustain the monarchy. As communist regimes took power in neighbouring states and the Thai insurgency grew, the Mahidol family became obligated to ally itself against the forces that would protect the throne above all other. But this doesn’t explain Bhumibol and Sirikit going so far as to aggravate a hysteria that turned one half of Thai society against the other half and left no room in the middle. It cast a shadow over the monarchical institution itself — the dhammaraja was no longer the nation’s unifier.
Thongchai Winichakul was one of the student leaders at Thammasat in 1976. In the aftermath of the massacre he was jailed for nearly two years. In a poignant paper he delivered in the Philippines a quarter of a century later, Thongchai described the struggle to arrange a memorial ceremony for the dead. It took 20 years, because the incident was so controversial, particularly due to the role of the Thai monarchy:
The political ramifications of truth may be unthinkable, literally, for Thai society, since several individuals and institutions which command power and respect in the society, namely the monarchy and the Buddhist sangha, had been involved in the conspiracy that led to the killing… Truth might have been devastating to the society and to those who try to get to the truth themselves. Silence is therefore mostly self-imposed, either out of fear or out of concern for the unthinkable consequences to the country. The massacre of 1976 was, so to say, in the realm of the unspeakable, of silence. Its full history is probably impossible to write under the present system of ‘Democracy with the Monarchy as the Head of the State’…
Thai historiography is a saga of the unity of Thai people under the benevolent monarchs against the threats posed by foreign countries. A massacre by the state is, therefore, an alien concept.
Sometimes, KBAALW doesn’t even bother with semantic subterfuge to camouflage insupportable statements. It just openly lies. Here is an example from page 137, discussing the aftermath of the Thammasat massacre:
Two days after the Thammasat debacle, Thanin Kraivixien, a conservative supreme court judge, was appointed prime minister… Thanin’s government proved to be more assertive than anything seen in the previous three years, but alienated much of the public and the military. Within a year, Thanin was toppled…
King Bhumibol appointed Thanin a privy councillor, but kept himself well apart from the perilous entanglements of politics.
This is an astonishing little passage. First, it uses the wholly inadequate word “debacle” to describe the vicious orgy of murder, rape and torture that unfolded at Thammasat that day. Then it employs the passive voice to skirt around the uncomfortable fact that it was Bhumibol and Sirikit who engineered the appointment of Thanin — perhaps the most extremist and incompetent prime minister Thailand has ever had. Then it states that he was “more assertive than anything seen in the previous three years”, a comical euphemism for the fact that the previous three years were a brief democratic interlude and that Thanin’s government was a dictatorship installed by the palace after a savage massacre of student protesters and a military coup. Thanin turned out to be so ultra-right-wing that even the military found his extremism unpalatable and turfed him out, and at this point an affronted Bhumibol appointed him to the privy council, a clear signal of palace support. To state at the end of this whole appalling episode that the king was keeping out of politics really beggars belief. The reality was exactly the reverse: Bhumibol and Sirikit had made a series of disastrous interventions which had taken Thailand to the brink of civil war.
Just a page later, on 138-139, we get more duplicity. Discussing the elevation of “Princess Angel” to a potential successor to Bhumibol, in a ceremony overseen by the king in 1977, readers are told:
She could accede to the throne should circumstances require it, but this did not place her in any kind of competition with her older brother, Crown Prince Maha Vajoralonkorn, who married the same year.
Do the authors think readers would not be well aware that this statement is nonsense? We already know from a 2010 U.S. embassy cable that Anand Panyarachun is deeply concerned about the succession and the prospect of Vajiralongkorn becoming king. He said so himself to U.S. ambassador Eric John:
Anand said that he had always believed that the Crown Prince would succeed his father, according to law. However, there could be complicating factors — if Vajiralongkohn proved unable to stay out of politics, or avoid embarrassing financial transactions. After a pause, Anand added that the consensus view among many Thai was that the Crown Prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behavior. After another pause, Anand added that someone really should raise the matter with the King, before adding with regret that there really was no one who could raise such a delicate topic (note: implied was the need for an alternative to Vajiralongkorn).
But the problems Bhumibol has had with his family are another crucial part of his life that KBAALW fails to illuminate. There is no mention of the fact that he has been estranged from Sirikit for well over two decades, since the queen suffered a breakdown and disappeared from public view for several months in 1985/86 following a scandal over one of her military aides who died suddenly. There is no sense of Bhumibol’s heartbreak when his cherished daughter Ubolrat, to whom he had been extremely close, renounced royal life to marry an American she met while studying nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bhumibol had loved yachting with Ubolrat, and at the time had been closest to her of all his children. The pair won joint gold medals at the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in 1967, a fact still widely celebrated in royal mythology. After Ubolrat turned her back on the palace and became plain Julie Jensen, a housewife in California, the distraught Bhumibol never sailed again. Ubolrat is now back in royal circles in Bangkok after divorcing her husband in the late 1990s. She has acted in several movies, including the big-budget 2010 Thai blockbuster My Best Bodyguard in which she plays a courageous journalist who risks everything to uncover the truth about a dark conspiracy that even involves her father:
Bhumibol has never fully forgiven Ubolrat for her perceived betrayal, refusing to restore her formal title of princess. The king also has strained relations with his youngest daughter Chulabhorn. William Stevenson recounts that they fell out during the 1990s:
The king voiced concern that her Chulabhorn Research Foundation was open to criticism for misusing funds. He was baffled and hurt when she wrote him impersonal letters addressed to ‘Your Majesty’ and signed ‘Professor Doctor Air Marshal Princess Chulabhorn’. He never saw her to talk with any more…
But it is the collapse of Bhumibol’s relationship with Vajiralongkorn, and the implications of this for the succession and for Thailand, that is among the biggest of the yawning gaps in KBAALW. Defenders of the Thai monarchy often claim that such matters are “gossip” and not appropriate for public discussion. That misconception needs to be skewered right here: it is absolutely valid for Thais to want information on, and to be able to discuss, the mutual loathing of their very influential monarch and the man most likely to inherit the throne. These are not just family matters, because this is the royal family, a family that claims the right to wield enormous hereditary power in Thailand even into the 21st century. The broken relationship between Bhumibol and Vajiralongkorn is not a private issue because it affects every Thai, and also affects Thailand’s reputation and place in the world community. Analysing the dynamics between the two men is not prurience: it is essential for understanding Thailand and forecasting its likely future.
Also, of course, it is extremely poignant that King Bhumibol, the “father of the nation”, a man who has worked all his reign to do what he thought was right for the people of Thailand, lost his own family in the process, becoming irretrievably distanced and alienated from his wife and all of his children except Sirindhorn. It is part of the tragedy of his life, one of the many trials he has endured. To appreciate the challenges and obstacles Bhumibol has faced during his reign, and the sacrifices he has made, and the emotional hurt he has suffered, it is essential to be aware of his family troubles, and the political struggles of his reign, and the efforts of many powerful people over the years to undermine and defy him. Only by being aware of these issues can Thais really understand and develop informed respect for their king and what he has achieved. But KBAALW totally fails in its duty to inform readers about such things. In the banality of its content and the vacant cheeriness of its tone, the account it gives of Bhumibol’s life resembles the “society” sections of some Thai newspapers and magazines, which recount the Bangkok parties, gala dinners and charity auctions attended by grotesquely-coiffed and grinning minor nobility, tycoons and social climbers. It is a biography in the style of Hello! magazine.
KBAALW is littered with heinous abuses of the English language, and one of the most enjoyable things about reading it is savouring the stylistic misjudgements. My own personal favourite comes on page 88 and is a line so breathtakingly bad that it really is a gem to be treasured. It introduces into the narrative Bhumibol’s future wife Sirikit Kitiyakara, with whom he shared a grandfather:
Love came knocking at his door in the shape of a cousin…
Compared with this drivel, The Story of Tongdaeng is like Dostoyevsky.
Part two of the book, “The Work”, is no better. The problem KBAALW faces is that because it has spent 124 excruciating pages telling a fictionalized life story of Bhumibol in which he never oversteps the constitutional boundaries supposedly constraining his power, readers might reasonably ask what purpose he has served and what he has achieved. Part two is supposed to answer that question. In four chapters, it sets out the king’s contribution to Thai healthcare, education and general national development, and discusses his “sufficiency economy” and “new theory” philosophy.
Chris Baker, clearly having drawn the short straw, was faced with the thankless task of trying to explain the sufficiency economy model. This is akin to trying to push water uphill. Basically, the theory is not really a theory, just a set of perfectly reasonable guidelines for living. The problems arise when trying to translate these principles into clear, practical, specific advice for small-scale rural farmers, or factory workers, or somtam vendors or whomever. The whole theory is just so vague it falls down when it meets the real world. KBAALW quotes the official exposition of the theory approved by Bhumibol in 1999:
The Sufficiency Economy is an approach to life and conduct which is applicable at every level from the individual through the family and community to the management and development of the nation.
It promotes a middle path, especially in developing the economy to keep up with the world in the era of globalisation.
Sufficiency has three components: moderation; wisdom or insight; and the need for built-in resilience against the risks which arise from internal or external change. In addition, the application of theories in planning and implementation requires great care and good judgement at every stage.
At the same time, all members of the nation — especially officials, intellectuals, and business people — need to develop their commitment to the importance of knowledge, integrity and honesty, and to conduct their lives with perseverance, toleration, wisdom and insight so that the country has the strength and balance to respond to the rapid and widespread changes in economy, society, environment and culture in the outside world. [p.274]
So just to summarize, the theory posits the following:
RECOMMENDED: moderation, wisdom, insight, good judgment, resilience, knowledge, integrity, honesty, tolerance, strength, balance, flexibility.
NOT RECOMMENDED: extremism, foolishness, ignorance, stupidity, fragility, duplicity, dishonesty, intolerance, weakness, inflexibility.
Seems sensible. But is this really an insight? Don’t we know all this stuff? The difficulty, surely, is how we ensure that this kind of behaviour is followed in the real world, which is complex and messy and imperfect. The theory seems rather silent on that point. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and so perhaps a helpful diagram also on page 274 can clarify things for us:
Well, OK, perhaps not. Asking Thai officials to explain is unlikely to help either (I’ve tried that too): they can tell you it is about moderation, wisdom, a middle path etc etc but if you ask them for specifics about any particular field, an uncomfortable silence ensues. As a U.S. cable said in 2006:
Economists note that the principles have been expressed in vague terms that limit their practicality, and while RTG institutions pay lip service to them (as with any ideas supported by the King), they have so far been applied only to small-scale farming projects…
Although couched in terminology that makes it difficult to criticize (as one economist said, “Who can oppose a model that promote ‘reasonableness’, ‘good behavior’, and protection from shocks’?”) schisms have arisen where activists interpret “Sufficiency Economy” to oppose policies or projects supported by the King.
A further problem is that many right-wing royalists interpret the sufficiency economy theory to mean that rural peasants and the urban poor should recognize their place in the social hierarchy, be content with their humble lot in life, and stop voting for Thaksin Shinawatra. According to this view, the fugitive former prime minister epitiomizes greed and avarice that is leading the poor astray: they are too lazy to work hard as Bhumibol suggests, so they have been dazzled by Thaksin’s get-rich-quick promises. As Andrew Walker, professor at the Australian National University, wrote in a 2006 New Mandala post, this interpretation of sufficiency economy really means sufficiency democracy:
The enthusiasm with which the new regime in Thailand has latched onto the “sufficiency economy” concept underlies its regulatory force. Over the past decade or so a number of different approaches have emerged which seek to moderate and regulate the aspirations of Thailand’s rural poor. Expressed in various elitist, royalist and activist forms these approaches have argued that the rights of rural people should only be fully respected provided they are willing to pursue livelihoods that make modest claims on natural resources and government budgets. Many of the rights-based campaigns waged by NGOs have been based on a regulatory vision of rural lifestyles in which images of subsistence-oriented economic pursuits (grounded in traditional local wisdom and original local communities) predominate. Participation in the market was all too often condemned as an individualistic aberration.
Now the chickens of this regulatory vision are coming home to roost. Not only are rural people to be shielded (or excluded) from full and active participation in the national economy but their full and active participation in electoral democracy has been pushed aside in favour of Bangkok’s enlightened national leadership. Sufficiency democracy, like sufficiency economy, amounts to keeping rural aspirations firmly in their place.
I discuss my own alternative proposal, sufficiency monarchy, here.
Baker succeeds in getting a number of useful points past the book’s censors, including the way the theory has been used by royalists and right-wingers to support the hierarchical status quo. As he concludes towards the end of his chapter: “the theory is not properly tuned to the ambitions and aspirations of most people”. His chapter is entitled “More From Less”, and Baker is to be congratulated that in stretching it to 15 pages, he has followed this dictum with impressive aplomb.
KBAALW manages with remarkable regularity to accidentally undermine the very thing it is attempting to support — i.e. the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. For example, discussing Bhumibol’s birth on page 47, it tells us “what nobody would have imagined at the time was that this baby prince would through some extraordinary twists of fate one day become king as well”. In case we didn’t get the point, a page later it exclaims that Bhumibol’s reign “could all so easily have never happened”. Well, yes, indeed, and this is exactly why systems of hereditary monarchy are so inadvisable: it is a matter of pure chance whether one gets a great monarch or an abysmal one. As Thomas Paine observed in The Rights of Man in 1791:
The hereditary monarchical system … indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority. Vice and virtue, ignorance and wisdom, in short, every quality, good or bad, is put on the same level. Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals. It signifies not what their mental or moral characters are. Can we then be surprised at the abject state of the human mind in monarchical countries…? … It has no fixed character. To-day it is one thing; to-morrow it is something else. It changes with the temper of every succeeding individual, and is subject to all the varieties of each. It is government through the medium of passions and accidents. It appears under all the various characters of childhood, decrepitude, dotage, a thing at nurse, in leading-strings, or in crutches. It reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of non-age over wisdom and experience. In short, we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession, in all its cases, presents.
In other words, it is not particularly sensible for the creators of KBAALW to remind readers that the man the book idolizes as Thailand’s greatest ever monarch only landed on the throne due to a series of very improbable accidents. That is not the best way to generate faith in the desirability and sustainability of a hereditary monarchial system. As Christopher Hitchens wrote last year, paraphrasing Paine:
A hereditary monarch … is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary doctor or mathematician.
The chapter “A King for All Regions”, ostensibly a summary of the royal projects and the king’s development work, falls into a similar trap. Instead of demonstrating the virtues of the king’s methods, it accidentally shows off their shortcomings. The chapter kicks off with a tale about how the king formulated his development policies. While staying at his Hua Hin holiday palace (known as Klai Kangwon, or “Far from Worries) at the start of the monsoon season in 1952, Bhumibol decides to take his jeep for a spin through the surrounding countryside, and gets stuck in the mud:
The farmers of Huai Mongkol near Hua Hin rarely saw strangers negotiating the tortuous, rutted track through the forest and across the fields to their village. To this day, Lee Sae Loe remembers the jeep getting bogged down behind her family’s wooden house.
“There were jokes made as some villagers and soldiers helped push the jeep out of the mud,” the 69-year-old Lee, who was 11 at the time, recalls. “It was only when the young driver got out and introduced himself that our men realised they had just helped our king.” …
The king chatted with the villagers. They told him that the markets in Hua Hin were over 25 km away, and the delivery of a simple load of bananas by truck or handcart was arduous. A proper road was needed. Soon after, the king donated some bulldozers to the Naresuan Border Patrol Police. Within six months, a porous, red earth road had been pushed through to the village. Travel time to the market was cut from almost a day to a matter of hours.
The chance meeting at Huai Mongkol was to have longer repercussions than anyone could have imagined that afternoon. It inspired, in part, the royal development work of the decades to follow and provided an early model for action. First, the king established direct contact with ordinary people and learned something of their problems. Second, he offered practical suggestions to help address their needs — based on his own research and knowledge. Third, in order to cut through bureaucratic red tape, he made use of his own contacts, influence and resources to implement a solution. Afterwards, he monitored results and progress.
Such a hands on approach was unusual for any head of state — especially a Siamese or Thai monarch. [p.231]
This heart-warming anecdote demonstrates exactly why Bhumibol’s approach may not be in Thailand’s best interests. It’s great for the villagers of Huai Mongkol to have their road, but they only got it through pure chance. What about all the villages throughout Thailand not lucky enough to have had the king’s jeep getting mired in the mud nearby? What if many of them needed a road more urgently? What if building the road elsewhere would have benefited the country more? Despite the wild claims of royalists, Bhumibol does not have mystical knowledge of what is going on at all times in every corner of his kingdom, and cannot tell where his help is needed most. He cannot be everywhere at once. Deciding on royal projects just on the basis of which places and problems happen to catch the king’s attention is not a coherent and sensible strategy for national development.
Thailand’s bureaucracy and political class are notoriously corrupt, incompetent and disinclined to help those at the bottom of the social spectrum. The system has always been stacked against the poor. And so for those lucky enough to have Bhumibol and his entourage striding into their village and fixing a few problems, it was a breath of fresh air. The king appeared to listen to them, and to care about them, and was eager to get something done to help them. They loved him for it.
But as Bhumibol himself is quoted as saying in 1986:
No one really appreciates. They always want more. That’s why they must be encouraged to make themselves self-supporting, to stand on their own feet. [p.250]
He was talking about the villagers helped by his projects, and he failed to realize that his words were equally valid when applied to his whole system. As anybody who has worked in a dysfunctional organization knows, an enlightened and committed manager who can be called upon to personally solve problems is welcome, but this often means that fundamental flaws in the system are not resolved. Good managers will not rely on their own ability to bypass the system and get things done that would otherwise not be fixed: they work on improving the system, making it self-supporting, able to function without constant intervention from above. But Bhumibol never did this. His system was always about him. It revolved around his highly publicized trips to different parts of the country where he would share some insight and some money to save the day. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, in places not blessed by a royal visit, similar problems festered unresolved and often not even known about.
Bhumibol did plenty of good, of course, and improved a lot of people’s lives. But this kind of personal approach is simply unworkable as a sensible and viable development strategy in a large and complex nation like Thailand. Now that Bhumibol is a hermit in Siriraj Hospital, who will help the country’s people and fix their problems? If he had really wanted to make a lasting difference, he would have worked on repairing and improving Thai governance at the roots, rather than just bypassing a broken system to help people on a case-by-case basis. His system of personalized interventions totally failed to follow his own sufficiency economy precepts, which stress the importance of building systems that are sustainable and robust, able to withstand internal and external shocks. And so for all the good that he did, the overall judgment on Bhumibol’s royal projects must be a negative one: they hindered, rather than helped, the evolution of a genuinely responsive, flexible and enlightened governance system in Thailand.
It is in the chapter called “Learning for Life”, on Bhumibol’s contribution to education, that KBAALW‘s hypocrisy is most clearly exposed. This chapter is particularly dishonest because the sad fact is that Thailand’s education system remains truly abysmal, far worse than many considerably less developed countries. In 2010 the education department asked nearly 50,000 high-school teachers to sit the same tests as their students in the subjects that they taught. The results were astonishing: the failure rate among teachers was 88 percent for computer studies, 84 percent for mathematics, 86 percent for biology and 71 percent for physics. Worse still, 37,414 school directors — the most senior staff — were tested on administrative knowledge, leadership, English language, and information and communications technology. The failure rate was 95 percent.
There are many reasons for this incompetence: for one thing, prospective teachers are graded not on qualities like intelligence, communication skills, and ability to inspire, but on the neatness of their clothing and hairstyle, the quality of their teeth, and the way they walk.
Teaching is overwhelmingly based on rote learning, and analytical thought is discouraged. Even polite questioning of teachers is unwelcome in the vast majority of schools. Rigid conformity is enforced, even in many universities where senior students haze juniors in so-called SOTUS rituals (it stands for Seniority Order Tradition Unity Spirit).
This hierarchical, unquestioning approach to education is entirely in line with the model of society supported by most Thai royalists. As Nick Nostitz, one of the best journalists covering contemporary Thailand, wrote in volume one of his planned trilogy Red vs Yellow:
Both to its own population and to foreign countries the Thai state has long projected the image of the “Land of Smiles” based on a fabricated construct of “Thainess”, supported by a carefully built balance between military, politicians, bureaucracy and palace. The majority of the population was educated in line with a state ideology that allowed little space for critical interpretation of the system and its history.
The culture of enforced “Thainess” and the draconian lèse majesté legislation laws have created an intellectual climate in Thailand that is profoundly hostile to genuine learning, rational analysis, open-mindedness, and respectful debate. To give just one example, Thanong Khanthong, the managing editor of Nation Group in Thailand, has repeatedly accused me of being part of a plot (paid for by Thaksin Shinawatra) to destroy Thailand with my work on #thaistory. He has never made it clear exactly how my articles could destroy an entire country, especially one with such a long and proud history as Thailand, but his view are by no means unique. There is a pervasive sense amongst some Thai royalists that views they disagree with are somehow terrifyingly dangerous and must be strictly suppressed. And the overarching expression of this is, of course, Article 112.
How can a society in which hundreds of bureaucrats and military officiers are assigned full-time to the task of blocking “offensive” websites, where a teenage student is denied entry to universities because of her sincerely held opinions, and where an elderly grandfather is jailed for 20 years just for four alleged text messages critical of the monarchy, ever hope to advance and evolve in the modern world?
The Thai royalist contempt for the truth and fear of debate are on full display in KBAALW. The claim by its creators that it is a fair and scholarly work, carefully researched and assembled by a team of experts to tell the real story of King Bhumibol, is — as this book review has endeavoured to show in some detail — absolute rubbish. Aside from the useful chapters by respected academics tucked away at the end of the volume to give it fake credibility, the whole vapid, mendacious, unctuous narrative of KBAALW is the polar opposite of genuine scholarship.
It is sublimely ironic to read the chapter on education, which begins with Bhumibol’s philosophy of learning:
“The reason I would like everyone to pursue knowledge and establish themselves is so that they can have a prosperous life, with happiness and self-reliance as the first step,” the king once explained. Summing up his views on another occasion, he said, “A holistic education that covers moral etiquette, general subjects and vocational training is an important base to develop the skills of a person so that he can contribute to the prosperity and stability of the country in the future.”
Over the ensuing decades, the main messages of the king’s speeches on education … remained remarkably consistent. Influenced by his own scientific bent, the king emphasised that theoretical knowledge must be tested and adjusted through real-life application. He encouraged a broad-based approach toward teaching that would inspire analytical and problem-solving skills over rote learning. As a devout Buddhist, he emphasised that academic learning should always be complemented by morality and mindfulness if knowledge is to be applied in ways that genuinely benefit both the individual and society. He also said he believed learning to be a life-long process.
He king’s words and actions carried added weight because he clearly took his own advice. His ethical standards, especially in comparison to some other leaders in society, meant that students keenly attuned to adult hypocrisy could not so easily dismiss his exhortations to work for the public good. [p212-213]
How sad that the network monarchists and fading journalists who put this book together were not more keenly attuned to their own hypocrisy. Did it never occur to them that by producing such a dishonest and inaccurate book that they were going against King Bhumibol’s clearly expressed wishes? Lest there be any doubt about this, the king’s views are also stated very clearly on page 251:
The king … was not looking for “yes men”, and said it was important to ascertain the facts. Scientists should always tell the truth, he said — even if at times it was more diplomatic to avoid disagreement.
Anand Panyarachun and his team, alas, do not appear to have been listening.
Not only does KBAALW defy Bhumibol’s wishes, it also insults him. By filling its pages with untruths, evasions and shameless flattery of mundane things, and by avoiding sensible discussion of the genuine trials and challenges that Thailand’s king has had to deal with during the course of his extraordinary life, the authors are implying that the real story of Bhumibol’s reign is not impressive enough. They believe that in order to get readers to respect Rama IX, the story must be embellished and twisted and denuded of drama. Is the truth about Bhumibol’s life so shameful that it cannot be told? That is the message the creators of KBAALW are sending their monarch on the occasion of his 84th birthday.
It is also, of course, an insult to those who have paid $40 dollars for a copy of the book, and indeed to the people of Thailand. Don’t they deserve the truth about their country and their king? What gives Anand and his team the right to mock their intelligence with this volume? It is simply not good enough.
My own view is that the people of Thailand, and indeed all people who care deeply about Thailand and its future, do deserve the truth. And since King Bhumibol Adulydadej: A Life’s Work fails to give it to them, then this book review will have to make a start instead instead. Beginning at the beginning: the real story of how the reign of Rama IX began.