A response to King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work
Multiple contributors, overseen by editorial board chairman Anand Panyarachun
Edited by Nicholas Grossman and Dominic Faulder
Published by Editions Didier Millet, November 2011.
“Things that we do not plan may well happen.
Things that we do plan may well meet with disaster.”
King Mahajanaka, in The Story of Mahajanaka
by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej
“It is my belief… that the truth is generally preferable to lies.”
Professor Albus Dumbledore, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
by J.K. Rowling
Thailand is a kingdom in crisis, skidding towards catastrophe. Haunted by the unquiet ghosts of a feudal and despotic past, and stricken by fear of a desolate future, it has become a nation frozen in time, caught in a toxic cycle of violence and repression. The escalating social and political conflict gripping modern Thailand is a struggle to find legitimate answers to profound questions: Do all of Thailand’s people deserve equal rights? How should democracy work in Thailand? What does it mean to be Thai? These are issues that cannot be avoided as Thai society evolves and becomes increasingly aware and sophisticated. The country’s people need to seek answers that will heal their bitter divisions and allow Thailand to move forward. There is only one way to find answers to such immense and important questions: Thailand’s people need to talk.
But a suffocating silence is being imposed on Thailand. Powerful forces are determined to strangle any open and honest national debate about what kind of country it should be in the 21st century. Thais are not even permitted to publicly acknowledge some of the most basic realities of their history and politics. Telling the truth has become, quite literally, a crime. Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code states: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” In practice this is interpreted so widely that any public comment about the royal family not totally hagiographic and brimming with flattery risks being branded lèse majesté. People are expected to believe a set of idealized fairy tales and fables — or at least pretend that they do — and to close their eyes to the disaster unfolding in their country.
And so, as if trapped in a traumatic dream from which it is unable to awaken, Thailand wearily stumbles towards a calamity that everyone knows is coming but feels powerless to prevent. The burning questions facing Thailand’s people will not go away just by being ignored, and if they are not resolved through discussion, they will be settled in blood.
At the heart of the storm, confused and crestfallen, is the tragic figure of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thailand’s widely revered 84-year-old monarch has sought sanctuary from the turmoil buffeting his kingdom by abandoning his palaces and retreating to a nondescript hospital tower, where he has become a virtual recluse. Since September 2009, Bhumibol has lived in a 16th floor suite in the Siriraj hospital complex on the western bank of the Chao Phraya river that weaves through the unruly urban sprawl of Bangkok, refusing to go home even when doctors cleared him to do so. He emerges only rarely, in a wheelchair, a shrunken and frail old man, usually accompanied by his cherished pet dog Tongdaeng, who seems to be his most trusted companion and friend.
For decades, millions of Thais have regarded Bhumibol as the unifying sacred core of Thailand’s spiritual and political universe, holding the country’s hierarchical society in orbit around him, ordered and harmonious. Many have long clung to the comforting belief that their king would always be ready to step in to save the nation at times of great danger, as he famously did at two critical junctures in modern Thai history, in 1973 and 1992, when troops were massacring civilians on the streets of Bangkok on the orders of despised military dictators. When mobs of royalist protesters claiming to act in his name besieged Bangkok’s airports in late 2008, however, and when more than 90 people were killed in the capital in April and May 2010 in vicious street battles between soldiers, anti-government protesters and shadowy rogue gunmen, Bhumibol stayed silent and invisible. Isolated in hospital, his health failing, Thailand’s king appears to have abandoned any active role in seeking a solution to Thailand’s crisis. His star is fading. He has become an increasingly spectral presence, his authority and vitality dimming, as Thailand unravels around him.
But withdrawing behind the walls of Siriraj Hospital and staying mostly out of sight will not give Bhumibol shelter from the tempest engulfing Thailand. Whether or not he plays an active role, he is the central character in the drama. Thailand’s 21st century crisis is fundamentally about Bhumibol Adulyadej: who he is, what he stands for, why he matters, how he spends the final years of his life, and what will happen when he dies.
The monarchy is a profoundly important institution in the kingdom, and Thais cannot begin to formulate a national consensus on how they want to be governed and what their society should look like in the future without addressing the momentous and controversial issue of the appropriate role of the palace in modern Thailand. It is desperately urgent, because of all the troubling unacknowledged truths hanging over Thailand, the most obvious and overwhelming is that Bhumibol is dying, and his passing will unleash a period of savage instability and uncertainty far more shattering and dangerous even than the worsening political crisis of the past five years.
As Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, wrote in his 2008 study Thailand Since the Coup:
What happens after the current king leaves the scene could be the most wrenching crisis yet. So successful has been his kingship that most Thais have come to take too much for granted what he has meant to the fabric of national life. His reign has seen Thailand go from a rustic backwater filled with thatch-roofed villages to a modern nation with gleaming skyscrapers. His has been a remarkable life… As it stands, the monarchy as embodied by King Bhumibol is at the apex of Thailand’s sociopolitical order.
The King’s popularity and legitimacy have emanated from his devotion to his people and to leadership by example. Despite his enormous wealth, he has lived a relatively modest life free of the opulence often associated with monarchs. He has worked in far-flung corners of the country in public-works projects, capturing hearts and minds… Above all, he has played the crucial role of final arbiter in a country whose politics are chronically fractious and volatile. King Bhumibol’s unsurpassed moral authority has long been Thailand’s sheet anchor, the mainstay of national stability and continuity. Once he is gone, the country will be in uncharted waters.
Bhumibol’s physical and mental deterioration has been stark over recent years. Each time he appears at a public ceremony, Thais wonder whether it will be his last. The Royal Household Bureau, responsible for official statements on Bhumibol’s health, routinely issues misleadingly bland bulletins about the king’s condition, but it is known that he suffered a stroke in 2007 and is afflicted by chronic lower-back pain and Parkinson’s disease. U.S. diplomats speculate that he had another stroke and a bout of pneumonia in late 2009, and that he has also struggled with episodes of severe depression. A secret U.S. cable says controversial Democrat Party politician Suthep Thaugsuban told the embassy in October 2009, while he was a deputy prime minister, that the king had psychological problems:
Suthep confirmed … that King Bhumibol exhibits classic symptoms of depression. Tapping his forehead, Suthep claimed that the King’s physical health was okay, but that the really [sic] worry was his state of mind, depressed at the state of affairs in his Kingdom at the end of his life.
The prospect of Bhumibol’s death is dreaded in Thailand. Many people will be genuinely heartbroken. Those Thais who idolize their monarch tend to feel the same kind of visceral and intense devotion as young children feel towards a revered parent. In her extraordinary and impassioned essay Why I Don’t Love the King, exiled activist Junya Lek Yimprasert describes how adoration of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit was ingrained in her as she grew up in a rural community 60 miles outside Bangkok:
Old pictures of the young and beautiful King and Queen, and of the prince and princesses, were always on the empty wall of our family’s house. No matter how many times we had to build or rebuild our home, these pictures were always with us, and always returned to the highest spot of the wall. They were still there on the empty wall when I last visited my home, colours faded and stained at the corners by rain drops.
As soon as I could open my eyes I saw the picture of the King, as soon as I could understand a few words I was told that we must love the King and Queen because they are our King and Queen.
We were made to believe they are the greatest of all Kings and Queens, and in those days TV was saturated with programmes about royal projects and charities to prove it. No one in my family had ever met the King, but we all loved the King because everyone said he is a good King.
When I was very small we used to go to the neighbours to watch TV. My grandmother and mother were addicted to the regular 8 pm news about the Royal Family. Making sure they watched the royal news was part of their code of practice for being a proper citizen. When the Government said light a candle for the King they did so without question, and they really did love the handsome King and the beautiful Queen, the young prince and the princesses, and never stopped commenting on how graceful they looked. Never-the-less, as small children we couldn’t wait for the royal programmes to pass, so we could continue watching the regular Thai soap-operas…
I remember when my Grandma bought pictures of the King and the Queen, each in a flaming, gold-painted frame, and hung them with great pride in the high spot of her house. And I remember how my Mum was downhearted because we couldn’t afford to buy our own.
This is how I loved my village and how we ‘loved’ the King and Queen, long before I was able to think about the meaning of love.
Thais are taught from their earliest childhood that King Bhumibol is a preternaturally talented and uniquely wise monarch who has singlehandedly brought progress and development to the nation through more than six decades of tireless and heroic effort. This is the story told by daily royal news broadcasts, school and university textbooks, official histories, national newspapers, propaganda films and royalist songs. It is, of course, a myth. The reality is much more complex and nuanced, and for all his qualities and strengths, Bhumibol is a human being with flaws and frailties just like anybody else.
Royalist propaganda in Thailand is often overblown and shrill, with uncomfortable echoes of the excesses of extreme personality cults like the regime in North Korea. Bhumibol and his family are depicted as brilliant in every field, immensely virtuous, the source of everything good that has happened to modern Thailand. Even their most mundane and unremarkable actions are presented as somehow extraordinary. Politicians, generals, bureaucrats, tycoons, newspaper editors and celebrities compete with one another to produce the most extravagant and grandiose tributes to Bhumibol’s greatness, particularly as the king’s birthday approaches each year. Often these obsequious official exaltations of the monarchy are so rabidly sycophantic that they become ludicrous rather than impressive, embarrassing rather than inspiring. Far from demonstrating respect to Bhumibol, flattering him immoderately for everything he has ever done only drowns out genuine appreciation and understanding of his real achievements.
Much more impressive is the humble but heartfelt devotion shown by millions of ordinary people. Reverence for Bhumibol is not just a product of lies and legends: it endures because it is rooted in the very personal insights Thais have discerned for themselves about the character of their king. Many of them detect a fundamental decency and kindness in Bhumibol, as well as a genuine devotion to his people. They sense a touching vulnerability, which enables them to empathise with his struggles. They believe he has always tried his best to do what he considers to be right for Thailand. And these deep, simple, human insights into King Rama IX contain a great deal of truth. The real Bhumibol Adulyadej has been masked and obscured behind decades of absurd hyperbole pumped out by the palace propaganda machine, but most Thais have seen enough of him to know one thing at least: their king is, at heart, a good man.
Many Thais cling particularly tightly to their belief in Bhumibol’s innate virtue because throughout the kingdom’s modern history there has been so little else for them to have faith in. Thai society remains disfigured and stunted by the noxious remnants of feudalism and the rigidly codified hierarchical Sakdina caste system, which legitimized and formalized the routine exploitation and abuse of those lower down the social status scale. It is understood and expected that Thais appointed to positions of power will take advantage of their status to enrich themselves: in the past, state officials received no formal salary for precisely this reason, and even in the 21st century, senior politicians, bureaucrats, military officers and police receive paltry official wages but still manage to become incredibly rich. A frank description of the behaviour of the elites in centuries past, from the 1932 book Siamese State Ceremonies by British scholar H.G. Quaritch Wales who served as an adviser to Rama VI and Rama VII, remains remarkably apposite for modern Thailand:
Officials were continually occupied in showing the necessary amount of deference to those above them, and to the king at the top, while mercilessly grinding down those beneath them in the social scale.
Thailand was further despoiled in the decades following World War II by a massive influx of American money and troops battling communism in Indochina. A society that was already inherently corrupt mutated into a full-blown mafia state. Provincial crime bosses who made fortunes from the explosive but unequal economic growth of the Vietnam War era used their cash to buy political influence after elections were revived from the 1970s. Thailand’s electoral system and parliament were massively compromised by corruption. Ministerial positions were routinely held by so-called mafia “godfathers” or their wives, children, and business cronies: they were utterly incompetent at fulfilling their official duties but exceptionally adept at embezzlement and graft. Politicians, police, military officers, tycoons and powerful criminals colluded in looting the country with impunity. Organized crime networks became intimately linked with, and indeed often indistinguishable from, the Thai state. Summarizing the prevalent view of Thailand’s political class, who he calls “the electocrats”, in his article Toppling Thaksin, Thammasat University’s Kasian Tejapira says:
Once elected, they treated politics as a kind of business, effectively selling public policy, office, concession or title deed to the highest bidder. Shameless avarice was fuelled by the need to gather enough ‘ammunition’ for election campaigns to enable them to stay in power… The Cabinet was the institutional pinnacle of Thai electocracy and the highest patronage-dispensing body whose real function, under the pretext of governing the country and managing the economy, was to misappropriate public resources, exact economic rent, and transfer these through private and factional channels to lower layers of the electocratic system.
Meanwhile, Thai society suffered corrosive upheaval and dislocation due to rapid urbanization, the cancerous growth of methamphetamine abuse, and the baleful consequences of the unrestrained expansion of the vast industrialized sex sector. Thailand became an increasingly unequal and inhumane society, where sinister and cynical forces of darkness were gaining in wealth, power and confidence.
In this blighted political and social landscape, King Rama IX appeared to be the only beacon of hope. Despite all the reasons for disgust and despair, Bhumibol’s perceived goodness allowed people to be proud of their country, proud to be Thai. Millions of Thais saw Bhumibol’s moral virtue as an inspiration, keeping the darkness at bay. They felt, in Kasian’s words, that:
The King had only the national interest at heart, and devoted himself in a wise and fatherly way to the well-being of his childlike subjects, working tirelessly and selflessly to ensure that the country remained prosperous and united. The King and his trusted Privy Councillors would only descend from this lofty realm to intervene in normal politics when absolutely necessary. Since the King was viewed as the sole non-political and purely moral being in the Thai electocratic universe, his political interventions were almost universally welcomed by the public as neither ‘political’ nor an ‘intervention’ at all, and the call for an unconstitutional use of his Royal Prerogative could be made in all ingenuousness in the name of democracy.
Ordinary people who felt powerless and exploited, at the mercy of corrupt and contemptuous local officials, venal police and emboldened criminals, regarded the king as a crucial guardian and protector. They needed to believe in him. He was all they had.
Respect for Bhumibol, however, does not imply unquestioning allegiance to the royal family and the Thai monarchy as a whole. As a secret U.S. diplomatic cable noted in May 2008:
Although the King is genuinely beloved and respected, he and the institution of the monarchy have been subject to criticism regularly over the years… The King himself is old, frail and ill, and the monarchal institution is weakening with him. The love for the Thai king is very personal — fostered by a concerted effort by the Palace for sixty years — and does not extend, at all, to his son and presumed heir.
Bhumibol’s 59-year old son and heir Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is reviled in Thailand as a sadistic thug, with none of the virtues expected in a king. His reputation was not enhanced by a video leaked in 2007 showing a private birthday party for his pet poodle Foo Foo: easy listening classics are playing on a stereo, liveried servants bring food and drinks, the prince puffs contentedly on his trademark pipe, and his third wife Srirasmi, naked apart from a thong and heels (and sometimes a hat), eats birthday cake from a plate on the floor like a dog. Vajiralongkorn has since abandoned Srirasmi for a harem of Thai Airways flight attendants and spends most of his time in Germany. Another U.S. cable noted in 2009 that:
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has spent most (up to 75%) of the past two years based in Europe (primarily at a villa at a medicinal spa 20 km outside of Munich), with his leading mistress and beloved white poodle Fufu… His current (third) wife Srirasmi and 4 year old son … reside in his Sukhothai Palace in Bangkok, but when Vajiralongkorn travels back to Bangkok, he stays with his second mistress in the retrofitted Air Force VIP lounge at Wing Six, Don Muang Airport (note: both mistresses are Thai Airways stewardesses; the Crown Prince has shifted from flying F5s to Thai Airways Boeings and Airbuses in recent years. End note). Long known for violent and unpredictable mood swings, the Crown Prince has few people who have stayed long in his inner circle.
While many Thais believe Bhumibol has protected them from Thailand’s powerful dark forces during his reign, they see Vajiralongkorn as intimately connected to shady criminals and crooked tycoons. They fear that he will not hesitate to abuse his power, and that Thailand will totally lose its moral bearings, becoming a corrupted and feral society. Many of Thailand’s people are not really royalists, loyal and devoted to whoever sits on the throne, but Bhumibolists, who support and welcome the current king’s extra-constitutional political influence but would be deeply uncomfortable if Vajiralongkorn tries to wield similar power, as he almost certainly will. And so, if the crown prince becomes Rama X, Thailand is likely to see significant national conflict over the appropriate role of the monarchy.
Queen Sirikit is also deeply and increasingly unpopular, and the fact that Thais do not slavishly admire all of the royals but form distinct and dynamic opinions about each shows that the reverence for Bhumibol is not a result of propaganda and indoctrination alone. Besides the king, only one other senior royal enjoys widespread and significant popularity: his third child and second daughter, the plump and jovial Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, known as “Princess Angel”. As a 2009 U.S. cable observed:
Sirindhorn is clearly the most beloved Thai royal after the King, bears the lion’s share of royal duties/ceremonies at this point, and serves her father in such personal tasks as recently interviewing and hiring a physio-therapist for him.
Bhumibol is well aware that of his four children, only Sirindhorn has come close to winning the hearts and minds of a majority of the population. In January 2005, U.S. ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce attended the annual Prince Mahidol awards ceremony, with King Bhumibol presiding and Princess Sirindhorn also in attendance. In a cable to Washington, classified as secret, Boyce recounted what Bhumibol had said to him:
During the audience the King showed great interest in all exchanges, and became deeply engaged in a conversation revolving around the issues of mental health and family stability, and their impact on human development. These issues are obviously near and dear to the heart of the King, and while involved in this free-flowing conversation, he made several notable remarks…
Discussing the topic of family stability, the King commented, “I understand how important it is to have both a mother and a father in a family unit. I lost my father at a very early age, and was raised by my mother. While she did a wonderful job of raising her children, she could not, alone, replace the role of a father.” …
At one point in the conversation, the King stopped and gestured towards Princess Sirindhorn, who was engaged in a side conversation with the wife of the German award winner. The King quietly said, “I have four children. But she… is the only one who ‘sits on the ground with the people.’ She never married, but she has millions of children.”
The official story is that the royal succession is already decided and will proceed smoothly and calmly: Bhumibol formally designated Vajiralongkorn as his heir in 1972. But things are not quite so simple. The overwhelming preference of Thailand’s people, expressed with surprising openness, is for Princess Angel to inherit the throne. For decades, sources with access to the palace have reported that the issue of succession has divided Bhumibol and Sirikit, with the queen backing her wayward son and the king worrying whether Vajiralongkorn will ever be suitable. Clare Booth Luce, an American journalist, diplomat and socialite, the wife of the founder and publisher of Time-Life magazines, was a friend of Sirikit. Unknown to the queen, she also shared information with U.S. intelligence agencies. Lieutenant General Eugene Francis Tighe, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1977 to 1981, revealed that:
Clare reported that the queen wore the pants and wanted her son to become the next king, but the king favours one of his daughters.
In 1977 Bhumibol elevated Sirindhorn’s status with a new royal title that signalled she was a potential successor to the throne; since then, she has been referred to in English as the crown princess. Thailand’s constitution now also allows for the possibility of a female monarch. Sirindhorn is the king’s closest companion and confidant; by contrast, Bhumibol’s relationship with Vajiralongkorn was always troubled and broke down completely two decades ago. Moreover, most of the leading figures in the royalist establishment who have dedicated themselves for decades to expanding and exalting the power of the palace utterly detest the crown prince, and the feeling is mutual. For all these reasons, a battle over the succession is inevitable when King Bhumibol dies. Things will not go smoothly at all.
The king is widely credited both in Thailand and internationally for being a crucial stabilizing influence on the nation. But the reality is that for the past eighty years at least, Thailand has been chronically unstable. The 1932 revolution that ended the system of absolute monarchy gave Siam its first constitution; since then, including interim, provisional, permanent and amended versions, Thailand is now on its thirtieth. No other country on earth has come close to matching this feat in terms of getting through the largest number of constitutions in the shortest space of time. Over the same period there have been 19 overt coup attempts by the Thai military, some successful, some not. These are astonishing statistics. Thailand’s supposed stability is another fairy tale. For decades there has been constant tension and conflict over the balance of power between the elected parliament, the palace, the military and the entrenched and archaic bureaucracy. And when Bhumibol dies, the same battles will be fought again, more bitterly than ever. As U.S. ambassador Eric G. John wrote in 2009:
Bhumibol’s eventual passing will be a watershed event in Thai history. It likely will unleash changes in institutional arrangements in Thailand, affecting the size and role of the monarchy, its relationship to the elected government and the military, and the roles of both of the latter, unmatched since the 1932 transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, which nevertheless retained the monarchy at the core of Thai national identity.
In another cable to Washington from the same year, also classified as secret, he said:
It is hard to underestimate the political impact of the uncertainty surrounding the inevitable succession crisis which will be touched off once King Bhumibol passes. Over the past year, nearly every politician and analyst, when speaking privately and candidly, regardless of political affiliation or colored perspective, has identified succession as the principal political challenge facing Thailand today, much more important than normal political issues of coalition management or competition for power, which clearly do factor into the mix of political dynamics…
A stark indication of the level of anxiety about the succession — due to the uncertainty and additional risk it will inject into investment decisions — was the collapse in the Thai stock market in October 2009 when Bhumibol’s health took a turn for the worse. Over two days, Thai equities lost nearly $13 billion in value. Because of the sensitivities, international brokerages cannot discuss the risks of succession openly with their clients, but a 2009 research note from Nomura, suppressed immediately after publication because of the controversy it caused, stated:
We believe that markets will — rightly — see the death of the king as a probable trigger for significant civil unrest.
Thais have been well aware of all this for many years. They have tried not to think about what will happen when Bhumibol dies, but they have no illusions. They have long known that the end of Rama IX’s reign will be a perilous and harrowing ordeal for the nation. Over the last five years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the inevitable and epochal battle that will define Thailand’s future is not going to begin after Bhumibol’s death. It has already started. It is happening now.
Thailand’s conflict has entered an extraordinary new phase: for the first time in the country’s history, millions of Thais are questioning and challenging the royalist fairy tales they have been told all their lives. The trigger for this was the profoundly controversial military coup of 2006, mounted by generals with intimate links to the palace to overthrow the most popular prime minister Thailand has ever had, telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. It was a shocking setback for Thai democracy and the rule of law, and many people began to rethink assumptions and beliefs they had never doubted before. Was the king really supportive of Thai democracy? Was he in control of the immensely influential royalist network? If not, who was? Did the royalists genuinely have Thailand’s best interests at heart? Was it true that the monarchy was essential for Thailand’s prosperity and national security? Was it un-Thai not to be a staunch royalist? Was it treason to even be asking these questions?
Huge changes are transforming Thailand: people even in remote villages are vastly better educated and more connected to the outside world than they were a generation ago. Thanks to the internet and community radio stations largely beyond state control, they have access to a wealth of information and new ideas. And six weeks before the 2006 coup, a book was published that overturned much of the accepted wisdom about Bhumibol and the Thai monarchy. The King Never Smiles by Paul Handley, who had lived and worked in Thailand for many years as a journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review, was the first ever serious academic biography of Bhumibol. Carefully researched, courageous and insightful, and by no means wholly unsympathetic to Bhumibol, The King Never Smiles comprehensively demolished many of the myths and fables surrounding the Thai monarchy. Its timing was fortuitous: key themes of Handley’s book were the incessant (and incessantly denied) political meddling of the palace, Bhumibol’s scepticism about democracy, and his preference for military rulers over civilian politicians; the coup provided convincing evidence of the credibility of Handley’s thesis. As Nicholas Farrelly, a fellow at the Australian National University and co-founder of the indispensable New Mandala website, wrote in a review:
Thailand has experienced seventeen coups since the Second World War, and before 2006 the last was in 1992. Since the late 1990s, many had assumed that everything (the constitution, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law) had been settled once and for all. The feeling, then, was that the soldiers were back in the barracks for good and that Bhumibol had finally helped install sustainable democratic traditions. That consensus was wrong.
Anybody hoping to confirm just how wrong that consensus had become must read Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. It traces the life of Thailand’s King in an unprecedented and critical attempt to understand the political and social role of the monarchy. At the same time, it shines light on the dark spaces surrounding the Thai royalist and politico-military elite…
The great strength of The King Never Smiles is that Handley is not blind to the robust network of people around Bhumibol who have developed his public persona and shielded him from criticism. What should already be clear is that this book should be read by anybody serious about studying democratic transitions and, in particular, the way that Thailand has struggled to reconcile ancient and modern institutions. In this context, those who continue to ignore the political role of Thailand’s King, and his backers, are naïve and short-sighted. That Bhumibol supported the coup to thwart Thaksin’s parallel power structure is, in the judgement of the best informed observers, beyond doubt. But many questions remain about the potential of any future sovereign to assert a similarly strong political role… The King Never Smiles provides unprecedented access to the hard fought battles that have come and gone in Bangkok’s sweltering heat.
Thailand’s royalist establishment was utterly appalled. Before even having seen or read the book, many Thai officials and academics were denouncing it. Efforts were even made to block its publication by Yale University Press and, even more bizarrely, to enlist the help of Yale alumni and former U.S. president George H.W. Bush to get it suppressed. As Leeds University professor Duncan McCargo observed, The King Never Smiles was no less than a “re-imagining of Thailand’s modern political history”:
For a credible foreigner — above all, an American — fluent in Thai, to publish a long, meticulously researched account that is critical of the monarch, and with Yale University Press, no less: this is the worst nightmare of the guardians of the Chakri dynasty… His book is cathartic: finally, someone has dared to say the unsayable, and those trying to understand Thai society have a new intellectual reference point from which to work.
The book received a less glowing review from Prem Tinsulanonda, the aged president of Bhumibol’s privy council, an advisory body of 19 elderly men. Prem, a retired general and former prime minister who is one of the key figures in the royalist network in Thailand, told the Far Eastern Economic Review in an interview in September 2006:
I dont like it. The nation doesnt like it. Its a hearsay book and is not based on the fact. We are worried [about] the foreigners who read it. My suggestion is please ignore that book. It’s useless.
Less than 12 hours after the interview, generals closely linked to Prem deposed Thaksin, and Prem personally escorted the coup leaders into Chitralada Palace to receive the king’s blessing for their coup. Clearly, Handley’s book was not such hearsay after all.
Besides Handley, several academics and journalists inside and outside Thailand have contributed to a hugely improved understanding of the truth about Bhumibol’s reign and helped deflate decades of misinformation and propaganda. Those Thais who have expanded our knowledge of the monarchy deserve enormous praise because they did so at serious risk to their safety. They include journalists such as Pravit Rojanaphruk, the staff of Voice TV, the Prachatai news agency led by the indefatigable Chiranuch Premchaiporn, and Fa Diew Kan magazine edited by Thanapol Eawsakul; as well as academics like Thongchai Winichakul, Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Giles Ji Ungpakorn. The anonymous author of the intriguing “Hi s tales” on Facebook deserves a special mention too. Giles lives in exile in Britain after being accused of lèse majesté; Chiranuch is embroiled in an interminable trial; lèse majesté charges have also been lodged against Somsak and Thanapol; and a complaint has been made against Pravit.
In June 2011 I resigned from Reuters news agency, with regret, after a 17 year career as an international correspondent, so that I could write frankly about Thailand too. I had become increasingly uneasy about the extent of self-censorship adopted by the foreign media, and the fact that they were not even honest enough to admit publicly to their readers and viewers that their reporting was constrained by the draconian lèse majesté law and did not tell the full story. In the spring of 2011 I got access to the entire Cablegate database of quarter of a million U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, and began work on an extensive set of stories based on more than 3,000 cables about Thailand. What made the cables so valuable was that they were written without explicit self-censorship: senior U.S. diplomats with extensive access to the royalist network and the ruling establishment spoke bluntly about the political role of the monarchy. They vastly expanded our understanding of contemporary Thai politics, and also usefully broke down more taboos, saying things that had long been considered unsayable. It was, without doubt, the biggest and most important story of my career. Reuters, depressingly but not altogether surprisingly, panicked at the prospect, worrying that its business in Thailand could suffer and that Thai staff could be put at risk. And so I quit, to publish Thailand’s Moment of Truth, an extensive study of modern Thailand and the role of the monarchy, usually referred to by the less pompous title of #thaistory, its Twitter hashtag. Three instalments have been published so far, and downloaded a combined total of more than 250,000 times. The full book-length study will be published later in 2012.
The fact that so many people are waking up from the dream world of royalist myth and fable is a healthy development for Thailand. It raises the hope that pivotal and pressing issues — the nature of Thai democracy, the appropriate role of the palace and military, the royal succession and the risks of conflict — could be debated reasonably and respectfully to allow Thailand’s people to chart their country’s course through the 21st century. Questioning and discussing the role of the monarchy does not necessarily mean abolishing it, by any means; on the contrary, a sensible and open discussion that helps form a consensus about the agreed scope and limits of royal power is essential for the Thai monarchy’s long-term survival.
Disastrously, however, Thailand’s royalist establishment has chosen the short-sighted and utterly counterproductive strategy of refusing to engage in the debate, and instead seeking to criminalize and crush discussion of the enormous challenges facing Thailand. Article 112 is an archaic law with no place in a modern and free society, and many past cases have been so farcical as to seem almost comic, until one remembers that they involve real people having their lives destroyed. The leading academic work on lèse majesté and Thailand’s defamation culture is the magisterial Truth on Trial in Thailand by U.S. academic David Streckfuss. Among the cases he discusses in his book is that of Thai student Rattana Utthaphan, who well-meaningly wrote a personal letter to Bhumibol asking him to abdicate so he could enter politics. For this crime, she was sentenced to six years in prison in 1983. Other absurd past cases are mentioned in a U.S. cable from 2009 quoting Thai lawyer Thongbai Thongpao:
Esteemed lawyer Thongbai has significant historical perspective on the law, having represented numerous lese majeste defendants. In all of his many cases, he told us September 1, he has only managed to secure one acquittal, and that was primarily because of a legal technicality. In terms of the severity of sentencing, he cited many examples of four year sentences for what he considered trifling acts: a man was convicted for suggesting that it was not necessary to hang the photos of the King and Queen in a meeting room; a newspaper columnist was jailed for ending his column with the quote, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.”
In the early years of the 21st century, enforcement of lèse majesté legislation appeared to be waning: it seemed Thailand was leaving the law behind in the past, where it belonged. But since the coup in 2006, that has changed. As Streckfuss says:
From 1992 to 2005, the average [annual] number of lèse majesté cases received by the prosecution department was a little over five. During the same 14-year period, the average number of cases prosecuted annually was 3.7. In some years, there were no new cases received (1993, 2002) nor any cases tried (2002). But since the year of the coup, there has been an astonishing and troubling change. The average annual number of lèse majesté cases from 2006 to 2009 received by the Court of First Instance, the Appeals Court, and the Supreme Court, respectively, was 100, 9 and 2; and the average annual number of cases successfully adjudicated was 53 in the lower court and 10 in the Appeals Court… Comparing the average number of cases for the periods 1992-2005 and 2006-2009, there has been a remarkable 2,000 percent increase in new cases.
The number of convictions, and the number of political prisoners languishing in Thailand’s jails for the “crime” of lèse majesté is not known, because in a particularly Orwellian development, reported in an American embassy cable in 2009, the authorities have instructed that arrests and convictions should if possible be kept secret. Streckfuss estimates that:
Given that the conviction rate for lèse majesté cases averaged 94 percent for cases tried between 1992 and 2005, there must be literally scores if not hundreds of Thais serving prison time for the crime.
Two lèse majesté convictions in late 2011 shocked Thais and made global headlines. On November 23, 61-year-old grandfather Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four SMS messages critical of Queen Sirikit to a Thai politician. During his trial, Ampon said he didn’t even know how to send text messages on a phone, and the prosecution was unable to prove that he had sent them. He was convicted anyway, because he was unable to prove that he had not. He received five years in jail for each of his four messages. The stunningly disproportionate sentence, and heartbreaking photographs of Ampon saying goodbye to his grandchildren, deeply unsettled many Thais. Even many moderate royalists were appalled. A couple of weeks later, Joe Gordon, a 55-year-old American citizen, was jailed for two and a half years for translating some of Handley’s The King Never Smiles into Thai and posting it online. Gordon was arrested on a trip to Thailand for medical treatment. He was born in Thailand but had emigrated to the United States decades ago, becoming a car salesman in Colorado, and his supposed crimes were committed in America. He was jailed in Thailand for exercising his right to freedom of speech in America. The U.S. embassy was circumspect about the incident in public: it had concluded in a 2007 cable that if an American citizen was charged with lèse majesté, “a low key approach outside the public eye would stand the best chance of success in getting him or her out of custody and out of Thailand”. But the incident was hugely embarrassing for Thailand and focused more international attention on Article 112.
At the end of 2011, news emerged that a 19-year-old Thai student, who uses the nickname Kan Thoop, or “incense stick”, had received a police summons for alleged lèse majesté over comments she made on Facebook during the violence in April and May 2010. Kan Thoop had already suffered intolerable harassment: the royalist ASTV-Manager website led a long campaign of intimidation against her, forcing her to change her name. She was rejected by two universities because of her alleged heretical views, and missed a year of study. On December 26, ASTV-Manager reported that she had been admitted to Bangkok’s Thammasat University, where she is now studying, and published her new name. This has led to a new round of online harassment, and also a Facebook campaign denouncing Thammasat’s rector for allowing Kan Thoop to study at the university. Thai royalists appear to consider it perfectly acceptable for a teenager to be subjected to this kind of persecution. Such witch hunts are by no means unusual in contemporary Thailand. Activist Chotisak Onsoong, charged with lèse majesté for refusing to stand for the royal anthem at a cinema in 2007, had his home address broadcast on radio; listeners were urged to seek him out and attack him. In 2008, union leader Jittra Cotchadet was fired from her job at underwear manufacturer Triumph International after appearing on a television talk show wearing a T-shirt designed by Chotisak that said: “Different thinking is not a crime.”
To many Thai royalists, it seems, different thinking is a crime. Many seem unable to comprehend that it is valid and indeed essential to debate Thailand’s future, and the place of the palace in that future. They assume that anybody who does not show frenzied devotion to the king is part of a malignant conspiracy to destroy the monarchy. This attitude was demonstrated in 2010 when authorities circulated a bizarre mind map supposedly illustrating the fiendish republican plot:
In 2010, ChannelNews Asia correspondent Anasuya Sanyal published the transcript of an interview with Yanaphon Youngyuen, deputy director general of the Department of Special Investigation, which illustrated the extent to which even some senior officials are gripped by paranoid delusions. Thai bureaucrats are also engaged in an unwinnable battle to try to block vast swathes of the internet in order to suppress content deemed insulting to the monarchy. As the New York Times reported in October, around 70,000 web pages have been blocked in the past four years (including some pages of my own site, zenjournalist). Last November the information and communications technology minister, Anudith Nakornthap, warned Thais and foreigners that simply clicking “like” or “share” on Facebook posts that included content critical of the monarchy was a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail. He said foreigners who casually clicked on a Facebook comment could be arrested if they subsequently came to Thailand on vacation:
If a foreigner abroad clicks ‘share’ or clicks ‘like,’ then the Thai law has no jurisdiction over that, but if there is a lawsuit filed and that person then comes into Thailand, then that person will be prosecuted.
Personally, I feel we should not talk about this and I don’t want it to go overboard. If people think Thai law is unjust or too harsh, they can go live abroad.
This kind of attitude can only widen Thailand’s divisions and worsen its conflict. In a 2009 briefing on Thailand for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ambassador Eric John spelled out the immense importance of the monarchy in Thailand’s crisis:
Few observers believe that the deep political and social divides can be bridged until after King Bhumibol passes and Thailand’s tectonic plates shift. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn neither commands the respect nor displays the charisma of his beloved father, who greatly expanded the prestige and influence of the monarchy during his 62 year reign. Some question whether Vajiralongkorn will be crowned King… Nearly everyone expects the monarchy to shrink and change in function after succession. How much will change is open to question, with many institutions, figures, and political forces positioning for influence, not only over redefining the institution of monarchy but, equally fundamentally, what it means to be Thai. It is a heady time for observers of the Thai scene, a frightening one for normal Thai.
It is essential that this fundamental redefinition of Thai politics and society happens through open and peaceful discussion and negotiation among all of the country’s people. That is their right, and it cannot and must not be denied. The people of Thailand deserve better than to have their future decided by violent conflict, prolonged repression, and cynical secret deals among unaccountable elites. Royalists need to join the debate, and sensibly and rationally make their case. There are many arguments in favour of preserving some kind of role for the monarchy in 21st century Thailand, and Thais deserve to hear them. As Streckfuss observes Truth on Trial in Thailand:
The lèse majesté law shields this overwhelming, inescapable presence in Thai society, politics and the economy. As a result, the operation of the lèse majesté law in Thailand creates a black hole of silence in the center of the Thai body politic. Political and social discourse is relegated to the fringes as whisperings and innuendo.
It is no longer acceptable to tell Thailand’s people that they are not allowed a say in their own future, and that discussing issues of pressing concern to the whole nation is some kind of crime that must be forbidden. If that continues, it will force the unavoidable conclusion that the palace is an enemy of the people, and of democracy. It will destroy the monarchy.
On his 84th birthday in December 2011, Bhumibol was wheeled out of Siriraj and loaded into a cream Volkswagen van to be driven through the streets of Bangkok to the golden-spired Grand Palace complex on the east bank of the river. Many thousands of Thais lined the route of the royal convoy, dressed in pink which is believed to be an auspicious colour for the king’s health, waving flags and clutching photographs of Bhumibol. Millions more watched the proceedings on television. Bhumibol’s birthday is traditionally an occasion for celebration in Thailand, and this one was particularly significant, marking the completion of seventh 12-year Buddhist astrological cycle by Rama IX in his current incarnation. It was a chance for Thais to show their devotion and their gratitude for all he has done for Thailand.
Dressed in an ornate robe and seated on a gleaming throne, flanked by his wife Queen Sirikit and their four children, Bhumibol gave a short speech from a balcony of the Grand Palace to the assembled ranks of politicians, generals and officials standing in the sweltering heat in the courtyard below. In a rasping and faltering voice, and clutching the text with shaking hands, he intoned the same mantra he has been repeating to the Thai people for decades, calling on them to be united and do their duty. In the evening, vast crowds converged on Sanam Luang, the old cremation ground outside the whitewashed palace walls, making ritual offerings to a towering portrait of Bhumibol and lighting candles in his honour. Similar ceremonies were held in towns and villages across the kingdom, and Thai communities around the world. Families watching the live coverage from home also lit candles as they stood to attention in front of their television sets and sang Bhumibol’s birthday anthem. As the celebrations ended, fireworks lit up the sky over Bangkok.
Thais are famous for their life-affirming ability to find a way to smile even when their hearts are broken, and to kindle sparks of fun and laughter to sustain them in the bleakest of circumstances. But as Thailand lurches ever deeper into conflict and despair, its people are finding that their ability to make light of the darkness is deserting them. Great tides of sorrow and fear are swamping Thailand, rarely acknowledged but apparent to all. The saddest thing about the seventh-cycle celebrations for Bhumibol was how clear it was that the gaiety was forced and the smiles were fake. The pageantry and spectacle, which Thais have always done with such great panache, seemed suddenly hollow and inadequate. Severe flooding that had inundated central Thailand and some parts of Bangkok in the months before led to the ceremonies being scaled back, and many Thais were thinking of another elderly grandfather besides Bhumibol: lèse majesté victim Ampon, starting a 20-year jail sentence for a trifling offence he may not even have committed, separated from his children and grandchildren, his laryngeal cancer left untreated.
But there seemed to be, at least, one piece of good news to coincide with Rama IX’s birthday: the publication of King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, a major new book on his life and philosophy. It is a handsome tome: the 383-page biography is illustrated throughout with fascinating high-quality photographs and weighs 2 kg (more than my hardback Oxford edition of the collected works of Shakespeare, and well over twice the weight of The King Never Smiles).
The book was created by a vast team overseen by Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister and proud royalist who was described by U.S. ambassador Boyce in 2005 as “perhaps Thailand’s most widely respected elder statesman”. On the editorial advisory board chaired by Anand were nine more distinguished Thai officials, including some identified as the king’s closest allies and confidantes in a remarkable secret 2009 cable on palace power networks. As Michael Montesano, visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, has observed, the advisory board represents “a group of central figures in Thailand’s network monarchy”.
Working with these stalwarts of the establishment was a team of foreign academics and journalists. Three names stand out: David Streckfuss, whose writing on lèse majesté has been brave and insightful; Porphant Ouyyanont, associate professor of economics at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University who has produced pioneering work on the wealth of the highly secretive Crown Property Bureau; and Chris Baker, a historian who has produced several superb books and articles on Thailand, mostly in collaboration with his wife Pasuk Phongpaichit. Streckfuss, Porphant and Baker have shown themselves to be independent-minded and resourceful academics who are not afraid to go against the prevailing intellectual current, and their participation in the biography of Bhumibol lends the project a great deal of extra credibility. The journalists on the team, meanwhile, were a group of longtime U.S. and British residents of Bangkok who have mainly worked as freelancers and stringers in recent years, doing assignments for news organizations, travel guides, coffee-table books, inflight magazines, hotel brochures and the like.
In a glowing account of the high-society launch party for the book, the Bangkok Post reported:
Short of an authorised biography, the book stands to become the most comprehensive tome on His Majesty the King that has been published to date due to the panel of experts who are on the editorial advisory board led by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, as well as the heavyweights in academic and journalistic circles who contributed to the book.
Anand, meanwhile, told a news conference:
We talk about both sides relating to the monarchy. We are not hiding the truth, or running away from debates… The Thai monarchy has been subject to heavy criticism in the past few years not based on facts, so I have used my role as an adviser to tell the truth to foreign audiences. The book features accurate information, which is fair to all sides, and is regarded as a reference for anyone without true knowledge about the monarchy.
Finally, it seemed, Thailand was getting what it so desperately needed: a sensible, accurate, honest account of Bhumibol’s life and his contribution to Thailand. Instead of running away from debate, eminent royalists had put their heads together and, working with respected foreign academics, produced a book they promised would be groundbreaking. Instead of silence and suppression, Thais would be told the truth.
Anxious to get my hands on a copy, I ordered it by mail (I was not able to buy it in person in Thailand as special branch police have warned me that if I ever return there again I risk arrest and imprisonment because of what I have written). One day in December, I collected the hefty parcel at a shipping company warehouse near the Singapore docks, impatiently tore off the wrapping in the taxi home, and began to read.