Students stand in front of a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok

Degrees of deception

A New York Times article from August 1962 on a long-forgotten spat between Thai royalists and the Australian National University reveals an uncomfortable fact about King Bhumibol Adulyadej:

Thais are taught that after becoming king following the tragic shooting of his brother Ananda on June 9, 1946, Bhumibol returned to Lausanne in Switzerland to complete his studies, finally returning for good in late 1951. As elderly royalist and staunch “king’s man” Anand Panyarachun says in his foreword to the latest official biography of the monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work:

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.

It is one of many deceitful statements in a profoundly dishonest book, because in fact Bhumibol never completed his studies at all.

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 degree. As John Stanton wrote in the February 20, 1950, issue of Life magazine:

When his brother died, it was felt that the new king should switch his educational emphasis from architecture, which he was then studying, to law. Dutifully Phumiphon attended a law course at Lausanne University, but because of his auto accident studying gave him such a headache that he has not been back since. Since then, however, he has shown his regard for the law by the pleasant little ceremony with which he greets each new day: awakened by one of his twin aides, he takes from him a law book along with his coffee and croissants. Occasionally the king looks at the book. Other times he uses it as a prop for his pillow and lies back to contemplate the ceiling. In these restful moments his thoughts generally wander to music, more specifically to Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach, the king has declared, “is the daddy of us all.”

After a suitable period of such reflection the king (so each of his Lausanne days has usually gone) rises and proceeds to his gadget-cluttered study. Here he smilingly confronts a piano (with organ attachment), desk, movie screen, movie projector, film-editing machinery, radios, wire recorders and models of ships of the Siamese navy. Amid this disarray King Phumiphon attends to the mail from Bangkok. Mostly the mail is light, a fill-in on the local situation from his uncle, Prince Regent Rangsit of Chainad, or a few bills to be paid. Then the king lunches with his mother and spends the afternoon out taking pictures if the weather is good, indoors working over his musical scores if it rains. Evenings he spends chatting with his mother, reading the Bangkok magazines and technical books on photography or, occasionally, touring the local nightspots. About once a week a group of boys come in for their jam session.

Stanton depicts Bhumibol as an idle and feckless young man, but there may well have been another reason for his Lausanne lassitude: sorrow and depression. Bhumibol had accidentally killed his beloved brother Ananda in Bangkok’s Grand Palace in 1946 — something that has been officially denied and covered up ever since — and the tragedy has haunted him. Previously jovial and fond of practical jokes, Bhumibol has famously rarely been seen smiling in public in the 66 years since Ananda’s fatal shooting.

His behaviour in Lausanne as a heartbroken young student set the pattern for the rest of his reign. He has sought solitude in his study most days of his life, tinkering with gadgets and listening to radios, and has sought solace in regular jazz jam sessions, one of his few apparent sources of pleasure.

One of the most poignant scenes in the BBC documentary Soul of a Nation, made with the explicit cooperation of the palace and broadcast in 1980, captures Bhumibol’s great loneliness as he sits in his study in one of his palaces, in the Phuphan mountains in Isaan province:

Bhumibol’s failure to get a degree from Lausanne was the reason the Australian National University refused to award him in honorary doctorate in 1962, as the New York Times story hints as tactfully as possible.

But many other universities — mostly in Thailand — have been less reluctant to give Bhumibol doctorates to honour him. In 1997 he captured the world record for the most honorary degrees held by anyone. Since then, he has faced one key rival for this accolade — Father Theodore Hesburgh, formerly President of Notre Dame University in the U.S., who has snatched the world record back with more than 150 honorary doctorates.

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009, Hesburgh was less than complimentary about his royal rival:

His closest competitor for the title of King of Honorary Doctorates is an actual king: Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. In 1997, the king claimed to have 136 honorary degrees, surpassing Father Hesburgh’s total at the time. For his part, Father Hesburgh isn’t particularly impressed with the king. “His degrees are from high schools and dinky little places in Thailand,” says the Roman Catholic priest. He adds, “Thailand is a land of fantasy.”

The Australian National University, meanwhile, continues to irk Thailand’s royals. It hosts the superb New Mandala blog run by Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly, the best English-language forum by far for online discussion of Thailand’s monarchy and the tattered fantasies that surround it. For anyone interested in learning the truth about Thailand, it is a very good place to look.

As Pavin Chachavalpongpun reported in 2011, the ANU and New Mandala’s founders have faced considerable pressure from the Thai authorities:

The embassy indicated to some members of the ANU community that they should not expect cooperation from Thai government agencies or officials in Thailand, given that they are from the ANU. Thai students, both at ANU and elsewhere, have been warned not to have contact with New Mandala. Those associated with New Mandala are not welcome in Thailand. It has also been reported that the ANU was offered Thai government funding for a Thai studies center, on the unstated but obvious condition that New Mandala’s critical activities cease. The ANU declined the offer and, as reported, the financial support went to Melbourne University instead.

Despite their claims to the contrary, it’s clear academic scrutiny of the monarchy remains unacceptable to Thailand’s royalists.