'The King Never Smiles': L'etat, c'est moi

The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej
By Paul Handley.
499 pages. Yale University Press. $38.00.

The history of modern Thailand suffers from a crucial gap by depicting the royalty as an innocent bystander to struggles for power and mentioning it only in passing for benign apolitical leadership. Strictly enforced laws of lese majesty in the Buddhist kingdom censor attempts to disclose the monarchy's hand in numerous coups d'états, the latest being the overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September.

"The King Never Smiles," by a former foreign correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review, dives into the taboo waters of the deep-set involvement of the Thai monarchy in politics under King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is a critique of the world's longest reigning monarch and his machinations for domination at the cost of scruples. It unveils the throne's self-protecting alliances with army bosses, drug dealers, bankers, monopolists, and the C.I.A., and evaluates the long-term damage done to Thai politics by the king's obsession for controlling state and society.

Bhumibol was born in 1927 in Boston to Prince Mahidol, the half brother of the then Thai king. Brought up on French, English, Latin, and German vocabulary in Switzerland, he showed greater ability than Ananda, his older brother, who acceded to the throne in 1935. With hobbies like photography, fast cars, and jazz music, he was initially more like a European bon vivant than the sibling of a Buddhist dhammaraja (virtuous king) of the Chakri dynasty. When Ananda died mysteriously from a gun shot in 1946, teenaged Bhumibol was unexpectedly pushed into kingship. The theory that Bhumibol himself killed his brother was never closely investigated as the entire monarchy would have come into disrepute, especially at a time when constitutionalists had the upper hand in Thai politics.

A formidable team of princes and palace defenders longed for a restoration of the absolute monarchy and used young Bhumibol in the late 1940's to attack elected governments. In 1947, the military ejected the prime minister in a coup with palace consent and royalists helped draft a new constitution to the palace's benefit. Eyeing Thailand as a bulwark against communism, the United States helped buttress monarchical revival over the next 40 years. Taking the cue, monarchists branded republican critics as communists and persecuted them violently. "Bhumibol was shaped into a potent icon of the Cold War, and the U.S. became his throne's guarantor" (p. 105).

To create a sense of omnipresence for his subjects, Bhumibol assiduously restarted Buddhist-Hindu rituals and ceremonies and appropriated even Constitution Day into a paean for the Chakri lineage. A huge fervor was whipped up on the discovery of white elephants as a sign of the king's spiritual greatness. Palace brokers skillfully and aggressively rebuilt the royal fortune in real estate and the stock market. Palace donations for charity ballooned in size and were widely publicized. Royal projects to fight poverty and rural backwardness came to form the core of Bhumibol's reputation vis-à-vis the vilified government and bureaucracy. Using techniques of mass manipulation, the king was portrayed as the undisputed master of social welfare and absolute paragon of selfless sacrifice who stood "above politics."

In 1951, the Thai military undertook a coup and stripped Bhumibol of the powers that he was slowly regaining. The king was threatened with removal or exposure as Ananda's killer if he did not cooperate with the junta and maintain an air of normality for the next four years. Shrinking from an overt fight, the palace reverted to reinforcing the traditional religious bases of royal support. "By not being seen to seek political power, the throne would prove itself an able rival to the generals" (p. 119). Through canny self-promotion, the king stole a notch over corrupt army men as a true Buddhist visionary. Simultaneously, the palace exploited rivalries within the junta and authored a special relationship with the C.I.A.-affiliated Border Patrol Force.

Rural tours in 1955 generated great excitement among the peasantry to see their king and convinced the masses that Bhumibol was superior to the venal police, bureaucracy, and merchants. As the key to spiritual hegemony, the royalist monopoly over ecclesiastical positions was retained and the king himself ordained as a novice monk in 1956. On the occasion of Buddhism's 2,500th anniversary, the palace undermined the prime minister and wholeheartedly endorsed a pro-Bhumibol military faction to seize power in 1957.

Starting with Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the 1957 coup inaugurated a tradition of king-worshipping autocrats. A confident Bhumibol declared that Western democracy was alien and unnecessary and warned of the coming "red menace." Triumphal state visits to non-communist countries in the 1960's sealed his external political recognition and were televised back home in public relations blitzes. The palace awarded decorations calculatedly to deepen its constituency among the wealthy and influential classes. Royalists reinforced the king's divinity and exaggerated brilliance by commandeering government ministries of education and religion. With the monarchy back at the center of Thai national culture, Sarit's successor generals had no choice but to defer to the king for their own legitimacy.

Stifling dissident views, a generation of social scientists were sacked from academia or simply hushed for questioning royalism. Repression of activists ironically gave birth to the Communist Party of Thailand, against which Bhumibol adopted a hawkish stance. In 1967, the king personally negotiated the terms for allocating Thai soldiers to the American war in Vietnam. Stressing dhamma-based selflessness and unity, he derided pro-democracy and antiwar agitators. In 1971, the palace blessed yet another coup amid rising turbulence. During the mass protests for a new constitution in 1973, Bhumibol persuaded the generals to offer sops to get the students off the streets. Eventually, when the demonstrators forced the junta to flee the country, the king paradoxically claimed the moral high ground for restoring democracy.

In 1976, Bhumibol gave a quiet nod to the removal of the prime minister by conservative forces opposed to the "leftward drift." The close palace-military relationship exacerbated rampant indiscipline and excesses of the army brass. Street enforcing fascist movements arose directly under the monarch to terrorize the left and anyone who dared question the regime. Bhumibol overruled the interim prime minister's démarche to the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Thailand, a humiliation that led to his loss in the elections. Rightist monks with palace links went to the extent of claiming that killing students and communists was a "Buddhist duty" (p. 232).

On Oct. 6, 1976, with the king's storm troopers in front, a horrifying massacre of more than 100 persons was committed as palace favorite generals again seized the reins. Handley assesses that frustration at the failure of the crown's investments and pet development schemes was the key to the king's descent into "reactionary panic" (p. 247). With Bhumibol's imprimatur, a surge of arrests, searches, and assassinations were carried out for alleged "royal desecration." The Democracy Monument in Bangkok was intended to be razed to the ground "because it was not associated with anything royal" (p. 261). A protest "could be permitted if it was an act of allegiance to the king" (p. 266).

In 1977, when moderate generals staged a coup without Bhumibol's consent, the king snubbed the new order. With characteristic persistence, he stepped up ritual appearances, resumed rural development activities, and rebuilt the palace's circle of allies. In 1980, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda was installed in power via a "royal coup" to run a "government of the king." The Bhumibol-Prem partnership fostered unprecedented adulation for the throne, turning even strictly religious holidays into royal grandstanding. Government departments marshaled large public displays of fealty and the entire resources of the state were placed at Bhumibol's disposal for economic projects whose credit accrued to the king alone. The effect was that more and more Thais "looked beyond the government to their king to escape from misery" (p. 291).

Numerous personal scandals of the royal family were covered up in the 1980's as the king's dedication to Buddhism was over-advertised. However, the growth of an urban middle class meant that the public was skeptical of the throne's partisanship in the legislature. Poor farmers, scientists, intellectuals, and N.G.O.'s attacked royalists for their long history of environmental destruction and mistreatment of displaced persons. Unsigned leaflets circulated on Bhumibol's 60th birthday decrying royal self-perpetuation and misbehavior. It coincided with revelations of the sale of royal honors for commercial benefit.

The elected civilian government of 1989 bowed to changes in Thai society and played down old royal culture. Royal favorites were shunted out of office and the king's commercial interest monopolies were broken. Army commanders tried to harness the palace's discontent and Bhumibol was receptive by openly expressing disappointment with the government. Following the script of earlier takeovers, once the king indicated that a coup was acceptable, palace-favored generals took over again in 1991 to save Thailand from "parliamentary dictatorship." Bhumibol went on to call democracy a "highbrow ideal that could weaken society" (p. 343). He did not question methodical suppression of pro-democracy protesters and laid the ideological foundation for a massacre in May 1992 that killed several dozens of marchers. Unrepentant generals remained in power knowing that Bhumibol had a "consistent bias against popular movements" (p. 359). The king rejected knowledgeable Thai and foreign opinions that the country badly needed democratic institutionalization.

In the early 1990's, Bhumibol admonished Chuan Leekpai's government as incompetent and utilized the military to thwart the civilian government. Against the official policy line, the king encouraged the Thai army to assist the military junta in Burma and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. N.G.O.'s were subjects of special royal ire for opposing his ill-conceived hydroelectric dams. To woo urban Thais, Bhumibol invested substantial sums into countering Bangkok's traffic snarls. By going public with pseudo-economic ideas christened as the "New Theory," he sought to establish his image as a genius in science and magic.

In the era of globalization, new ways were devised by the palace to win the loyalty of upstart tycoons and the nouveau riche. When the Asian financial crisis hit Thailand in 1997 and wiped out palace income, royalist dealers mounted a massive bailout with scarce government funds. Telecom magnate Thaksin Shinawatra made generous donations to the cash-strapped palace in return for gaining a share in the media market. As premier from 2001, Thaksin tried to opportunistically use the throne for his own ends and paid the price when Bhumibol "weighed in again" in 2006 and plotted his downfall (p. 426).

Handley concludes that Bhumibol essentially impedes Thailand's transition from kingdom to a modern nation-state. He primes the public to taint democracy, secular laws, and constitutions so that the alternative of "dhammocracy" is the only option left. He obstructs political reform by nurturing mass cynicism for elected authorities and contributes to rising criminality by undermining the rule of law. With an uncertain dynastic succession in the prospects, the 79-year-old patriarch risks plunging the country into chronic instability once he is no longer at the helm. Such is the legacy of this cold-blooded Chakri king who always puts himself above the interests of his people.

*L'etat, c'est moi is French for "I am the state," a phrase popularly attributed to Louis XIV of France.

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