Oh, just a touch!

Just a wee little bit of Thai politics. Wee little bit!

New York Times – A Banned Book Challenges Saintly Image of Thai King

I am personally half way through this big ol’ book myself. (And no, I haven’t gone back to it much. Kind of burned out on it right now. Perhaps I should return it to my Demi-boss…)

Here’s the content of that article:

A Banned Book Challenges Saintly Image of Thai King


JAKARTA, Indonesia, Sept. 24 — When soldiers and tanks rolled onto the streets of Bangkok last week and the king appeared on television with the generals, it was not the first time Thailand’s wildly popular monarch had given his blessing to a military takeover.

A new and comprehensive history of the Thai modern monarchy, written by an American journalist, Paul M. Handley, and banned in Thailand, argues that in his 60-year reign King Bhumibol Adulyadej has generally exercised a preference for order over democracy.

In doing so, Mr. Handley said, the king has put the preservation of the institution of the monarchy ahead of a democratic Thailand.

The book, “The King Never Smiles,” presents a direct counterpoint to years of methodical royal image-making that projects a king beyond politics, a man of peace, good works and Buddhist humility. It also runs counter to how most Thais see their king, as a man of mystique and charisma but also as a bastion of Thailand’s moves to modernity.

The book’s publisher, Yale University Press, said it came under heavy pressure from the Thai government not to publish it.

The director of Yale University Press, John Donatich, said the pressure included a visit to New Haven by a delegation of Thai officials, including the cabinet secretary general, Bowornsak Uwanno, and the Thai ambassador to the United States, Virasakdi Futrakul.

Mr. Donatich said he ruled out canceling publication of the book, and copies are now on sale in Asian capitals and the United States. But he did agree, he said, to their request that publication be delayed until July, a month after the June 9 celebrations in Bangkok of King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary on the throne and his 80th birthday.

“We didn’t want to be accused of exploiting the event,” Mr. Donatich said.

The televised coverage of the gala provided an unusual look at the court’s unyielding protocol that emphasizes a godly king above ordinary mortals. In one live segment, white-liveried attachés could be seen running ahead of the king to open an elevator door, and then lying prostrate on the floor as the king and his wife passed by.

Mr. Handley, who worked for 13 years as a journalist in Thailand, does not argue with the king’s unequalled status among the people or his dedication to rural development projects. He writes that King Bhumibol’s prestige has “survived unscathed by the virtue of his sheer longevity and his personality — earnest, hardworking, gentle, with an impeccably simple lifestyle.”

But his book does note that the king sided with a brutal army takeover in 1976, and in 1992 waited three days before stopping a four-star general from ordering troops to fire on demonstrators.

Much of what Mr. Handley writes is not new, and most of the facts are not in dispute, reviewers and Thai historians say. It is the book’s interpretation of the facts that can be disputed, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

He disagreed, he said, with the argument that the trouble with Thailand’s democracy lay with the king.

“That Thai democracy is weak because of the king — I don’t think so,” Mr. Thitinan said. In fact, he said, the king had approved the 1997 Constitution, the most democratic so far, and that was abolished last week

That Constitution worked well, he said, until Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted last Tuesday, was acquitted of asset concealment by the constitutional court in 2001, a decision the king had nothing to do with.

The Yale press agreed to consider some factual errors that the Thais said were of concern. In the end, Mr. Donatich said, the Thais submitted only three or four minor corrections, like the correct title of a royal daughter’s thesis. “He did his homework,” Mr. Donatich said of the author.

A portion of a document from the Thai cabinet that appeared on a Thai Web site and appearing, by all accounts, to be authentic, listed the ways the Thais tried to prevent publication, and if it went ahead, how to block the book’s distribution in Thailand.

According to the document, the government contacted the American law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene and MacRae, which told it that publication would be impossible to stop on constitutional grounds. Such efforts would generate unwanted publicity, the lawyers advised.

The document said the authorities had banned the book in Thailand on the grounds that it was a threat to stability. It said Thai officials had contacted the Yale University president, Richard Levin, and had sought the help of former President George H. W. Bush, an alumnus of Yale.

For fans of royals as royals, Mr. Handley offers up plenty of what might be classified as high-class dish, like a recounting of the mystery surrounding the death of the king’s elder brother, Ananda, who was found in 1946 in his bed with a bullet through his head six months after being crowned king. (The official version at the time was that Ananda had accidentally killed himself.)

King Bhumibol was born in the United States, grew up in Switzerland and married the lithe, pretty Princess Sirikit, a favorite of the 1960’s jet set, who by the 1980’s had weathered into a much more fulsome version of a queen with her own court favorites, expensive tastes and pet charities.

The book describes their only son, Vajiralongkorn, as a willful man prone to violence, fast cars and dubious business deals. It may well be, Mr. Handley suggests, that the king’s favorite daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, who is a dutiful royal with wide-ranging interests in rural development and architecture, will be his successor.

“Bhumibol’s most fundamental failing is the Achilles’ heel of every monarchy: he has been unable to guarantee an orderly succession to a wise, selfless, and munificent king like himself,” the book concludes.

1 Comment

  1. Nui   •  

    Oakley, I would really like to hear your comments about the stuff you’ve read in this book. I read some reviews of the book myself, and refuse to touch it. It would be like consuming poison and my immune system can’t stomach that just yet.

    Have you read “The Revolutionary King”, written by William Stevenson? It’s difficult to find, out of print but can probably find used ones.

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