Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Revisiting a touchy subject

Here is my original review of Paul Handley's 'The King Never Smiles':

"Overall it is a great read, particularly if one is aware of the spin.
The book is clearly well researched, and with my limited knowledge of Thai history I am in no position to dispute any historical facts.
There are enough side comments in the book that lead me to doubt Handley’s declaration in the preface:
“I have never had any purpose but to satisfy my own curiosity and then to tell a more complete story of Bhumibol’s life and tenure on the throne”
Just the title of the book gives some indication of where Handley is coming from.
In his defence, I suppose from a commercial viewpoint it was necessary to have a more controversial theme, because merely regurgitating the 60th anniversary commemoration literature was unlikely to be a best seller even in Thailand, let alone outside.

No pictures are very unusual for a biography of this type – was copyright a factor ? I am sure Handley could have chosen some interesting photo’s of the various players if he had wanted to - has Handley offered any explanation for the lack of pictures in the book?

Handley wants us to accept that the King never smiles as part of the overall grand scheme, but with constant political bickering and people still suffering, why would the monarch want to be seen smiling – It would actually be offensive if the king went about his public duties smiling away, while his countries problems had yet to be alleviated.
We must also remember that the king lost both his father and his brother early in his life, and those events together with having to become monarch would surely have an influence - I imagine being a monarch would be quite a burden.

Another theme in the book is that the image of the king has been carefully cultivated during his reign via an orchestrated propaganda campaign to increase popularity of the monarchy. There may be some truth in that assertion, however in my opinion Handley has overplayed this matter.
He contends that the royal rituals and ceremonies are all part of this grand plan, but rituals are what royals do everywhere around the world (that’s just what they do – always have, probably always will).
For example Handley makes note of the various ceremonies after the death of Ananda as though they were also part of the grand plan, and in doing so he discounts or ignores the possibility that the family & the people felt a genuine sense of loss – in particular it would have been very hard for Bhumibol losing his brother and closest companion/friend.

It is also clear that the royals still had widespread popularity even before Bhumibol’s ascension to the throne - Handley even documents the large street gatherings to greet the young Mahidol’s during their first visit to Thailand, and the large gatherings for Ananda’s funeral ceremonies.

So rather than some grand plan, I think it can more properly be characterized as giving the people what they want – they expect rituals, they want the king to be considered a great man, a musician, sportsman, scientist, inventor, composer – it makes them feel good.

The royal charity works are also characterized as being part of the grand plan, but an alternative view is that the King genuinely wants to improve the situation in the country (the book documents the constant theme in the kings speeches and his preoccupation with droughts, floods, cooperative farming and sufficiency - rather than being a sinister way of advancing himself, I think it is clear that Bhumibol is trying to improve things)

Handley does a good job documenting the political events since 1932 together with the shortcomings of the leading politicians over that time.
Given the various flaws in most of the politicians, it is my opinion Handley has not made a strong case that things would have been any better without having Bhumibol on the scene, and it is fairly obvious that things could have been much worse.

The book also seems to imply that Western style democracy/capitalism is the best system for Thailand, without really making the case as to how things would be any better under that system and whether it would successfully translate to the Thai situation.
In my opinion Handley has failed to negate the King’s vision of unity being better than conflict, and communal work & moderation being better than capitalistic individual desires.

Handley offers some positive suggestions (in the last chapter) regarding the need for the monarchy to adapt and remake itself to ensure its survival.
It is obvious that the succession situation needs to be resolved and preferably before Bhumibol passes.
Here’s my suggestion: - Having acquired wisdom with maturity, the prince recognizes that his past actions make him unsuitable to be king and he withdraws in favor of his sister. Brother and sister work together to groom the prince’s children for the role after the princess’s reign ends.

OK that solves the succession issue, now let’s write a new constitution".

The above review was done in April 2007 and was originally posted at comment #33 of this very long thread over at New Mandala.

I generally still stand by my review, however events since the 2006 coup have strengthened Handley's argument.

Some of the recent comments to that New Mandala thread provide some fine examples of why a vision of unity and harmony should not mean conformity.

The Democrat led government would be wise to reconsider it's current blitz on websites etc as that combined with the spate of lese majeste cases risks doing more harm than good for the monarchy.

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