The King Never Smiles
The King Never Smiles book cover
|Author||Paul M. Handley|
The King Never Smiles is an unauthorized biography of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej by Paul M. Handley, a freelance journalist who lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Thailand. It is published by Yale University Press and was released in 2006. The book was banned in Thailand before publication, and the Thai authorities have blocked local access to websites advertising the book.
The publicity materials at the Yale University Press website originally described the book as telling "the unexpected story of (King Bhumibol Adulyadej's) life and 60-year rule — how a Western-raised boy came to be seen by his people as a living Buddha, and how a king widely seen as beneficent and apolitical could in fact be so deeply political, autocratic, and even brutal... Blasting apart the widely accepted image of the king as egalitarian and virtuous, Handley convincingly portrays an anti-democratic monarch who, together with allies in big business and the murderous, corrupt Thai military, has protected a centuries-old, barely modified feudal dynasty."
The New York Times noted the book "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." and, "The book describes [the King's only son], Vajiralongkorn, as a willful man prone to violence, fast cars and dubious business deals."
Censorship in Thailand
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Well before its release, in January 2006, the Thai Information and Communications Ministry banned access to the book and blocked access from Thailand to the book's page on the Yale University Press website and at Amazon.com. In a statement dated 19 January 2006, Thai National Police Chief General Kowit Wattana said the book has "contents which could affect national security and the good morality of the people."
On 19 July 2006, ThaiDay, an English-language Thai paper, reported that the Thai government made great efforts to suppress the book, even contacting former American president George H. Bush and the president of Yale University, Richard C. Levin, to enlist their help.
In February 2007, the Chula Book Centre, the main bookstore of state-run Chulalongkorn University, removed Chulalongkorn University professor Giles Ungphakorn's 2007 book A Coup for the Rich from its shelves after a manager of the book store found that it listed The King Never Smiles as a reference. State-run Thammasat University Bookstore quickly followed suit, refusing to sell the book on March 6. However, Thammasat University's rector later reversed this decision and ordered the university bookstore to sell the book.
In October 2011, Thai-born American Joe Gordon was sentenced to two and a half years in prison by a Bangkok judge for defaming the royal family by translating sections of the book into Thai and posting them online. The judgement caused international concern as Gordon had published the extracts several years previously while living in the US and was detained only after returning to Thailand in May 2011 to seek medical treatment.
The Handley book was published six years after the first biography of King Bhumibol, The Revolutionary King by William Stevenson. Handley commented on Stevenson's book, pages 437-439 of The King Never Smiles:
"Ten years earlier, Bhumibol had invited William Stevenson, the author of the original Intrepid, to write the book. Stevenson lodged in the princess mother's Srapathum Palace and was provided research support and unprecedented interviews with court staff and the king himself ... The result was a book that presents Bhumibol as truly inviolate, magical, and godly ... the book is chock-full of the standard Ninth Reign mythology, matching the view of the palace and royal family projected in Thai publications ... When it came out, the book proved a misadventure. Stevenson was liberal with style and careless with facts to the point of embarrassing the palace. His errors were legion. The book opened with a map that showed Thailand in possession of significant portions of Laos and Burma, and put the king's Hua Hin palace 300 kilometers and a sea away from where it should be. It ended with a genealogical chart naming Rama VII as the son of his brother Rama VI ... (But) Thousands of copies circulated in Thailand, and the general reaction was to castigate the author's failings while not questioning the essence of his story, the magical and sacral monarchy of Bhumibol Adulyadej."—Paul M. Handley
"Thais dislike seeing in print careless references to their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the reigning Ninth Rama of the Chakri dynasty. The king is venerated as a guardian of ancient traditions that are believed to have saved the Thai people from imperialists, communists and neocolonialists. They will disapprove of Paul Handley's gossipy, unfair account of this apotheosized man, the world's longest-reigning monarch. Mr. Handley casts the king as an enemy of democracy who, to solidify his once-shaky authority, allied himself with scheming generals and crooked politicians. None of this can be supported by the facts ... Mr. Handley focuses more upon the king's allegedly Machiavellian virtues than his spiritual ones. He writes, 'Bhumibol's restoration of the power and prestige of the throne was ... the fruit of a plodding, determined, and sometimes ruthless effort by diehard princes to reclaim their birthright, [and] Bhumibol's unquestioning commitment to the restoration under their tutelage.' ... Mr. Handley has largely turned King Bhumibol's story into a political screed to suit the prejudices of those with a stake in sidelining the monarch."—William Stevenson
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The book has had a generally positive reception among international critics and scholars. The New York Review of Books called it, "one of the most important books on Thailand to appear in English." It further noted that, "The originality of Handley's book lies in his tough but I think fair-minded analysis of the revival of royal authority under King Bhumibol."
In a review in the New Left Review, Duncan McCargo, a lecturer from the University of Leeds who wrote several articles on the "network monarchy" of Bhumibol and his proxies, called The King Never Smiles an "important book," that was, "fluently written and grounded in very considerable research." McCargo said that while Handley's account, "draws on insights into the Thai monarchy from a range of scholars and writers, including Christine Gray, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian and MR Sukhumbhand Paripatra," his narrative, "moves far beyond the parameters of these precursors. It has a salience and an urgency well beyond that of any ordinary biography..." McCargo praised Handley's "understanding of Bhumibol as a political actor, as the primary architect of a lifelong project to transform an unpopular and marginalized monarchical institution—on the verge of abolition more than once—into the single most powerful component of the modern Thai state." McCargo also praised Handley's "brilliantly intuitive grasp of the seedy interplay between money and power," regarding the workings of the Crown Property Bureau. In addition, McCargo noted Handley's "evident empathy with his subject."
Critical reception in Thailand varied. Royalist Thai media tycoon and talk-show host Sondhi Limthongkul informally criticized the book as "full of gossip" and called Paul Handley "aggressive", "highhanded", "sassy", "derogatory to Asians", and "insolent even to his own parents".
Chris Baker, an independent academic residing in Thailand who wrote a report praising Bhumibol's self-sufficient economy theories for the United Nations, reviewed the book in the Asia Sentinel. Baker praised the book, but said that in its later chapters, it ignored the role of the Thai elite and middle class in reimagining Bhumibol as a symbol of democracy. Baker said that the middle class was key in "rewriting history to cast the king as a peace-maker in 1973 and 1992, glossing over 1976 altogether, and ignoring the 1932 revolution to make democracy seem to be a gift from the throne." Baker also said that the section of the book covering the 2005-2006 political crisis (which was still occurring at the time of the book's publication) included unspecified errors and failed to explain why various groups seized on the monarchy as the focus of opposition to the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Baker said that although the book introduced little that was new for experts, it did bring everything together, including many obscure sources, in a way that "connects the dots of a complex and important story with great narrative skill and very elegant prose." Furthermore, he said that the book did not "stray off to imagine what is going on in the king's mind." He noted that the book was "far from perfect," but was still "streets ahead of the competition, especially the hilariously error-prone effort of William Stevenson seven years ago."
Socialist activist and political scientist Giles Ungphakorn reviewed the book for Prachatai online newspaper (his brother, Jon Ungpakorn was the Secretary General of the foundation that ran the online newspaper). In his review, he praised the book for its evidence-backed analysis while disagreeing with some major points in the book. He stated that Handley underestimated the historical importance of the popular movement in Thailand, for instance by writing that the 1932 revolution was led by a foreign educated elite that was not accompanied by a popular uprising among the rural population. Giles noted that this view was different from that of political scientist Nakharin Mekhtrairat, who claimed there was strong pressure within the mainstream Thai society of the time to overthrow the absolute monarchy. Giles also said that the book's analysis of the weakening of the Thai military dictatorship during the late 1970s overemphasized the importance of Bhumibol, Army Commander Krit Srivara, and Richard Nixon's diplomacy with Communist China, while not placing enough importance on the role of students and workers. Giles stated that Handley's view that dictator Sarit Thanarat was a tool for King Bhumibol was not that of political scientist Thak Chaloemtiarana, who felt the opposite was true: Sarit used King Bhumibol as a tool to increase his own credibility.
Giles also disagreed regarding Bhumibol and the royalists' intended role for the monarchy. According to Giles, the book said that the royalists wanted to create a system whereby the state would be ruled by a traditional dhammaraja (monarch who rules with dharma) that would play a significant role in shaping policy. Giles said this view differed from that of historian Thongchai Winichakul. According to Giles, Thongchai found that after the 1945, the royalists were completely resigned to the loss of the absolute monarchy and focused on building a constitutional framework for the monarchy. Giles also said that Handley's view disagreed with Kullada Kesboonchoo-Mead's. Kullada held that the absolute monarchy had been completely discredited in Thailand as a viable political philosophy.
According to Giles, the book claimed that Bhumibol actively and consistently distrusted democracy and democratically elected leaders. However, Giles said Bhumibol was never powerful enough or independent enough to take a firm stand on the matter. Said Giles, the monarchy was not sufficiently powerful as an institution to prevent its interests from being sidelined by those of the military, the police, and the bureaucracy.
The book was commercially successful. By October 2006, the book went through three printings. Although the book was banned in Thailand, samizdat photocopies of the book were available for sale in the Tha Phrachan area of Bangkok. Unauthorized translations of sections of the book appeared on several websites, although some sites were blocked by censors.
- Handley, Paul M. The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10682-3.
- Perlez, Jane (26 September 2006). "A Banned Book Challenges Saintly Image of Thai King". The New York Times.
- Warrick-Alexander, James (February 06, 2006). "Thailand Bars Univ. Website" Yale Daily News
- The URLs of the book on the Amazon.com and YUP websites were listed on the MICT blocklist no later than 11 January 2007 and continued to be listed as of 12 March 2007. MICT blocklists are available from the website of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand
- "Thai judge gives American two years for 'insulting monarchy'". The Guardian (London). 8 December 2011.
- Stevenson, William (2001). The Revolutionary King. Constable and Robinson. ISBN 1-84119-451-4.
- Stevenson, William (16 June 2006). "Survivor". The Wall Street Journal Online.
- Buruma, Ian (March 2007). "Thailand: All the King's Men". New York Review of Books 54 (3).
- McCargo, Duncan (January–February 2007). "A Hollow Crown". New Left Review (43).
- "Unfolding 'Meo' Keep quiet no order books ท้วง western verge of the King" (in Thai, July 17, 20??). Home Manager.
- Baker, Chris (8 September 2006). "Revival, Renewal and Reinvention: The Complex Life of Thailand's Monarch". Asian Sentinel.
- Unauthorized Thai translation of the book's Preface, Chapter1, and Chapter22
- Unauthorized Thai translation of Chapter 15 of the book
- Unauthorized Thai translation of Chapter 15 of the book
- Noi, Chang (16 April 2007). "Inconvenient truths of censorship". The Nation.
- Paul Handley's response to Grant Evans' September 2006 book review in the Far Eastern Economic Review
- Preface and Introduction of the book, Adobe Acrobat format, Yale University Press