Monday, February 26, 2007

The King Never Smiles by Paul Handley

This week, the New York Review of Books published a review by Ian Buruma of Paul Handley’s biography of King Bhumibol, The King Never Smiles (it costs $3.00 if you aren't already a subscriber). Buruma's review of Handley is highly favorable. Buruma writes: “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.” And he calls the biography "one of the most important books to appear on Thailand in English." Most thoughtful readers will concur.

Ian Buruma comments on the lèse-majesté law:
There is one topic, however, that neither Giles Ungphakorn, nor the free press activists, nor indeed anyone in Thailand can broach safely in public, and that is the role of the monarchy as an obstacle to liberal democracy. As with the September coup this year, coups have been justified in the past by allegations of lèse-majesté. (…) This is why even an impeccable democrat like Kavi Chongkittavorn, the Nation editor, will write piously that "the monarchy has been a stabilising force for Thai politics and society," and "HM the King's words are sacrosanct,"[5] without pausing to think that sacrosanct words, however well meant, may not always be what is most needed in a developing democracy.
Ian Buruma seized the opportunity to project the theme of the book into the current period we are now living through, the aftermath of the coup, comparing Thaksin to the monarch:
Even though the King is said to have disapproved of Thaksin's intransigence, the Muslim question was probably not the main bone of contention between the prime minister and the palace. In some ways Thaksin might be compared to the earlier strongman Phibun Songgram; their types of self-promotion threatened to upstage the king.[10] Like many monarchs, King Bhumibol has an aristocratic disdain for capitalist business, which he regards as selfish, even as the palace benefits from it. The King, who is one of the richest men in the world, owns vast holdings in Bangkok and elsewhere, administered by the Crown Property Bureau, which has shares in many companies, including Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement. But charity is the Buddhist way to accumulate personal virtue, and Bhumibol, being supremely virtuous, spends a great deal of time spreading his largesse, using funds donated to the palace by charitable citizens who see this as a way to raise their own karmic stakes.

Thaksin's brand of populism— handing out money to villagers, offering cheap loans, paying for grand spectacles—is self-serving in a different way perhaps, but might well have been regarded as competition. And as Paul Handley rightly observes in his book (published when Thaksin was still in power): "While Thaksin's autocratic government is problematic in the context of democracy and good governance, his concentration of power around himself as the country's self-styled "chief executive" can be seen as a move to neutralize the palace in politics."

To describe royal charity as a form of populism would seem to be a paradox, for what could be more elitist than a monarchy? But it is not unusual for aristocrats and kings to claim to be on the side of the common man against the greedy rich. What we see in Thailand, then, is two competing forms of charismatic autocracy: a traditional type, seeking its legitimacy in religion, culture, history, bloodlines, and superior virtue, and a new kind, based on money, celebrity, and media savvy. This is not unique to Thailand. Anyone who has seen The Queen, the movie about the British royal family in Tony Blair's United Kingdom, will recognize the phenomenon. But the drama in Thailand is especially acute, because unlike Britain, Thailand is still struggling with democratic institutions. Those who applaud too loudly, for understandable reasons, the victory of the old guard over the new should think of the damage done whenever people look to kings and generals to solve problems they should really take care of themselves.
What the review by Ian Buruma does not capture is some the grandeur of Handley's theme, the emotion, the salience of the historical narrative. It's a story that has all the ingredients of a modern tragedy played out on an epic scale. I'm speaking about those decades Thailand wasted fighting battles against mostly imaginary insurgents; when, having hyped-up the communist threat, the generals drove decent citizens underground, creating support for an insurgency where there had been none before; where democracy protesters across two generations get mowed down by machine gun wielding soldiers; as with student activists, so was the fate of great forests -- most having been felled; and of the precious few jungle areas that remained, still more were to be flooded for dams; where a capital city once know as the "the Venice of the Orient" has became an insufferably polluted place. You pave paradise, put up a parking lot. It’s a tragic place, Handley's Thailand, where good education has never been a national priority; where coups have been more frequent than elections; generals more trusted than voters; myths taken more seriously than reason.

The missed opportunities, the priorities that should-have-been – these give Handley’s book the makings of an epic tragedy. Ian Buruma's review does a good job of projecting the theme of Handley's book onto recent political events; but it's Handley's treatment of a broader sweep of Thai history that makes the King Never Smiles a magnificent read.

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