For those who haven’t yet seen it, at New Mandala, journalist and author of The King Never Smiles, Paul Handley has reviewed King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life’s Work: Thailand’s Monarchy in Perspective. PPT posted on an earlier, long, but still incomplete review of the same book.
We won’t detail Handley’s “measured and restrained review” (we are quoting a commentator at NM). Rather, we just highlight a few points from it.
We were particularly struck by Handley’s use of the comparison of the potted history in the new book and Forrest Gump. Handley compares the book’s depiction of the king in the course of the last six decades of Thai political history as being Forrest Gump-like, watching all of the most defining events but seldom participating in a purposeful manner.
We doubt the collective authorship/editorship wanted that portrayal but they were very keen to show that the king doesn’t intervene in politics that they end up leaving the king looking Gumpish.
There are some odd choices made. For example, the portrayal of the king, on 6-7 October 1976, going jogging as hundreds were massacred by people claiming to be monarchists seems quite bizarre.
Handley’s general conclusion that while the book tries to recapture the discourse of the monarchy in the 21st century, it is “a jumble” and it is “hampered by excessive caution and some glaring equivocation, [the authors/editors] fall short of where they need to be for the institution’s sake.”
When Handley discusses the more meaty bits of the book – presumably authored by the 2-3 scholars invited into the royalist magic circle of writers – he writes of increased transparency. Here, we assume that he means by those who put together these royal-approved books, for not much of the content is particularly new.
Again, though, there are some significant contortions required. For example, when it assesses “allegations that privy councillors were involved in the 2006 coup,” the book
does not deny this, but says that, if so, privy councillors would have been “acting in a private capacity” (p. 323). Prem’s well publicised talks to military units ahead of the coup “were not made in his capacity as Privy Council president” (p. 323).
That would seem disingenuous at best.
At the same time, it is gratifying that it is admitted that the Crown Property Bureau belongs “to the monarchy as an institution.” It is clear that competing claims that the CPB is somehow “public” is nonsense.
The final point to highlight is, not surprisingly, related to lese majeste. Handley points out that the book makes a clear statement that the law must be maintained as there is a real and present threat to the monarchy. As Handley quotes from the book:
There is no question that a significantly increased number of premeditated attacks have been made against the king, members of the royal family and the royal institution on the internet and in public speeches – much of which are grounds for seeking legal redress. (p. 308)
As Handley adds, “Exactly what the threat is, and from whom it comes, we are not told.” However, and this does seem new to PPT, the Abhisit Vejjajiva appointed committee looking at lese majeste is cited:
The Abhisit government’s Advisory Committee on the Security of the Kingdom examined how the law’s application might be damaging the country and the monarchy. But its key conclusions were that “The lèse majesté law is still justified for those intentionally conspiring to overthrow the monarchy” and “the committee contemplates no changes to lèse majesté law since there is a real threat to the institution that cannot be ignored” (p. 312).
It is clear the palace wants the law in place.
Update: As Handley’s review appeared, The Nation has also published a review by Manote Tripathi. It is entitled “Light in the shadows.” Unfortunately, the review leaves almost everything in the shadows and tells us of no light. A critical reader relying on this review would simply let the book go by and not bother opening it as the review tells a story that suggests another heavy tome of the usual palace propaganda.