Banned royal book stirs rare debate in Thailand


Jan 11, 2008

BANGKOK – THAILAND’S banning of a rare ‘warts and all’ biography of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej only stokes interest in the book and risks an eventual explosion of pent-up political tension, an academic said.

‘Banning books is usually something we associate with fascist and repressive regimes,’ Australian anthropologist Annette Hamilton told a seminar on ‘The King Never Smiles’ at an international Thai studies conference in Bangkok on Thursday.

‘When silence is enforced for a long time, noise – when it comes – is deafening.’

The book, by US journalist Paul Handley, portrays King Bhumibol as an austere and deeply political monarch whose overarching desire for stability and unity during 61 years on the throne has stifled Thailand’s democratic development.

Many of the southeast Asian nation’s 63 million people regard the king as semi-divine and credit him with steering Thailand through huge political and social turbulence, including more than a dozen military coups.

However, critics say this perception is propped up by draconian lese majeste laws, which make any insult or threat to the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Even though the King himself made it clear in 2005 that he should not be above criticism, the government banned the book in January 2006 under its 1941 Printing Act, arguing it ‘could disrupt public order and the good morals of society’.

This was clearly not the real reason, Mr Hamilton said.

‘The main issue is that it challenges the agreement to silence, or the agreement not to disagree, which is a main strategy in Thailand for maintaining harmony. But we’ve seen this method does not guarantee peacefulness,’ Mr Hamilton said.

‘Instead, it results in a situation where fears, hopes, dreams and interpretations are bottled up for years and decades, circulate through rumour and gossip and may come out in terrible, violent confrontations.’

What’s all the fuss about?
The book also contains lots of rumour and gossip about the royal family, in particular heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who does not enjoy the almost unquestioning respect accorded to his 80-year-old father.

Handley, declared persona non grata in Thailand, did not attend the conference, one of the few times the monarchy has ever been debated critically in public inside Thailand.

But his paper on the role of the King’s advisory council was read out on his behalf.

Australian scholar Craig Reynolds said much of the underground hype about the book might be overblown as studies in Thai have already pointed to Bhumibol’s overtly political reign, backing various democratic and military regimes.

Thai journals have also questioned how the monarchy has become such an important totem for the generals who staged the September 2006 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

‘His political neutrality has been exposed time and again for what it is – namely, the mere appearance of political neutrality. In reality the King is not neutral,’ Mr Reynolds said.

Instead, he said, much of the offence seemed to stem from outrage at an outsider, in particular a journalist, trying to lift the lid on the central pillar of Thai society.

‘Who is he to comment on the sacred institution which has held the country together during crisis after crisis?,’ Reynolds said of the prevailing view of Thai critics of the book.


  The Associated Press

Scholars Debate Biography of Thai King

By DENIS D. GRAY – 8 hours ago

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — An American journalist whose critical book on Thailand’s king is banned took the limelight at an international academic conference Thursday even though the author didn’t appear in person.

One participant read out a paper written by journalist Paul Handley and others debated the accuracy and relevance of his “The King Never Smiles,” while taking swipes at the tough stance of censors when dealing with perhaps the most sensitive issue in Thailand — the role of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In tracing the life of the 80-year-old monarch, Handley alleges that Bhumibol has proved a major stumbling block to the progress of democracy in Thailand as he consolidated royal power over a long reign.

This view is shared by some Thai academics, but the king remains greatly revered by the majority of the population, in part because of a lifetime of effort to alleviate the plight of the have-nots.

“This book raises in a dramatic way some of the most important matters concerning the past, the present and the future of the kingdom,” said Annette Hamilton, an anthropologist who has worked in Thailand for more than two decades.

While questioning some of his sources, noting inaccuracies and even questioning his conclusions, both Thai and foreign participants at the 10th International Conference on Thai Studies credit Handley with stimulating debate on the issue within the country.

“Banning books is something we associate with fascist regimes,” said Hamilton, but added that suppression of information has been practiced in recent years in a number of democracies, including her native Australia.

“Handley’s book presents such a profound challenge to a prevailing Thai world-view that we can see that many people would respond with fear and negativity,” she said.

The conference itself has been controversial, since open critical discussion of the monarchy is rare in Thailand, even in academic circles. There are three panels covering the subject.

“Coverage of the monarchy (in Thailand) is a mixture of genuine praise, mixed with excessive flattery and laced with a heavy dose of propaganda,” said Pravit Rojanapruk, a reporter at the English-language daily The Nation. “It hides and blurs a complex reality with this one-sided coverage.”

Handley, who now lives in Washington, published his book in 2006. He had earlier worked in Thailand with the Hong Kong-based news magazine Far Eastern Economic Review.

The import of Handley’s book into Thailand was banned by police order even before its publication, but bootleg copies — both the legitimate Yale University Press version, and photocopies, as well as partial translations — have circulated widely though discreetly.

Handley is not known to be officially banned from entering Thailand, but it is widely assumed he would be liable to arrest under the country’s broad and tough lese majeste law making it a crime to insult the monarchy.

“I don’t like it. The nation doesn’t like it,” Prem Tinsulanonda, the former prime minister who heads the Privy Council body of advisers, said in a 2006 interview with Far Eastern Economic Review. “It’s a hearsay book and is not based on the fact. We are worried (about) the foreigners who read it. My suggestion is please ignore that book. It’s useless.”

Associated Press Writer Ambika Ahuja contributed to this report.


Banned royal book stirs rare debate in Thailand



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