The recent coup d’etat toppling Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has brought back into the spotlight both the role of the reigning king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his portrayal in a critical biography published by Yale University Press this past July.
The Thai military took over the government last week while Shinawatra was out of the country, and in the subsequent days military leaders halted all political activity but promised to return the government to democracy. Despite the domestic turmoil and a nervous international community, Adulyadej is expected to remain king. The apparent stability of the monarchy has its roots in a government that continues to fiercely guard Adulyadej’s reputation, just as it did earlier this year when it banned journalist Paul Handley’s “The King Never Smiles,” a book that described the king as an “anti-democratic monarch.”
The University published Handley’s work in spite of protests from the Thai government and the ban in Thailand. The book claims to be the first independent biography of the Thai monarch.
Thai officials, including Thai Ambassador to the United States Virasakdi Futrakul, came to New Haven earlier this year to present their strong concerns about the book, which they said was damaging to the king’s reputation as a benevolent, effective monarch for the Thai people who is above partisan politics.
“The closest comparison I can make [to the book] is burning the United States flag in the Bible Belt,” Futrakul said.
But Handley maintains that his book is a “historical and political biography” describing the political role of the monarchy.
“My independent, straightforward version of the king’s life and work … challenges the official version in very many aspects, and so is considered offensive by a palace used to unquestioning fealty — even when I am complimentary to the king,” he said in an e-mail.
Earlier this year, the Yale University Press Web site was blocked in Thailand after the publishers pressed forward with plans to publish Handley’s book.
Yale University Press Director John Donatich said he believes the book portrays the king in a balanced manner, both discussing his accomplishments and criticizing his failures.
Donatich said halting the publication of Handley’s book was never considered, and Yale President Richard Levin said the press has the right to independently decide what to publish.
“The Yale Press is not a platform for anyone to speak their mind,” Levin said. “Any book accepted goes under a scrupulous process for review. Access to publication on the University’s press is not like the opportunity to speak on Beinecke Plaza.”
Yale publishers did change some minor factual errors identified by Thai officials. The press also agreed to the officials’ request to delay the publication of the book, which was originally to be released in early June.
Bhumibol, who has served as king since 1946, is currently the longest-reigning monarch in the world. The book was released in July so that it did not coincide with the celebrations of the 60th anniversary, which began on June 9, of King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne, Donatich said.
Futrakul said the Thai government “deeply appreciated” that the book did not conflict with the celebration, which was attended by representatives of royal families around the world.
But Handley said he disagreed strongly with the press’ decision to delay the publication of the book.
“I was shocked that Yale University Press would succumb to Thai and Yale University pressure to delay my book until after the king’s anniversary,” he said. “The press had informed me they were accelerating the book’s release to take advantage of the anniversary.”
The book is banned in Thailand because of laws prohibiting the defamation of the king. In Thailand, one can be imprisoned up to 15 years for offending the monarchy.
“I expected the book to be banned from the beginning of the writing project,” Handley said. “This book of course offends a monarchy that has never faced a critical assessment.”
Futrakul said Thai officials banned the book because they feared Handley’s work could actually have an adverse affect on Thailand’s foreign relations.
“If the Thai people know that this book … portrays him as a brutal and undemocratic, which is not what we have known of the king for the past 60 years, we’re concerned that there will be domestic reaction,” Futrakul said. “It would adversely affect the bilateral relations between Thailand and the United States.”
Government officials were not the only people in Thailand who caught wind of “The King Never Smiles.” Thai student Bodin Civilize ’09 said he and several friends also tried to get advance copies of the book in the United States. Civilize said he disagreed with some of Handley’s points about the Thai monarchy.
“I find that the author does not take into account the different context between Thailand and the United States,” Civilize said. “I feel that the king’s institution is still essential for Thai society.”
Although there is no foreseeable lifting of the ban of the book in Thailand, with the delay in release date and the corrections made Futrakul said that he considers the “case closed with Yale” on the book.