Customer Reviews: The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej
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on September 13, 2006
As someone who spent my childhood in upcountry Thailand, went to state schools there and later in Bangkok and had an advance degree from a US University, I thought i would share with my countrymen how we perceive the King. My conversations with friends, colleagues, and most of the comments here by Thai readers/reviewers say I was totally wrong.

The book hits the nail in its head when it says that most thai my generation (I was born in the turbulent year 1976, when the right-wing government crushed student protestors and the King declared the event "the saddest day in Thai history") have always seen the King in the best of lights - and it was not something that wasn't well-planned by someone. In retrospect, I agree with the author about how the palace has orchestrated all their efforts on setting the royals in the best of lights, i.e. making all the royal projects look far more important and successful than their real worths by downplaying efforts by governments, presenting the royals in the way of super-human, in every aspect possible. When I was a young adult, I did not have a second thought about what the media was protraying the king and the royal family, i accepted it as truths and I don't have any reason to believe that most of my countrymen would see things otherwise - everything was so grand, so well orchestrated and thus so believeable.

One notable point that I think Handley sums up the sentiment of many Thai very nicely is when he briefly discussed another biography on King Bhumibol "The Revolutionary King" (which I also read several years back) that it was probably for the consumption of a small group of educated Thais who tend to be more ready to accept what's written in English than those written in Thai (for several reasons, for one, they believe the author can escape the lesse majeste by saying negative things about the King in English) My view about the King has always been similar to the one protrayed in "The Revolutionary King", which puts the King as a very capable person though with some minor flaws - which make it easier to swallow than "The Perfect One" image that the Palace media has always been projecting. Deep down, I believe, many Thais think of the King as human, yet a very respectable one (though many choose to live with the fairy tale that he is a true semi-god), so when we hear negative minor points about him, we think it could all be possible and make him even more humane yet more likable. This could be the original purpose of the "Revolutionary King" - reinforcing the King's image to the elite Thai lot. The book was written by the person who wrote "The Man called Intreprid" which was translated by the King himself.

Overall, Handley convincingly argue his case that things could be looked at in a very different perspective. He backs up his arguements with well-researched evidence many anecdotes the average Thai would have heard of. For me I haven't heard of just about half (probably more for even younger people), the others are totally new to me.

This book is recommended to any Thai who wants to understand the country and the monarchy better, in a more objective way. This book doesn't make me love the country and the King less. It makes me understand the King better on a more realistic term.

For a book of 500 pages and for a non-native speaker, I finished it in only three sittings and couldn't put it down. I give it a 4-star.

I also recommend an academic piece by McCargo "Network Monarchy" if you find this book interesting.
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on January 3, 2007
As an American born in Thailand in 1949, and having lived there until 1975, I enjoyed having the dim memories of this period of my life brought to full clarity. I was surprised that given my youth that I would remember all the Thai names. The description of the competition between the civilian government and the monarchy to improve the lot of the Thai people brought back a memory when I was only five or six; I was sitting on the lap of Prime Minister Phibunsongkhram at a ribbon cutting ceremony of a agricultural research station in Khon Kaen in the impoversihed Northeast (Pak Isan), where I lived most of my early years. I remember when Prime Minister Sarit imposed price controls on food when one of his many wives complained about the prices. He also had bus drivers shot when caught racing their buses; which cut down on the number of accidents. I grew up with an appreciation for benevolent dictators; and even today believe that the goal of the neocons to spread democracy to all countries is naieve. I also remember hearing many rumors about the royal family which I never thought would be revealed; so reading this book helped to put the puzzle together, and has brought my knowledge up to date for events that have happened since 1975. My respect for the King has not diminshed from these revelations. Indeed, I have a greater respect for the King having read the book; as it reveals a strategy that through moral leadership, he could restore the monarchy to such as elevated position in Thai politics that he could work behind the scenes to bring down both military or civilian governments when their level of corruption hurt the Thai people. When news came out about the recent coup, I understood completely. I also give the King all the credit for keeping Thailand from becoming the next domino to fall after Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He was able to achieve his goals by ensuring that the monarchy was shrouded in mistique which hid his blemishes as no one is perfect; certainly something that the British monarchy or any democratic government is unable to achieve with our open press. I agree with the author that his greatest failing may be the lack of preparation of his successor. In conclusion, I was delighted to have this portrait painted for me. I have recommended the book to my Thai friends living here in the U.S.; recognizing that they would not be able to find this book in Thailand, which is too bad. Anyone who wants to know about the role of the royal family in Thai politics and culture must read this book.
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on May 22, 2008
Even a casual visitor to Thailand will not fail to notice the deep reverence the Thai people seem to have for their king. His Majesty's portraits are everywhere. Before a movie starts, everyone stands at attention when the royal anthem is struck and the king's face appears on the screen. Thai sportsmen dedicate their victories to the king. In some remote quarters, I have even seen offerings of incense placed before portraits of the king.

Such reverence that the Thai people hold for their king is neither incidental or accidental. From the first few years in school, Thai kids have been indoctrinated with the 3 pillars of Thai society - Nation, Religion and King. The military channels seem totally dedicated to praising the monarchy. Official publications are full of words of wisdom from the palace. Like faithful followers of any influential religion, the vast majority of Thais never question these teachings and propaganda. Even fewer would bother (or dare) to discuss the more down-to-earth aspects of the "heavenly kings" who once ruled their great kingdom. Apart from laws that forbid anyone from showing disrespect to the king by criticising the institution, many Thais and even some well-educated, thinking foreigners who have seen the rest of the world seem to hold complete faith in the image of a perfect Dhammaraja.

Paul M Handley proposes in his book The King Never Smiles, that dhammarajas are made and not born. And this dhammaraja was made by a large number of shrewd princes and military propagandists, not just to preserve Thailand's monarchy per se, but also to reserve for themselves, a huge slice of Thailand's power pie.

The book begins at the beginning. The king's childhood in the US and Europe, his return to Thailand, Ananda's death, Phibun's thinly disguised plot to make a republic out of Thailand and Sarit's aggressive campaign to revive the divinity of the monarchy, turning everyone into obedient servants once more. The threat of communism, the Vietnam War, countless military coups to replace elected civilian governments, the great massacres of 1973, 1976 until the great Suchinda drama of 1992.

In the official version of history, the king's influence is often left out in the daily running of the country. This is important. Unlike elected office bearers who are constantly under scrutiny to reveal warts and all, the perfect dhammaraja must only appear in the limelight at critical moments and his actions must put a period to any tense face-off. A flawless, living Buddha must only be seen performing acts of charity in a people-centred, apolitical way. Everything must be embellished and orchestrated to the finest detail. The exact opposite of reality TV. The act is imperfect, but it's enough to fool a basically monolingual population without a global outlook.

In this book, Paul Handley attempts to put matters in perspective. Putting the king himself under scrutiny, he skillfully adds a critical piece to the whole seemingly senseless puzzle of Thailand's recent history and political developments. Even though Handley had no hidden camera installed in the palace, his profound observations, analysis and conjectures on the king's obvious intervention, lack of intervention and even participation in various less than glorifying happenings are absolutely plausible.

With all the events in Thailand's recent history neatly woven together, Handley adds the important element of motive to all the massacres and abuse of human rights for which the military is often blamed. This makes the book a really engaging and sometimes shocking read. In spite of the tonnes of facts, figures and dates, it's really quite absorbing.

However, apart from the more serious "news" that are reported in depth, there is quite a bit of "tabloid" info in the book. I feel that Handley shouldn't have devoted so much of the book to chapters like Family Headches and Annus Horibilis.

When I first saw this book at the stores in Singapore a couple of years ago, I was instantly convinced that it would be banned in Thailand. True enough, the issue is still too sensitive in Thailand. Too many people worship the monarchy as if the king were a demi-god. Too many powerful people depend on this faith to secure their place in the kingdom. The peaceful situation in Thailand today rests a lot on ignorance. To many Thais, this book would seem like pure blasphemy, but I think anyone who wants to write a review on this book should first read it well and understand it as just another point of view. Nobody who has any involment in politics is perfect. There is nothing wrong with loving a king who isn't perfect.

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on May 13, 2012
It's bizarre that I, an American living in the United States, hesitate to post this review. That basically summarizes the current perverse situation created by the Thai monarchy. I fear my various connections to Thailand will be blocked if I state a simple opinion: That this is a great book. Fascinating. Even-handed. I highly recommend it. The picture of King Bhumipol (pronounced "Pumipon") presented here is both sympathetic and critical. From this biography, I conclude that King Bhumipol is the best-case-scenario king. He took his job seriously, is hard working and talented, empathetic, dedicated to the welfare of the people. However, he is a king, and monarchy is still a bad choice relative to democracy for all the reasons outlined by Thomas Paine 230 years ago in "Common Sense," which is freely available online. (I hope that book is not banned in Thailand; this one is.) Even the best king cannot magically know the will of the people. It seems that this king, in trying to be the best possible king, came to believe his own hype: that he can magically know the will of the people, so the people are represented through him. Therefore, democracy was/is not a big priority for him. As Handley explains, King Bhumipol ruled through the Cold War; because stability was his primary concern, he has downplayed the importance of democracy and delayed the transition to full democracy. Also, as pointed out in "Common Sense," good kings may be followed by horrible kings. `Nuff said on that point. OK, there it is. We have free speech in this country and I will use that freedom. Let the chips fall where they may.
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on July 5, 2006
The first official printing of this book just came out this past week. Respectfully, has anyone of the previous reviewers read the book? If not, please do so and come back to give a fair review of it (if you really care about the subject enough) and stop sounding ridiculous.

This is a section for potential buyers who seek your thoughts about the book so that they may decide whether or not they should buy it, not about what you think about the King before reading it. There are online forums for you to post your personal comments without having to read this rather thick book. If you know how to use internet, you can find those online forums, too.

(What's funny is that some people found these reviews of the book helpful when the reviewers hadn't even read the book.)

The first reviewer (bottom one) might have read the review copy before it was officially printed since s/he posted his review in mid-February. S/he gave a pretty fair assessment of the book. One correction though, the King was never an Olympic medalist. He won a gold medal from the Southeast Asian Games (SEAGAMES).

I agree with him/her about the early reign portion of the book. The first 100+ pages was well researched with only a few controversies that actually sound hearsay added. They sound hearsay because the lack of concrete proves or sources. Most of these controversies are nothing you can't find on the internet websites with the right keywords on simple Google searches or wikipedia. It also helps if you know how to read Thai to read this book.

The reason the later parts of the book sound spiteful might be due to the fact that his former work (Far Eastern Economic Reviews, a magazine based in Hong Kong) was banned in Thailand because two of his former close colleagues wrote an article that was considered a threat to the Thai national security and were deported. If you want to know more about this issue just Google search with keywords like Far Eastern Economic Reviews + Thailand. Then try searching the author's name together with the people deported. It's all there for you to read and learn for free.

The Index section in the back of the book is better than good. It is very well organized. However, I have a little problem with the Sources section. Paul Handley inserted many of his own rather lengthy hearsay personal opinions in the same section of the book. It just makes it seem like there are so many credible sources that he cited from to write this book when most of them are old Thai newspapers that reported in English (wouldn't you think that if they are Thai newspapers, they would have been subjected to censorship during that time also? Then what is so secretive about stories from his sources?).

Furthermore, you will see lots of those "Ibid" in that section following the newspaper's names. Other sources are Thai memoirs, popular magazines like the Times, and funeral pamphlets of celebrities. I wonder how he was able to read accurately those memoirs and pamphlet that were written in old Thai language.

One other little things that made me think about the accuracy of what I was reading is the fact that he sometimes refer to the people he talks about in the book with only half of their first names or titles. Handley says in the beginning of the book about how Thai names and positions are long and hard to spell and even go out to say that he has tried his best, but I'm talking about the equivalence of referring to Barbara Bush as "Barb" and Hillary Clinton as "Hilla". It's just weird for reading this kind of book and that happens. If you don't know a little bit before hand about some of the people he's talking about, it can be very difficult to find out who it is that he's actually talking about.

I lived in Thailand 17 years and able to read and speak Thai fluently. I tried my best to be open-minded and logical when I was reading this book as I, too, wanted to learn as much as possible about the facts of this subject matter. My conclusion for you who's reading this line is, most of you will put it down before finishing the first 50 pages due to spelling of Thai names and religious terminology. If you can swallow that, you will enjoy reading the rest of the book.

However, I seriously question the claim that this book is well-researched independent work. The writing about controversies that Handley tries to add into his book to make this sounds like an independent research is nothing new to me. They can be found easily online with the right keywords. I have in my possession many Thai books that he refers to, and even with those, he didn't provide enough to conclude anything.

The King's family issues are also nothing new to me. I believe most Thai people know about them, too. It's not that the truth are always kept away from them. They just don't like talking about those issues out of respect for the King as they are his personal matters that don't really have any negative effects on them or the country.

In my opinion, this book will probably sell fast in the beginning due to the subject being the King and his successful 60 years reign. Then it will slow down quickly as more reviews come out to let people know that there are really few new interesting points in it.
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on July 14, 2006
Firstly, I am what the author, Paul Handley, would call a 4th Generation Chakri. In fact, my family was mentioned in the book. Secondly, I am an American by birth and have been happy living here by choice. My point is that I can take a look at this book from a more global perspective. I must admit though that the most difficult part in the beginning was to overcome the unfortunate decision of Mr. Handley to address the king and the royal family by their first names. This clearly shows his own bias and personnal resentment of the subject of his book even though supposedly, this was an unbiased journalistic piece. Give me a break. His convenient excuse will be that he is not a Thai and more importantly an American so it is natural for him to have done that. I just have to say that even the U.S. Congress refers to the King as His Majesty. Indeed, in the book, he refers to the British royals as Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana.

None the less, if you are able to get over this, the book was hard to put down for me and quite rivetting. It was a good chronological summary of the modern Thai history. The gossip was of course what was rivetting. Like all gossips, there is probably some truth but one can not tell where the truth lies. For me personnally having missed the events that occurred early on due to age and the later events due to having moved to the U.S., the book was a fast read. Most of the incidents have been around the family gathering but it was a good review of the details none the less. As another reviewer had mentioned, if you are not somewhat familiar with Thai names and the major players, you have no reason to like this book or even be reading this review.

With regards to the major theme, that the king is a proponent of dhammocracy over democracy, I say "so what"? Mr. Handley's other poorly hidden bias was that the reader was to accept that U.S. democracy is inherently better (better for the U.S. but not necessarily for Thailand, as a friend of mine used to say and as we are learning in the MiddleEast now) for all and that for some unexplained reason, the king's support for dhammocracy is bad. He was, in fact, schizophrenic in his assessment of dhammocracy and by the end of the book pretty much changed his criticism of the monarchy to a lack of a strong succession plan. It is as if Mr. Handley wants us to believe that the king is different from other charismatic leaders such as Napolean or Jefferson or Bush or Welch or Gates in trying to gain allegiance, pass agendas, and pursue success the way they see them. On a positive note, his whole explanation and articulation of the dhammocracy theory were insightful and easily understood in my opinion. I enjoyed reading that as much as the gossip part.

In summary, if this book was called "Leadership Lessons from the Longest Reigning Monarch" and the private life gossips tuned down a bit, it would be a NY Times best seller. One can not deny that after reading this book one can conclude that King Bhumipol is a genius in the art of leading. We are constantly interested in how people like Jack Welch or Thomas Jefferson or George Bush or Bill Gates became successful. There are definitely many lessons on how King Bhumipol continues to be successful in this book although it is implicit that the author is criticising the methods. I must admit that I just do not see how an unknown journalist can criticise management method of one of the most successful leaders in modern history. The answer is he can not and this is why the book was supposedly just an unbiased commentary (A biased journalist? You're kidding, right?). As it is, it will be popular with people who enjoy reading gossip (nothing wrong with that) about the Thai royal family.

Again, given my background I couldn't put it down and for that I gave it a 4 stars.
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on June 29, 2011
A very well researched look at the Thai monarchy, particularly the unprecedented reign of King Bhumibol. The book is banned in Thailand, certainly it a critical though I believe quite balanced.

I would really like to see an update, given the turmoil in Thailand since it was published in 2006, to cover former Prime Minister Shinawatra's dismissal (and subsequent further controversy) plus coups and red shirt/yellow shirt protests, as well as further speculation of what will become of the monarchy and Thai politics after the king passes away.
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on July 1, 2007
This is a good and comprehensive read for all Thais. If you grew up learning the history from the Ministry of Education's standardized textbooks without much chance of reading about Thai history anywhere else, this is a must, especially in this time when the same episode of military coup repeated itself again last year (and is still going on). Ajarn Pasuk's history book is also a comprehensive one, although it does not dwell into the subject of royalists' interests and influences, which is the main interest of this book. Overall, the book did a fine job in reviewing the modern history of Thailand from the royalists' perspective. However, the chapters on family affairs are too much like those Brit tabloid columns on the royal family.

I am not saying, however, that the writer has convinced me entirely on the thesis of the book--the idea of Dhammaraja king--which is repeated way too many times, as if the readers are dumb and do not remember what the author wants to convey. For me Dhammaraja itself represents one fine concept for a leader. The king's adherence to those principles are not the problems per se. The way the king has become such a revered figure must be credited to the palace's marketing scheme. People have been amazed at Thaksin's new way of political marketing. They forgot the powerful marketing from the palace completely. The palace's marketing channels are so ingrained in the society that people hardly think about it anymore. It's all about presentation, afterall.

I also agree with many other reviewers that the author does not need to be so disrespectful of the king. Afterall, he is the King of Thailand, and should be referred to as King Bhumibol, and not just Bhumibol (same for Queen Sirikit and others in the book). These choices the author made convey much of his bias. There are also many shaky references and vague guesses that have weak evidence. Many names of famous figures are incorrectly spelled, and sometimes the author seems to forget part of their names. These little details make it rather annoying and also make the story less credible.
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on April 13, 2009
Having lived in Thailand for two lengthy periods since 1965, I knew some of the basics. Mr. Handley has filled in details in highly credible fashion and produced as complete a picture of not only the monarchy but Thai politics as I have seen anywhere. The book is especially good on the ways that much of the belief system of ordinary Thais has been constructed for them by the palace and other royalist institutions and individuals. It's no wonder that North Korea's Kim Jong Il, himself no slouch as a propagandist, has pointed to the Thai system as one of the few foreign models he admires.
-Bradley K. Martin, author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
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on December 21, 2011
During a recent visit to Thailand I was referred to this book to gain a better understanding of current Thai politics. In a country where any criticism of the King can land you in jail for 20 years, this provides an excellent perspective. It covers the events of the current King's reign in great detail, explaining how he came to be born in the US, raised in Switzerland, and succeed his older brother, who died of a gun shot wound under mysterious circumstances. Anyone interested in political science will enjoy this book. It is a long read, but I have difficulty putting it down.
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