The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej

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Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej, the only king ever born in the United States, came to the throne of his country in 1946 and is now the world’s longest-serving monarch. The King Never Smiles, the first independent biography of Thailand's monarch, tells the unexpected story of Bhumibol's life and sixty-year rule—how a Western-raised boy came to be seen by his people as a living Buddha, and how a king widely seen as beneficent and apolitical could in fact be so deeply political and autocratic.
Paul Handley provides an extensively researched, factual account of the king’s youth and personal development, ascent to the throne, skillful political maneuverings, and attempt to shape Thailand as a Buddhist kingdom. Handley takes full note of Bhumibol's achievements in art, in sports and jazz, and he credits the king's lifelong dedication to rural development and the livelihoods of his poorest subjects. But, looking beyond the widely accepted image of the king as egalitarian and virtuous, Handley portrays an anti-democratic monarch who, together with allies in big business and the corrupt Thai military, has protected a centuries-old, barely modified feudal dynasty.
When at nineteen Bhumibol assumed the throne, the Thai monarchy had been stripped of power and prestige. Over the ensuing decades, Bhumibol became the paramount political actor in the kingdom, silencing critics while winning the hearts and minds of his people. The book details this process and depicts Thailand’s unique constitutional monarch—his life, his thinking, and his ruling philosophy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300106824
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/7/2006
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 479,244
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul M. Handley is a freelance journalist who lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia for more than twenty years, including thirteen in Thailand.
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Read an Excerpt

The King Never Smiles

By Paul M. Handley

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10682-4

Chapter One

A Dhammaraja from America

The situation which has led to the Tsar of Russia having to relinquish the throne was [brought about by himself]. He refused to adapt himself to progressive groups, which had become very vociferous, and to make timely concessions to them. One can not fight progressives. It might be asked why one should not listen to conservatives also, since they are there; the answer is that conservatives can never harm the king because it would be against their beliefs. Progressives are capable of anything, and therefore one has to consider them more than conservatives. Conflict between the two is normal, but conservatives have never prevailed and containment is only temporary; in the end it will be as desired by the progressives.

-PRINCE CHAKRABONGS in a letter to Rama VI, April 1917

BHUMIBOL WAS BORN ON A FRIGID DECEMBER 5, 1927, in Brookline, a prosperous suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, as far as one could get from the thick tropical air and gilded throne halls in Siam's capital, Bangkok. There his uncle, King Prajadhipok, was struggling against a tide ofmodernism for the very survival of the absolute monarchy.

Prajadhipok, also known by his Chakri Dynasty title, Rama VII, had recently inherited the throne after the disastrous 15-year rule of his brother Vajiravudh. The government's coffers were empty, and a simmering resentment of the royal family's monopoly on power permeated the emergent bourgeoisie. Prajadhipok justly feared a revolt like the ones that had already reduced the power of monarchies in Europe and eliminated the throne entirely in Russia and China.

For a moment, though, Prajadhipok had to divert his thoughts to the infant in faraway Boston. Only the king and his Brahman advisers could select the name of high-born royalty. After a week, it was declared by telegram: Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power. Bhumibol remains today the only king ever born in the American republic.

His father was Prince Mahidol, Prajadhipok's half brother. Mahidol was born in 1892 as the 69th son of the great King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, by the second of Chulalongkorn's three ocial queens, Sawang Vadhana. Such parentage made Mahidol a celestial, with royal blood pure enough to qualify for succession to the throne. But he ranked only sixth among heirs at the time, making him unlikely to ever be tapped for kingship. At 12, Mahidol was sent to England to attend Harrow, and after two years he transferred to military school in Germany. In 1914, four years after Chulalongkorn died following a 42-year reign, Mahidol earned his commission and returned home for a top position in the fledgling Siamese navy.

In 1917 he decided to study medicine at Harvard University. While there he fell in love with Sangwal, a Siamese nursing student. A commoner, part Chinese, Sangwal was born to poor parents in 1900 just across the Chaophraya River from the Grand Palace. Orphaned a few years later, at seven she was given into the palace to attend to, among others, Prince Mahidol's mother and sister, who eventually sent the clever girl to study at Boston's Simmons College. Meeting the prince while they were both in Boston was inevitable, but marrying him was not. The palace opposed formal marriages outside the royal bloodline. But because Sangwal had the favor of dowager queen Sawang, and because Mahidol was unlikely to figure in the succession, the marriage was ocially blessed. She bore the low but respectable title Mom (Lady) Sangwal. After their wedding, in 1920, the couple traveled widely in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia for study, pleasure, and the occasional royal duty. Their first child was born in London in May 1923, a daughter named Galyani Vadhana.

Like most of his siblings, Mahidol was frequently ill. It was, some said, the fault of inbreeding: King Chulalongkorn's ocial queens were all his half sisters, and numerous of their ospring died in infancy. In 1925 the Mahidols moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where the prince took medical treatment. That September 20-auspiciously, Chulalongkorn's birthday-Sangwal gave birth to a son, Ananda Mahidol.

That event took on much greater significance two months later, when King Vajiravudh expired, leaving no male heir. In the previous five years, three of Mahidol's other celestial half brothers had died, all in their thirties. Because the new king, Prajadhipok, was likewise childless, Mahidol was suddenly next in line for the throne.

Kingship held little attraction for him, however. The prince had spent over half of his 33 years outside Siam, away from the intrigue and formality of the court. Mahidol was said to be privately critical of the tradition-bound monarchy and in favor of American-style democracy. He was believed willing to cede his slot to another half brother, the powerful and disciplined Prince Paripatra, Chulalongkorn's son by his third queen, Sukumala. After the coronation of Prajadhipok in 1926, Mahidol returned to Harvard to obtain an advanced medical degree. He wanted to bring modern medical treatment to his country.

Mahidol and Sangwal loved the United States, with their large home in exclusive Brookline, a grand limousine, and nannies to handle the children and household duties. Sangwal studied the modern arts of child raising and running a household. The family took drives around the New England countryside and was entertained at Martha's Vineyard on occasion by Francis Sayre, the throne's American adviser and the son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson.

Bhumibol was their third and last child. Despite Sangwal's commoner status, both Mahidol boys were bestowed the title of a high prince. In late 1927, Prajadhipok declared that all sons and future sons of his celestial brothers, half brothers, and uncles (those titled somdej chaofa), regardless of their mother's status, would be given the high princely designation phra-ong chao, just below celestial level, with the potential for further elevation. It was unorthodox, but the alchemic trick of turning impure blue blood to pure was imperative for dynastic survival. Mahidol's six brothers produced among them only two sons, neither fully Chakri-blooded. The late Prince Chakrabongs had left a son, Chula Chakrabongs, a half Thai with a Russian mother. And the late Prince Chutadhuj had left one son, Varananda Dhavaj, whose mother was a housemaid. To ensure dynastic regeneration, Prajadhipok's promotion created a pool of eleven phra-ong chao princes, including the Mahidol boys.

Still, Prince Mahidol kept a distance from the palace's whitewashed and crenel-lated walls. He didn't want his children hopelessly bound to ritual and treated as near-gods. When he fell direly ill in 1928, he implored Sayre to prevent either boy from being placed on the throne if he died.

Mahidol lived to graduate from Harvard, and returned to Bangkok, where the streets filled with lively discussion of him as the heir apparent. He was called clever but erratic, and less politically adept than indecisive Prajadhipok. Others criticized his wife's pedigree. He was frequently ill and therefore likely to put the monarchy again at risk. And within royal and diplomatic circles it was said that he had republican sentiments, being enamored of American universal surage. Nevertheless, he had many supporters, in part out of fear of the alternative, Prince Paripatra, who controlled the Siamese military.

Mahidol hoped to practice as a doctor, but royal inviolability interfered at every step. Meetings with patients had to be carried out in the esoteric royal court language, which few outside the palace understood. As an incipient Lord of Life, as the king was called, Mahidol could touch only the uppermost, most sacral part of a patient's body, the head, if anything at all. To learn hands-on doctoring, Mahidol went north to Chiangmai, to an American-run hospital, in April 1929. After 24 days he fell ill, returned to Bangkok, and succumbed that September, only 37 years old.

The 1924 Palace Law of Succession was not clear about where the line would go: to Paripatra, as Chulalongkorn's last surviving celestial son, or to the newly orphaned Prince Ananda. There were lesser options too, and no decision was made right away. But four-year-old Ananda was immediately treated as a possible future king, placing the two-year-old Bhumibol at the foot of the throne as well. Widowed Sangwal was given a new title: Mom Sangwal Mahidol Na Ayutthaya, or Lady Mahidol, in the line descending from Ayutthaya. Protecting her royal status was the dowager queen Sawang, who was determined that her own family line should be perpetuated in the dynasty.

The family resided at Sawang's spacious Srapathum Palace, a recently built canalside teakwood mansion in a huge estate on the edge of Bangkok's center. Life involved the constant presence of dozens of nurses, servants, ladies-in-waiting, and foreign governesses and teachers. Influenced by modern American notions of child raising, Sangwal scrappily asserted herself over her children's upbringing. Ananda and Bhumibol were allowed to run about the Srapathum gardens with abandon, playing with toys from Europe and America, splashing about in the small home pool, and tumbling in the mud in their garden. They had cats and dogs and monkeys for pets. On birthdays there were grand garden parties for children and parents, both Thai and foreign, with games, horse rides, and fancy costumes.

The Mahidols enjoyed the most modern conveniences and ate as much Western as Thai food: cakes, sandwiches, and milk were standard fare for breakfast and lunch, instead of the noodles and rice that were Siamese staples. Like most of the Siamese elite they wore Western clothes and donned traditional Thai dress only for formal rituals and costume parties. The family took regular trips to the seaside, the zoo, and other sights, where the children were well cared for by officials who treated them as little future kings. To escape the hottest part of the year, they joined the aristocracy in the seaside resort Hua Hin. Schooling involved study groups at home with children their own age, both Thai and Western, with Thai, English, and American tutors. Sangwal was determined that they learn English. In 1930 Ananda was enrolled in the elite Catholic school Mater Dei; two years later Bhumibol followed him.

The socialization of Ananda as a possible future dhammaraja was not neglected, and Bhumibol was frequently at his side. The family partook in a few court ceremonies and rituals, and Sangwal taught the boys the basics of Siamese Buddhism, taking them to temples and relating Buddhist folk stories. On their birthdays they made merit by giving alms to monks and releasing captive birds and fish to their freedom. In 1932 Ananda began Buddhist studies with a leading monk, the future supreme patriarch. One of the lessons, his sister Galyani later recalled, was that it was a sin to kill even mosquitoes.

Ananda seemed unaware of his special position until one day in 1931 when he returned home from school to ask his mother, "Why does everyone call me Ong Baed ['the Eighth Royal One']?" When his mother explained that he might become the next king of Siam, Galyani said, Ananda became ill. In fact, he seemed to inherit the frailty of his father and uncles. He was often sick and bruised easily in play, missing school as a result. His doctor called it thin blood.

Life in the Srapathum Palace became increasingly dicult in 1931-32. Sangwal couldn't bear Bangkok's heat. Political tensions rose. Battered by the shockwaves of the U.S. financial collapse, the government began to run out of money. The high princes pressed new taxes onto the bourgeoisie while protecting their own fortunes. As Prajadhipok vacillated when faced with the complexity of global economic disorder, to little surprise and with minimal force a group of civilian and military bureaucrats overthrew the throne and introduced constitutional government, retaining a monarchy bereft of power.

Prajadhipok publicly acceded to the constitutional regime. But the princes around him refused to give up. As they plotted to restore the absolute monarchy, in April 1933 the Mahidols packed up and moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, for safe-keeping. There they would stay until 1945, more than a decade after King Prajadhipok abdicated the throne to Ananda and established Bhumibol as first heir.

The 1932 revolt wasn't only a reaction to economic crisis and the selfish mismanagement by the princes. Prajadhipok had become king just at the time rationalist modernism confronted the traditions and mythologies that underpinned Chakri power. His immediate predecessor, King Vajiravudh, had tentatively turned the monarchy toward a European- or Japanese-style martial nationalism. But this approach foundered on Vajiravudh's own profligacy, along with the stiff resistance of the high princes. They clung tightly to the belief that the traditional Siamese Buddhist kingship was the very essence of the land, its culture, and its life. With them, Prajadhipok built his reign mostly on traditional terms of centralized power and sacralized royal privilege. In 1932, the global financial crisis steered the Chakri absolute throne head-on into a collision with modernism, and it finally gave way.

But tradition was hard to kill and replace with a modern state. Like the princes, the peasants in the countryside believed their ancient and holy cosmos could be securely balanced only with the throne occupied by a powerful, wise, and just Buddha-like king. It was this belief, and its skillful manipulation, that would serve as the basis for Bhumibol's restoration decades later.

The old model of a sacralized absolute monarchy that weighed so heavily on the shoulders of King Prajadhipok in 1932 was grounded in two traditions of kingship that developed from the complementary Indian cosmologies of Hindu-Brahmanism and Buddhism, which spread into mainland Southeast Asia as early as the third century CE. Both were based on a semidivine warrior-king, the kasatriya (in modern Thai, kasat), whose claim to absolute, dynastic power was justified, after military might, by his blood and pure practice. Although the two traditions have never existed separately from each other in Thailand, they have distinct features that are important to how the modern monarchy defines itself and projects itself.

Thailand identifies itself with the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which under state sponsorship became paramount beginning with the 12th-century state of Sukhothai. This tradition of governance focused on the idealized concept of the dhammaraja king. The Buddhist king could take power as a warrior. But to justify and sustain his rule, he had to conduct himself in accordance with dhamma (in Sanskrit, dharma), the cosmic law, natural law, an unmanifest phenomenon that nevertheless is the only thing in the cosmos having permanence. All else is transitory. Dhamma rules the world, not man. Humans only propel this law-in Buddhist parlance, they "roll the wheel of dhamma."

Because dhamma is coterminous with truth, pursuing it is pursuing pure virtue; the way it is pursued is through pure practice, living as the Buddha himself did. Principles of pure practice include renunciation and the acceptance of anicca, or impermanence; practicing dana, or almsgiving and merit-making; selflessness, piety, charity, mercy, and rectitude. The guidelines to pure practice are found in the dhammasat, the laws of dhamma.

Enlightenment is full knowledge and practice of dhamma. On this path, traditionally, one's karma accrues from one's virtuous actions and behavior. Accrued karmic energy, or accumulated merit from virtuous activity, takes one closer to the dhamma. Unvirtuous actions retard that progress. Lists of precepts for practitioners of Buddhism point the way for virtuous practice: there are five for laymen, and an additional three for novice monks and others more dedicated to pursuing dhamma; a more detailed list for the strictest, purest monks totals 227 precepts. Hierarchy in Buddhist society is then constructed upon levels of closeness to enlightenment, to the dhamma. Those more virtuous-who engage in more pure practice-are better suited to lead others. Their primary duty is to reveal the dhamma to others through their words and actions. By doing so they accumulate more merit and move ever nearer the great truth.


Excerpted from The King Never Smiles by Paul M. Handley Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 A Dhammaraja from America....................12
2 From Pure Blood to Dynastic Failure....................26
3 1932: Revolution and Exile....................44
4 Restoration to Regicide....................64
5 Revenge of the Monarchists, 1946-49....................80
6 Romance in Lausanne: Bhumibol Prepares to Reign....................100
7 The Cold War, 1952-57....................114
8 Field Marshal Sarit: The Palace Finds Its Strongman....................139
9 Bhumibol in the 1960s: A Dhammaraja's Brilliance Unfolds....................156
10 Going to War....................180
11 Reborn Democrat?....................194
12 Royal Vigilantism and Massacre, 1974-76....................214
13 What Went Wrong: Cosmic Panic, Business Failure, Midcareer Crisis....................238
14 Who's the Enemy?....................257
15 In the King's Image: The Perfect General Prem....................276
16 Family Headaches....................299
17 Another Coup for the Throne....................328
18 May 1992: October 1976 Redux....................346
19 Sanctifying Royalty and Stonewalling Democracy in the 1990s....................363
20 Another Family Annus Horribilis....................394
21 The Economic Crash and Bhumibol's New Theory....................407
22 Going into Seclusion: Can the Monarchy Survive Bhumibol?....................427
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2007

    Remarkable and revealing

    This is an excellent piece of research journalism on a 'taboo' topic. I live in Thailand and most people have no access to unbiased news of their king. This work lifts the veil and it is gripping.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2008

    Make up your own mind

    If the king is so wonderful, why is this book banned in Thailand? Why did he support the military coup in 2006? Why is the Thai government afraid to let people make up their own minds?

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2008

    Free countries don't ban books

    For me, this book served as an excellent introduction to Thailand's recent history and political climate while I was preparing for my expatriation to the country. It is not always easy to discern what is exactly going on in a country that is not your home, especially in cases where the local language is so far from your own native one. While I cannot authenticate the contents of the book, it did prepare me to consider what could be happening all around me. Do all 63 million Thais love their king? With lèse majesté laws that is difficult to know.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2008

    Bias opinion of one person.The truth is the king does smile!!!

    The book's title tells how bias the whole book is. The truth is there are thousands of photos with the smiley king, but the author chose the one that he is sitting on the throne in a very formal ceremony. I can't believe he lived in Thailand for many years and never learned or researched the Thai cultures that in a formal event everybody ,whether you are king or not, is supposed to remain calm and unemotional as they consider good manners. The book is very insensitive by using Western culture to judge Thai people. I hate this book because it is so obvious that it is very money-driven by trying to defame the king with wrong accusation. Thailand is a free country. It's not true that people have no access to unbias news about their king. Every single Thai people loves the king for his dedication to develop their country. You will never find even one Thai person in this world who dislike his/her king, because they all know that King Rama IX is a kind leader who lead the country to be better everyday. He is one of the few kings in Thailand's history who was given an honor to be 'the Great'. The book is an insult. Its qualities equal to dirty gossip on tabloid magazines about royal families. Please don't be fooled by this book. Use your own judgement and don't waste your time and money on this book.

    3 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 4, 2011

    This book is banned in Thailand and that already said why.

    No Thai will buy this book in Thailand because everyone love their king and know how hard he work fir the country. One of the greatest king of all.

    1 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2013

    Poor product

    The content is fascinating but the text is small and does not increase in size no matter what size you attempt to assign it with Nook controls. The publisher should be embarrassed and B&N should do a better job of ensuring product format quality. Unacceptable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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