- Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand
It says something about the state of the academic study of the Thai monarchy that up until Paul Handley's The King Never Smiles (2006) there had never been a critical English language biography of the present King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The monarchy was generally regarded as "widely revered" and a stabilizing force for the country's endemically turbulent politics. International media reports about Thailand often use a famous image from the democracy protests of May 1992, when Bhumibol appeared on television with the then Prime Minister, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, and protest leader, Major General Chamlong Srimuang, kneeling at his feet, receiving fatherly advice on how the bloody conflict should be resolved. This comforting image of a benevolent constitutional monarch, above the fray of politics, offering wise counsel in times of crisis to his child-like subjects, has exerted considerable influence on scholarship about the Thai monarchy. A misplaced eagerness on the part of some scholars to conform to feudal codes of respect prevalent in Thailand may also have played a part in enabling Bhumibol to escape the critical scholarly attention that other Asian authoritarian leaders have attracted. Within Thailand, the liberal-republican based attack on the monarchy of the era of the People's Party (the group of civilian and military officers who overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932) is long gone, and the Marxist critique (which generally avoided attacking the monarchy directly) faded after the collapse of the Left in the early 1980s. Since then the mass marketing of the monarchy to the Thai public through the mass media has produced a whole generation of Thais who have grown up heavily indoctrinated by [End Page 140] royalist propaganda, and who are otherwise forbidden to criticize the monarchy under the country's harsh lèse majesté law.
This consensus over the monarchy's place in Thailand has been shattered since the September 2006 coup, in which the monarchy was heavily involved, if not the main instigator. A growing body of critical scholarship, in Thai as well as English, is re-examining every aspect of the Thai monarchy: the lèse majesté law which protects its image, the "network" of figures in the Privy Council, the armed forces, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the parliament and the media, through which the monarchy exercises its political influence, the monarchy's immense business interests, and its real role in the 2006 coup and the political maneuvering in the coup's aftermath to destroy former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's and his support base. The crisis is also leading to a radical revision of the place of the monarchy in Thailand's history since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932.
Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, is the first edited volume of essays in English devoted entirely to critically examining Thailand's monarchy and the problem it poses to democratization. The essays focus on the subject of how the monarchy's image has been represented and managed. Topics covered include the cult of divinity constructed around Bhumibol (Jackson); the mass media's representation of the relationship between the king and the people (Sarun Krittikarn); the depiction of the monarchy in literature and some contemporary publications (Platt); the use of the lèse majesté law in Imperial Germany compared to that in contemporary Thailand (Streckfuss); the place of the monarchy in conservative notions of "Thai-style democracy" (Hewison and Kengkit); the monarchy's struggle against the People's Party in the period 1932-57 (Nattapoll); royalist propaganda in the period following the September 2006 coup (Han Krittian); and Bhumibol's so-called "sufficiency economy theory" (the subject of two essays, by Ivarsson and Isager, and by Walker).
Given the dearth of critical scholarship on the monarchy there is much in the volume that will interest readers. For this reviewer there are a number of highlights. Nattapoll's essay directly challenges two extremely influential themes in Thai historiography: the "bureaucratic...