In This Review

The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej
The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej
By Paul M. Handley
Yale University Press, 2006, 512 pp

The king of Thailand was born in Boston while his father was studying at Harvard. He was educated in Switzerland. When his uncle abdicated, his older brother ascended to the throne, but the brother was mysteriously shot dead. (The unsolved mystery has led to all manner of speculation; the palace maintains that it was an accident.) And so in 1946, Bhumibol, at the age of 18, became the king of Thailand. Handley, a journalist who has spent 20 years in Asia, including 13 in Thailand, has taken on the challenging task of writing a biography of Bhumibol -- challenging in that if he is too critical, his work will be seen as a lese majesty, and if he is not critical enough, he will be accused of shilling for the royal family. His account does not present the glossy picture of Bhumibol that a Thai monarchist would -- indeed, he criticizes the king for not being a more open champion of democratic reforms -- but he argues that Bhumibol has used his royal authority to contain the numerous military strongmen who have dominated Thai politics in the past. Interestingly, as Thai politics become more open, Handley notes, the king may become even more influential, for the Thai people seem to treat him as a sort of living Buddha.