Why the King of Thailand Never Smiles

May 20, 2010
*Special to asia!
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No one, it is said, has ever seen King Bhumibol Adulyadej smile in public. This may seem an exaggeration, but the Thai monarch often wears an expression of utter seriousness.


“A religious ascetic,” Time once called him. Few would dispute that.

Bhumibol, who turns 82 on December 5th, is today’s oldest and longest-serving monarch, having spent over six decades on the throne. He’s possibly also the most adored.

It did not start out that way. The youngest child of a prince, Bhumibol was born in America. After moving back to Thailand at age one, he left his country again when he was five, to Switzerland where he was to spend the rest of his childhood and grow up thoroughly Westernised.

In 1946, his elder brother, then king, was mysteriously found dead with a bullet in his head. Bhumibol thus unexpectedly became king – and the pawn of the generals running the country.

What followed should go into the textbook as a stellar example of kingship. Sitting on an uncertain throne and virtually powerless outside the palace, Bhumibol slowly and deftly built up his personal power, capitalising on the awe the Thais hold for their royalty. He restored many ancient rituals, including prostration. All that places the king on a semi-divine platform (which perhaps explains why Bhumibol always looks serious – gods, or demi-gods, are not known to smile).

Bhumibol also goes deep amongst his people, initiating numerous projects that improved their lives. Both his wife, Queen Sirikit, and favourite daughter, Crown Princess Chakri Sirindhorn, help in his work, though his son and heir apparent Vajiralongkorn is conspicuously absent.

Decades of being a “Buddha” on earth and a king who cares have built up for Bhumibol an enormous store of moral authority. From his start as a puppet in the hands of the military, he has reinvented himself to become the stabilising force and the final word of Thailand.

In 1992, when armies of rival generals were killing each other on the streets of Bangkok, all it needed was a few words from Bhumibol for the bloodshed to subside.

In 1946, his elder brother, then king, was mysteriously found dead with a bullet in his head. Bhumibol thus unexpectedly became king – and the pawn of the generals running the country.

But not everyone is impressed. Freelance journalist and long-time resident of Thailand, Paul Handley has written an unauthorised biography of the monarch, entitled “The King Never Smiles”.

The book is banned in Thailand, which has helped sales (it has gone through three printings since January). Its publisher, Yale University Press, says the book tells the story of “how a king widely seen as beneficent and apolitical could in fact be so deeply political, autocratic, and even brutal”.

Handley wrote that he was “encouraged” by many Thais to write the book and his purpose was to help illuminate the fact that “the (Thai) throne, wrapped in its own zealously constructed image, was leaving itself vulnerable to potent challenges”.

That is a lot of hype. Although Bhumibol is barred from politics by constitution, anyone who is familiar with Thailand will not see him as “apolitical”. The king retains the right to advise, and acts when he feels the country is in dire straits. In the 1990s he paved the way for Thailand to democracy (and eroded the power of the military). In 2006 it was his tacit approval that made possible the coup that removed Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.

But Handley also does have a point. Thailand may have adopted democracy but that still revolves around a single man – what more, an old and sickly one. What happens when he goes and his high-living son takes over? Would the country go to the dogs? Perhaps that is another reason why the king does not smile.

Related Stories:

Lina Joy: A Case of State-minded Religion

Thailand's Crown Prince: A King in Waiting?

Paper Chase

Talking Buddhism

Buddhism Divides Thailand

Thailand: Where Coups Still Rule

Cheat Sheets: Thailand


*Note: This story first appeared in asia!'s August 2007 print issue.

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


Contact Han Shih