Royalty from twenty-five nations gathered in Bangkok in June 2006 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The festivities culminated in a magnificent river ceremony on 9 June, when fifty-two traditional wooden barges, their bows bearing gilded figures of deities and mythical beasts, manned by over two thousand oarsmen, coursed along the capital’s Chao Phraya River. Crowds up to a million strong, most of them wearing yellow—Thais colour-code the days of the week; the King was born on a Monday—lined the riverbanks. Many sported special commemorative wristbands with the slogan ‘We love the King’ in both Thai and English. The world’s longest reigning monarch, draped in a shimmering golden robe, was greeted by a twenty-one-gun salute, fireworks, banners and festive music. It was an image of perfect royal harmony; the Thai genius for hospitality and display had captured global media attention, while the King himself was not only loved by all but profoundly respected for his shining virtue, wisdom, sincerity and personal modesty.

Yet much was rotten in the state of Thailand. The spectacle of national unity was itself a move in a bitter and far-reaching power struggle between the Palace and the Prime Minister, controversial telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, elected by a landslide under the new 1997 constitution. Even the ubiquitous yellow shirts were highly political. The fad for wearing yellow had been launched in September 2005, when maverick media baron and former Thaksin apologist Sondhi Limthongkul began mobilizing popular resistance against the Prime Minister at a series of rallies. Yellow shirts proclaiming ‘We love the King’ and ‘We’ll fight for the King’ became a symbol of the anti-Thaksin movement. Thaksin tried to deflect the symbolism by adopting the colour himself in late November 2005, calling on all Thais to wear yellow shirts to celebrate the royal anniversary and pledging allegiance to the crown. But his move backfired. During 2006, after Thaksin’s scandal-ridden sell-off of the privatized telecoms network to Singaporean interests, much of the nation donned clothing that was an implicit rebuke to the Prime Minister. In February 2006, Thaksin announced on his Saturday radio programme that he would step down if the King whispered in his ear, but subsequently failed to take a number of hints.

Bhumibol’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations marked the next step in the legitimacy showdown between the two, one that would lead to the inexorable triumph of the King. On 23 June Thaksin wrote in an extraordinary private letter to President Bush that certain interest groups in Thailand, ‘having failed to provoke violence and disorder’, were ‘now attempting various extra-constitutional tactics to co-opt the will of the people.’ On 30 June, he publicly accused an unspecified ‘charismatic individual’ of manoeuvring to oust him from the premiership—a comment widely assumed to refer to the King himself. The power struggle culminated in the military coup d’état of 19 September 2006 that overturned the constitution to oust Thaksin, amid accusations that his government had showed a persistent disrespect to the monarchy bordering on lèse-majesté. Well-wishers tied yellow ribbons to guns and tanks, recognizing that the coup was staged at the Palace’s behest. The junta proceeded to install Surayud Chulanont, a member of the royal Privy Council, as interim Prime Minister. Thailand’s revered King, the semi-divine Buddhist dhammaraja, was a major player in the politics of the country.

Who is Bhumibol? Paul Handley’s biography is, remarkably, the first serious, independent study of the King. The book is the fruit of twelve years’ work, most of them spent as a Bangkok-based correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. For a credible foreigner—above all, an American—fluent in Thai, to publish a long, meticulously researched account that is critical of the monarch, and with Yale University Press, no less: this is the worst nightmare of the guardians of the Chakri dynasty. Strict lèse-majesté laws, carrying a 15-year jail sentence, limit all public discussion of the Crown. The Thai authorities desperately hoped Yale would refrain from publishing the book. Cabinet Secretary Borwornsak Uwanno travelled to the United States to meet Yale alumni such as George H. W. Bush, and a leading American law firm was contacted. The legal advice was that publication could not be blocked; but as a concession, Yale delayed the release of the book from May until July 2006, when the main royal festivities were over. In publishing it, Handley knows that he will never be allowed back in the country.

Yet his book is cathartic: finally, someone has dared to say the unsayable, and those trying to understand Thai society have a new intellectual reference point from which to work. Fluently written and grounded in very considerable research, Handley’s account draws on insights into the Thai monarchy from a range of scholars and writers, including Christine Gray, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian and mr Sukhumbhand Paripatra. But his narrative moves far beyond the parameters of these precursors. It has a salience and an urgency well beyond that of any ordinary biography (leave alone William Stevenson’s error-strewn 1999 hagiography, The Revolutionary King), since its real subject-matter is the re-imagining of Thailand’s modern political history.

Where Handley excels is in his understanding of Bhumibol as a political actor, as the primary architect of a lifelong project to transform an unpopular and marginalized monarchical institution—on the verge of abolition more than once—into the single most powerful component of the modern Thai state. As a journalist, Handley’s strength has always been his coverage of Southeast Asian business, his brilliantly intuitive grasp of the seedy interplay between money and power in both Indonesia and Thailand. The sections of the book that will most disturb attentive Thai readers are those focusing on the extensive business activities of the royal family through the asset-rich Crown Property Bureau. While preaching a homespun philosophy of the ‘sufficiency economy’, the King owns the freeholds of many of the prime Bangkok locations leased to leading real-estate developers and shopping mall proprietors. The King Never Smiles is not on sale in Thailand and has never been openly discussed in the Thai media, although numerous copies are circulating privately among the Bangkok intelligentsia. Conversations about the monarchy will never be quite the same again.

Bhumibol Adulyadej—the name means ‘Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power’—was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1927, making him a rare example of a foreign monarch who is technically eligible to become President of the United States. The Chakri dynasty was then at a low ebb. Absolute monarchy reached its peak during the long reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), Rama v, who emulated European powers by subordinating his subjects under a centralized modern bureaucracy, and was popularly credited with averting the direct colonization of Siam. But the vagaries of primogeniture then threw up the fickle and profligate Rama vi, who frittered away the monarchy’s financial and political capital, while failing to produce an heir. When he died in 1925, his successor King Prajadhipok, Bhumibol’s uncle, proved at best a half-hearted dhammaraja. Modernization was generating new political demands. As early as 1885, members of Siam’s Western-educated elite had petitioned for a parliamentary constitution. In the ‘revolution’ of 1932 the absolute monarchy was challenged head on. In its wake the 42-year-old Prajadhipok, unable to grasp the nature of Siam’s changing society, abdicated—a year before Edward viii—and retired to Surrey.