The King Never Smiles A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej Paul M. Handley

Publication date:
03 Jan 2017
Yale University Press
520 pages: 235 x 156mm
Sales territories:
World except Southeast Asia


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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 at the time of his death, in October 2016, was the world’s longest serving monarch. Now out in paperback with a new preface by author Paul Handley, The King Never Smiles is the first independent biography of Thailand’s monarch, tells the unexpected story of Bhumibol’s life and seventy 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 in 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, 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.

"Little wonder that before Paul Handley no one had really pried into the king’s sleeping habits, let alone the state of his marriage or political views. The story he uncovers is fascinating."—Economist

"A new and comprehensive history of the Thai modern monarchy . . . [which] presents a direct counterpoint to years of methodical royal image-making."—Jane Perlez, The Sunday Telegraph

"Thailand’s reigning monarch has just celebrated his sixty-year jubilee and this is the first serious biography of him. . . . It is key to understanding the extraordinary events of the past year. . . . For too long, the issue of the monarchy has been the prone elephant that analysts of Thai history and politics have had to treat carefully around. That era should now pass. . . . In sum, this is the classic story of an exceptional man recrafting a monarchy against the grain of an era. But with a difference."—Chris Baker, Asia Sentinel

"[Handley’s] biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej succeeds in engrossing the reader with the complex personality of the Thai king and his long and eventful life. . . . The chapters on political turbulence in Thailand between 1974-76, and on the impact of the 1997 financial crisis, find Mr. Handley at his analytic best. . . . Mr. Handley also has some important remarks on the uses and abuses of the lese majesté laws in Thailand."—Grant Evans, Far Eastern Economic Review