BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s banning of a rare “warts and all” biography of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej only stokes interest in the book and risks an eventual explosion of pent-up political tension, an academic said.
“Banning books is usually something we associate with fascist and repressive regimes,” Australian anthropologist Annette Hamilton told a seminar on “The King Never Smiles” at an international Thai studies conference in Bangkok on Thursday.
“When silence is enforced for a long time, noise — when it comes — is deafening.”
The book, by U.S. journalist Paul Handley, portrays King Bhumibol as an austere and deeply political monarch whose overarching desire for stability and unity during 61 years on the throne has stifled Thailand’s democratic development.
Many of the southeast Asian nation’s 63 million people regard the king as semi-divine and credit him with steering Thailand through huge political and social turbulence, including more than a dozen military coups.
However, critics say this perception is propped up by draconian lese majeste laws, which make any insult or threat to the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
Even though the King himself made it clear in 2005 that he should not be above criticism, the government banned the book in January 2006 under its 1941 Printing Act, arguing it “could disrupt public order and the good morals of society”.
This was clearly not the real reason, Hamilton said.
“The main issue is that it challenges the agreement to silence, or the agreement not to disagree, which is a main strategy in Thailand for maintaining harmony. But we’ve seen this method does not guarantee peacefulness,” Hamilton said.
“Instead, it results in a situation where fears, hopes, dreams and interpretations are bottled up for years and decades, circulate through rumor and gossip and may come out in terrible, violent confrontations.”
The book also contains lots of rumor and gossip about the royal family, in particular heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who does not enjoy the almost unquestioning respect accorded to his 80-year-old father.
Handley, declared persona non grata in Thailand, did not attend the conference, one of the few times the monarchy has ever been debated critically in public inside Thailand.
But his paper on the role of the King’s advisory council was read out on his behalf.
Australian scholar Craig Reynolds said much of the underground hype about the book might be overblown as studies in Thai have already pointed to Bhumibol’s overtly political reign, backing various democratic and military regimes.
Thai journals have also questioned how the monarchy has become such an important totem for the generals who staged the September 2006 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“His political neutrality has been exposed time and again for what it is — namely, the mere appearance of political neutrality. In reality the King is not neutral,” Reynolds said.
Instead, he said, much of the offence seemed to stem from outrage at an outsider, in particular a journalist, trying to lift the lid on the central pillar of Thai society.
“Who is he to comment on the sacred institution which has held the country together during crisis after crisis?,” Reynolds said of the prevailing view of Thai critics of the book.
Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson