Although Thailand’s monarchy is, other than the few remaining traditional monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Brunei, probably the most powerful royal family in the world, it has been the subject of very few serious written works. This lack of real analysis and insight into the royal family is hardly surprising: Thailand’s lese majeste laws are the strictest in the world, even the most oblique references to the royal family can land you in jail in Bangkok, and it’s not exactly easy to find sources in the extended royal family to go on the record. Prosecutions under the lese majeste law have skyrocketed in the past decade, according to scholar David Streckfuss, because the law increasingly has been used as a weapon by various political sides in Thailand, and even by people who just have a vendetta against an associate. (In one infamous case, a man charged his brother with lese majeste, though the case eventually was dismissed after it became apparent that this was simply a situation of family acrimony.)
The best book in English on the modern Thai monarchy remains The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibhol Adulyadej, published in 2006 by journalist and longtime Thailand resident Paul Handley. Writing the book essentially guaranteed Handley he could not return to Thailand. Other books, in English and Thai, touch on important aspects of the modern-day monarchy, or contain valuable information buried inside what is essentially a hagiography—books like King Bhumibhol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, released last year.
Now, many Thailand-watchers are eagerly expecting a book that could add to this small shelf of insight into the royal family. Andrew MacGregor Marshall was a journalist in Southeast Asia for Reuters until he quit the company to publish a long-form article, based on first-hand reporting and on a stash of Wikileaks cables relating to the Thai monarchy; the article attempted to explode many of the myths about Thailand’s current king, normally referred to in Thailand as a benevolent, godlike figure. Although some of Marshall’s writing was not always as revelatory as he made it out to be—academics had discussed some of the themes in his work—his sourcing and many juicy tidbits made the piece a captivating read. It also seemed to have gained Marshall more sources in Thailand, and specifically in the royal family, even though he now lives in Singapore and cannot return to the kingdom.
Marshall apparently is now going to publish a book that examines Thailand’s current political divide not through the lens of class conflict or democratization but through the lens of conflict over Thailand’s royal succession. Although this broader theme is not new, the initial draft of the book contains insights and many reported details about the monarchy—details that are almost impossible to find. The draft is here.