For Christmas Jeremy gave me a book he had purchased on his way out of Thailand: "The King Never Smiles" by Paul Handley. Handley is a journalist, not a historian, but clearly spent lots of time working his way through the documents surrounding the reign of Bhumibol Adulyaej, the late king of Thailand.
King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 and reigned until his death in 2016. Bhumibol's 70+ years on the throne is a record for modern royalty. While always something of an (always-changing) constitutional monarch, the perception of Bhumibol's status as a Buddhist (with a Hindu twist) dhammaraja gave him a standing exceeding even that of the post-WWII emperor of Japan. Coupled with the lack of a tradition of the rule of law or constitutionalism, Bhumibol effectively ruled through a series of weak civilian and powerful military governments.
In spite of a form of rule that was highly personal and opaque to most Thais, Bhumibol retained the respect of his people. Blame for mismanagement, corruption, natural disasters, ecological degradation, and crime were heaped on Thailand's ever-changing governments; the king managed--most of the time--to appear to remain above the fray. He was not, of course. Nudges and hints and mere public displays of dissatisfaction were usually enough to topple a civilian government in favor of another military junta.
Notwithstanding Handley's painstaking work to uncover what was really happening, and notwithstanding his incredulity that Thailand continued to move forward economically and culturally through the succeeding decades of Bhumibol's reign, he was forced to admit that the king's extraordinary Buddhist virtues played a role unimaginable from a Western perspective. That to his people Bhumibol conceivably was a bodhisattva covered a multitude of governance sins.
At least for a while. Although Bhumibol lived for another ten years after the book ended, Handley correctly observed that personal rule depends on the person and that the king would not live forever. With his death in 2016, Bhumibol's venial playboy son has ascended the throne. No one will think that Vajiralongkorn is a selfless dhammaraja. Without a semi-divine personage to unite Thailand, the current military dictatorship may collapse under the weight of its exceptional corruption.
"The King Never Smiles" is more than the peculiar story of a long-lived king of an unusual nation-state in Southeast Asia. It should also stand as a warning to paleo-conservatives who long for the restoration of a nation "rightly ordered" instead of the current war of competing subjective rights that characterizes late-Liberalism. (Go here, here, here, and here for my four-parter on the topic of "right order" vs. "rights.") An orderly society in an orderly nation can be as disordered as the contemporary rights-crazed West.
A strong constitutional order including the rule of law is vital to the flourishing of a people. Such an order is not necessarily inconsistent with a hierarchical society. Yet a people need more than a virtuous leader; they need a leader and a system of governance that trains them in virtue, one that puts virtue into practice in more ways than personal or familial piety. We can only hope that Thailand makes the transition.