Rama IX’s reign was haunted from the start. When he was 18 years old, his world was transformed by one shattering event, and the consequences and emotional cost and unanswered questions have pursued him through the decades, despite his repeated attempts to shake himself free.
On June 9, 1946, King Ananda Mahidol, Bhumibol’s elder brother, was shot through the head in his bedroom in the Barompiman Hall, a European-style mansion inside the Grand Palace complex.
The events of that morning are more than 65 years in the past now. Many Thais believe they should be left there, undisturbed, the questions they raise unanswered forever. That was my view too, when I started writing #thaistory. I wanted to concentrate on Thailand’s 21st century crisis, and it just seemed unnecessarily provocative and cruel to publish the real story of June 9, 1946. What good would it do now? It would just cause pain.
But I changed my mind. It became clear that to understand what is happening to Thailand now, at the end of Bhumibol’s reign, you need to know how his reign began, and the implications of what happened. The secret has been lurking like an unexploded bomb beneath the palace for six decades, and the actions of the king and of the royalist establishment can only be understood in this context.
There is no serious doubt that Bhumibol Adulyadej shot and killed his brother that morning. The king is only person left alive who knows for sure exactly what happened in the Barompiman Hall bedroom inside the Grand Palace where Ananda was killed, and he seems resolved to take his knowledge to the grave with him. But a wealth of contemporary documentary evidence, as well as Bhumibol’s actions and evasions in the aftermath of his brother’s death, and the absence of any other convincing explanation for what happened, add up to the overwhelming likelihood that Bhumibol was responsible. As Thammasat University professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul, the leading academic expert on the events surrounding Ananda’s death, has pointed out, deduction can go a long way, just as in crime novels like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile:
There was a limited space, only a limited number of people were involved and some have not been straight with the truth – we can think it through and explain what happened.
It was almost certainly not premeditated, and probably an accident, and Bhumibol has never got over what happened.
Ananda and Bhumibol had never been expected to become king. Their mother Sangwan was born in 1900 to impoverished parents, a Thai-Chinese father and a Thai mother, in Nonthaburi near Bangkok. By the time she was 10 both her parents and an elder sister and brother had all died, leaving her an orphan with one younger brother. Through some fortunate family connections she moved into the outer orbit of the royal court, and after an accident with a sewing needle she was sent to stay in the home of the palace surgeon who encouraged her to become a nurse. At the age of just 13 she enrolled at Siriraj Hospital’s School for Midwifery and Nursing. She met Bhumibol’s father, Mahidol Adulyadej — 69th of the 77 children of Rama V, King Chulalongkorn — in Boston in 1918 after winning a scholarship to further her nursing studies in the United States. If anybody had expected Mahidol to get anywhere near the pinnacle of the royal line of succession, his marriage to a Thai-Chinese commoner would never have been approved. But he was far down the list.
Ananda was born in September 1925 and Bhumibol in December 1927. In November 1925, King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, died aged 44 leaving no male heir. The crown passed to King Prajadhipok, still in the prime of his life. Prince Mahidol, returned to Thailand from the United States with his young family in 1928. He hoped to practise medicine at Siriraj Hospital. This proved impossible, however, as Rayne Kruger recounted in The Devil’s Discus:
He was asking for something vastly more difficult than you might think. Here is how another prince who qualified as a doctor described his experience on returning to Bangkok: ‘It was almost impossible for me to practise. When a patient came to me I had to ask, “Which part of your body is sick? Because I’m a prince and can only treat your head.” If it was the King, of course, I could only treat his feet.’ …
Prince Mahidol was obliged to give up any hope of working at Siriraj Hospital. The British and American doctors who ran it advised the King that taboo and etiquette made the presence of a prince on the staff quite impracticable. The hospital was on the farther bank of the … river and in visiting it by ordinary hire-craft instead of crossing with traditional princely ceremony Prince Mahidol had already strained the King’s tolerance. There was to be no unfitting behaviour again, no internship at the Siriraj.
Instead, Mahidol left Bangkok to practise medicine in Chiang Mai. A few months later, though, he was back at Siriraj: this time as a patient. The curse of ill-health that has afflicted so many of the Chakris, widely attributed to inbreeding, did not spare Mahidol. Doctors at Siriraj tried to save him. They failed. When he died, Ananda was only four, Bhumibol two.
Kruger describes Prince Mahidol’s death in The Devil’s Discus:
On a morning in 1929, three months after his departure for Chiengmai, he was observed alighting from a boat at the Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. He was dressed merely in shorts, open shirt and sun helmet like any Westernized commoner, and like any busy doctor he carried a bottle with the specimen of a patient’s intestine he wanted tested. But he had some personal business also. He consulted Dr Noble, English Professor of Surgery at the Medical School, about his own health. Noble sent him straight home to bed; then with William Perkins, American Professor of Medicine, struggled for three months to save his life. He had an amoebic abscess in his liver. They could not save him. He showed great courage and unfailing gentleness to the moment of his death. He was thirty-seven — best, most loved of Chakri princes.
In 1932, the People’s Party, an alliance of military officers and civil servants, ended the system of absolute monarchy in a bloodless revolution. King Prajadhipok became a constitutional monarch. As doubts grew about the survival – and safety – of the Thai monarchy, Sangwan took her three children to Lausanne in 1933. Two years later, the embittered Prajadhipok unexpectedly abdicated the throne. Ananda, nine years old, was named King Rama VIII.
Sangwan was conflicted about the news, as a New York Times report showed:
According to his elder sister Galyani in a 1987 memoir, Ananda was initially reluctant and wrote a list of all the reasons he didn’t want to rule Siam:
He did not wish to be king because (1) he was only a child, (2) he knew nothing, (3) he was lazy, (4) the Chair (how he referred to the throne) was too high, and he could not sit still and could therefore fall off it… (5) wherever he went he would have to use the umbrella and could not enjoy the sun, (6) too many people in front and behind him wherever he went and he could not run.
Black-and-white footage of a contemporary interview with Ananda in Switzerland shows him similarly unimpressed about being king – and playful:
Interviewer: Does it interest you?
Ananda: It just doesn’t interest me.
Interviewer: What does interest you?
Sangwan wanted her sons to finish their schooling in Switzerland before becoming immersed in the stiflingly antique and formalized world of the Siamese royal court. As she wrote to their grandmother, Queen Sawang:
Both my son and myself have no desire for honour nor riches. The reason Nan has to accept the throne is because it is his duty to the nation… At the moment he is just a child, let him be a child.
She got her wish. As a brief news item in the Times newspaper on April 1, 1935, reported:
King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol spent several idyllic years living at Villa Vadhana on a hillside overlooking Lake Geneva, in Pully just outside Lausanne. Ananda and Bhumibol shared a room. They had friends at school, but only rarely invited them home. The two boys lived a slightly insular existence; they were playmates and best friends. There is no suggestion in any accounts of their childhood of tension between the brothers. As Paul Handley wrote in The King Never Smiles:
In Lausanne, Ananda and Bhumibol studied French, Latin, and German instead of Thai and Pali, the language of Buddhism. They hiked in the mountains and skied the snow-covered peaks while most Thai kids frolicked in steamy rice paddies with water buffaloes. As teenagers they were captivated by World War II battle exploits, fast cars and American music. By the war’s end, both were better suited for the life of well-heeled bon vivants in Europe than golden-robed, sacral princes in an impoverished tropical Asian state…
Most of the pressure on Ananda came from Sangwal herself. She tried to prepare him for kingship, but he was frustratingly inattentive, she complained in letters to Sawang. Pushed hard, he became inattentive and moody. Bhumibol, meanwhile, was merry, energetic, and curious. His mother’s letters make it clear that he was her favorite, noting that he readily completed his schoolwork and chores before running off to play. Still, the difference between the two boys was only a few degrees. They were their own constant companions and best friends, and Bhumibol looked up to Ananda.
Rayne Kruger also noted Bhumibol’s playful personality and closeness to his mother:
Closest of the children to their mother was the youngest, Bhoomipol, two years Ananda’s junior. He played the clown of the family, and no one today would recognize the stern good looks of the present monarch in the irrepressibly comical bespectacled boy.
Relations were strained between Sangwan and government leaders back in Bangkok who wanted the king back in Siam. Several times she threatened that Ananda would abdicate unless he was allowed to finish his studies and return permanently to Siam only when he felt ready. And for a while, the family was happy and content in Lausanne.
Ananda visited Bangkok for the first time as king in 1938, aged 13. In December 1945, after World War II was over, Rama VIII flew to Bangkok again with his mother and brother. It was supposed to be a relatively brief visit; King Ananda and Prince Bhumibol were expected to go back within months to their studies in Switzerland.
There were, broadly, three political factions in Thailand at this time. The People’s Party of 1932 had split into two opposing camps: militarists loyal to Phibun Songkram, and left-leaning civilians who supported Pridi Banomyong, an inspirational French-educated civil servant. The third camp was the royalists, angry at the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and appalled at the dwindling power and prestige of the throne. This group included senior princes like Rangsit and Dhani, and the conservative Democrat Party founded by Khuang Aphaiwong in 1946, which soon won the support of the blue-blooded Pramoj brothers Seni and Kukrit.
Phibun had been in the ascendant after 1938, fostering a nationalist and fascist ideology in which veneration for a tough military leader — himself — would replace devotion to the monarch. During World War II he allied Thailand with the invading Japanese. Pridi, meanwhile, served as regent for Ananda during the war years, and covertly led the Free Thai resistance movement against Japanese occupation, earning immense respect from Britain and the United States. In a speech in London in 1946, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander for Southeast Asia from 1943 to 1946, expressed the extent of the gratitude of the Allies for what Pridi had done for them:
By the end of the war he had arranged sabotage and guerrilla forces comprising some 60,000 fighting men and numerous passive supporters, who were in positions at all the key strategic points in Siam and poised to strike… The strain imposed on [Pridi] and the risks he ran for over three years were very formidable, but his own discipline and that which he inspired in his followers won out. He never failed us.
The defeat of Japan left Phibun disgraced, and Pridi became the dominant political figure. He showed great respect for the royal family, although not undue deference. But because of his involvement as a leader of the 1932 revolutionaries, his popularity and his left-leaning views, the royalist camp hated him and regarded him as an enormous threat. Even in 1946, fourteen years after the revolution, many royalists refused to accept what had happened and plotted ways to restore the primacy of the monarchy.
Ananda and Bhumibol received a rapturous welcome in Siam during their visit, although both of them (and Ananda in particular) were widely remarked to be exceptionally shy. In a 1950 article in Time magazine, John Stanton wrote:
Ananda, Siamese remember, was a strange young King. Full of Western ideas, he refused to talk to visitors who sat on the floor below him in Siamese fashion, insisting that they sit on chairs level with himself. Since shyness is a Siamese characteristic, the visitors often found themselves unable to talk in such a presumptuous position; King and subject would sit in silence, both blushing. Siamese tell of Ananda’s visits to little villages near Bangkok. He would summon up all his courage, walk up to an old woman and ask, “Grandmother, how go things with you?” The woman would probably burst into tears at the thought that she had been addressed by a King, and Ananda would stand before her, eyes downcast and silent.
Their departure was delayed several times. Eventually, following discussions with the royal astrologers, it was set for June 13, 1946. But Ananda was destined to die in Siam. In his memoirs, British pathologist Keith Simpson, who was asked by the Thai authorities to give his opinions on the case, describes the last hours of Ananda’s life:
On 8th June, a Saturday in the Year of the Dog 2489, Buddhist era (AD 1946), he was slightly indisposed, suffering from a mild intestinal upset. At 10 p.m. he retired to his private suite, dressed for bed in a light T shirt and blue Chinese silk trousers. He was protected while he slept by a guard of four men and the Inspector of the Watch.
At 6 next morning he was visited by his mother, who woke him up and found him perfectly well. At 7.30 a.m. his trusted page, Butr, came on duty and began preparing a breakfast table on a balcony adjoining the King’s dressing room. The night guard went off duty, and the day staff assembled.
At 8.30 a.m. Butr saw the King standing in his dressing room. The page took in the usual glass of orange juice, a few minutes later, but by then the King had gone back to bed. With a gesture he refused the juice and dismissed Butr, according to the page’s own evidence.
At 8.45 the King’s other trusted page, Nai Chit, appeared unexpectedly. The two pages were on alternating duty, but Nai Chit was not due to relieve Butr for another two hours. He said he had called to measure the King’s medals and decorations on behalf of a jeweller who was making a case for them.
At 9 a.m. Prince Bhoomipol, Ananda’s younger brother, called on the King to enquire about his health. He said afterwards that he had found the King dozing peacefully in his bed, a mosquito netting covered him all over.
Twenty minutes later a single shot rang out from the King’s bedroom. Nai Chit ran in, and out, and along the corridor to the apartments of the King’s mother. ‘The King’s shot himself!’ he cried…
Simpson says this timeline was given to him in detail by Thai official investigating the case. It differs from official testimony given by Bhumibol and the two pages in one important respect: all three stated that Bhumibol came to enquire on his brother at 9 a.m. but, upon being told that he was still asleep, returned to his own bedroom without entering Ananda’s. It is not clear whether this mistake was inserted by Simpson or whether the account given to him differed slightly from the official testimony.
In The Devils’ Discus, Kruger recounted what happened next, again reconstructed from official testimony:
The words that rose from the Princess Mother’s lips were quite mechanical: “My poor Nand.” Horror, terror, pity and desperate incredulity held her for an instant transfixed before she began to run, asking no questions, and running through her crashing world grasped at the hope that the page was foolishly mistaken, or that “shot” meant merely a graze, and that her son would greet her with a rueful smile at having been careless with one of his pistols. But the spectacle in the bedroom obliterated hope.
Ananda lay in bed as if asleep. His flowered coverlet was drawn up. He lay on his back, his legs stretched out straight together. His arms, extended fairly close to his sides, were outside the coverlet. On his left wrist was his watch, on a finger of his left hand his ring, and an inch or two from his left hand a pistol, the American Army .45. Not that the Princess Mother took in all these details. Her entire being was concentrated on the blood oozing from Ananda’s forehead. Nai Chit opened the mosquito net for her and with a scream she flung herself on her son’s body.
Not far behind came the Royal Nanny. Her account of her movements would be that she was putting away some cine-film in Bhoomipol’s room when she heard what she thought might be a shot followed by running footsteps. Seeing the Princess Mother making for the King’s quarters she hurried after her. She saw her distraught on the bed, endlessly repeating through her sobs, “My dear Nand, my dear Nand.” The Nanny half lifted her away but she again bent keening and weeping over her son, across whose face, shoulder and pillow the blood freely flowed, until the Nanny moved her towards the foot of the bed where she lay half on the floor.
The Nanny took hold of Ananda’s wrist. Though the Palace Law of 1450 had but recently given way to the Penal Code which no longer made anyone who touched the royal person guilty of a capital offence, there was still a powerful taboo and this she defied by feeling the King‟s pulse. It was beating. At this same moment of discovery – everything was confused, confusing and indescribably terrible – the Nanny was aware of the pistol close to the wrist she held. The barrel pointed towards the Princess Mother at the foot of the bed, and fearing an accident the Nanny quickly picked it up with three fingers and put it on the bedside cabinet where Ananda had placed his spectacles and where a small clock ticked off his final seconds, for when the Nanny again took his wrist the pulse had stopped.
Told this, the Princess Mother, whose weeping had momentarily been arrested by the Nanny’s first discovery, cried more unrestrainedly than before, and with a corner of the coverlet tried to staunch the flow of blood. She called for another piece of cloth and continued her efforts.
Dr Nitya Vejjavivisth, a friend of the Mahidols from their time in the United States, arrived on the scene shortly before 10 a.m. Royal custom dictated that he had to crawl to the bed where the king lay. To quote Kruger again:
When he entered the royal bedchamber the Princess Mother was sitting down – either in that room or just beyond the open doorway to the study – and Bhoomipol sat on the floor by her feet, looking sad but calm. The doctor quickly and reverently crawled across the floor to the bed. A moment’s examination and he helplessly pronounced himself unable to do anything. The Princess Mother’s voice, broken with grief, exclaimed – demanding an answer not of him but Fate – “Did you ever think such a thing could happen?”
She asked him if he would stay to clean the body. With the help of the Royal Nanny, the two pages being in attendance, he did so. He found that the wound on Ananda’s forehead, above the left eye-brow, was shaped like a small cross of the kind put at the end of a letter to signify a kiss.Fresh linen and apparel were brought; and blocks of ice ranged down either side of the bed, together with an electric fan to blow cold air continuously across the corpse. Except for the whirring of the fan and the weeping of the mother, everything, everyone in the royal suite was extraordinarily still about him who had been Lord of Life.
As Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian notes in Kings, Country and Constitutions, the crime scene was immediately compromised:
The confusion concerning the young King’s demise began practically the very minute the King was found dead in his bed in the royal chamber at the Baromphiman Palace. During the shock and the commotion which ensued, the royal nurse and, later, the royal physician, complying to the wishes of the Princess Mother, cleaned up the mess around the body and stitched up the gunshot wound so as to make His Late Majesty’s remains dignified and presentable to outsiders. By doing so they unwittingly wiped out much of the death-scene evidence and made the post-mortem investigations inconclusive.
Simpson also notes the destruction of evidence:
I was given a carefully worded description of the scene when, some time later, a Major-General of the Police of Siam came to my Department at Guy’s to seek some help in interpreting what had happened. It was my first case out of England.
Ananda lay in bed within a mosquito netting, his body covered, but the arms lying outside the coverlet alongside the body. Close to his left hand was an American Army .45 Colt automatic pistol, and above the left eye was a single bullet wound.
There were no police photographs of the scene to support this account; for by the time the police appeared on the scene, everything had been irreparably `tidied’.
One of the first to enter the bedroom was the King’s mother, who threw herself, grief-stricken, on her son’s body, weeping and moaning `My dear Nand, my dear Nand!’ The King’s old nanny followed, and after feeling his pulse she picked up the pistol and put it on the bedside cabinet. Prince Bhoomipol, hearing the disturbance, came in, and then Butr, who put the pistol in a drawer ‘for safety’, thereby adding his fingerprints to Nanny’s. Butr was sent to call a doctor. After he had come Prince Bhoomipal joined the Queen Mother, Nanny, and the two pages in washing the body, laying it out in clean linen, and applying blocks of ice and setting up a fan to cool it and delay decomposition, which the hot weather would otherwise have caused within a few hours.
He adds that any investigation of what had happened was made even more difficult by Prince Rangsit’s insistence that commoners were not to touch the body of the dead king:
At last the police arrived; in fact, it was the Chief of Police, who had to push through the confused mob of officials to reach the body, and he was not allowed to do anything useful even then. Following protocol (’No-one may touch the Divine Body’) the King’s uncle stopped him from examining either the wound or the King’s hands. Nobody was allowed to feel if the body was stiff or cold. All the Chief of Police could do was ask for the pistol; and when it was produced he added his own prints to those of Nanny and Butr. He noted that the weapon was not on the safety catch and that only one round was missing. No bullet had been found, but Nai Chit produced a spent cartridge case which he said he had found on the floor on the left side of the body.
A couple of overheard conversations between Bhumibol and his mother Sangwan that day were remembered and recorded. One comment from Sangwan was recounted by royal page But Pathamasarin to an inquiry panel in July. He was explaining why he had moved the Colt automatic, thus further compromising the forensic evidence:
In testimony to the trial of suspects in the killing in 1950, But recounted a further conversation, as reported by Rayne Kruger:
While the doctor was washing the body and Butr was in attendance, Butr heard a noise in the adjoining study where the grief-stricken Princess Mother sat on a sofa. She was stamping her feet and holding some sheets of paper while Bhoomipol paced the room; and Butr heard her exclaim, ‘Whatever you want to do, do it.’
Another striking thing about contemporary accounts of Ananda’s death is that although there was widespread horror and grief, nobody seriously entertained the notion that an unseen assassin had somehow sneaked into the Barompiman Hall inside the fortified Grand Palace, murdered Ananda, and then fled.
As Kruger reports, the large assembly of princes and politicians who gathered downstairs in the Barompiman Hall after Ananda’s death did not spend much time debating whether he had been assassinated by an intruder — as they surely would have done if there were genuine suspicions that this had been the case — but instead fretted over how to explain Ananda’s death to the public.
The Chief of the Palace Guards telephoned news of the tragedy to the aristocrat who held the office of Chief Major Domo and Protocol. He was at his private house and before setting out for the Palace he instructed another dignitary, the Chief of the Royal Fanfare and Paraphernalia Section, to report to Pridi at the latter‟s official residence by the riverside. Pridi immediately called in the King‟s Secretary-General, the Minister of the Interior, and the Police Chief (entitled Director-General of the Police Department). The first of these was to give the only account of Pridi at this moment: “He was very agitated and pacing the floor. He said to me in English, ‘The King is a suicide’.”
They all went straight to the Barompiman Hall where five senior princes together with leading cabinet ministers and courtiers were fast assembling. During the ensuing hours, after they had made obeisance before Ananda’s body, they gathered downstairs and anxiously debated the situation…
The premises… were carefully inspected and the servants, guard and officials questioned. The Police Chief had started by suspecting assassination, but after this investigation he was satisfied that Ananda had committed suicide.
His conclusion was shared by all the princes and statesmen and officials assembled downstairs… Some of those present were afterwards to say they had reservations about the conclusion of suicide; but any doubts were no more, in those stupefying hours, than a vague unease at the back of the mind. No sign could be found of an assassin’s entry or exit…
The problem agitating the princes and statesmen was not, however, the cause of death, which seemed plainly an open-and-shut case of suicide, but what to tell the public. An announcement of suicide was too shocking to the repute and dignity of the throne to be contemplated. Prince Rangsit expressed himself strongly to this effect and the others agreed. What explanation, then, were they to give the nation? Under the duress of uncertainty and grief the various suggestions put forward were scarcely satisfactory: they ranged from cholera to stomach ache. Dr Nit especially was against any suggestion of an internal malady: he knew how monstrous rumour mushrooms quicker in Bangkok than almost any city in the world, and he was not going to provoke whispers of poisoning. Time passed; they had to make up their minds; the afternoon was far advanced before at last a communiqué was drafted, agreed by them all, and issued by the Royal Household Bureau.
According to Alexander MacDonald, a U.S. former OSS agent who stayed on in Thailand after the war, becoming a stringer for Associated Press and founding the Bangkok Post newspaper, at one stage during the day some foreign diplomats were told a story that did not involve any shooting at all. He wrote in his memoir Bangkok Editor that:
Soon after the fatal shot, one ill-advised official had called some of the foreign diplomats to explain that the King had suddenly died of stomach trouble. This story had been short lived.
The eventual official communiqué presented Ananda’s death as a tragic accident, and used his stomach bug as an explanation for how a semi-divine king could come to shoot himself through the head by mistake:
As Kruger says, it was an attempt to create a narrative that would not lead people to question the doctrine of royal sanctity and infallibility:
They wanted above everything to preserve the sanctity of the throne. Therefore they strove to present an acceptable story: the King had been ill, he was weak, making more likely that while he played with a gun, which he often did, he met with an accident.
The communiqué was broadcast over the radio early in the evening. For many it confirmed dreadful rumour… But for most people the radio provided the first news, flooding them with anguish. From stilted teak houses poised over canals, from sampan homes lilting on the river, from the shady modern villas of the well-to-do, from the slits of shops and cluttered workshops, Bangkok delivered up thousands upon thousands of people who made their way in sorrow and fear and curiosity to stand outside the white walls of the Grand Palace. And through the countryside, across rice-field, jungle, and mountain, the news travelled via the monasteries and the few other possessors of radio sets, causing even greater consternation because of the greater veneration of the countrypeople.
In a conversation with family physician Dr Nitya on the evening of June 9, shortly before he was proclaimed king, Bhumibol was also insistent that Ananda’s death had been an accident, as Kruger reports:
At nine o’clock that evening he returned to the Barompiman Hall with sedatives for the Princess Mother. He intended to hand them over to the Royal Nanny but Bhoomipol said he would deliver them. The young celestial prince was in a sad, ruminative mood. There was already upon him the unsmiling gravity which would henceforward make him a stranger to the exuberant Bhoomipol everyone had previously known. The kindly, cautious, bespectacled Dr Nit had been a friend of both his parents in America before his birth, physician to the family whenever they had been in Bangkok, and he could almost be regarded as a relation. Bhoomipol said to him: ‘I think there’s no other explanation than accident for my brother’s death. I can’t help clinging to superstition because four or five days ago he was very tender towards me, especially when he led me by the hand into the dining-room. He’d never done that before.’
He paused. Then he said: ‘You must help me, Luang Nit. Don’t leave me in a situation like this.’
Long afterwards the doctor was closely questioned about Bhoomipol’s precise meaning, but he could attach no meaning to it beyond a young man’s need for help as he tried to square up to a new and totally unexpected life.
Shortly after this conversation, Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong arrived, to inform Bhumibol that a special session of the National Assembly had unanimously requested him to become the next king.
On June 10, doctors from Chulalongkorn Hospital were allowed to embalm the body as they prepared it for the funeral rites. Then Bhumibol and Sangwan performed royal rituals on the corpse and placed it in the urn, a crown upon its head.
The same day, a second public communiqué was issued, this time by the police, after they had reported their findings to all senior princes and government ministers. The communiqué said there were three possible scenarios for how Rama VIII could have been killed — he could have been murdered, he could have committed suicide, or he could have accidentally shot himself while playing with or examining the Colt .45 he kept beside his bed. It ruled out murder, saying it had been daylight and there was no evidence of intruders being seen. And it ruled out suicide, since the king had been cheerful the night before. It concluded that there was no doubt, therefore, that Ananda had accidentally pulled the trigger.
Many people were totally unconvinced. The international media began investigating the “friendship” between Ananda and Marylene Ferrari, the daughter of a Calvinist pastor in Lausanne. Had a lovelorn Ananada committed suicide? As AP reported on June 10:
Siamese in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Ananda went to school, described as baseless any suggestion that he had taken his life deliberately. Questioned about the King’s friendship for 21-year-old Marilene Ferrari, pretty daughter of a Lausanne clergyman, a close friend of the girl said “it was not a serious affair. She know it could not last.”
Ananda’s former tutor and secretary, Cleon Seraidaris, said he talked to the girl and that she told him she, too, excluded the possibility of suicide. Seraidaris, to whom the king wrote regularly each week, said he last heard from Ananda five days ago, and that the recent letters both to him and to other friends showed the king to have been in good health and spirits, eagerly anticipating his projected trip to the United States and his return to school in Switzerland.
Many Thais found the theory that Ananda shot himself by accident a little too convenient to be credible, and also considered suicide unlikely. They suspected foul play. Meanwhile, the doctors who had embalmed Ananda’s body said they had found a wound at the back of his head that was smaller than the wound in his forehead. Assuming that exit wounds are always bigger than entry wounds, they concluded Rama VIII had been shot in the back of the head: murdered. This was widely reported in newspapers and caused a sensation. It turned out that they were wrong: forensic examinations later showed the bullet had entered through Ananda’s forehead and exited out the back of his skull. But speculation had already been set ablaze.
In the days that followed, key figures in the royalist bloc, most notably the Pramoj brothers, decided to exploit it by spreading rumours that Pridi was behind a plot to murder the king. These rumours were utterly fanciful, but in the feverish climate after Ananda’s death, and given widespread incredulity about the official explanation that Rama VIII had shot himself by accident, they were widely believed. The Pramoj brothers also paid somebody to shout in a cinema: “Pridi killed the king!”
Pridi found himself in an increasingly embarrassing position. He too found the accident explanation unconvincing. At first, it appears, like many officials he assumed that Ananda had probably committed suicide. But Sangwan implored him to tell the country that the death was an accident, and he followed her wishes. As British academic Roger Kershaw noted in his book Monarchy in South East Asia:
The two Kings’ mother had prevailed on Prime Minister Pridi to announce that it had been an accident – at least in order to divert the alternative supposition that it had been a suicide, and save the royal family’s face. This kindly act on Pridi’s part had then backfired and exposed him to the rumour-mongering of his military enemies about a ‘Communist plot’.
On June 13, U.S. chargé d’affaires Charles W. Yost sent a secret cable to the Secretary of State in Washington, entitled: “Death of King of Siam”. Yost predicted:
The death of Ananda Mahidol may well be recorded as one of the unresolved mysteries of history.
Yost recounted a conversation with Pridi, who was shocked by the rumours and false accusations implicating him in regicide:
The Prime Minister spoke to me very frankly about the whole situation and ascribed the King’s death to an accident, but it was obvious that the possibility of suicide was in the back of his mind. He was violently angry at the accusations of foul play levelled against himself and most bitter at the manner in which he alleged that the Royal Family and the Opposition, particularly Seni Pramoj and Phra Sudhiat, had prejudiced the King and especially the Princess Mother against him. He repeated several times that he had been overwhelmingly busy attempting to rehabilitate and govern the country and had not had time to have luncheon and tea with Their Majesties every day or two as had members of the Opposition…
Pridi said that the King had always behaved most correctly as a constitutional monarch and that their relations had, in spite of the prejudice planted in the King’s mind, been friendly and correct. He admitted frankly however that his relations with the Princess Mother were hopelessly bad and he feared greatly that his relations with the new King would be poisoned in the same manner as had his relations with King Ananda.
Yost wrote in conclusion that Pridi “still intended to endeavor to work with the new King and his mother”.
The following day, another cable from Yost, “Footnotes on the King’s Death”, discussed the various theories about Ananda’s death, and recounted a conversation with Foreign Minister Direk Jayanama who had just had an audience with Bhumibol. It was also classified “secret”:
The Foreign Minister…informed me that he an audience this morning with the new King in which His Majesty had inquired about rumours in regard to his brother’s death are still being spread about. According to Direk, he replied that the rumours are still being circulated widely, that some claim that the King was murdered by the orders of the Prime Minister, some … murdered by former aide-de-camp and some that he committed suicide under political pressure.
King Phumipol thereupon informed the Foreign Minister that he considered these rumours absurd, that he knew his brother well and that he was certain that his death had been accidental… What the King said to Direk does not necessarily represent what he really believes, it is nevertheless interesting that he made so categorical a statement to the Foreign Minister.
Yost added that Dr Nitya had also informed him that Bhumibol had ruled out foul play in their discussions, and had insisted his brother’s death was an accident. Yost also reported that Seni Pramoj was explicitly attempting to smear Pridi by sending emissaries to the U.S. and British embassies claiming that the prime minister had plotted to kill Ananda:
The Department may also be interested to know that within 48 hours after the death of late King two relatives of Seni, first his nephew and later his wife, came to the Legation and stated categorically their conviction that the King had been assassinated at the instigation of the Prime Minister. It was of course clear that they had been sent by Seni. I felt it necessary to state to both of them in the strongest terms, in order to make it perfectly clear that this Legation could not be drawn into Siamese intrigues, that I did not believe these stories and that I considered the circulation at this time of fantastic rumours unsupported by a shred of evidence to be wholly inexcusable.
The cable noted that the British Ambassador, Sir Geoffrey Thompson, told Yost he had been visited by several politicians telling a similar story. Thompson had told them he accepted the official account of Ananda’s death and refused to discuss the matter further.
This is an exceptionally important document (it is U.S. cable RG 59 892.001/6-1446, for those who wish to go look at it for themselves in the archives in Washington). It demonstrates that Bhumibol was continuing to insist very vehemently that Ananda’s death had been an accident: the new king was making absolutely no suggestion that his brother has been murdered. It also demonstrates the lengths that leading royalists were going to in their efforts to use the incident to destroy Pridi’s reputation.
Faced with this rumourmongering, Pridi’s position became increasingly difficult. On June 15, his government called upon anyone with evidence that Rama VIII’s death was not a self-inflicted accident to step forward:
On June 18, Pridi took more decisive action, setting up a commission of inquiry tasked with finding out the truth about Ananda’s death. It was chaired by the chief judge of the supreme court, and included three senior princes; the heads of the army, navy and air force; the chief judges of the criminal and appeals courts; and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament. The commission appointed a medical sub-committee of 20 doctors: 16 Thai, two British, one American and one Indian. Ignoring the taboo on desecrating the royal corpse that Prince Rangsit had tried to enforce, the doctors did some genuine – if belated – forensic work on Rama VIII’s body. On June 21 Ananda’s corpse was removed from the funeral urn, and the head was X-rayed. As Kruger says:
The panel was allowed to do something unprecedented and unthinkable in Siamese history: it carried out a post-mortem on Ananda’s body.
The great golden urn was unjointed in its eight sections, the lid of the silver urn unlocked, the poor fetid bundle eased out, the juice-sodden bandages unwrapped; and the mouldering remains were subjected to X-ray photography in ten positions, and to the scalpel, the probe, and all the gleaming instruments of dissection. The x-shaped wound starting an inch above the left eye was measured at an inch and a half each way. A surgical pin then traced the course of the bullet: after gouging a hole of half an inch diameter in the bone it followed a perfectly straight but slightly downward-inclining course until its emergence from the left occiput (one of the two bulges at the back of one’s head, between the ears) near the nape of the neck. Both holes were surrounded by broken bone; there was no metal in them. Death had been instantaneous because the bullet destroyed a vital area of the brain. Under a small square of skin taken from the forehead wound the doctors found not only a burn but pistol powder, proving conclusively that the bullet entered from the front. The intestines and parts of the liver and kidneys were removed for analysis but produced no trace of poison, so disposing of one of the rumours concerning Ananda‟s illness during his last days.
The medical panel also experimented to determine the distance at which the pistol had been fired. At the Siriraj Hospital where the Princess Mother once trained, bullets were fired into the heads of half a dozen human corpses. These were of people aged between twenty and forty, some newly dead and some not. The conclusion reached was that the muzzle of the pistol had been held no more than an inch and a half from Ananda’s face.
The parameters of the panel’s work were deliberately skewed, however. The doctors were told to choose from three possibilities: was Ananda murdered, did he commit suicide, or did he accidentally shoot himself? A fourth possibility was never mentioned: that Ananda was shot accidentally by somebody else.
As the doctors were carrying out their investigations, royalists spread rumours that Bhumibol’s life was in danger too. And in their most audacious attempted power grab of all, they tried to use their scaremongering to win support from the British ambassador for a palace-sponsored coup against Pridi Banomyong and his government. Yost informed Washington of this in a June 26 cable classified “top secret” (it is serial number RG59 892.001/6-2646 in the Washington archives):
A member of the Royal family a few days ago sought from the British Minister support for a coup d’état, claiming otherwise the Dynasty would be wiped out. Thompson categorically refused to support and warned the petitioner of probable fatal consequences of any attempt of this kind.
And then, on July 1, the panel of doctors announced an explosive conclusion:
The full report of the medical commission is below:
Doctors had quickly concluded that the possibility that King Ananda shot himself by accident while handling the Colt .45 was nil. The Colt is a relatively heavy handgun, weighing more than a kilogram when fully loaded, and to be fired it requires considerable pressure to be placed not just on the trigger but also simultaneously on a safety panel on the back of the butt. The chances of Ananda doing this by accident, while the gun was pointed at his forehead, were extremely slim. Furthermore, the gun was found lying beside Ananda’s left hand. But he was right handed. Also the evidence seemed to suggest that Ananda had been lying flat on his back when he was shot. And he had not been wearing his spectacles, without which his vision was appalling. It seemed barely credible that Ananda would have been playing with his Colt .45 while lying on his back and without his glasses.
Suicide was a slightly more credible theory, but for many of the same reasons that ruled out Ananda accidentally shooting himself, it seemed desperately unlikely. It is almost unheard of for somebody to commit suicide lying on their back, and the trajectory the bullet had taken through Ananda’s skull was also very unusual for a suicide.
The issue of “cadaveric spasm” was to become of huge importance in the case. If muscles are in use at the moment of death, they tend to remain fixed in that position. And so if Ananda had been gripping a heavy pistol and pulling the trigger to shoot himself through the head, it would be expected that his body would still retain some of this position after death. Instead, all witnesses who saw his body say he was lying as if peacefully sleeping, arms and legs straight and relaxed, eyes closed. The implication was that it was therefore very likely that he had been sleeping when killed.
From June 26, the inquiry commission began public hearings to question those at the Barompiman Hall the morning Rama VIII was killed. The royal nanny insisted that Ananda had not been depressed and would never have committed suicide; she was convinced he had been murdered. Bhumibol himself testified on July 27. Whereas in the days after his brother’s death Bhumibol had vehemently insisted that Ananda had shot himself by accident, he was now much vaguer.
On August 11, Bhumibol performed a formal posthumous coronation for Ananda, elevating his dead brother to the status of a full Chakri king. He and Sangwan also made plans to return to Lausanne, even though the 100-day mourning period was not complete. Astrologers set a departure date of August 19.
By now, Siam was abuzz with rumours that Bhumibol’s life was in danger from the same conspirators who had killed his brother. A secret cable from ambassador Thompson on August 14 showed that even the British embassy had become alarmed:
Thompson sent another secret cable the following day ordering that the York aircraft that the British were sending to take Bhumibol and Sangwan from Siam to Switzerland should be carefully guarded at Bangkok’s airport to prevent sabotage:
Baseless rumours also began circulating that an attempt had been made to assassinate Bhumibol. Thompson was clearly concerned, and felt the king should leave Siam as soon as possible. He was also worried that court astrologers had insisted on a late take-off of the York plane on August 19, which would make it vulnerable to difficult weather conditions:
William Stevenson says Bhumibol told him that on the eve of his departure from Siam, after paying respects at his brother’s urn, he had an encounter with Ananda’s spirit. Bhumibol is quoted as saying:
I heard footsteps following as I left the urn. In royal ceremonies, I always had to walk behind my brother. In this moment I forgot he was dead, and I told him, “It is for me to walk behind you. That is the proper way.” My brother replied, “From now on, I walk behind you.”
The following day, Bhumibol and his mother were driven to Don Muang airport for their flight to Switzerland. Thousands of people lined the road as his motorcade passed. Bhumibol wrote an account of this journey for literary journal Wong Wannakhadi, and described an incident on the way to the airport:
En route, I heard somebody shout out “Don’t forsake the people!”. I wish I could have shouted back: “If the people do not forsake me, how can I forsake them?” But the car went so quickly and had passed him by.
At the airport, Bhumibol and his grieving mother boarded a plane provided by Britain’s Royal Air Force. Because of fears about the king’s safety it had been kept strictly monitored ever since it landed. As Kruger writes:
On the arrival of an RAF York aircraft sent by the British to fly the King to Switzerland, British troops guarded it continuously, it was floodlit at night, and the crew were forbidden the city. The time of day fixed by the Royal Astrologer for the royal departure bothered the pilot, who wanted an earlier time in order to cross the mountainous border before the south-west monsoon turned the weather against him. But the Royal Astrologer could not be moved, and indeed Bhumibol and his mother were carried safely from the scene of such a dreadful memory.
A secret cable from Thompson noted that Bhumibol and Sangwan behaved coldly towards Prime Minister Pridi as they departed. Thompson said Pridi had “bitter enemies” in the royal family and their animosity towards him was wearing the prime minister down:
Bhumibol resumed his studies in Lausanne, switching to law and political science to better serve him in his new role.
By now Pridi Banomyong and his government had come to an extremely disturbing conclusion. All the evidence in the case pointed to Ananda having been shot by somebody else. But there was no credible evidence that an unknown assassin had sneaked into the Grand Palace complex, then into the Barompiman Hall, located Ananda’s bedchamber, was fortunate enough to find the king still dozing even well after he usually awoke, shot him through the head, placed the king’s gun beside him to give the impression Rama VIII had committed suicide, and then made their escape, all without being seen by anyone. The theory of an outside assassin was simply not credible. As Kruger wrote in The Devil’s Discus:
It is possible that someone unknown and unguessed-at entered and departed unseen by unfathomable means, such that not all the years since have produced any hint or rumour of that person or that means. All this is possible, in the amplitude of the word possible. But when the probability is nil, and the odds against almost infinitely great, mere possibility has no practical meaning.
If Ananda was not assassinated by an intruder, did not shoot himself by accident, and did not commit suicide, that means he was shot by somebody known to be at the Barompiman Hall that morning. And only one person was not able to fully account for their movements that morning: Bhumibol. In particular, his testimony to investigators appeared to conflict with that of the royal nanny. She testified that she was in Bhumibol’s bedroom, in the opposite wing of the Barompiman Hall, when she heard a gunshot, and raced to see what had happened: she made no mention of seeing Bhumibol. Bhumibol meanwhile testified that he had been going back and forth between his playroom and his bedroom when he heard shouting — he claimed not to have heard a shot — and ran towards Ananda’s bedroom, the source of the commotion. The discrepancy with the nanny’s testimony, and the fact that he claimed not to have heard any gunshot, were striking and troubling.
There were other aspects of the official story that failed to add up. Whoever shot Ananda had been right beside the bed, inside the mosquito net (no bullet hole had been found in it). Could they really have escaped from the bedroom afterwards without having been seen? It seemed improbable. It became increasingly clear to those investigating the case that the scene had been deliberately tampered with, and that some witnesses were not telling the truth.
These whispers had reached the ears of the British ambassador in late June. Thompson sent a telegram to London which he marked “of particular secrecy” on June 27, 1946. It recounted a troubling conversation with Direk, the Thai foreign minister:
Although he did not actually say so, the minister for foreign affairs gave me the impression that the tragedy had resulted from some sinister intrigue or quarrel within the royal palace itself. Whispers to this effect derive from the fact that some delay occurred before any outside person was admitted to the late king’s bedroom, by which time the royal remains had been tidied up, the weapon put aside and the melancholy mise en scène interfered with in other ways.
There is absolutely no evidence that Bhumibol wanted to kill his brother, and certainly no evidence of premeditation. They were exceptionally close, and Bhumibol had never shown a desire to be king — indeed, both he and Ananda appear to have been extremely ambivalent about having to spend their lives inside the Siamese royal court. Bhumibol was also visibly desolated by Ananda’s death.
But the fact remains that Bhumibol’s alibi for where he was when Ananda was killed was contradicted by the royal nanny. Discrepancies in the accounts of what happened when Bhumibol went to see Ananda at 9 a.m. are also telling. Investigators began to suspect the most likely scenario was that Bhumibol had indeed gone to see Ananda, but had not been turned away by the pages as he and they were later to claim. He went into Ananda’s room.
What happened there over the next 20 minutes, only Bhumibol knows for sure. Bhumibol and Ananda both owned several guns and enjoyed playing with them. Indeed, Bhumibol had been known in the past to playfully point a gun at his brother. This has led many people to speculate privately that Bhumibol and Ananda were playing some kind of game in the bedroom that morning and that something had gone terribly wrong. The forensic evidence suggests Ananda was asleep when he was killed, however, although there remains the likelihood that, as the British ambassador’s secret cable suggests, the scene was rearranged after Ananda’s death. In any event, no credible explanation for the death of Ananda has ever been proposed other than this: between 9 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Ananda’s Colt .45 was taken out from his bedside cabinet, and somehow Bhumibol came to shoot his brother with it, with the muzzle very close to Ananda’s forehead. Perhaps they were playing, or perhaps Ananda was still dozing and Bhumibol wanted to wake him with a practical joke, holding the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Most probably, he removed the magazine from the Colt .45 automatic, put it to his brother’s head, and pulled the trigger, forgetting that even with the magazine removed, one round remains in the breech. Less likely, but possible, is that they argued about something and Bhumibol brandished the gun in a fit of anger. Bhumibol alone has the answer, and he seems unlikely to ever give us the truth.
But while it remains unknown whether it happened by accident or during an argument, there is no longer credible doubt that Bhumibol was responsible. He shot his brother through the brain, and suddenly, sickeningly, his whole world fell apart.
In the unreal, dreadful hours that followed, the heartbroken Bhumibol and Sangwan decided the only option was to somehow carry on. The story of what really happened would be kept secret, and the world would be told Ananda had shot himself by acccident. However much they may have wanted to escape back to Switzerland forever and never come back, the overwhelming enormity of what had taken place allowed only one response: Bhumibol would do his duty, and rule as king in his brother’s place.
Pridi Banomyong was in an impossible situation. He wanted to protect Bhumibol, and therefore to suppress the mounting evidence that the king had killed Ananda. But as it became more and more obvious to Thais that the official story was bogus, the rumours that Pridi had something to do with killing Ananda began to appear more credible. And the royalists were cynical enough to exploit his protection of the king to destroy his political career forever. Pridi was to lose everything for the sake of defending Bhumibol Adulyadej.
MacDonald describes the grim mood in the country in the months after Ananda’s death:
The very atmosphere in Bangkok was charged with tension. The people, still stunned by the violent death of their young King, spoke everywhere in whispers. Men, women and children were in heavy mourning. The tragedy had snuffed out in an instant the blaze of gayety touched off months before by the Japanese surrender. The whole mood of the nation had changed.
In an effort to contain rumours and speculation, Pridi imposed censorship, a move that only made it seem more than ever that he had something to hide. In a poignant passage in Bangkok Editor, MacDonald describes going to see Pridi at his official residence on the Chao Phraya river to remonstrate about censorship. He cannot understand why Pridi, who he greatly respects, insists it is necessary. But with the benefit of hindsight, we know why:
Even as he walked towards me, I could see how the strain had told. His step was still brisk, and he smiled that same smile which gave him the unstatesmanlike dimple; but trouble was written in his eyes and in the tired lines of his face… He was in white, with a black armband of mourning.
“I’ve seen your newspaper,” he said, shaking hands. Congratulations.” …
I told him my errand at once: “I came to see you about this censorship. I think it’s a bad mistake.”
“Why?” he asked mildly.
“It looks bad to people abroad. At home here it’s only giving your enemies an added weapon. They’ll say, they’re already saying, that the government’s trying to hide something.”
“I know, I know. No one dislikes it more than I do. Yet it has to be done… Someone, something has got to stop them. It isn’t that I am worrying about myself, or even this particular government. It’s the entire country they’re harming. Their lies are poisoning Siam.” Pridi waved his cigarette in a tired, desperate gesture. Like some men, he could put subtle meanings and expression into the briefest movement. Pridi’s hands were especially eloquent.
“That’s the point though,” I insisted. “They are lies. Sooner or later the truth will be known. Lies have a way of cancelling themselves out. By trying to smother them now, you only seem to confirm them.”
“I know — but too many things can happen in the meantime to the country. I’m afraid you don’t know how bad a people we can be.” He smiled wryly.
“If you’re in the right the lies won’t matter when it’s all said and done. Let them print their lies and rumours. They’ll finally talk themselves out.”
“No,” he said slowly. “I think that of the two evils, censorship is less dangerous. I believe we should try it for a while, anyway. When the worst of the storm has blown over, we can lift it.”
MacDonald was unaware, of course, that Pridi wanted censorship not only to suppress lies that he was involved in Ananda’s death, but also to hide the truth that Bhumibol had killed his brother, a revelation that he feared could cause chaos in Siam. Pridi goes on to discuss his precarious political situation, and the campaign of the royalists to destroy him:
Pridi then explained, more calmly, some of the forces in the kingdom now working against him. What hurt and discouraged him, he said, was that his fiercest enemies were those whom he had released from prison. During the six-year premiership of Pibun Songkram, scores of political opponents, most of them monarchists, had been banished from Siam or imprisoned. One of Pridi’s first acts after the overthrow of Pibun was to declare an amnesty for all of them; but, immediately they were free, many had set out at once to undermine his leadership. What they were fighting was the revolution of 1932. They were out to tear down anything that represented the overthrow of the old monarchial system…
“So they’re ready to use even this terrible tragedy against me,” he told me, more with sorrow than with bitterness. It was the first and only time we referred to the King’s death. I think he knew that any mention of the matter — because of the very crudity and monstrousness of the rumors linking his name with it — would be embarrassing for both of us…
He walked to the door with me, stood there as I got into my jeep and started away. He looked dejected, and it struck me then how deeply he must be hurt, how cruelly this sudden turning against him must torment him. Pridi had cause that day for the utmost dejection.
A few weeks later, on August 21, Pridi stepped aside as prime minister, exhausted by having to fend off intrigue and false accusations, which he estimated took up 80 percent of his time. He took the position of senior statesman, while another former member of the Free Thai movement, Admiral Thamrong Navaswadhi, became prime minister. In a conversation with U.S. ambassador Edwin Stanton over tea on March 30, 1948, Thamrong recalled the dilemma his government had faced over the king’s death case. The evidence implicated Bhumibol, and the government did not wish to reveal this. And so, suspicions about Pridi and his allies grew:
On October 31, the inquiry commission presented its official report on Ananda’s death. It ruled out the possibility that Ananda could have shot himself by accident, saying the death was either suicide or murder. This put the government in an even weaker position: it had agreed to the accident explanation back in June at the behest of the royal family, who insisted it would be unacceptable to say Ananda had committed suicide. And for following the royal family’s wishes, Pridi and the government now looked dishonest and suspicious.
Trapped, the government failed to formally respond until November 28, when a cabinet sub-committee recommended that a whole new police investigation into the death should be held. As Associated Press reported:
Meanwhile, back in Lausanne, Bhumibol Adulyadej and his mother Sangwan were facing their own personal crises. Both had been shattered by what had happened, and Bhumibol was clearly traumatized and terrified by the prospect of returning to Siam for Ananda’s cremation — not surprisingly, given that he was responsible for his brother’s accidental death. In late 1946 he sent word that he would not be returning for the cremation any time soon. A secret cable from British naval attache Captain Stratford Hercules Dennis in December 1946 discusses the reaction among royalists in Siam:
Pridi Banomyong travelled to Britain and Europe in December 1947 and January 1948. During his time in London he met with former Queen Rambhai, widow of Rama VII, and her entourage. He also travelled to Switzerland to try to persuade Bhumibol to return to Siam. A cable from the British Foreign Office in January 1947 discusses his visit:
In Siam, the investigation into Ananda’s death was going nowhere. The reason, of course, was that the government had realized what had probably happened, and was trying to suppress it. By November 1947, more than 16 months after Rama VIII was shot dead in his bed, they had not made any apparent progress in solving the case. To many people, this lack of urgency appeared clear evidence that Pridi and the government had something to hide. They had falsely claimed Ananda’s death was an accident. And now that an independent commission, with expert medical advice, had declared it was almost certainly murder, they were failing to make any real effort to investigate.
Not only did the royalists exploit this, but they were also willing to ally with their old nemesis Phibun if that was what it took to destroy Pridi Banomyong and restore some of the power of the palace. As Kobkua explains:
It was… during this period that the efforts to build up an affiliation between the Democrat Party, the political front of the conservatives-royalists, and the military clique appeared a real possibility…
The opposition never lacked issues with which it could effectively cudgel and discredit the Government… perhaps most importantly the unsolved and vexing mystery of King Ananda’s death…
In order to eliminate Pridi and his hand-picked cabinet, the royalists now joined hands with the military wing of the People’s Party which had been estranged from the ruling civilian wing since the fall of Prime Minister Phibun in 1944.
By the middle of 1947, the political atmosphere in Thailand was deeply toxic, poisoned by the killing of King Ananda. A Bangkok Post column in July 1947 decried the “policy of passivity or protection or whatever it might be called” towards the king’s death case. The writer, Alexander MacDonald, had not yet realized that it was Bhumibol who was being protected:
Also in late July, British naval attache Captain Stratford Dennis reported an ominous remark from Admiral Sindhu Kamolnavin, commander-in-chief of the Siamese navy:
On November 8, 1947, the royalists and militarists made their move, overthrowing the elected government in a military coup. They used the widespread popular belief that Pridi was hiding crucial evidence about Ananda’s death to legitimize their power grab. The first major contribution of the Democrat Party to Thai politics was colluding in the military overthrow of an elected government. Khuang, the party’s founder, was installed as the prime minister of a puppet cabinet.
MacDonald recounts the night of the coup:
It was difficult to describe the violence which took place in Bangkok on the night of November 8, 1947, because it was violence without a drop of blood being shed. It was difficult, too, because there was something very ridiculous about it, ridiculous without being the least bit funny. The dominant effect was shock, followed by jubilation or anger, depression or delight, fear, hope or panic, depending on how one’s sympathies lay.
The shock came because of the unmistakable threat in the violence and because of the sheer boldness of the act. Those who saw the tanks rattling along the street or the machine-gun nests springing up, or saw the bare blades of the bayonets knew how ugly and serious it could have been. Suddenly force started them in the face, and they were overwhelmed by the sense of their own powerlessness.
Troops were sent to arrest — and probably to kill — Pridi Banomyong. He fled Thailand with the help of the U.S. and British embassies; both countries remained grateful to him for his wartime service running the Free Thai movement within Siam, and the American and British ambassadors were convinced he had nothing to do with Ananda’s death. He was given shelter by the British ambassador and spirited out of the country by boat. The deposed Prime Minister Thamrong went into hiding too.
The new regime declared that Pridi and his aide, naval Lieutenant Vacharachai Chaiyasithiwet — also on the run — were the masterminds of Rama VIII’s murder. And they arrested several alleged co-conspirators including Ananda’s former secretary Chaleo Pootomros and his two royal pages, But Pathamasarin and Chit Singhaseni:
The regime claimed Pridi had been about to launch a republican takeover of Siam on November 30 and had despatched another assassin to Lausanne to kill Bhumibol. MacDonald recounts that:
The announcement, which was broadcast throughout the city later in the day by the Publicity Department loud-speaker vans, staggered Bangkok and sent out waves which reached all the way to Switzerland. The Swiss Foreign Office received warning that a man was on the way to push the King of Siam over a cliff, and hasty orders were issued for a special guard about His Majesty’s quarters.
The regime put Seni Pramoj’s brother-in-law Pinit Chongkadi, a police major-general, in charge of gathering evidence on Pridi’s alleged communist conspiracy to kill King Ananda. He travelled to London in May 1948 to enlist the help of Keith Simpson, the eminent pathologist at Guy’s Hospital whose timeline of the events leading up to the killing was quoted earlier. From looking at the evidence, Simpson’s view was that Ananda had clearly been shot dead by somebody – he had neither committed suicide nor shot himself in the head by accident:
On 13th May 1948, the Major-General came with an interpreter to see me in London. The question was still the same: accident, suicide, or murder?
The King had been keenly interested in small firearms, and had often practiced shooting with Vacharachai. He had kept an American Army .45 Colt automatic in his bedside drawer. Could it have gone off accidentally while he was examining it? Would an intelligent man who knew anything about firearms inspect a pistol with the safety catch off and the magazine fully charged while lying in bed on his back, his head on the pillow and the pistol pointing at his forehead? The idea seemed wildly far-fetched, even apart from the fact that the King’s sight was so defective that he could not have examined anything without his spectacles, and at the time of his death these were lying on the bedroom table.
The position of the body made suicide almost equally unlikely. In twenty years’ experience I had not seen a suicide shoot himself whilst lying flat on his back. No such case existed, so far as I knew. The suicide sits up or stands up to shoot himself. There were other strong indications against suicide. The pistol found at the King’s side was by his left hand, but he was right-handed. The wound, over the left eye, was not in one of the elective sites, nor a ‘contact’ discharge. The direction of fire was not inward towards the centre of the head. Furthermore the King had never hinted at suicide to anyone and had not been depressed at the time of his death.
That left only murder, for which the evidence was very strong. I thought he had almost certainly been shot while dozing, and that unconsciousness had followed instantly. The muzzle of the pistol had evidently been close to but not against the skin, giving the King no warning or any chance to try to protect himself. ‘This is not a case of suicidal discharge nor of accident, but one of deliberate killing by firearm,’ I concluded my report.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28, 1948, the King Ananda murder trial began. Chaleo, But and Chit were in the dock, as conspirators. The prosecution alleged that Pridi had masterminded the plot, and that his aide Lieutenant Vacharachai was the assassin who had sneaked into the Barompiman Hall to murder Rama VIII. With Pridi and Vacharachai still on the run, the three defendants were the best scapegoats the new regime could find to put on trial. The trial and appeals were to drag on for more than six years.
And yet, although Phibun and the Pramoj brothers were conspiring to frame Pridi for the death of Ananda, diplomatic cables show Phibun was well aware that Pridi was not guilty of the crime. In 1948 he said so himself, privately, to Dr Ruth Bacon, the U.S. diplomat in charge of the Far East Desk at the State Department. According to a cable from ambassador Edwin Stanton on June 8, Phibun said he:
personally doubted whether Nai Pridi was directly involved for two reasons: … Pridi is a very clever politician and … he has a ‘kind heart’.
Phibun aded that he did not think Pridi “would cause anybody to be murdered” but added that he might have been guilty of suppressing or destroying “some of the evidence thinking thereby to protect his present Majesty”. The implication of this comment was very clear,
Phibun’s wife also insisted Pridi had nothing to do with Ananda’s shooting, telling Bacon:
in a rather emphatic manner that she did not believe Pridi was in anyway involved in the late King’s death.
But in spite of this, Phibun used the issue to justify his coup. And then, with the assistance of Phao Sriyanond — the notoriously corrupt and criminal police chief — and the Pramoj brothers, a show trial of three innocent men was set up to force Pridi out of Thai politics forever.
Back in Pully, at Villa Vadhana, King Bhumibol, Sangwan and Galyani tried to put the tragedy behind them. But the royalists in Bangkok were getting increasingly worried. Bhumibol appeared to be having serious doubts about whether he would ever go back to Siam. He and Sangwan had rejected a call for him to return after the 1947 coup:
The alliance between Phibun’s militarist clique and the royalists had only been a marriage of convenience and soon began to go sour. With Phibun and Phao able to control the investigation into Ananda’s death — and the show trial of the three suspects — they were in an excellent strategic position to exploit the case for their own interests. The royalists and Bhumibol could be effectively blackmailed with the threat that if they stepped out of line, the king’s involvement in his brother’s death could be revealed. And so the royalist Democrat Party (presumably with the approval of senior princes like Rangsit and Dhani) decided to pre-empt the issue. Concluding that the king was a liability, Khuang and the Pramoj brothers hatched a plan to announce Bhumibol’s guilt, in order to force his abdication in favour of Prince Chumphot Paripatra, seen as a more forceful and less compromised character who would be a superior figurehead to rally the royalist cause.
On February 20, 1948, U.S. State Department Southeast Asia Division Assistant Chief Kenneth Landon, a former missionary in Siam, revealed this plan in a confidential memorandum to Washington:
Prime Minister Khuang is preparing to announce that King Bhumiphol killed his brother accidentally; that Bhumiphol will abdicate and that Prince Chumphot will become King…
It may be true that Bhumiphol killed his brother either intentionally or accidentally.
Landon added that Phibun was opposed to the plan. During this turbulent period of Thai history, it was the royalists who wanted to dethrone Bhumibol. Phibun and his allies saw the young king as weak and easy for them to manipulate, and so had no wish to see him forced to abdicate. As Roger Kershaw wrote in Monarchy in South East Asia:
The death of Ananda resulted in two unexpected benefits of special benefit for Field Marshal Phibun… The death of the King enabled the militarist clique to circulate rumours implicating Pridi in the event. The only witness – presumed – to the late King’s death had become King in his place…
As Kershaw says, this left Bhumibol highly vulnerable to “blackmailing insinuation about his own possible role”.
Phibun had only installed Khuang and the Democrats after his coup because the United States and Britain would never have recognized his overthrow of the Thamrong government and Pridi otherwise: memories of the field marshal’s actions during World War II, siding with Japan and declaring war on the Allies, were still fresh. But by 1948, with global geopolitics realigning and communism the new spectre for the Americans, the desire for a strongly ruled rightist Siam began to override other considerations, and Phibun’s wartime behaviour was quickly and conveniently forgotten. It helped that once Pridi’s supporters had been thoroughly intimidated and purged from positions of influence, elections were held that gave Phibun and the Democrats a veneer of legitimacy. As MacDonald wrote in Bangkok Editor:
Humourlessly the government and the military…announced this would be the fairest and most free elections in Siam’s history. Elaborate pronouncements were made as to honesty at the polls and the need for a whopping big national vote. On January 29, 1948, 22 per cent of the electorate went apathetically to the polls and voted for the new House of Parliament. Some months later, in a by-election at Bangkok to fill a vacated seat in the House, an all-time low was hit when 7 per cent of the electorate cast its vote. In an editorial the next day the Post mourned what the coup had done to democracy in Siam.
Another unique but not surprising result of the January election was that, when it was over, the Khuang government and Phibun’s military found themselves in the highly strategic position of having a Parliament in which there was no opposition. Khuang’s Democrats and Pibun’s Tharmathipat parties naturally had swept the field. It began to look not a little like the National Socialist and Communist victories at the polls in Germany and Soviet Russia. The results were hailed, however, as the people’s endorsement of the November coup.
It is interesting to reflect on how a political faction that called itself the Democrat Party had so comprehensively worked to sabotage Thai democracy in the first few years of its existence, and that despite its professed royalism it came close to announcing Bhumibol had killed Ananda to force him off the throne. What made the opportunism of Khuang and the Pramoj brothers particularly depressing was that it was so short-sighted. After the elections, with the new regime now officially recognized by the United States and Britain, Phibun felt himself to be in a strong enough position to knife his royalist former allies and prevent them from forcing Bhumibol’s abdication. He sent four armed colonels to Khuang’s office on the afternoon of April 4, 1948, to order him to resign. Phibun would now rule Siam directly instead of via a puppet Democrat Party government.
The royalists were humiliated and marginalized. And as Handley says in The King Never Smiles:
All of this… must have bewildered King Bhumibol. He had personally endorsed the 1947 coup. Now he found his prerogative of signing into office the democratically chosen prime minister and cabinet had been wiped away in an instant by the ambitions of the army, and that his exhortation for moderation and selflessness fell on deaf ears. Whatever the constitution said, the generals did as they pleased.
Bhumibol was well aware that innocent men were on trial for a crime they did not commit, as a result of his own shooting of his brother. He appears to have discussed his abdication with senior princes, and in an effort to bolster his resolve, Prince Dhani and others tried to arrange for him to visit Britain. They felt a chance for Bhumibol to bask in British pomp and pageantry might make him more enthusiastic about being king. The problem was, the British were well aware of the overwhelming evidence that Bhumibol had killed his brother, and refused to allow an official visit as a result.
In May 1948, Prince Dhani approached Lord Mountbatten, to request that Bhumibol be allowed to visit Britain. In a memorandum of the conversation written on May 27, 1948, Mountbatten records his discussion with Dhani:
I said that I trusted that for the future of the Siamese monarchy the story of the late king’s death would be publicly and satisfactorily cleared up in the near future.
I told him that I had followed the details of the late king’s death… It was known that the late king and his brother, the present king, were inordinately fond of firearms and were constantly firing off their revolvers. I suggested that an accident might very well have occurred in which the younger brother had by sheer mischance and ill-fortune killed the elder…
If this were indeed the truth the future of the Siamese monarchy was in grave jeopardy, for at any time the enemies of that monarchy would be able to reveal that the present King was regicide, and would no doubt claim that his accident had been deliberate and not accidental.
I said that if this theory was indeed true, I would urge that the King of Siam should fully and frankly confess, saying that he had been so overcome by grief at having killed the person that he loved most in the world that he had allowed himself to be persuaded not to make a statement at the time lest the double shock might prove too great for his people.
According to Mountbatten, Dhani replied that Bhumibol had a clear alibi: he had been in his own bedroom when the shot was fired. Mountbatten asked why this had not been made public:
He replied that he presumed that the reason for this was that no one should be encouraged even to imagine that for the King to have killed his brother was a possibility.
Dhani then changed tack, telling Mountbatten that Pridi’s aide Lieutenant Vacharachai was thought to be the assassin. Mountbatten replied:
It would not be essential to proclaim either the assassin or the motive in order to clear the present King, since the minimum that was wanted was a cast-iron alibi which was apparently already available. I could not in any event recommend that the present king should visit England until the question of his being involved in the accidental shooting of his brother was completely cleared up.
But there was no cast-iron alibi. Quite the reverse. As Mountbatten and Dhani both knew, the royal nanny had specifically said she had not seen Bhumibol in his bedroom when the shot was fired or in the period leading up to Ananda’s death.
The Siamese royalists decided to change their approach. Since the British monarchy was not prepared to accept an official visit by Bhumibol without proof that he had not killed his brother — proof that, for obvious reasons, could not be provided — then would Britain’s government find it acceptable if Bhumibol visited the country incognito? In June 1948, Dhani visited London, where he met Foreign Office Assistant Under-Secretary Esler Dening for lunch at the Dorchester Hotel, to make this request. In a note to his superiors, Dening said he believed that the trial of the three men accused of Ananda’s murder was unlikely to lay the matter to rest, but added the following about Bhumibol:
I do not think we need worry unduly about his possible connection with the late king’s death, because even if he might have shot him accidentally (which Prince Dhani says was impossible), I do not think it would ever come out.
The British government decided to leave the decision up to King George VI, whose private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, told the Foreign Office on July 22:
Any question of the King of Siam’s being invited to stay with our King and Queen should be postponed until the King of Siam has been crowned, and the trial regarding the late King’s death has been concluded.
Things went from bad to worse for the haunted, reluctant young king in October 1948:
Bhumibol had been driving his Fiat 500 Topolino near Lausanne with Galyani’s husband when he crashed it into the back of a truck. He spent weeks in hospital and for a while it was feared that he had been blinded; in the end he lost the sight in one eye but the other was saved. Stevenson reports that Sangwan was worried the injury might be regarded by some Siamese as Bhumibol’s karma for killing his brother:
They would say he was punished for sins previously committed, and revive the lie that he killed Nan.
For the same reason, Stevenson says, Bhumibol was sensitive about the issue even five decades later:
When I first spoke of this loss of an eye, he was upset. He had been totally blind for a while. Few knew about this. He deplored idle chatter about physical handicaps because superstitious people saw any handicap as punishment for past wickedness.
But the crash was to be instrumental in cementing Bhumibol’s relationship with Sirikit Kitiyakara, second daughter of the Siamese ambassador in Paris.
In Bangkok, meanwhile, the trial of the three scapegoats in the so-called King’s Death Case was under way. In January 1949, the authorities sent Dr Songkran Niyomsen, a forensic pathologist who had been on the 1946 medical panel, to London for further consultations with Keith Simpson. Songkran asked Simpson if he would be willing to come to Thailand to testify at the trial. The authorities had been delighted with Simpson’s pronouncements that Ananda had definitely been murdered; he seemed not to have realized that the evidence was also consistent with Ananda being accidentally shot by Bhumibol.
Simpson asked advice from the British authorities about whether he should travel to Thailand for the trial. The advice from ambassador Thompson was that he should stay away. Thompson also had a very intriguing question for the pathologist:
Britain’s ambassador to Bangkok was trying to give Simpson a hint about what had really happened, in order to dampen the wild conspiracy theories about a murder plot. He believed that Ananda had probably been killed accidentally by somebody who had removed the magazine from the Colt .45 automatic but had forgotten there was one round left in the chamber. Ananda Mahidol had been shot by Bhumibol Adulyadej.
On February 26, 1949, Dr Nitya Vejjavivisth testified at the trial. He was an old friend of Prince Mahidol and Sangwan. He had arrived at Ananda’s bedchamber before 10 a.m. on the morning of Rama VIII’s death and had observed the unfolding events and the actions of Bhumibol, his mother and their royal staff through much of the day. He had been one of the doctors on the medical inquiry panel. In his trial testimony, he said Ananda had been a “thoughtful and happy king” and that suicide would have been totally out of character.
Nitya noted that the wound in Ananda’s forehead had been cleaned before his arrival. He noted that “the present King and his mother were sitting in an adjoining room and the mother’s voice seemed to be raised in anger”, and added that “his first impression was that there had been an accident; any other cause of death seemed out of the question”.
On February 26, Pridi Banomyong and his supporters tried to seize back power by force, with the support of the Thai navy and former Seri Thai members. Alexander MacDonald, who reported on the abortive coup for the Associated Press, recounted what happened in Bangkok Editor:
A band of plotters, believed to be Pridi’s former Free Thai men, had seized the Grand Palace. At strategic points throughout the city, army and navy units faced each other. At the Police Department, for example, navy artillery was drawn up on one side of the building, army guns on the other. They faced each other belligerently, without shooting.
But I ran into shooting in other parts of the city. Army tanks rolled down some streets and were stopped by navy and marine guns. Artillery fire raised havoc along Rajadamri Road. There were casualties. I passed a riddled, overturned navy jeep. A civilian lay dead on Petchburi Road, most of his head shot off. From the river came the occasional boom of naval guns.
But Pridi’s attempt to wrest back power in Siam was a failure. As he realized his forces were too weak to prevail, he fled the country for a second time, and his supporters scattered. Senior military brass explained the whole thing away as a “misunderstanding”.
Retribution was swift, especially from Phao’s criminalized police force. Several were murdered. As MacDonald says:
One police colonel who hoped to escape detection was found at his home two days after the abortive coup by the “special suppression unit” set up to investigate the plot, and was shot and killed “while trying to make his escape.” Witnesses said he was shaving when shot.
Among the fifty or sixty suspects under arrest were four former ministers in [the] Pridi and Thamrong cabinets. Three of them were from the northeast provinces, the hotbed of opposition to Pibun.
The four former ministers — two of whom were also acting as defence counsel in the King’s Death Case — were all murdered by police. MacDonald describes their injuries:
The face of one had been burned, as if with lighted cigarettes… The legs of three of them had been broken. Their faces were terribly swollen from beating, and one’s ribs had been crushed in. They were riddled with bullets.
An official police statement claimed the men were being transferred from their cells to another prison when the police convoy was ambushed by bandits. No police were wounded in this alleged attack, of course.
Thailand was tumbling further and further away from democracy, becoming an authoritarian mafia state. And the pivotal event that had set the country on this course was Bhumibol’s shooting of Ananda. To the young Rama IX, watching events from Switzerland, it must have seemed as if everything was spinning out of control. The lies that had been told to cover up the heartbreaking accidental killing of his brother were being magnified and twisted. Now Phibun and Phao, contemptuous of the monarchy, were firmly entrenched in power. And with the King’s Death Case they could continue turning the screws on Bhumibol. Everything was going so wrong.
In March 1949, Britain’s Times newspaper published an article summarizing the key issues and developments in the case.
The article noted the weakness of any evidence produced so far to implicate Pridi and noted that “the evident desire of the innermost circle of the royal household to shield the monarchy from calumny” was one of the main factors preventing the truth from getting out:
A year later, the New York Times published an analysis of the case, by correspondent Tillman Durdin. The article noted that progress in solving the King’s Death Case was going backwards, not forwards: “Nearly four years after the slim, shy, twenty-year-old monarch was found in his palace bedroom…with a bullet through his head, the mystery seems further from solution than ever.”
But during 1949 Thailand’s royalists did at least manage to mount a counterstrike against the dominance of Phibun and his military clique. The Democrat Party engineered the promulgation of a constitution that restored massive powers to the palace. In Kings, Country and Constitutions, Kobkua describes the the 1949 constitution as “the triumph of the royalist version of the constitutional monarchy”:
One of the most celebrated articles of the 1949 Constitution was the political power of the monarch to appoint members of the Senate/Upper House without having to consult or heed the Premier’s advice or objection. This direct royal participation in politics made the monarch something of a political force to be reckoned with and no longer a politically inactive and neutral head of state who could be easily side-tracked at the wish of the political masters.
But it was a hollow triumph, and a grave miscalculation. The royalists had manage to incense the ruling military clique and progressive members of the establishment. As Handley says in The King Never Smiles:
When it was released, the final draft created an uproar among the generals, Pridi supporters, and many in the public at large. It was attacked as contrary to the spirit of the 1932 revolution, and Prince Dhani and Prince Upalisarn were accused of planning to form a royalist political party. In response, Dhani claimed that there was no need for such a plan because in fact “all the political parties now support the throne”, while other royalists branded the critics as republicans and communists.
Phibun and his clique were certain to try to wrench power back from the royalists. The only question was when they would make their move. They knew that the suspicions about Ananda’s death made Bhumibol very vulnerable. By overplaying their hand to such an extent, the royalists virtually guaranteed that Rama IX would come under attack. Kobkua notes that Phibun and his allies knew they would have to act sooner rather than later: “The leaders of the junta entertained great fear as to their political future if and when a mature King returned to reign personally over his Kingdom.”
In March 1950, the reluctant Bhumibol finally returned to Thailand — albeit briefly — to cremate his brother. But although Ananda had at last been formally laid to rest, the King’s Death Case could not be so easily put behind him. The trial was still dragging on, and according to Stevenson in The Revolutionary King, police chief Phao Sriyanond visited Sirikit at the Klai Kangwon palace in Hua Hin during her honeymoon with Bhumibol to try to intimidate her:
Phao… had hurried there with gossip that he hoped would destroy Queen Sirikit’s trust in her husband. He had heard the queen wanted to go with him to London and wrongly assumed the king had not told her that George VI had declined to receive the king, saying ‘Buckingham Palace does not host murderers.’ But Sirikit already knew. Kings of England did not intimidate her. Neither did conspirators like Phao. She sent him packing, aware that he was a dangerous enemy to make; but she had the courage of the very young, reinforced by the romantic vision of herself and Lek as past lovers who had been great warriors at different periods, each pursuing the other through many incarnations until they finally met in the same lifespan.
After his return to Bangkok, Bhumibol had to provide testimony at the trial of the three men accused of Ananda’s murder. The king did not come to the court room; instead, the judges, counsel and accused were taken to his residence for his testimony. In The Devil’s Discus, Rayne Kruger provides an English-language summary of what Bhumibol said. He stuck to the same account of whereabouts that he had told investigators in 1946: he had been moving between his bedroom and playroom, had run towards Ananda’s bedroom after hearing a commotion, and had arrived there shortly after the royal nanny. But whereas he had been strangely adamant in the days after Ananda’s death that his brother had shot himself by accident, he now filled his testimony with several insinuating little stories about Pridi’s alleged lack of respect for Ananda. They were trifling incidents, even in a country like Thailand where huge deference is demanded for the monarch, but they seemed intended to convey a sense of suspicion about Pridi Banomyong. Bhumibol also added some remarks that showed the three accused, Chaleo, But and Chit, in a less than positive light. Some of this, of course, was in response to questions, but it is telling that Bhumibol did not make any apparent attempt to express any doubts about the guilt of three men who he knew to be innocent. The translation provided by Kruger, in which he normalized Bhumibol’s use of the majestic plural, is as follows:
King Ananda shot with guns at fairs in foreign countries and with toy guns. When he returned to Bangkok he used to shoot with guns given him by people at Cholburi in December when Pridi arranged the FTM demonstration … the person who showed him how to use the weapons was Lt Vacharachai. People who had given the King the guns said Lt Vacharachai should teach him and it was the King’s own wish to learn. The shooting took place in the garden behind the Barompiman Hall and I went too. The King shot with both short and long guns. They included the US Army .45. When he shot with that some of the pages used to keep some of the spent cartridges. I saw both Nai Chit and Butr pick up spent cartridges. After shooting we’d let Lt Vacharachai take charge of the guns. The King had to wear glasses but I can’t remember if he wore them every time he shot … Nai Chit could not point out where he had picked up the spent cartridge in the King’s bedroom.
I’d heard that Chaleo let his car be driven right up to the door of the Barompiman Hall: whether my brother was displeased or not I don’t know, but I do remember once when my mother wanted a car it couldn’t be got because one was being repaired and Chaleo had sent the other to Pridi, so Kuang had to lend his car. The King never told me anything about Chaleo being disrespectful but I assumed he left because the King was displeased.
When the King went to Hua Hin on holiday, Pridi went too. There Pridi used the royal jeep, the King’s personal property, without permission. He also did not get permission for a party of ex-members of the FTM. It turned out a very noisy party.
Pridi once arranged to get the King a piano to play at, I don’t know where from, but when it arrived he was led to believe it was Pridi’s own, until later he learnt it came from the Royal household. I don’t know if Pridi and my brother had any disagreement over the appointment of the Regency Council, but regarding the replacement of Chaleo, Pridi took so long that the man chosen by the King had not yet been appointed when he died.
It was my brother’s own wish to visit the US and Britain on the way to Switzerland. He wished to leave in a hurry as the date was set for the thirteenth… Between the King, myself and the Princess Mother there was never any trouble or misunderstanding. The King never told me that anything troubled him. The only complaint he ever made was about the heat. If anything was annoying him in his work he didn’t tell me of it, but in his private life there was nothing seriously worrying him. He was a very calm person, and when he used guns he was very careful in every way and even warned me that when playing with a pistol I should make sure that the breach was empty. The King never discussed politics with me. I never heard that he wanted to meet FM Pibul. Chan [the senior page who pre-deceased Ananda] was very loyal and used to worry about our welfare and safety. He never said much to me but he used to tell me to be careful and I understood this to mean careful of myself. He’d told me this ever since we’d returned to Thailand.
Under cross-examination, Bhumibol was further pressed about his precise location when Ananda was killed, and Kruger provides a translation of his response:
I did not hear anything abnormal before I heard someone running. While I was walking back and forth between my bedroom and playroom I didn’t notice if anyone else was about. I paid no attention when I heard someone running. I heard both a shout of astonishment and weeping — it sounded like the same person. Apart from encountering the lady-in-waiting near the front porch I saw no one. I didn’t notice if the door of the writing room was open. It was usually closed if the King was sleeping.
This testimony still left significant discrepancies with that of the royal nanny.
Bhumibol and Sirikit only stayed in Thailand for 10 weeks, and left on June 6, which allowed the king to get out of the country before the fourth anniversary of Ananda’s death three days later. But as the trial of the three scapegoats continued, he found that even in Switzerland he could not escape its reach. He was always being confronted with reminders of what had happened, faced with traumatic ordeals to keep the truth hidden. In the summer of 1950, investigators flew to Switzerland to question Sangwan once again, in the Thai embassy in Berne:
Twice in 1951, Phao flew to Lausanne to demand Bhumibol give up some of the powers the monarchy had won in the 1949 constitution. Phao is known to have shamelessly used the threat of publicly exposing Bhumibol as Ananda’s killer several times in the 1950s, and it seems unlikely that he missed the chance to twist the knife during these meetings. Bhumibol stood firm, but upon his return to Thailand in late 1951 the “Silent Coup” showed him how weak his position really was. The shooting of Ananda gave everyone leverage over Bhumibol — not just Phao and Phibun, but also the ultra-royalists, who could respond to any signs of perceived weakness in the king by castigating him over the terrible crime he had committed and ordering him to toughen up or else. The king was caught in the middle with his grief and his shame and his fear.
The three accused in the King’s Death Case, But Pathamasarin, Chit Singhaseni and Chaleo Pootomros, suffered years of torment. During their prolonged incarceration they were beaten, tortured, abused and drugged. Chit in particular must have known more than he revealed in court, and kept quiet to protect Bhumibol. On September 27, 1951, the court laid down its verdict. Sensationally, Chaleo and But were found not guilty; Chit was declared guilty of murder. Both sides appealed, and the interminable legal process ground onwards. In December 1953, the appeals court gave its judgment: Chaleo’s acquittal was upheld, but the judges ruled that both Chit and But were guilty. The case moved to the supreme court, where a final judgment was given on October 13, 1954. The convictions of But and Chit were upheld, and Chaleo, who had been rearrested two days earlier, was also found guilty. All three men were sentenced to death.
Contrasting with the inhumanity of the treatment the three men suffered was the compassion and courage shown by many who tried to save them. Fak Nasongkhla, a young lawyer, volunteered to defend the men when nobody else would, showing immense bravery given the risks: Phao’s police tortured and murdered two defense counsel in March 1949, and arrested two more for treason in October 1949. Chaleo’s 23-year-old daughter also joined the defense during the trial, having studied law so she could help her father. Several officials made an effort to save at least some of the three accused from a fate that was widely known to be a travesty of justice. In the end, they all failed.
On February 17, 1955, But Pathamasarin, Chit Singhaseni and Chaleo Pootomros were executed by firing squad. The killings were overseen by Phao Sriyanond. As Time‘s account of the executions makes clear, it was widely known that justice had not been done:
Who killed King Ananda Mahidol? For close to nine years, Siamese have asked the question—privately, over the tinkle of thousands of teacups; publicly, in one of the longest murder hearings in history.
On the morning of June 9. 1946, the young King (elder brother of the present popular, jazz-composing King Phumiphon Adundet) was found in his bed with a bullet hole through his forehead and a .45 near his hand. Soon afterward, the then Premier, Pridi Phanomyong, announced that the King had killed himself accidentally.
A year later there was a small revolution. Marshal Phibun Songgram, Pridi’s ancient rival in the seesaw of Siamese politics, took over as Premier and charged that Pridi himself was responsible for the King’s murder. (Pridi has since turned up in Peking, leading a “Free Thai” movement blessed by the Communists.) In the years that followed, successive courts of inquiry tried to fix the blame for the King’s death on other guilty parties to no positive avail.
Last week, in the midst of Bangkok’s frenetic preconference housecleaning, the Phibun government did its best to remove the skeleton from Ananda’s closet by executing three Siamese vaguely convicted of “complicity” in his murder. The three were the late King’s pages, Busya Patamasirind, 50, and Chit Singhaseni, 44, who discovered the body, and the King’s former secretary, Chaliew Pathumros, who had been fired a month before the King’s death. At 5 o’clock one morning last week, fortified with a final bottle of orange squash apiece, the three were led into the execution pavilion at Bangkwang Prison. Their hands were clasped together in the traditional Buddhist greeting and lashed to an upright pole. In each upraised hand, prison guards placed a ceremonial candle, joss sticks and a garland of small, pink Siamese orchids. Then a dark blue curtain was dropped behind each victim and the executioner fired a burst from his machine gun.
That morning Police Chief General Phao Srihanond had dropped by for a last chat with Private Secretary Chaliew, his comrade-in-arms during an anti-government coup back in 1932. “Good-bye, old comrade,” said the general as machine-gun slugs tore into his friend. After ten rounds, Chaliew was dead. It took ten more rounds before the prison doctor pronounced Chit dead, and 20 full rounds for Busya. But at last the execution was done, the closet was tidy, and only one question remained unanswered: Who killed King Ananda?
In The King Never Smiles, Paul Handley discusses Sangwan’s interesting behaviour at the time of the executions:
Princess Mother Sangwal [began] a private course in soulclearing vipassana meditation two days before the execution. For one month she conﬁned herself to Srapathum Palace, emerging only to meet her meditation teacher Phra Thepsiddhimuni at Wat Mahathat. Sangwal’s sudden desire to meditate was later explained as a result of her suffering from insomnia, but the timing suggests that she sought to clear her conscience.
Nearly nine years after Bhumibol fired the shot that killed his brother, three more people had died because of his actions that morning and the lies and evasions that had followed. He had probably believed, at the time, that the whole episode could be dismissed as an accident, and that the right thing to do was to cover it up and to do his royal duty. Now he had three more deaths on his conscience, after a trial that had already seen two defense counsel murdered. Pridi Banomyong remained in exile, and Thailand was ruled by a venal and unabashedly criminal military regime.
Bhumibol’s secret was safer now, but it still haunted him. He was troubled by the fact that privately, many people believed he was responsible for his brother’s death. British ambassador Sir Berkeley Gage informed London on May 28, 1957, after a conversation with Prince Dhani, that:
Prince Dhani had previously indicated to me that the King had been hurt after the death of his brother at the view which he understood was generally held in ‘high circles’ in London that he in some way or another had been responsible for it. I disclaimed all knowledge of such a view but Dhani went on to urge that an invitation should be issued to Their Majesties soon to visit the United Kingdom at a time convenient to the Queen and Themselves. He said that the Americans had already extended an invitation for the United States but His Majesty would particularly appreciate one from the Queen…
Bhumibol seemed to think that an invitation from Britain’s queen would somehow prove his innocence. That, at least, is the account Stevenson gives of Bhumibol’s views in The Revolutionary King:
The lie that [Bhumibol] killed his brother could be laid to rest if Queen Elizabeth welcomed him to London.
In fact, of course, the British had changed their stance because there had been a trial and convictions — however dubious — rather than because of any change in their views.
Over the decades that followed Ananda’s ghost kept reappearing, again and again. In 1964, The Devil’s Discus by Rayne Kruger (already extensively quoted in this article) was published. It was a book-length account of the death of Ananda and the subsequent trial. It demonstrated in meticulous detail that the three men accused of killing Rama VIII were innocent, Pridi Banomyong had nothing to do with any plot, and that indeed there were only two explanations of Ananda’s death with any credibility: either Bhumibol shot him, or he committed suicide.
Those who have read The Devil’s Discus usually tend to find one aspect of it strange: it makes a far better case for the likelihood that Bhumibol killed his brother than it does for suicide, only to dismiss the possibility of fratricide with some bogus and perfunctory arguments and conclude that it must have been suicide after all. This is a result of the circumstances through which the book came to be written. Kruger wrote it on the suggestion of Prince Subhasvasti, brother of Prajadhipok’s wife Queen Rambhai. Subhasvasti had been head of the royal bodyguard and after Prajadhipok’s abdication he decamped to Britain with the former king’s entourage. During the war he ran the Free Thai movement in the UK, using the nom-de-guerre Tai Chin. He came to trust and respect Pridi as a result of their wartime cooperation, and grew to dislike Seni Pramoj. And he was impressed by Pridi’s actions following the fall of Phibun’s pro-Japan administration in 1944, such as freeing Prince Rangsit and other royalists from prison, and restoring Prajadhipok’s titles and decorations. He believed – entirely correctly – that Pridi had nothing to do with Ananda’s death. The Devil’s Discus was envisaged as a way of rehabilitating Pridi’s reputation in the hope that he would be able to return from exile and play a leading role in Thai politics once again.
The Devil’s Discus did a very good job of demolishing the case against Pridi. But the problem was that an alternative explanation for Ananda’s death had to be provided. And to conclude that Bhumibol was responsible was, of course, totally unacceptable to the royalist establishment — the book was supposed to enable détente between Rama IX and Pridi, not to declare full-scale war. So Kruger had to find a way to discard the likeliest explanation — that Bhumibol shot his brother — and promote the only credible alternative conclusion, suicide. He makes a valiant effort to do so, but fails to convince.
After dismissing the possibility of a self-inflicted accident, The Devil’s Discus has this to say about whether Bhumibol may have shot his brother:
The accident theory has been shown to be almost worthless, but this has been on the assumption that Ananda was alone when he died. However, the fact that the boys always played with their guns together, and the less well-known fact that the high-spirited Bhoomipol sometimes playfully pointed a gun at Ananda who sternly told him not to, has given rise to a far more persuasive theory, which continues to be held by most Westerners. It is that Bhoomipol visited the sick Ananda and while they were playing with the .45 he accidentally fired it.
No one ever gave more authority to this idea than Bhoomipol himself, by his extraordinary change from gaiety throughout his seventeen years preceding Ananda’s death to unsmiling gravity in the following fourteen. The resilience of youth, and the Siamese trait of quickly forgetting disagreeable events, appeared in him to have been overborne by an emotion which many interpret as remorse or guilt.
The evidence in the regicide case also gives ample scope for speculation. Before the fatal shot, the Royal Nanny and Bhoomipol were in and out of the playroom and Bhoomipol’s bedroom at the same time. She was in the bedroom putting away movie films when she heard the shot and rushed out, while Bhoomipol said he heard not a shot but a shout which drew him from the playroom. This difference is as odd as their lack of reference to each other in their respective testimonies; indeed Bhoomipol even said he saw no one. Moreover he said the shout drew him out to the front porch where, directly along the front corridor to Ananda’s study, he met the lady-in-waiting. If indeed the study door was for some reason left unlocked, it is theoretically possible for him to have gone this way to Ananda, and after the accident run out by the same door, unremarked by the two pages in the back corridor outside the dressing-room but encountering the lady-in-waiting.
Then there is the Princess Mother’s agitated conversation with him which Butr allegedly overheard when the body was being washed, “Whatever you wish to do, do it!” The explanation of this could be that Bhoomipol wished to confess to the Palace Meeting going on below. An equally incriminating interpretation can be placed on his cri de coeur to the Royal Physician that evening, “You can’t leave me in a situation like this.”
Strangely, no inquiry was made at the regicide trial whether Ananda was right- or left-handed. He was in fact right-handed. Yet the pistol was by his left hand. Note also that the cabinet containing the pistol was on his left side, and the fatal wound above his left eye. These facts may mean that Bhoomipol got the pistol out as he stood next to his brother’s bed, playfully pointed it, accidentally fired it, and after an instant of stupefied horror let it drop and ran out: the pistol could then have been where it was found.
Now however unfavourable all this is to Bhoomipol, how much more so does it become if the theory were not one of accident but murder. The notion that he visited Ananda then tends to indicate sinister intent, else he would have used the dressing-room entrance where the two pages were stationed (to his knowledge, since he had spoken to them there). A clear motive can be presumed, the ambition to be King. He had the opportunity. No one saw him at the crucial moments. He knew where the .45 was, and how to use it. Add to these circumstances his demeanour during the years following, which suggested an emotion outside ordinary grief. Add the alleged equivocal passage between himself and his mother. Add the unreliability of his testimony in that he said he never heard the shot though the Royal Nanny did, that he never saw anyone though he could hardly have missed seeing the Nanny if he was where he said he was, and that he never noticed where Ananda’s right (that is, firing) arm was though everyone else did. Add, finally, his conversation that night with the Royal Physician, when besides asking him not to leave him he spoke in favour of the accident theory although he should have known that the .45’s safety device, if not Ananda’s habitual caution, rendered the theory highly improbable.
The resulting tally of suspicion is such that had Prince Bhoomipol been charged with regicide, and precisely the same reasoning and attitude been applied by the judges as they adopted in convicting the three accused, he must certainly have been condemned.
Having established that the weight of evidence clearly suggests Bhumibol killed his brother, either accidentally or deliberately, Kruger then has to find a way to dismiss it:
Strip it down and what are we left with but faint shadows and surmise. The same simple reason that makes the impartial observer reject the case against them must also acquit Bhoomipol: there is absolutely no evidential link between him and the shooting.
Had he and Ananda been known to have quarrelled, or if Bhoomipol had ever expressed hatred towards Ananda, or had he been seen in the proximity of Ananda’s quarters just before or just after the shooting, or had the pistol been in his possession immediately before the shooting, or had the two pages heard him talking to Ananda or moving about in Ananda’s room, or had there been any suggestion by the lady-in-waiting that Bhoomipol approached her not from the direction of his quarters but Ananda’s, or had the conversations with his mother and the doctor not admitted of other explanations – had there been by any means whatever any such link between Bhoomipol and the shooting, suspicion might begin to take root. But there was none.
Nor do the surrounding factors indicate guilt. The two boys “club” in the grounds of the Villa Watana was scarcely behind them: the bond of fraternal intimacy was especially strong, and with their mother they had been a singularly united family…
Nothing suggests a desire to occupy the throne. He had known from birth that it was not his, and he had seen enough to know that it was a very doubtful privilege. Even if he nevertheless wanted it at all costs, his intelligence would scarcely have let him choose a bright morning with people everywhere, including two pages at the very door. This jazz-loving, conspicuously gay youth never gave the slightest hint in his life or character to suggest the impulsive murderer or the possessor of a homicidal rage. And when his conduct in the hours after the shooting is examined, one gets no impression of a youth who had just been the perpetrator either of murder or of a most dreadful accident.
His conduct beyond that immediate time is understandable enough. The shock of seeing his brother suddenly dead; and then the hours with his prostrate mother by Ananda’s corpse, the macabre rites culminating in the closing of the silver urn, the treachery which the royal family gradually became convinced lay behind Ananda‟s death, and the threat to his own life implicit in such treachery, were not the only experiences that broke upon him after the sheltered, safe and unselfconscious life which he had always known. To the traumatic effect of Ananda’s death was added the fact that he was suddenly King, Lord of Life, Protector of a nation, and answerable to history for his conduct. Finally, he was less delicately perceptive in human relations than Ananda; and this meant a harder dynamic that responded hardly to so convulsive an event in his young life that previously had been insulated from the realities of either peace or war.
Bhoomipol, then, was as guiltless as rumour was false.
Kruger is correct that, with the forensic evidence catastrophically compromised within minutes of the shooting, with other evidence suppressed to protect the monarchy, and given the absence of witnesses, there is no direct proof of Bhumibol’s involvement. But there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence, plus the absence of any other credible explanation. And Kruger’s attempt to absolve Bhumibol is based mainly on a rhetorical trick. He makes a convincing case that Bhumibol is very unlikely to be guilty of the premeditated murder of his brother, but few people have ever alleged such a thing. Instead, it seems obvious that Bhumibol either killed Ananda by accident or in a sudden rage without premeditation. And Kruger’s arguments do nothing to undermine that likelihood. Indeed, he goes on to argue that suicide is the most credible scenario by using arguments that instead point more towards Bhumibol shooting Ananda and then being immediately overcome by grief and remorse:
First of all we should look at the instant reaction of the people closest concerned, since in a sudden situation this often gives the clearest indication of the true nature of that situation.
The Princess Mother has never gone on record with any explanation of Ananda’s death, but her actions are noteworthy. She ordered the bed linen and Ananda’s night clothes to be replaced as soon as the doctor had announced his verdict, and she asked him to wash the body. Her distraught exclamation to the doctor, “Who could ever have imagined such a thing happening?” lacked fear or the slightest hint of any thought of murder. She had a search made for a suicide note; her grief was intense and prolonged (today she still cannot speak about Ananda’s death) beyond what one would have thought possible had it been turned outward by reflection on the insanity or malice of the murderer. As to Prince Bhoomipol, he acted with a quiet sad calm, quite inconsistent with the belief that a murderer might still be lurking about. He did not immediately tell anyone what he years later told the court, “The senior page Chan warned me of danger”: on the contrary, having spent the day comforting his mother he that evening said to the Royal Physician, “In my opinion there is no explanation other than accident for my brother’s death.” The remark suggests he was clutching at the straw held out by the afternoon communiqué – and for the same reason that prompted the communiqué’s draftsmen to conceal suicide by pretending to an accident, which Bhoomipol’s knowledge of the .45 must have told him was highly unlikely; while his vastly changed bearing suggests a deeper emotion than an accident would have given rise to.
Reading between the lines, it is clear that Kruger found his own conclusion of suicide unconvincing. As an attempt to dazzle the reader into accepting it, he came up with what he said was new evidence about Ananda’s relationship with Marylene Ferrari, theorizing that a lovelorn Rama VIII may have killed himself because as king he could never be with her. In fact, this was nothing new: within a day of Ananda’s death, media were investigating the Marylene Ferrari angle. Overall, Kruger’s book makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of what happened, but for political reasons it just gives a misleading conclusion. It bolsters, rather than undermines, the case for Bhumibol’s guilt.
Kruger, meanwhile, was never able to visit Thailand again. The book was banned by the authorities and copies of it are exceptionally scarce, allegedly evidence of a concerted campaign to try to buy up as many of them as possible to suppress the book’s contents. Thanks to Kruger’s widow Prue Leith and Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, however, it is now available for free download.
Later in 1964, a precocious 31-year-old Sino-Thai intellectual named Sulak Sivaraksa wrote a review of The Devil’s Discus for a magazine he had set up the previous year, Social Science Review. It was scathing:
The author suggested that undeniably the younger generation of Thai people, particularly those with university degrees, are wearied by the dearth of democratic rights in the country. For them, the voice of Pridi Banomyong still reverberates in the air, forcefully calling for freedom and social justice. Pridi stands tall as a democratic icon, despite once having the communist label stamped all over his face. As part of this new generation, I share their convictions and concerns. I too yearn for social liberty and justice. But, speaking on behalf of the majority in my generation, we do not want Pridi back. The author has completely missed this crucial and elementary point, highlighting his dismal understanding of contemporary Thai society and lack of intellectual vigor. We then must not take his analysis of the events surrounding the king’s death — as labyrinthine and complicated as they were — seriously. On the whole, this work merits little attention. That such a book is even written and published perhaps suggests that someone has secretly funded the murder of history.
Sulak was, at the time, thoroughly convinced that Pridi Banomyong had something to do with Ananda’s murder. As he has since admitted, he did not think deeply about many of his assumptions and prejudices: in his essay Powers That Be he describes himself back then as a “wild-eyed henchman of the conservative ruling class”. In a book published in 1972, Pridi called Sulak among other things, “a hated debris of the corrupt aristocracy, a social parasite, and an arrogant, selfish scavenger”. Clearly, the two men were not great fans of each other.
But Sulak Sivaraksa decided to test his assumptions. He started reading as much information as he could find about the death of Ananda. He interviewed many key sources. By 1980 he had concluded not only that Pridi was not responsible for Ananda’s death, but that Bhumibol was. As he told Bill Schiller of the Toronto Star last year:
The truth is the present king killed his brother — accidentally.
Sulak sent a letter to Pridi in 1980 apologizing for his past accusations. He has since become a persistent advocate for reform of Thailand’s monarchy. He has faced lèse majesté charges on several occasions, but — very unusually — has never been convicted.
By the 1970s, the palace had stopped claiming that Pridi was behind Ananda’s death. Instead, official statements and publications tended to refer to it, when they had to, as an unexplained mystery. The three men executed for Ananda’s murder have never been formally pardoned, but it also emerged that the palace had authorized payments to their families. It had clearly been decided at the highest levels that continuing to blame Pridi Banomyong for the incident was insupportable.
In 1979, Bhumibol and Sirikit granted unprecedented access to the BBC for a special two-hour documentary, Soul of a Nation, broadcast in 1980. During an extensive interview, journalist David Lomax asked Bhumibol about his brother’s death. The king replied:
The investigation provided the fact that he died with a bullet wound in his forehead. It was proved that it was not an accident and not a suicide. One doesn’t know… But what happened is very mysterious, because immediately much of the evidence was just shifted. And because it was political, so everyone was political, even the police were political, [it was] not very clear. I only know [that] when I arrived he was dead. Many people wanted to advance not theories but facts to clear up the affair. They were suppressed. And they were suppressed by influential people in this country and in international politics.
This was a wholly insufficient answer, evasive and uninformative. Bhumibol says it was proved that his brother was murdered, but provides no insight into who might have done such a thing. And he pretends that he has been unable to uncover the truth because mysterious influential people in Thailand and beyond suppressed the evidence. In fact, as he well knew, evidence was indeed suppressed by politicians at the time, but that was to protect him. The conspiracy had been to hide Bhumibol’s culpability.
Meanwhile, Pridi Banomyong remained in exile. Supporters pressed for official word to be given that he could at least return home to Thailand. As Handley writes in The King Never Smiles, the palace dealt with this problem with the help of Prem Tinsulanonda, a royalist cavalry officer who was appointed prime minister in 1980 and governed explicitly as Bhumibol’s proxy:
When Prem took power, Pridi was in Paris, 80 years old, and longing to come home after more than three decades in exile. His family and friends appealed to Bhumibol to permit his return, challenging the king’s sense of compassion and forgiveness. But the palace feared that Pridi remained a political threat, still a hero among a generation of students from the 1970s, many of them now teachers and bureaucrats.
Prem finessed the challenge for the king. Privately the government circulated the news that Pridi could return, and that the palace didn’t hold him responsible for Ananda’s death. But official permission never came, as if there was a bureaucratic snafu for which no one was blamed.
Pridi Banomyong died in exile in Paris on May 2, 1983. Bhumibol’s tacit admission that he had nothing to do with Ananda’s death came too late for him. And even after his death, he was denied the respect he deserved. To quote Handley again:
His body was repatriated, but the government refused him a state funeral, and the palace declined to sponsor his cremation, which it had done for every other Thai leader except Phibun.
Pridi, it seemed, was still hated by Thailand’s royalist elite. They knew he had nothing to do with Ananda’s death, but they had still never forgiven him for 1932, and for being popular.
Pridi Banomyong was dead. Bhumibol was revered by most of his people. Ananda’s death was decades in the past. But still, the king could not let it go. And so, five decades after Ananda was shot in his bedroom, Bhumibol launched his most determined effort yet to clear himself once and for all of the suspicion that he was implicated. It was to prove a self-inflicted catastrophe.
William Stevenson is a Canadian author and journalist who had spent some time in Asia, served in Britain’s Royal Navy, and made some contacts in the intelligence world. After the war he wrote a number of books in the “popular history” genre, including one that became an international bestseller: A Man Called Intrepid, about Sir William Stephenson, no relation of the author, who had been head of British intelligence for the western hemisphere in World War II. Published in 1976, it was later made into a TV miniseries starring British actor David Niven. The book fascinated Bhumibol enough that he decided to translate it into Thai.
Rama IX corresponded with Stevenson during the translation of his book, and the pair agreed to cooperate on a biography of Bhumibol to be written by the Canadian author. Stevenson relocated to Bangkok where he lived for more than five years from late 1990, and over this period he had unprecedented access to King Bhumibol and his inner circle, obtaining hundreds of hours of interviews. He talked extensively to Sangwan also. His daughter Alexandra attended the palace school inside Chitralada. No other writer, Thai or foreign, from outside the royal family has ever matched this level of access.
Bhumibol, it appears, either did not know or did not care that Stevenson had little credibility as a serious writer and that his books were notorious for being full of many wild mistakes and much palpable nonsense. A Man Called Intrepid was eventually reclassified as fiction by its publishers Macmillan because of all the complaints and bad reviews it generated. Walter Pforzheimer, the CIA’s first legislative counsel and the first curator of the Historical Intelligence Collection, described the book as: “inaccurate in many respects, badly documented and grossly inflated”.
Stevenson claims that Sir William had always been convinced that Rama IX was not involved in Ananda’s death, and this helped lead to Bhumibol’s decision to cooperate on a book:
A former director of British secret operations in World War II, Sir William Stephenson… was certain Lek did not kill his brother. After the war, Stephenson (no relative of mine) started an enterprise to continue Anglo-American intelligence cooperation. It was eventually called World Commerce Corporation and became very active in Bangkok. Stephenson had been in touch with the king for a long time when he asked me to read his files on the regicide and later sent me to Tokyo to question the man he believed did kill the Eighth Rama. Stephenson wrote, ‘King’s Bhumibol’s enemies keep alive the lie that he killed his brother so they can control the throne’.
An invitation from the king reached me after interminable delays and diversions. The Ninth Rama did not want it thought that I was investigating the murder of his brother, but out of gratitude for Stephenson’s help, showed me how he was carrying out his brother’s vision of a Buddhist democracy. We became friends and I decided to write his story because it was so strange.
“Lek” is Bhumibol, incidentally: throughout The Revolutionary King, Stevenson refers to Rama IX by his Thai nickname, which shocked some Thai readers. That wasn’t all. The book was published in 1999 to near-universal derision. It was riddled with basic factual errors as well as broader and more astonishing misunderstandings throughout, and no effort seemed to have been made to remedy them for its second printing in 2001. Historian Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian described the book in an outraged footnote to Kings, Country and Constitutions as “a very unreliable account both in terms of facts and interpretation”:
It is most sad that such a person who appears to learn very little about the Thai monarchy and Thai social-cultural sensitivity should be allowed to move freely among the royalty and those who should have known better. His account of the present King is in bad taste, in terms of literary style, factual accuracy, and analysis.
Given that Bhumibol personally initiated the project, this represents perhaps the most negative comment about Rama IX to be found anywhere in Kobkua’s work: she habitually suspends her sometimes acute critical faculties when discussing Thai royalty. Duncan McCargo pithily skewered the book as an “error-strewn 1999 hagiography”, while Chris Baker said of Stevenson that: “His book on the king is … best read as a comic fantasy.”
Writing a review in the International Herald Tribune, Philip Bowring was only slightly less withering. But he recognized the importance of the book. It should not be read as a work of serious history – on that level it is, indeed, a fantasy, although more tragicomic than comic. But as an insight into Bhumibol’s view of himself, and how the palace inner circle perceives reality, and how they want to be seen, it is absolutely invaluable:
It is often inaccurate and written in a gushing style that is unlikely to be convincing even to those with little familiarity with the subject matter. About most subjects, it would not be worth a review.
Yet because of its subject, it is an interesting and in some respects valuable book…
Many of the thoughts expressed in William Stevenson’s biography are clearly those of very senior Thais. Stevenson claims to have had open access over an extended period to the king and to several people close to him. He also indicates access to Western intelligence sources… Though his new book is banned in Thailand, there is no reason to doubt that Stevenson had royal and other high-level access. The problem is the use he made of his sources…
The often breathless prose rattles along without regard for checking facts against obvious known sources. It gives the impression of having been assembled from half-recollected talks with sources who in many cases were speaking colloquially or impressionistically.
A more serious author would have weighed individuals’ comments and interpretations against known facts, or alternative views.
But Stevenson just gushes along, in the process often getting dates and relationships muddled up. Unsourced statements on key issues are legion.
Nonetheless, it has verisimilitude of a sort. Most important, it addresses the political and other circumstances surrounding the 1946 shooting death of the king’s elder brother, King Ananda. Whether or not Stevenson’s description of events is accurate, it evidently came from within the palace…
In sum it ought to be a revealing as well as sympathetic account of a man who has evolved into a king who has played a pivotal role in Thailand’s modern transformation. But its style and inaccuracy demean the man it sets out to praise and devalue the insights that were offered to its author.
As Roger Kershaw wrote in a review of the book in Asian Affairs in 2001:
Stevenson’s privileged position as an informal mouthpiece of the King has guaranteed, for us, the privilege of access to the royal family’s construction of its own past and present role.
The book abandons any suggestion that Pridi was to blame for Ananda’s death, and instead paints the Thai military as the bad guys of modern Thai history. In particular, Phibun and Phao are treated contemptuously. Stevenson repeatedly claims in the book that they, and others, deliberately spread a false story that Bhumibol killed Ananda. Hinting frequently at access to unspecified intelligence files and sources, he promises to reveal the truth about what happened back in 1946.
Except, he doesn’t. It is commonly assumed — even by those who have read it — that The Revolutionary King purports to unmask Ananda’s killer once and for all: a Japanese soldier named Masanobu Tsuji. But this is not quite correct. He paints Tsuji throughout the book as a horrendous supervillain with a penchant for cannibalism and cruelty, responsible for all kinds of heinous deeds and geopolitical shenanigans. Here is a small roundup:
British investigators into Tsuji’s World War Two crimes would dub him God of Evil [p.22]… Masanobu Tsuji, ‘a person of great and mysterious influence,’ according to a contemporary [p.40]…. He had already established a record of horrific war crimes in China. He had incinerated prostitutes inside their Shanghai brothels because, he said, they sapped the vigour of Japanese soldiers [p.41]… Army intelligence officers were looking for Tsuji as ‘one of the most dangerous men on the planet’ [p.70]… A man who had been driven by such hatred that he urged individual Japanese soldiers to deal with each enemy as if he was their father’s murderer [p.140]… One of the most monstrous men of the twentieth century [p.196]… ‘One of the worst men on the planet,’ concluded British hunters of war criminals. An expert on Tsuji, Ian Ward, says: ‘The man and his grotesque manipulations have been allowed to warp and mangle history’ [p.266].
Tsuji, Stevenson appears to be trying to hint, was a very bad man indeed. Stevenson also claims several times in the book that the Japanese spy had long plotted to murder Ananda, thinking that this would destabilize Thailand forever to Japan’s benefit. And he tells us that around the time of Ananda’s death, Tsuji was operating from a nearby temple, disguised as a monk. But he never actually comes out and says plainly that Tsuji was the assassin who shot King Ananda in his bedchamber in the Barompiman Hall in June 1946. He suggests at one point that saying so would offend Thais too much, so he can only hint:
I believed Tsuji, Japan’s God of Evil (or God of Strategy, depending on who you believe) had been in the vicinity of the Grand Palace that fatal morning but had come in the guise of a monk. To say this was deeply offensive to many Buddhists. Only the Ninth Rama could discuss it. For others, it was dangerous to overstep so many invisible boundaries. The instinct that made courtiers snap, ‘Let the story die with you!’ was still deeply entrenched. [p.246]
More likely, he didn’t want to state his case too plainly because it is quite clearly utterly bogus. So he just relied on frequent repetition of innuendo, in the hope that this would convince people that Ananda really was murdered by the Japanese. As Roger Kershaw, a scholar who is by no means unsympathetic to Bhumibol, wrote in his review, it treats the king “as a hero of our times but uses a type of presentation which will leave most readers mystified”:
Just conceivably, the more infuriating features of William Stevenson’s style are essential to his major purpose, which seems to be to implant, by dint of constant repetition, a general impression that King Ananda was the victim of a murder plot by Japanese Intelligence, whereas a careful dissection of the evidence might lead one to an alternative view. Thus at each recurring point where the guilt of the Japanese evil genius Tsuji, or conversely the innocence of Bhumibol, are about to be demonstrated, the writer will switch to some entertaining but totally irrelevant, different topic in the life and times of the royal family, or the culture of Thailand.
The theory that Tsuji murdered Ananda is so audaciously outlandish that it seems almost unsporting to demolish it. As Chris Baker has commented:
If you can imagine Douglas MacArthur dressed as a nun skulking around post-war London and murdering Princess Elizabeth, then you can buy this story too.
Even cursory research quickly undermines Stevenson’s tale. Stevenson is correct that Tsuji spent some time disguised as a monk in a temple near the Grand Palace. The temple was Wat Liab, also known as Wat Rajaburana, and in the 1930s an ossuary was built there to house the ashes of members of the Japanese community who died in Thailand. It is still there today, and ever since World War II, one or more Japanese Buddhist monks have been resident there. Tsuji arrived in Bangkok in June 1945, and when British troops entered the city he disguised himself as a monk along with seven of his followers. This was done with the knowledge and assent of the Siamese government, as former British intelligence officer Louis Allen makes clear in his book The End of the War in Asia, published in 1977, well before Stevenson’s. Tsuji and one of the seven followers took refuge at the Japanese ossuary, while the other six sought shelter at Wat Mahathat beside Thammasat University. On October 29, 1945, Tsuji left the ossuary, now disguised as an elderly Chinese man. Members of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s Blue-Shirt Society helped him escape Bangkok by train from Hualamphong Station to Ubon on November 1. From there he travelled to Vientiane, Hanoi, and then to Chungking (now known as Chongqing) where Chiang Kai-shek was based. He arrived there on March 9, 1946. Considerable documentary evidence of Tsuji’s movements exists. He was, without doubt, more than a thousand miles away from Bangkok on June 6, 1946.
This is not the end of the damage that The Revolutionary King does to Bhumibol’s reputation. It intentionally and very misleadingly depicts Bhumibol as convinced from the beginning that his brother was murdered and determined to investigate — but in fact, we know from contemporary sources that the king was insisting to everybody that Ananda had shot himself by accident. And it tries to tarnish the reputation of Dr Nitya, the family doctor who had been a close friend of the Mahidols and who used his trial testimony to hint that Bhumibol had killed his brother:
It was a stab in the back from Dr Nitya (Nit) Vejjavivisth who had gone to Harvard on a scholarship bestowed by Papa, and who had known Mama in Boston. Nit had been the first court physician to see the dead king’s body. He courted jail by his reference to the Princess mother. It was lèse-majesté. Yet no charges were laid. Nit had been put up to this by the chief of paramilitary police, Phao Sriyanon.
Again, this is very dishonest. Far from being an ally of Phao, the doctor testified at the trial — at considerable personal risk to himself — that he considered Pridi to be a good man.
Perhaps most dubiously of all, The Revolutionary King claims that Bhumibol wanted to pardon the three scapegoats convicted of his brother’s murder, but a wily Phao had them executed without warning:
The king hurried back from Far-From-Worry when the rumours reached him. He had let the months pass without interfering with the due process of law, thinking he had won his demand for a strong and independent judiciary. In his silent rage, he saw how powerless he really was. He had insisted that every citizen had the right to petition him directly. Now he discovered that attempts to reach him by the scapegoats’ families had been stopped by courtiers subverted by Phao’s police.
Phao circulated reports that the king had approved the executions because he wanted to end speculation about his part in the murder. On Phao’s desk remained the last written appeals from the dead men for a king’s pardon.
While it is true that Bhumibol’s influence was curtailed in those days and he was marginalized by the ruling clique of military and police, he could have issued a royal pardon. Four months went by between the final sentencing and the executions. The trials had been going on for seven years. The suggestion that Rama IX didn’t act because he was waiting to get an official request does not stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, Sulak Sivaraksa says in Powers That Be that:
I came upon documentary evidence suggesting that Phibun, on behalf of the accused in the ‘regicide’ trial, thrice appealed to Rama IX for clemency. In all three separate instances, the king turned down the appeal.
The Revolutionary King was supposed to burnish Bhumibol’s reputation, and absolve him of suspicion that he had killed his brother. But by putting forward a totally insupportable alternative theory, and by reporting several incidents dishonestly to falsely show the king in a better light — and doing all this with the apparent support and approval of Rama IX and his inner circle — the project backfired spectacularly. It made Bhumibol’s culpability even more obvious. More than half a century after Ananda’s death, Bhumibol was still trying to escape blame, and his efforts were having the opposite effect. As Kershaw says:
It does rather seem as if certain quarters hoped that such a book could lay to rest the “canard” of the King’s involvement once and for all. But in view of the manifest convictions of Lord Mountbatten and King George VI in the matter in 1946, and the clear fact that the elder brother did not die at his own hand with a bullet from his own Colt .45, one may conclude, with utmost sadness, that the royal family would have been better served by a straight-forward “PR job” … or simply by silence. (It is certainly counterproductive to dismiss Mountbatten as an “imperial bully” and King George VI as innately prejudiced and suggestible to any myth or lie.) Even sadder is the disingenuous attempt to exonerate the King for not intervening to save the scapegoats, who were finally executed by Police-General Phao in 1955.
After the book was published in 1999, it was clearer than ever that Bhumibol had killed his brother, and that he had done nothing to save the three scapegoats from execution. And that he felt ashamed.
The Revolutionary King does, at least, include a small and belated conciliatory gesture to the memory of Pridi Banomyong:
Many years later, Lek said he did not believe that Pridi was a communist nor had anything to do with Nan’s death, but in those early years he was trying to pick his way through tangles of lies.
This is once again a deeply misleading statement, because Bhumibol was responsible for the tangle of lies: he had shot his brother, and he and others were lying to conceal this. But at least it seemed better than nothing. But a year after the publication of Stevenson’s book came another ugly episode, recounted by Handley in The King Never Smiles:
In 2000 an entire generation of middle-aged academics, activists, and progressive politicians made a consciously subversive challenge to the palace’s control of Ninth Reign history. The year marked the centennial of Pridi Bhanomyong, and his supporters wanted to use the occasion to revive his name and reputation. But the year was also the centennial of the king’s mother, Sangwal, and the palace wanted all the attention on her. What ensued was a battle over superior virtue, and over who could decide just who the people’s heroes are. Pridi’s supporters pushed first as early as 1997, prodding the government to plan commemorations, to issue a stamp or even a banknote featuring Pridi, and to nominate him to the UNESCO millennium list of great personalities of the 20th century. When palace offcials caught wind of this, they responded by planning a big year for sanctifying Sangwal. They nominated her to UNESCO, despite her being virtually unknown outside of Thailand. But the palace viewed this as almost a right. The previous Thai nomination to the UNESCO list, in 1992, was the even less known Prince Mahidol, the king’s father.
The battle was fought through new books, academic conferences, and media articles on Pridi challenging the official view that he betrayed the country. They exposed the manipulation and perjury that led to his being condemned for King Ananda’s murder, and highlighted his advocacy of democracy and leadership of the Free Thai movement. The palace could only counter by saturating radio and television with expensive promotion of the princess mother. The result was a draw.
Events to honor Pridi were not blocked, but also not acknowledged by the palace. Both Pridi and Sangwal were named to the UNESCO list, but the palace publicized only Sangwal. Pridi was kept off stamps, banknotes, and television and radio, and out of school materials, while Sangwal surfaced in all those venues. This limited Pridi’s corrected reputation to the urban educated middle and upper classes who read the Bangkok print media. The people who mattered for the palace, grade-school students and peasants in the countryside, would still only know of royal heroes.
There was a fin de siècle air in all of this: on the palace side, a rush to score more deeply into the Thai people, especially a generation of teenagers ignorant of the past, a veneration for the throne that would sustain it into the future; on another side, long-stifled Thais starting to take advantage of the throne’s weakening clutch on its own image by asserting their own, contrary views.
The latest effort by the palace side to secure lasting veneration for the throne, that they hope will survive even after the end of the Ninth Reign, is, of course, King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work. Given the great fanfare that accompanied the book’s publication, and the distinguished contributors who worked on it, news of the book’s launch raised one intriguing question above all: How would it treat the death of King Ananda Mahidol?
KBAALW’s account of the incident and its aftermath, on pages 83-86, is reproduced verbatim below. As noted in part II of this review, the passage follows directly on from a discussion of Bhumibol’s musical hobby, hence the bizarre sentence that begins it:
Musical pursuits, however, took a back seat after a tragic turn of events. On 5 June 1946, Prince Bhumibol accompanied King Ananda to an agricultural fair in Bang Khen in Bangkok a few days before the brothers were due to leave for the US on their way back to Switzerland. The departure was postponed because some constitutional adjustments requiring King Ananda’s signature were not ready. The king also developed a stomach problem that was inconsequential. Early on the morning of 9 June, he was in his chambers in the Borombiman Mansion. He had been seen there in bed by his mother and a page, and out of bed by another page.
Prince Bhumibol last saw King Ananda briefly the night before, and the brothers said very little. The prince was on his way out to a ceremony near the Ministry of Commerce for Raksa Dindan military reservists, where he was standing in for the indisposed king. Upon returning home Prince Bhumibol went directly to bed. The next morning, learning from a page that his brother was still in his room, Bhumibol took breakfast alone on the landing outside King Ananda’s chambers. He did not disturb the king and returned to his own room on the same floor at the other end of Borombiman Mansion.
The event that followed thereafter has never been clearly explained. At 9.20 am, about 20 minutes after Prince Bhumibol had left the breakfast table, a shot rang out. A bullet had entered King Ananda’s forehead over his right eye and exited as a more minor wound into the bed’s mattress. The king was evidently lying on his back at the time of the shot, which apparently came from the Colt given to the brothers by MacDonald. The pistol had a special safety catch system involving a squeeze grip designed to guard against accidental discharge. The alarm was raised by a page, Chit Singhaseni, who ran to the princess mother’s chamber, calling out, “The king has shot himself.”
The household was plunged into confusion. The princess mother and a royal nanny arrived. The king’s mother beheld her dead son and sobbed. “Nand ja, Nand ja!” [“My dear Nand, my dear Nand!”]. Prince Bhumibol was one of the next to reach his brother’s chambers. “When I arrived, he was dead,” he told correspondent David Lomax in Soul of a Nation, a 1979 BBC television documentary.
There was no isolation of the death scene, so within minutes it was contaminated. The presumed weapon, the Colt lying beside the right-handed King Ananda’s left hand, was handled by a page, a nanny and later the chief of police. Utterly distraught, the princess mother bathed King Ananda, assisted by Prince Bhumibol, the nanny and the two pages. Ice blocks were laid beside the body and a fan brought in.
One of the first reports issued by the Associated Press quoted the palace as saying the death had been an accident and a radio broadcast said the same. The size and design of the weapon made it unlikely that the accident had been self-inflicted, and King Ananda was not wearing the spectacles he would have needed with his poor eyesight to be inspecting the weapon properly. With King Ananda lying on his back, either dozing or asleep, a struggle with someone else over the weapon seemed unlikely.
Pathologists reported that there were no powder burns, inward bullet trajectory, or normal site selection for a deliberately self-inflicted wound – factors that would appear to work against suicide as an explanation. There has been speculation about a girlfriend in Switzerland, fellow student Marylene Ferrari with whom King Ananda had communicated by postcard during his time away from Switzerland. If it was serious, such a relationship would have drawn unfavourable comment in royal circles and have been ill-starred as King Ananda moved towards his coronation and permanent residence in Thailand. But in the meantime, King Ananda was due to return to Switzerland to complete his law studies and had much to look forward to. The king was to fly home via Washington, where Harry S Truman had invited him to the White House, and then on to London, where King George VI had asked him to tea at Buckingham Palace. He was said to be excited about the impending visits and had made an enthusiastic farewell visit to the supreme patriarch.
A panel of 15 physicians was convened to conduct a post-mortem, 12 of whom concluded murder to be the most likely explanation. Dr Edwin Cort, the missionary physician from Chiang Mai with whom Prince Mahidol had briefly resided in 1929, was among them. He was quoted as saying that the position of the wound and the track of the bullet seemed to show that the death was the result of assassination rather than suicide. An accident was also deemed improbable, the panel concluded. A censorship board was set up to vet further publicity on the matter. In October 1946, after King Bhumibol’s return to Lausanne, a commission of inquiry concluded that King Ananda’s death could not have been accidental. The alternatives were suicide or murder, but no conclusion was drawn either way.
In 1948 and 1949, Dr Keith Simpson, pathologist to the British Home Office and founding chairman of the Department of Forensic Medicine at Guy’s Hospital London, was consulted first by a senior Thai officer and then by Dr Songkran Niyomsen, Thailand’s first forensic pathologist. The scene in Borombiman Mansion had not been photographed but from the detailed written evidence given to him and extensive discussions, Dr Simpson endorsed the panel of doctors in Bangkok, ruling out suicide or self-inflicted accidental death.
“This is not a case of suicidal discharge nor of accident, but one of deliberate killing by firearm,” Dr Simpson concluded in his report. The British pathologist was prepared to come to Bangkok in 1950 to give evidence in the trial of three royal members of staff hauled up in 1947 for conspiracy in regicide, but it did not come to pass.
“Owing to some crisis in politics in this country, it is not sure that this trial will continue,” Dr Songkran, the pathologist in Bangkok, wrote in apology – inferring the kind of political interference King Bhumibol would mention 30 years later in his interview with the BBC. “If a new government is formed, the aspect of the trial may be changed; and we doctors who confirmed regicide do not know our fate yet. We are expecting a coup d’etat any morning on waking up; besides, communist invasion may come at any time.”
A protracted trial failed to establish the identity of the killer. The proceedings involved acquittals that were later rescinded and failed appeals. Two royal pages and a secretary were executed in 1955 after being convicted of complicity in regicide. The executions did not bring closure to one of the most tragic and mysterious moments in modern Thai history.
In the late 1990s, a theory based on unidentified sources was advanced that King Ananda’s death was the work of Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, a Japanese “spy” who had supposedly avoided prosecution for war crimes by making himself useful to the Americans, and was allegedly hiding out in Bangkok. The theory fails to provide a motive or to explain why somebody in hiding would risk attracting attention by murdering the most prominent person in the kingdom. Japanese accounts place Tsuji in Thailand at the end of the war and in contact with nationalist Chinese, but not at the time of King Ananda’s death the following year. In November 1945, Tsuji left Thailand for Vietnam, travelling to Kunming, China, in February 1946 and from there to Chunking. He was in Nanjing in July 1946 and did not return to Japan until May 1948. Tsuji disappeared in Laos on April 1961 and was legally declared dead in 1968.
In his interview with the BBC in 1979, King Bhumibol said: “Many people wanted to advance not theories but facts to clear up this affair. They were suppressed – and they were suppressed by influential people in this country or in international politics.” King Bhumibol told the BBC that the investigation “proved that it was not an accident, or not a suicide. One doesn’t know.”
Like most of KBAALW, this dishonest little passage is a jumble of facts (some taken out of context), half-truths and outright lies, put together in a way that produces the required impression, regardless of the truth. It gets basic details wrong — the bullet entered Ananda’s forehead above his left eye, not his right. The authors have attempted to evoke an atmosphere of mystery and spooky political influences, of a conspiracy to hide the truth from poor bereft Bhumibol and his people. It uses misdirection to conceal the possibility that Bhumibol accidentally shot his brother, suggesting entirely spuriously that the fact that Ananda seems to have been asleep when shot rules out a struggle over his pistol. It omits to mention how the Tsuji theory came to be “advanced”: by an author commissioned by Bhumibol himself. And it gives significant and undue prominence to Dr Songkran’s letter, as if this holds some clue to darker forces at work. The mention of communism — a blatant red herring — echoes the unfounded accusations of the past that Ananda was killed in a communist plot masterminded by Pridi.
Since the effort by William Stevenson to pin the blame on Tsuji proved so transparently ridiculous, and since no more credible scapegoats spring to mind, KBAALW goes back to the time-honoured royalist strategy of smearing Pridi Banomyong instead. On page 86 it states:
For Pridi Banomyong, the coup and accusations against him after King Ananda’s death were the final blows to his political career. As the wartime regent and incumbent prime minister he had at the very least failed to keep King Ananda safe.
And on page 87 it manages to stoke lingering suspicions with this cynical innuendo:
Many did not believe Pridi had played any role in King Ananda’s death, but after the 1949 failed coup he never came home and offered no explanation himself beyond saying he did not know who was responsible.
After all that has happened, for these statements to be made in a book published in 2011 claiming to be a serious scholarly work with the participation not only of leading Thai royalists but also international academics and journalists is shocking and shameful. It is deeply hypocritical too, from a book that accuses The King Never Smiles of “mean-spiritedness”. One wonders if any of the contributors will be brave enough to publicly disassociate themselves. Or are they happy to be part of a book that repeats old discredited slander against a man who can no longer answer back to defend himself?
To spell it out one more time: Pridi Banomyong did not somehow fail to keep Ananda safe. Ananda Mahidol was shot dead in his own bedchamber by his brother Bhumibol Adulyadej, an event which Pridi could neither have foreseen nor prevented. Over the days, months, years and decades that followed, Pridi protected Bhumibol (and, he believed, Thailand) by never revealing what he knew about Ananda’s death. This cost him his political career and allowed his enemies to force him into exile. Many of his friends and comrades were imprisoned or killed. He died abroad, never having seen the country he loved for decades. After all that, he deserves far better than having his memory tarnished by a crass coffee-table propaganda tome like KBAALW.
One of the striking things about KBAALW and its failed effort to conceal the truth about 1946 is the extent to which it echoes the debacle of The Revolutionary King. In the 1990s, Bhumibol and key members of his inner circle brought in William Stevenson to write a whitewash of the Ninth Reign, only to see their plan explode damagingly in their faces. With KBAALW, the basic strategy hasn’t changed: they just seem to have concluded they needed to try to do it more competently. So a whole team of foreign journalists and academics has been drafted in this time, and a panel of the most loyal network monarchists appointed to oversee their efforts under the trusty stewardship of Anand Panyarachun. What could possibly go wrong?
The problem, as Thailand’s royalist establishment appears to fail to understand, is that no matter how many people you lock up for lèse majesté, or how many foreign writers you employ to spin things for you, or how hard you try to suppress facts you don’t like, the truth doesn’t change. And it has a way of getting out, sooner or later.
King Bhumibol may have told the BBC in 1979 that “one doesn’t know” who killed his brother, but he knows exactly what happened. He has allowed others to be executed or exiled in his attempts to protect his secret. And he has allowed dishonesty and deception to persist and multiply, not least through books like The Revolutionary King and King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work.
It’s time to stop. It won’t work. Enough damage has been done. Fairy tales will not save 21st century Thailand. What is needed is an honest and critical assessment of Bhumibol’s reign, and its likely legacy. I will provide some thoughts on that in part IV.
CONTINUE TO PART IV