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A foreign focus

Stories and images collected from sixty years of international reporting on HM the King add up to a vivid and meaningful portrait of the monarch and his times

Published on December 2, 2007

A foreign focus

The King of Thailand in World Focus
Published by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand
Available at leading bookshops
Reviewed by James Eckardt
The Nation

There are four magazines on the cover of "The King of Thailand in World Focus" and it's a mark of the sorry state of modern print journalism that three are defunct: Asiaweek, Asia Magazine and the Far East Economic Review. Many of the authors of this 259-page coffee table book - subtitled "Articles and Images from the International Press 1946-2006" - have passed on too, but their stories are still vivid if occasionally quaint.

The book is a tribute by the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Thailand to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It is an updated and greatly expanded version of the original edition published for his 60th birthday. The doyen of foreign correspondents in Bangkok, Dennis Gray of the Associated Press, served as editor-in-chief, assisted by two other long-time expats, editor Dominic Faulder and photo editor John Everingham. There are more than 80 new articles and 240 photographs out of a total of 375. They come from 56 media organisations in 24 countries and form, as Gray notes in his introduction, "the clearest and most comprehensive foreign journalistic documentary on this remarkable man and monarch".

His introduction concludes:

" 'The King of Thailand in World Focus' is intended as a meaningful record of the man and his times rather than merely a laudatory exercise. If the thrust of this book is positive, that is the reflection of the bulk of journalistic coverage about him. The fact is that King Bhumibol has consistently enjoyed the kind of press most world leaders can only command in their daydreams."

The feverish imagery of early reportage on the King can make for fun reading today. On April 3, 1950, John Stanton of Time magazine described how the news spread of the King's return to Thailand from Switzerland:

"Up the great rivers, the Chao Phya, the Mekong, the Tha Chin, the Ping, the Si and the Mun, [the news] had gone with wandering merchants thumbing barge rides. On the lips of mendicants with shaven heads and shaven eyebrows, it had travelled through cobra-ridden jungles where tigers lurked and elephants lurched, and on into the cool, airy teakwood forests of the uplands. In ancient, serpent-topped temples, yellow-robed monks prepared a welcome."

This article is accompanied by a large magnificent photo of the King and his future Queen cruising upriver on a Navy launch, while the banks and balconies and rooftops are lined with a cheering crowd.

In most photos, as is his custom, the King is unsmiling - "The Queen smiles for me", he once told a photographer - but the text itself is laced with his dry humour.

In a Life magazine article that same year, the King, a keen photographer, muses about ways to take pictures at official functions: "Someone suggested that I might wear a Contex next to my skin and have a little hole in my uniform through which the lens could poke, looking like just another decoration, but this, I think, is impractical."

Years later, in a meeting with foreign journalists, he cracked them up by saying "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera" in the manner of Yul Brenner's "Broadway King".

In a 1967 audience, Gerson Zimmerman of Look asked the King what Americans might learn from Thais:

"I really don't know," he said. "The United States has so much. But, I was telling an ambassador that Americans might have more of a sense of humour about themselves and the mistakes they make. But even as I say it, I'm not so sure they have enough of a sense of humour to appreciate even that."

As Gerson takes his leave, the King tosses out a final thought: "I am really an elected king. If the people do not want me, they can throw me out, eh? Than I will be out of a job."

Some of the best reporting in this book is by veteran journalists - Sylvana Foa, Barbara Crossette, Derek Davis and Gray - on the King's arduous forays into the countryside from the hilltribe North to the Muslim South.

After landing by helicopter at a mountain village near the Burmese border, Gray recounts this conversation:

" 'They say a kingdom is like a pyramid: the king on top and the people below. But in this country it's upside down,' His Majesty told us. 'That's why I sometimes have a pain around here.' He pointed to his neck and shoulders and his normally serious face broke into a broad smile."

Later on, Gray recounts that the King was called upon to solve a hilltribe marital dispute. The husband complained that he had paid two pigs and some cash for his wife but she'd gone off with another man.

"The King resolved the crisis by deciding that the husband should get some compensation which would allow his wife to go free," Gray writes. "Everyone was happy. 'The only trouble was I gave the money,' the King laughed. 'So the woman belonged to me'."

The climax of the book is a four-page colour spread of the Diamond Jubilee Celebration when the Royal Family played host to monarchs from around the world. But the book still isn't over. There's a finale called "Royal Asides" on various offbeat topics: the making of epic movie "Suriyothai" for the Queen's Birthday, the tale of the King's pet dog Tongdaeng and the stable of 11 royal white elephants.

This is an ideal Christmas gift, especially for someone who has never been to Thailand. The King is indeed an exemplar of this country. After you fork over the Bt1,450, you'll be glad to know that 60 per cent goes to the King's charities and 40 per cent to the FCCT's educational funds. 

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