Pavin Chachavalpongpun on the Strange Death of King Ananda Mahidol

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Pavin Chachavalpongpun on the Strange Death of King Ananda Mahidol

“Like a ghost from the past, the decades-old case continues to haunt the Thai monarchy and poses a threat to its stability.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun on the Strange Death of King Ananda Mahidol

The statue of Thailand’s King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) at Ban Poon, Thonburi, Bangkok.

Credit: Flickr/Adaptor- Plug

In 1946, Thailand’s King Ananda Mahidol died from a single gunshot wound to the forehead. He was just 20 years of age. In the years since, the identity of the person or persons who pulled the trigger has remained a mystery, veiled in royal secrecy and concealed by layers of political concerns and sensitivities. In a new book, Pavin Chachavalponpun, an exiled Thai academic currently based at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University of Japan, revisits the death and abbreviated reign of Ananda Mahidol, the elder brother of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and uses it as a portal to a broader examination of the Thai elite’s manipulation of history to political ends.

Pavin spoke with The Diplomat about the mystery of Thailand’s youthful king, what it reveals about the writing of Thai history, and how he came to write “The Life and Death of King Ananda Mahidol.”

Why Ananda Mahidol? He took the throne in 1935 at the age of nine and spent most of his reign as a teenager. What inspired you to write a book examining his life?

The death of King Ananda Mahidol, or King Rama VIII, in 1946, despite being a tragic incident, has been forcibly hidden from the realm of curiosity among the Thai public. In Thailand, a country whose embodiment has been the monarchy, the untold story of the death of King Ananda unravels an oddity. Why has it long been a taboo to discuss the untimely death of Ananda?

Born and raised in Bangkok, I grew up like others of my generation: we were taught to love and respect the monarchy as a duty and an obligation. The monarchy has thus been encapsulated within an enforced affection, and criticism against the institution could be seen as blasphemy. The lese majeste law has been put in place as a legal instrument in the prevention of such criticism. This law stipulates that anyone insulting or defaming the monarchy can be sentenced up to fifteen years in prison. As a result, the public’s view vis-à-vis the monarchy has long been constrained. Only extolment is allowed.

During the successive reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or King Rama IX, the matter on the death of Ananda continued to be suppressed. In fact, it was ever more so, given the fact that suspicion of Bhumibol’s involvement in the death never subsided. But at the twilight of the Bhumibol reign, as the end of the magical era was looming, the carpet started to roll back revealing hidden dirt. The death of Ananda has returned to the public’s attention as the position of the monarchy has been increasingly contested. The new generation, having escaped long years of state propaganda on the monarchy, begins to explore the death of Ananda. The ta sawang phenomenon (literally “cleared eyes” or “brightened eyes”), accelerated that process. Many felt that the truth behind the death of Ananda has only been half-told.

Under this circumstance, my interest in the death of King Ananda was renewed. Moreover, at a deeper level, it became a personal attempt to break free from the constraints of my own view of the monarchy. The discussion on the issue of Ananda’s death still remains detrimental. A book about it will likely be banned. Its author – myself – will likely be punished with lese majeste. But my hope is that, despite imminent threats to this personal mission, scholarship on the monarchy will be further broadened. Critical works on the Thai monarchy are very limited. In the past decade, few critical academic books on the Thai monarchy have been published. Studies of the death of King Ananda are scant. My humble intention is to shed light on this dark aspect of the Thai monarchy.

In renewing my interest in the death of King Ananda, I revisited a crucial book, “The Devil’s Discus: An Inquiry into the Death of Ananda, King of Siam.” Written by Rayne Kruger in 1964, the book introduced a theory of the death of the king. Although the case was closed following the execution of three royal servants – two of them were present in the palace on that ill-fated day – the Thai public has continued to be bewildered by the tragic incident. Paul M. Handley, the author of “The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej” was told that Kruger was invited by a senior prince to write “The Devil’s Discus” with an intention to initiate a new theory of the death of Ananda, supposedly to divert the attention away from any allegation that Bhumibol killed his elder brother. This time, in revisiting “The Devil’s Discus,” I became fascinated by a Swiss girl who was mentioned as a “love interest” of King Ananda. Her name was Marylene Ferrari, as spelt in the book. Kruger seemed to suggest that King Ananda might have committed suicide because he knew that getting married with Marylene would be impossible. Therefore, “The Devil’s Discus” not only opened an entry into the death of Ananda, but also titillated the readers with the romantic story that ended as lovelorn.

Regardless of the plausibility of the suicide theory, Marylene, as an “actor” in Ananda’s short life, deserved to be discovered. But I was clueless of how to trace the Swiss lady. It was impossible to search for anything about Marylene in Thai or English literature. There were some mentions of her in a few books, but only in passing. There has been no investigation into the life of Marylene. Her existence was as obscured as the death of Ananda itself. It was this almost non-existence that motivated a search for her. Learning about Marylene might allow us to understand better the case of the death of King Ananda.

Ananda Mahidol is primarily remembered today for the strange circumstances of his death on June 9, 1946, which have generated copious competing theories, including one claim that Ananda Mahidol was accidentally shot by his younger brother Bhumibol, who would be crowned in his place and occupy the throne for the next seven decades. Can you briefly describe what occurred, to the best of your knowledge?

In this book, I attempted to simplify the theories of Ananda’s death, admittedly by mainly re-evaluating archival documents, such as the reports of the autopsy, the government’s press releases, and the official documents from foreign embassies reporting on the case. By simplifying theories, I relied on an earlier suggestion from Thailand’s leading historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, formerly with Thammasat University, currently in self-exile in Paris. He has suggested that there were two likely causes of the king’s death: Ananda killing himself, or someone else killing him. In these two causes, Somsak asked if those acts were deliberate or accidental. It is important to stress that it is not in the intention of this book to offer a definite answer to the conundrum. Rather, it offers a range of possible theories, plus some new information added to the list of possible causes of death.

Somsak was not the only scholar who guided me in the course of writing this book. Another Thai scholar, preferring to be anonymous, contacted me, as he knew of my project. He told me that he had new information about the death of King Ananda and wanted to share it with me. Some information he provided was included in this book.

The complications of the death of Ananda have had far-reaching implications in different aspects of politics and society. The role of those present at the crime scene was crucial. This included the role of the Princess Mother, Sangwan, who was seen with the dead body of Ananda when the doctors arrived at the scene. This book elaborates the role of Sangwan both in relation to the romantic relationship between Ananda and Marylene and in the death of her son. Controversial might it be, Sangwan played her part in thwarting the romantic relationship of her son as well as in tampering with the crime scene. As for Bhumibol, his continued denial of any involvement in the death of Ananda has further dimmed the prospect of finding the truth behind the incident. Bhumibol passed away on October 13, 2016, virtually ending the chance of discovering the truth because he was the last surviving witness. As mentioned earlier, however, attempts of the Thai palace to suppress the discussion on Ananda during the Bhumibol period, coupled with the ta sawang phenomenon, have resulted in a surge in public interest in the death of Ananda. This book is a product of the current revival of interest in the Ananda case.

What was the nature of the relationship that King Ananda had with Marylene Ferrari, and how was it seen in Bangkok?

In 1943, Thailand’s young king met Marylene at the University of Lausanne. The romance between the two grew rapidly despite the fact that the Ananda’s family discouraged their relationship. As the book argues, Marylene played a part in Ananda’s adult life. Her role and eventually her relationship with Ananda came to shape his perception of marriage as well as his duties as king of a traditional Thailand. Nurtured in a Western cultural setting, Ananda was supposedly free in making a decision in his marriage. However, this was obviously not the case in practice. Marylene, meanwhile, was a daughter of an influential figure in the religious circles of Lausanne. Her family background and her modern outlook already posed an obstacle in her relationship with Ananda. Marylene’s father was not enthusiastic about the prospect of her becoming the queen of Thailand, given the status of women in the Thai royal court. The clash of the two views about gender equality and the treatment of women in Thai society further deepened the difficulties in the relationship between Ananda and Marylene.

The book delves into the issue of the restriction on intermarriage between Thai kings and foreigners of Western origin. This was due to the fact that interracial marriage could shift national allegiance. Hence, it has become a taboo. Geopolitics also played its part. Siam wanted to be free from Western influence and therefore viewed matrimony with Westerners as a threat to national security. From this view, the relationship between Ananda and Marylene posed a threat to Siam/Thailand and the survival of the Thai monarchy. The Mahidol family tried indefatigably to cut the relationship between Ananda and Marylene with the help of the royal tutor (Cléon Séraïdaris).

King Ananda Mahidol and his younger brother, Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej, inspect the artillery of the HTMS Maeklong on January 13, 1939. (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives of Thailand)

How are Ananda Mahidol’s love life and death treated in the “official” Thai historiography? What does this say about the place that the monarchy occupies in the country’s constellations of wealth and power?

The restriction on interracial matrimony within the royal family has extended into the world of literature. The life of Ananda, his wedding aspirations, and certainly his death, have become unmentionable subjects in print. Essentially, the lese majeste law has been fiercely repressive in curbing both non-academic and scholarly discussions of the Thai royal family. Although the law was promulgated toward the end of King Chulalongkorn’s reign, it was rarely used as a political weapon to silence critics of the monarchy. Only after the coup of 2006 did Thailand witness a drastic surge in lese majeste cases. This signifies that towards the end of the Bhumibol reign, the monarchy increasingly became intolerant of any fault-finding, and any attempt to revisit Ananda’s case was completely off-limits.

Harsh sanctions against critics of the monarchy can be a useful indication of the wobbles in the standing of the monarchy in the eyes of the public. In 2013, the Thai Supreme Court ruled in a case which involved a past king, Mongkut, and the lese majeste law. A politician was imprisoned for making a statement considered as an insult against King Mongkut. Scholar David Streckfuss argues that the Supreme Court pointed out that Article 112 did not actually specify exactly which “king” or “queen” or “heir-apparent” was to be protected by the law. The court then connected the issue to the ever-vague and always-dangerous concept of national security. If some words about a previous king affected the present monarchy, then that affected national security, the section of the criminal law, after all, in which Article 112 resides. I theorize that by extending the coverage of the law to past kings, conservative royalists may be acting to preserve the legitimacy of the late king, Bhumibol, rather than to protect the dignity of other past kings as discursively claimed by the Supreme Court. This is because even in his death, Bhumibol’s accumulated moral authority can be employed to underpin the legitimacy of his son, King Vajiralongkorn, who is in serious need of loyal subjects. Discussions that could disparage Bhumibol’s moral authority should thus be banned. The wealth and power of the monarchy have to be protected at all costs.

It is worth noting that the act of prohibiting discussions of the monarchy, particularly critical discussions, is a serious affair for the Chakri dynasty. Talk of the mysterious death of King Ananda is verboten since it directly involved King Bhumibol, who was present at scene of the crime. But now, Bhumibol is dead and any chance of the facts becoming known is lost. The incident occurred at a time when the monarchy had still not fully recovered from the humiliating loss to the Khana Ratsadon in the revolution of 1932. As the only tragic incident for the family in the Bangkok period, it had the potential to jeopardize not just the Mahidol family, but the dynasty as a whole. Yet like a ghost from the past, the decades-old case continues to haunt the monarchy and poses a threat to its stability. From this perspective, Ananda’s death could be viewed as the sum of all fears with regard to the safety of the Thai monarchy.

With the abolition of the absolute monarchy, the death of Ananda raised questions about the interconnectedness between the royal institution and the political entity. The sensitivity of Ananda’s death, his Swiss girlfriend, the draconian lese majeste law, and the supreme position of King Bhumibol in the political arena have in effect buried the issue deeply. As a result, any literature available on Ananda’s death has either avoided discussing the details of the event – sometimes even pretending that the incident did not even take place – or has delved into other possibilities without mentioning the role of King Bhumibol. The pattern of underwriting a very important historical event has been found in all Thai and some English literature. In fact, the Thai state even erased the death of Ananda from high-school historical textbooks. Interestingly, Somsak diagnoses the problem with Thai studies of the monarchy and finds that the constraints currently shaping the academic community prevent scholars from freely researching the topic of the monarchy due to fear of imprisonment. Studies on the monarchy have been alienated or made “unique,” in that they require specific research methods to examine the subject.

Describe some of the challenges you faced during the writing of the book. What were your main sources?

The fundamental challenge was the dearth of key evidence in terms of photos or letters that could further verify the relationship between King Ananda and Marylene. I was only able to secure the 1943-1945 lists of students of the University of Lausanne in which the two names appeared as classmates, and a postcard written by King Ananda to Marylene sent from Karachi, on his way to Bangkok in 1945. This is the same postcard that was included in “The Devil’s Discus.” In my discussion with the family of Marylene, while I was given several photos of Marylene, photos of her with Ananda were missing. This could be explained in many ways. Although unlikely, it is possible that Ananda never had photographs taken with Marylene. Photos could have been destroyed accidentally, or those wishing to remove any trace of their relationship could have done so deliberately.

Equally challenging is the fact that accessing the royal archives in Thailand, in order to search for the episode the palace wanted forgotten, is impossible. Thus, it must be emphasized that this book relies heavily upon primary sources in the form of oral testament by the family of Marylene and on material obtained mainly from the archives of the city of Lausanne and from the University of Lausanne. The other difficulty was the fears of key witnesses and informers who sought to remain unidentified due to the lese majeste law. This explains why some references are left anonymous. The human evidence is as hard to verify as other primary sources relevant to the relationship between Ananda and Marylene. In 2013, a man named Pipob was imprisoned for two years for selling some copies of “The Devil’s Discus.” The case served to remind the public that the mysterious death of Ananda continues to be an untouchable subject.