Thou Shall Not Harm the Royal (Thai) Family: When The King & I meets Edward Said’s Orientalism

Last May 2013, the Resorts World Manila run of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The King & I ended with great success. What not many play-goers know this is that the play have made fatal errors in portraying King Mongkut (the King in the story) in a bad light, leading to a ban on this play in Siam/ Thailand, even until now. Why, you may ask? That’s because of the lese majeste law in Thailand that no one shouldn’t insult the Royal Thai Family, whether intentional or not and regardless of what method or source of outlet is used. But it also unintentionally committed another foul: it’s an ironic example of Orientalism.

The top row consists of the original play, the 1990's cartoon film, the 1956 live-action film & the 2012-2013 Resorts World Manila run of The King and I. The bottom row has the real King Mongkut & Anna Leonowens. What do they have in common? They're all victims of Orientalism.

The top row consists of the original play, the 1990’s cartoon film, the 1956 live-action film & the 2012-2013 Resorts World Manila run of The King and I.
The bottom row has the real King Mongkut & Anna Leonowens.
What do they have in common? They’re all victims of Orientalism.

For this analysis, the author will use some elements found in Edward Said‘s Orientalism, which paved the background for Post-Colonialism. The background on this essay is that Said is Arabic (Palestinian) but was educated in the United States for his higher education & taught comparative literature at Columbia University until his death in 2003. Said mentioned about Arabs much in the essay due to his personal background but rarely mentioned India (one of the most diverse in culture, but one of most baldy-portrayed & criticized of all nations) & left out East Asia (particularly China and Japan), and Southeast Asia (but it doesn’t mean that anyone can apply it to these other forgotten places even when in need, too). Another fallacy he unintentionally made was that the essay assumes that all harmful political actions are done by the West onto the East, while in reality, all Asians also do this onto each other & also to the West, and it was strangely forgiving to French Orientalist writers. Yet, one point is clear though, the reason why the West made a distinction between the Orient & the Occident is one, they want to control the East, and, ironically, two, the West lacked an identity, a cultural identity. The East has a lot of cultural identity (from the Great Wall of China, to pogodas in Myanmar to the Banaue Rice Terraces of Benguet), deeply rooted in the past, even until today; the West, on the other hand, is too future-oriented, they were too busy competing against each other & building empires, until they’re reduced into social climbers, power hungry mongrels & economic clogs. Not to say that all Westerners are like this, though, but it’s in a historical sense.

The author notes that the problem Thailand has with the play is that at the time the play, or rather, musical was opened, the lese majeste law was already implemented since 1908. According to Dr. Borwornsak Uwanno in his article for Thailand Today called Lese Majeste: A Distinctive Character of Thai Democracy admist the Global Democratic Movement, it mentions about the concept of Deva-rāja (god-king) or Dhamma-rāja (righteous king). The article says that some foreign writers wrote that Thais look at their king as a god-king which is based on the Brahmic concept of deva-raja, despite the fact that most Thais are Buddhists. In the Agganna Sutta, Buddha spoke about that a king is Khattiya or mahāsammata” (“the people’s choice” or one whom the public acclaims as their leader), and also,a “rāja” (one who brings happiness or contentment to others); he went to say that a king attains these qualities through his virtues, not one’s vices. He concludes that ‘the king is best among those who values clans. But who has knowledge and virtue (dhamma) is best among gods and men.’

Now what is lese majeste? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, lese majeste came from the Middle French phrase, which is also derived from the Latin laesa majestas, both meaning injured majesty. It means a crime (as treason) committed or done against a sovereign power, or in this case, royalty.

But the law doesn’t extend to the king alone, it goes out to the rest of the Royal Family. Several travel & tourism (including Thai websites) websites cautions tourists that the monarchy there is still in high reverence (akin to that of any Royal Family in the world), saying that if one commits any insult to the Family (direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional, etc.), they could face imprisonment for a certain number of years with a possible threat of execution. The Thais loved their King so much. Speaking of lese majeste in Thailand, Uwanno also cited other laws in other countries as well, such as Denmark, Norway, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, to name a few. What these all have in common is that a the person of the King/ Queen (or any other member of the (state monarchical country’s name) Royal/Imperial/(or anything that deals with royalty) family is considered sacred, hence one must not question or even accused him/ her/ them of anything whatsoever that is negative. Also, it goes down to culture & politics. Look what happened in the United Kingdom’s history. Sure, they overthrew the Royal Family (which was then the House of Stuart) and replaced it with a Commonwealth at one point of their history, but even now, the Royal British Family (currently the House of Winsdor) is still alive & kicking, still well-loved by their subjects.

Back to the Musical, the problem with it is that it portrayed King Mongkut in a bad, negative light, and made real inaccurate points at its history. The following are taken from the Internet Movie Database’s Goofs & Trivia pages:
The film is riddled with numerous inaccuracies about the biographies of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn (see trivia), causing the film to be banned and shunned in Thailand/Siam as libelous and slanderous.

In Thailand (previously called Siam) the royal family is held in very high esteem. This film is banned in Thailand due to its real historical inaccuracies and the perceived disrespect to the monarchy. The real Prince Chulalongkorn grew up to be an especially good King Chulalongkorn and led the way for modernization, improved relations with the West, and instituted many important cultural and social reforms in Thailand.

See the points noted. The playwrights have made a terrible mistake that Said would’ve roll his eyes in dismay. Why did they humiliate the Royal Thai Family for the sake of promoting Anna Leonowens as some Mary Sue, and for the sake of entertaining countless people, even until today? The author admits she’s a victim of Orientalism: American by birth, Filipino-Chinese by blood, educated in Philippine schools yet have watched the movie & cartoon versions herself. Looking back, she felt bad for the Royal Thai Family now. The author recommends anyone to do careful research on any historical film before & after watching them. And to all tourists and Thais, please don’t insult the Royal Thai family or any Royal Family at all times, at all costs…


* Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York City, New York, United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.