Harry Nicolaides, Thailand’s latest political prisoner.
By virtue of our long-standing campaign against all censorship, in Thailand, and everywhere else, Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) is looked upon to comment sensibly upon the sentencing of Australian novelist and academic, Harry Nicolaides, for lèse majesté. His sentence was six years, merely reduced to three by virtue of his guilty plea, which is common to Thai courts.
This single case has caused more comments to FACT website than ever before. When Thais are arrested for lèse majesté, the world community stands aloof.
Freedom of expression comes with responsibility to the wider virtual, and human, community. FACT will never tolerate insult (some conservatives might say defamation) to any individual be they Royal or commoner. We're all in this together. Although public figures in every country must accept a wider latitude in criticism, insult, gossip and slander should never be tolerated.
Therefore, for the first time, we have felt obligated to edit comments to FACTsite, primarily due to profanity but also due to direct defamation. No one, be they King or commoner, deserves such brainless vitriol.
FACTsite is a forum for readers to discuss all censorship issues. It is not a playground for people to hurl insults. Such insults only stifle free discussion and waste everyone's time.
Thai Monarchy 101
Many of FACT's foreign readers have little understanding of the complex realities of Thai existence. We have no doubt whatsoever that His Majesty King Bhumibol is a good person who has tread a treacherous political landscape for 60 years. The monarchy has prospered under King Bhumibol with a following among Thais which grew exponentially until our situation became the cult of Royalty which exists today.
There was a long hiatus in Thai royalty when Rama VII abdicated in 1935 after Thailand was reinvented as a Constitutional monarchy. This left Thailand without a monarch during the Japanese occupation. King Bhumibol's elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol, took the throne in 1946 after growing up abroad, to the great joy of Thai people.
Conspiracy theories abound, the subject of many books banned in Thailand, but King Ananda was found dead of a gunshot wound and his younger brother, King Bhumibol, was crowned Rama XIX. One premise of the title of The King Never Smiles by Paul M. Handley is that King Bhumibol never really recovered from the pointless death of his beloved elder brother.
Rama VIII's death was particularly pointless because this 20-year old king, raised abroad, had no real power or even influence. In fact, Thai people were really just getting used to the idea of having a king again. All facts point that Thais were thirsty for a monarch, be he Constitutional figurehead or real leader.
King Bhumibol, Rama XIX
King Bhumibol has been both symbol and leader with great finesse. Like any leader he has had to make difficult, fearless political decisions. That a cult of Royalty has grown around him has nothing to do with Bhumibol the King or the man himself.
Some of us in Thailand may not like some of the choices our King has made but that is true of any leader in any country. King Bhumibol is not in any way responsible for the lèse majesté cancer which blights our nation. The Royal cult and its position of attempting to crush all dissent through censorship is not Bhumibol's choice. In fact, the King is famously quoted as inviting the criticism of his people, saying that any less would mean he is less than human.
The Thai elite, in particular, Thai government bureaucrats, love the King as symbol but never listen to his meaning.
In a word, it's all about money. Many Thais have sought to promote their own prosperity by appearing close to the monarchy. This is simply a craven, greedy culture of appearing more Royal-than-thou. After all, who would not wish to appear friends with the world's richest Royal? Some critics have opined that the cult of monarchy was created to be a self-perpetuating money machine. So what?
In 1974, King Bhumibol took the unprecedented step of seeking a change in the Thai Constitution to declare his eldest daughter Crown Princess. The Rama lineage now includes daughters as well as sons.
Lèse majesté and censorship
What is curious to us is that lèse majesté only consists of opinions expressed in public. Speeches, writing and even quotations for a general audience are all considered lèse majesté. Our observation is that Thais are more distressed if these comments are in English; comments in Thai, if expressed responsibly, are far more tolerated. Believe me, we in Thailand talk about all these issues in private, among our family, colleagues, peers and even students all the time and no one finds it disrespectful.
What we at FACT find incredible is that Thai government thinks there are at least 2,700 people in the world who care enough to defame the Thai monarchy. This figure consists of the 2,300 websites our ICT ministry claims to block, by court order as required by Thai law, plus the 400 further websites it seeks to block. Really, nearly 3,000 people give a damn about Thai monarchy? The Thai justice minister places the figure at 10,000. Patently absurd!
We are being played for patsies. At the time of King Bhumibol's 60th anniversary celebrations, Thai police were quoted as saying 60 lèse majesté cases were pending. Today, we know of at least 32 lèse majesté cases and we suspect that is just the tip of the censorship iceberg. Many of these “perps” wish to remain anonymous due to the enormous social stigma of such allegations in Thailand.
Thailand was once again brought to world attention when yellow-shirted thugs shut down Bangkok's international airport. They wore yellow shirts because the King was born on a Monday and the colour for that day is yellow. This had been going on for a year before the 60th celebrations, at least every Monday, a huge yellow industry had been created and most of us had grown pretty tired of yellow well before the mob.
The mob calls itself the People's Alliance for Democracy. Its supporters’ core belief is that stupid people always vote for the wrong guy so we should disenfranchise stupid people and only allow the educated elite (read: rich) to vote. (That would give those bean counters a lot less work!)
Their equally thuggish counterparts are the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship. They find it undemocratic that our hugely-elected prime minister was deposed by military coup d'etat in 2006. Of course, he must have been elected by stupid people!
Note that the common element here is “democracy”! Not only do both sides claim to be fighting to restore “democracy” (whatever that is) to Thailand but both sides claim to be doing so to defend the monarchy.
We pose a crucial question: Does King Bhumibol need our defence? Commonly, a leader needs support from a position of weakness and King is indisputedly a very strong leader.
So why did Thai government seek to pursue its lèse majesté case against Harry Nicolaides? They did it to appear tough, to declare open war on any commentary surrounding the monarchy and to create a climate of fear in Thailand in which censorship would be accepted as necessary.
Harry's case may not be about a need to protect our King. It is far more likely that government is paving the way to protect the next king, or queen, Rama X, who will be a completely untried and untested monarch when they succeed the throne.
Many people have criticised King Bhumibol for not speaking out. After all, he could stop this lèse majesté insanity with a few words. But the King in 60 years has never given direct advice to his people although he has intervened in several crisis situations. Our King simply does not think that it is the role of a Constitutional monarch to manage the country. He does not think it fruitful to be involved in the pettiness of Thai politics. We can accept the King's role as it is.
The Harry Nicolaides case raises vital issues, procedurally, legally and in Thai society. Was Harry arrested because he wrote in English and therefore his self-published expat bargirl novel of 50 paid-for vanity copies of which seven (we repeat, seven) copies were actually sold, represented a clear and present danger to the Thai monarchy from the world community?
Seven copies sold is being generous: Harry's book, Verisimilitude, actually has an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), the identifier for all books published since 1966. The book also bears the imprimatur, “Printed in Thailand”.
All ISBNs are attached to publishing houses, even one-time wonders; so far, we have been unable to find the numerical prefix relating to any Thai publisher. As to “Printed in Thailand”: despite great investigation, we have been unable to uncover the printing house responsible for this largely-unedited novel.
Let's repeat that, too: a novel. As in, work of fiction. Other than cleverly (but thinly)-disguised reminiscences of Harry's fascination about the way pay-for-play sex works in Thailand and his all-too-human fascination with the birds-and-the-bees of Thai interrelationships, there is (drumroll, pregnant pause) one paragraph, precisely 103 words (if one can count “a”, “and” and “the”) of commentary regarding a fictional crown prince. One paragraph of 226 pages, with no further explanations. (The offending paragraph may be read here).
Now, because Harry's novel is set in Thailand, the reader might presume this fiction refers to our crown prince. But…wait a minute: The law is very precise as to proof and the fat lady has most definitely not even started singing on this one!
The charges against Harry are the supposition that his paragraph refers to a real person. Where Harry really went wrong were that he thought he understood Thai values, culture and sensibilities after short stints teaching at two Thai universities. Most Thais don't even understand Thailand!
Verisimilitude is not banned in Thailand
Furthermore, ever since Harry's arrest, we've been trying to get hold of a copy of Versimilitude. Harry's friends, family and lawyer couldn't get us one. Finally, we were pointed to a copy on public shelves at Thailand's National Library where it remains today. Thailand's Printing Act is very specific in regards banned books. They must be presented to Parliament and listed in the Royal Gazette. As this has not (yet) occurred, Verisimilitude is not a banned book.
Let us charitably say that Harry was a bit infatuated by authorship. In Thailand, as in every country subscribing to international copyright conventions, a publisher is required to submit two copies of a printed work to the national library.
However, that just wasn't good enough for Harry. He submitted copies to the Royal household, the Ministry of Culture and the Foreign Ministry. Eventually, some bureaucrat must have found themselves bored enough to read Harry's book. Which is where Harry's troubles started. Who in Thai government had an agenda?
Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) committed itself to posting Harry's book, Verisimilitude, online at FACTsite in advance of his trial. However, Harry's lawyer requested we not do so.
While we waited on this issue and received literally hundreds of requests for the book, we realised that making Verisimilitude available was simply not the point. The point is its censorship and that every person has the basic human right to free expression.
Read Verisimilitude for yourself
Verisimilitude will be posted to FACT's Banned Books Project: Celsius 233 at Internet Archive with mirror sites at six universities if you want to wait.
Meanwhile, the book is available here:
Further references may be found on Wikileaks.
Harry has been quoted numerous times about how hard he's doing in Thai gaols, fifty men to a cell, and so forth. Yep, Harry, that's what gaol is all about. Find yourself in there, you're a smart guy, start to work the system to make it better for everybody and, by so doing, by offering up that compassion, also make it better for yourself. Our sympathies lie in the fact that it must not be easy explaining yourself, that you love the King, to 3000 father-rapers who all say they're not guilty.
So Harry, or perhaps his family, picked an Australian SC, Senior Counsel, to “defend” his case. It didn't matter that Mark Dean knew absolutely nothing about Thai law or Thai sensibilities or that Thai courts are conducted in Thai-duh! Of course, Harry had a Thai counterpart but Mark Dean made all Harry's decisions. Mark Dean's decision to plead Harry guilty was exactly the same decision a for-profit lawyer would have made in convict Australia: “C'mon, just plead guilty and the judge'll go easier on you.”
We all know that, in any country, that's simply not true. The judges simply start at a higher number and the prisoner serves the same. Justice is served, cold and bland, thank you very much, next case.
Of course, in Harry's case, the eyes of the world had already been focussed on Thailand because of our crazy political conflicts. So the international press was hanging on Harry's decision, to make Harry news, no matter what happened. Do we care how we look to the rest of the world?
What is lèse majesté law?
There is not really a legally-defined lèse majesté law in Thailand. lèse majesté falls under several sections of the Thai criminal code, principally Article 112. However, Article 112 was never intended to cover the printed word. It covers speech. That's not what our Harry was charged with.
If one defames, insults, etc., the Thai monarchy on the Internet, for example, there are provisions for one's arrest under the military-promulgated Computer-Related Crimes Act 2007. This cybercrime law's data retention provisions enable Thai police to hunt you down from your IP address.
Similarly, Printing Acts were brought into force both in 1941 and 2007. The 1941 act initially provided for the detention of offenders but this act was later amended so that the stipulation was that all copies of an offending work and its printing plates (trickier in the 21st century) be seized. After some period of unsuccessful appeal, the publications were to be destroyed. The 2007 Printing Act retained those provisions.
There is no provision in Thai law for the arrest and detention of an author or publisher. So Harry was wrongfully charged. Thai law specifies that no one may impugn a Thai court judgement. But the judges were considering Harry's case under the wrong law.
The paragraphs with with Ajarn Giles has been charged may be found in English here.
Most books, including Verisimilitude and A Coup for the Rich, develop little following until they are banned. Similarly, websites never become popular until they are blocked. Then everybody wants to read them! Before the censorship, who would even know about them or even stumble across them.
The censors’ plans always backfire but they keep banning books and blocking websites over and over again acting, in effect, like an advertising agency for banned content! (Maybe they’re some of the people should not be allowed to vote!) We hope Harry will sell a lot of copies on his release!
Harry was a pawn in their game. Thai government is not going to find Thai activists such pushovers. Many so accused will turn and fight.
And Harry pled guilty. Pleading guilty in any country means that an accused forgoes their innate human right to presumption of innocence.
Harry pled guilty to a crime he did not commit under Thai law.
Harry's arrest and sentence are about the structure of Thai power politics and the financial security of those who think government censorship works just fine for them. But nothing to do with justice.
FACT’s position statement
Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) demands the repeal of lèse majesté law, in the Criminal Code, in the Computer-Related Crimes Act and in the Printing Act. lèse majesté law does not serve Thai society and is only used by self-serving bureaucrats for political ends. FACT demands the unconditional release of all Thailand’s lèse majesté prisoners now.
Harry Nicolaides is Thailand’s latest political prisoner. Free Harry NOW!
Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)
Readers may also wish to look to other sites supporting Harry: