An Australian novelist was jailed for three years by a Bangkok court on Monday, the latest in a growing number of Thais and foreigners prosecuted for the crime of “insulting” the family of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Harry Nicolaides, a 41-year old teacher and part time writer was convicted on the basis of a 103 word paragraph about the alleged sexual peccadilloes of the royal family, particularly Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.
He could have received a sentence of as much as twelve years and his decision to reverse an earlier plea of not guilty persuaded the judge to hand down the minimum sentence possible for the crime of lèse-majesté, or insulting the monarchy.
“He has written a book that slandered the king, the crown prince of Thailand and the monarchy,” the judge told the court.
“The court has sentenced him to six years, but due to his confession, which is beneficial to the case, the sentence is reduced to three years.”
Mr Nicolaides appeared emaciated and emotional as he was led into court in orange prison overalls and leg irons.
“This is an Alice in Wonderland experience,” he told reporters before the beginning of proceedings. “I really believe that I am going to wake up and all of you will be gone… I was aware that an obscure law existed, but I was not aware it would apply to me.”
His offence was to publish a novel entitled Verisimilitude in 2005, containing references to rumours about the “romantic entanglements and intrigues” of the Crown Prince. A few dozen copies were printed and only a few of these sold. But in August last year, he was arrested as he attempted to fly to Australia after several months teaching English at a university in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
He joins a list of people, including several foreigners, to have been prosecuted for lèse-majesté. The present law was enacted in the 1950s but has never been invoked by members of the royal family themselves.
Instead, individual Thai citizens are empowered to bring charges against others. In the past few years, it has frequently been used by rival politicians who have attacked one another with mutual accusations of disloyalty to the monarchy.
The election of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the British-educated leader of the once liberal Democrat Party, as prime minister appears to have increased the likelihood of future prosecutions. Earlier this month, the justice minister, Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, promised to strengthen laws protecting the monarchy.
His government has blocked some 2,300 websites said to be critical of the monarchy and last week a man named Suwicha Thakhor was arrested for allegedly posting insulting comments on a website.
Others under investigation include Ji Ungpakorn, a professor of politics at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University and the BBC’s respected south-east Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head. Among the complaints made against him is the fact that a photograph of King Bhumibol appeared below that of a Thai politician on a page on the BBC website – rather than in the position of honour, at the top of the page.
In 2007, Boonsong Chaisingkananont, a professor of philosophy at a Bangkok university, found himself under investigation for lèse-majesté after setting the following examination question for his first year students: “Is the monarchy necessary for Thai society? Discuss.”
A few months earlier a Swiss man received a ten year prison sentence for drunkenly defacing posters of the king – in an encouraging precedent for Mr Nicolaides, he was pardoned after a few months and promptly deported.
Ironically, the only person with the nerve to question the lèse-majesté laws has been His Majesty himself. “When you say the King can do no wrong, it is wrong – we should not say that,” he said.
“Actually I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the king cannot be criticized, it means that the king is not human.”
He added: “Foreign countries see Thailand as a country where people cannot criticize the king, otherwise they will go to jail. This puts the king in trouble… and I have to pardon them… Actually, the king has never told anyone to send them to jail.”