An Australian teacher was yesterday sentenced to three years imprisonment in Thailand for insulting the Thai monarchy. Harry Nicolaides originally received six years but the sentence was halved after he pleaded guilty and apologised to the king. The case was filed under the country’s notorious lèse-majesté laws which can allow for a 15 year jail term for insulting the Thai king, queen or (as in Nicolaides’s case) the prince regent.
The 41 year Nicolaides is a Melbourne man who has worked in Thailand as an English teacher and freelance writer. He was arrested at Bangkok airport as he tried to leave the country on 31 August last year. Nicolaides was charged under article 112 of the Thai criminal code which reads "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years." Nicolaides was alleged to have made the insult in a paragraph in his 2005 novel Verisimilitude (see full text in linked pdf). Nicolaides intended the novel as a commentary on contemporary Thai political and social life however the book was not exactly a page-turner. Only 50 copies were published of which only seven were sold.
The offending passage in the novel was just a few sentences which described the turbulent marital relations of its fictional prince. It is a thinly-veiled account of the sexual affairs of Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Vajiralongkorn is the 56 year old first son of the long-reigning monarch Bhumibol Adulyadel. The heir to the throne is the Edward VII of Thai royalty, an occasional philanderer who is waiting forever for his aged and revered parent to die in order to ascend to the throne. Vajiralongkorn lacks the stature and popularity of his frail father who has reigned for 62 years old. Time magazine compared him to a more recent British example calling him “Charles’ Siamese Twin” picking on the similarities of “an elderly monarch, an heir with a troubled marriage, [and] rumours of adultery”.
At Nicolaides’ trial, the presiding judge said the passage in Verisimilitude "suggested that there was abuse of royal power," and caused "dishonour" to the king and the heir apparent. After the trial the prosecutor warned journalists not to repeat or publish the offending material. The warning was treated seriously by CNN which chose not to repeat the allegations “because it could result in CNN staff being prosecuted in Thailand.” As a result most people in Thailand remain unaware of the details of this and other similar cases.
In his 2005 birthday speech King Bhumibol cautioned against the over-exuberant use of this criminal provision. However it remains a convenient tool for many factions within the Thai elite and is unlikely to be repealed anytime soon. The laws are a serious problem for Thai media and effectively muzzle public discussion of a range of issues relating to the country’s ongoing political crisis. As the Thai news and analysis site New Mandela points out, the lèse majesté laws “helps guarantee an unrelenting public diet of positive royal news.”
The obscure laws have been invoked several times in recent years as the role of the king comes under sharp focus in Thailand’s fraught post-coup environment. Last year Chotisak Onsoong was charged for refusing to stand during the national anthem in a cinema. More seriously, a government minister Jakrapob Penkair was charged with after a speech critical of the country’s patronage system which “bordered” on lèse majesté.
And as recently as last week Giles Ungpakorn, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, was arrested for “unspecified charges” believed to be related to his critical public statements about the monarchy and his book A Coup for the Rich. The pugnacious Ungpakorn has refused to be silenced and promised to fight the charges in order, as he says, “to defend academic freedom, the freedom of expression and democracy in Thailand.” Ungpakorn, Nicolaides and the others deserve the support of everyone who cares about the precarious health of democracy in the 21st century.