On 20 January 2009, pictures of an Australian writer shackled and behind bars in Thailand appeared in newspapers around the world. The previous day, Harry Nicolaides, a 41-year-old Greek-Australian, had pleaded guilty to defaming Thailand’s royal family in his self-published 2005 novel Verisimilitude. Charged with dishonouring the crown prince, the writer was sentenced to three years in prison.
Lèse majesté has been part of the country’s Criminal Code since its promulgation in 1957, and it is treated as a matter of national security. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy; and 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned for sixty-two years, so is revered by many Thais who know nothing different. But the harsh lèse majesté laws, which allow for prison terms of up to fifteen years for ‘whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the Regent’, are coming under increased scrutiny by the international community. The king could abolish this archaic law, opening up debate about his country’s political future, but so far he has declined to do so.
Nicolaides had worked in Thailand as a lecturer in hospitality and tourism at a university in the northern town of Chiang Rai, and had written occasional articles. According to him, his book was published three years ago; only fifty copies were printed, and just seven sold after it was withdrawn from circulation in Thailand on the orders of the Ministry of Justice. Nicolaides thought the case was closed until he was arrested at Bangkok airport as he was about to board his plane to Australia on 31 August 2008, and was charged under Article 112 of the Criminal Code. According to PEN, in the 300-page book, only three lines refer to the crown prince, and he is not even mentioned by name. Nicolaides issued a public apology from his prison cell.
The day after Nicolaides’ sentencing, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an outspoken political scientist at one of Thailand’s leading universities, was charged with insulting the king in his 2007 book, A Coup for the Rich, which criticised the military for launching a coup a year earlier that ousted the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ji denied the charges and has accused the government of using Thailand’s lèse majesté laws to silence criticism: ‘This is a way of shutting up people and silencing opponents, especially opponents to the military dictatorship in 2006.’
Many believe that the Thai authorities have intensified their crackdown on individuals defaming the monarchy because of the political turmoil in the country – there have been three coalition governments in four months – and in particular the conflict that continues to simmer between the royalist group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as ‘the yellow shirts’, and supporters of the former prime minister, who have responded to PAD’s unruly protests by wearing red shirts. Following the 2006 coup, Thaksin was convicted in absentia of corruption, but his allies have continued in government since his exile. PAD, meanwhile, claims to be protecting the royal family by making a stand against the alleged republicanism of Thaksin and his followers. This polarisation erupted onto the international stage last year when PAD supporters took to the streets and occupied two of Thailand’s airports. The siege was only lifted after a court dissolved three of the main parties in the pro-Thaksin coalition government.
Following the unrest, Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party (DP), was elected prime minister, with support from the royalist army, and he heads a new coalition government; PAD is mollified, for the time being, but this has not been good news for freedom of expression. The DP reportedly wants to introduce laws that will raise prison sentences for lèse majesté to a maximum of twenty-five years.
At the time of writing, Nicolaides remains in prison. Sydney and Melbourne PEN have joined forces to lobby Stephen Smith, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, urging him to press the case for a royal pardon. The efforts of PEN members have been influential in giving the case the urgent attention it deserves and they are confident that this sort of pressure will help free him. Readers may like to send appeals expressing serious concern about the sentencing of writer Harry Nicolaides in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party; and calling on the Australian government to do all in its power to ensure that Nicolaides is granted a royal pardon.
Please visit www.internationalpen.org.uk for updates before sending your appeal to:
The Hon Stephen Smith
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Fax: 00 61 2 6273 4112
Giles Ji Ungpakorn has launched a petition protesting against the use of lese majesté in Thailand. To sign the petition, please visit: http://facthai.wordpress.com/2009/01/18/support-ji-stop-lese-majeste-petition-please-sign