Less Majesty, More Justice


I’ve been putting this article off. Partly because it’s about a man in jail whose chances of release I don’t want to sour, and partly because I quite like Thailand and would like to visit it again.

I know Harry Nicolaides. And I have a copy of his book, Verisimilitude.

Harry probably doesn’t remember me. I met him in early 2006 in Chiang Rai while shooting an unfinished documentary on the hill tribes who had suffered the brunt of then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s crackdown on drug dealers. As is well documented, the majority of the "dealers" who were killed were hill tribe members who had little or no connection to the drug trade.

Harry was working as an English teacher at the time. I found him through another Aussie expat who was doing some media work in Northern Thailand. I was looking for someone who could speak English and knew his way around the hilly regions. That was Harry — a man who loved Thailand, who was clearly trying to build a new life for himself and to understand his new home.

It’s worth noting at this point that Harry is not a bad writer. Verisimilitude is his second book, the first being a humorous collection of lightly fictionalised anecdotes from his earlier life as a concierge in Melbourne called Concierge Confidential.

Verisimilitude is a book in need of an editor, certainly. But it’s a book written for the Thai expat readership — a thriving market for pulpy novels that are mostly about dislocated Westerners dealing with life in Thailand. There’s a lot of crime, betrayal, prostitution, mysterious women and violent retribution in there. It’s also a fairly direct-to-consumer market, without a great deal of editorial oversight. Trawl through the print-on-demand section of Amazon and you’ll get the idea.

Verisimilitude is mostly about a Westerner dealing with the emotional fallout of a relationship with a Thai woman who has been lying about her fidelity. I never asked Harry whether it was autobiographical, I read the book on the bus back to Bangkok after I’d left. The protagonist is grappling with different cultural expectations, his own naivety, the feverish aura of Thai sexuality and the reality of his relationship. He is particularly struggling with the idea of "keeping face".

The section in question refers to the (unnamed) crown prince and his romantic predilections. I’m not going to repeat it, but Wikileaks has the paragraph here . Harry had mentioned this to me, as he was a little concerned that perhaps it might come back to haunt him, but he felt it important as it was something that was widely believed by the Thai people he knew, but not acknowledged publicly. I wouldn’t want to put words in his mouth, but I would suspect it was a commentary on the private-life-versus-public-face concept that he was having trouble with.

At that point (late 2005) the charge of lèse-majesté — insulting the dignity of a sovereign — was being thrown around by Thaksin and various media figures. Thaksin in particular was using it against opponents of his media control including Sondhi Limthongkul, who had taken to publicly denouncing Thaksin and leading protests against him. The charges were dropped after King Bhumibol Adulyadej indicated in his 2005 birthday speech that he would not take lèse-majesté charges seriously; whether this was intended as a gesture of openness towards political debate or simply a coded message to Thaksin to back down is hard to tell.

In what sounds like a classic defence of freedom of speech, King Bhumibol Adulyadej said: "Actually, I must also be criticised. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know … But the King can do wrong."

It seems at this point Harry is likely to receive a royal pardon, as is not uncommon with those who have been convicted of lèse-majesté. Given this tradition, the absence of any charges ever made by the Royal family and the King’s remarks about not taking it seriously, one might hope the law would be scrapped. Sadly, it’s too powerful a tool for entrenched political players keen to silence dissent .

I met Harry when there was a genuine feeling that a more relaxed attitude to public speech was becoming the norm. I hope those days return.

Reporters Without Borders currently have a campaign in support of Harry Nicolaides.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.