Australian Writer Jailed for Insult to Thailand Royals Fears Tuberculosis

by Gopalan on Sep 7 2008 3:46 PM

Bangkok might be a coveted fleshpot, but the country remains deeply conservative when it comes to the sacred cow stature of the royal household - as Harry Nicolaides, 41, of Melbourne has realized to his cost.

Only last Sunday he was arrested when he was about to fly back home and is currently being held at the Bangkok Remand Centre. Already he is despairing of catching tuberculosis from fellow prisoners.

Thai Police Lieutenant-Colonel Boonlert Kalayanamit said: "An arrest warrant was issued in March for a book he wrote in 2005 deemed defamatory to the Crown Prince."

Nicolaides is to be interviewed further in coming days, he said.

He faces charges of lese majeste, or offences against the crown, for comments published in his 2005 novel, Verisimilitude.

The novel was described in publicity dated June 2005 on the website as a "trenchant commentary on the political and social life of contemporary Thailand".

It appears Nicolaides was unaware there was an arrest warrant for him when he tried to fly from Bangkok to Australia. The delay between the book being published and the issuing of the warrant in March this year is believed to be because the original complaint made against the writer had to go through a laborious vetting process in Thailand.

According to Australian National University Southeast Asia expert Andrew Walker, who runs an academic blog on politics in the region, the offending passage in Nicolaides' book describes the private life and sexual peccadillos of the Crown Prince.

It reads: "From King Rama to the Crown Prince, the nobility was renowned for their romantic entanglements and intrigues. The Crown Prince had many wives major and minor with a coterie of concubines for entertainment.

"One of his recent wives was exiled with her entire family, including a son they conceived together, for an undisclosed indiscretion. He subsequently remarried with another woman and fathered another child. It was rumoured that if the prince fell in love with one of his minor wives and she betrayed him, she and her family would disappear with their name, familial lineage and all vestiges of their existence expunged forever."

Walker said he was surprised Thai authorities had targeted a little known foreigner.

"If Nicolaides is tried, he will no doubt get a heavy sentence; then a month later he will be pardoned by the King," Walker said.

Thailand has extremely strict laws about insulting its king and his family. If convicted, Nicolaides faces up to 15 years in jail.

"He loves the place, he likes to work there," his father, Takis Nicolaides, told The Age newspaper in Melbourne. "He's not a troublemaker. I hope they will consider that he hasn't done it intentionally."

Nicolaides seemed confident to an Australian reporter who visited him at the prison Thursday. The writer gave thumbs-up signal.

But in an interview a couple of days later, Nicolaides said conditions in which he was being held were appalling and feared he could contract tuberculosis from others. He desperately pleaded to be allowed to apologise.

"I want to immediately apologise to the royal family for my reckless choice of words," Nicolaides told The Weekend Australian at Bangkok Remand Prison.

"I want to write a comprehensive letter apologising with the greatest humility to the Thai people for the way the Thai press presented what was written in the book."

His imprisonment could extend for 84 days before he can be released on remand, it looks like. Bail of 500,000 baht ($17,820) raised by his girlfriend and her friends has been refused.

He fears he has been deliberately isolated as the only farang (foreigner) in a prison cell crammed with 60 or more Thais.

Nicolaides said he entered the prison on Monday a healthy man, although almost suicidal over the threat of 15 years' jail, but he now had swollen lymph glands, chest pains, constipation and stomach cramps and could not eat.

Almost all the other inmates in his cell were coughing and wheezing, he said. "There is a rumour going around that some of them will be transferred to the tuberculosis ward (of the prison hospital), which is terribly overcrowded," he said.

He feared his condition was deteriorating so quickly he would be vulnerable to tuberculosis infection.

"I wrote that from King Rama, and I didn't say which King Rama, to the Crown Prince, Thai men are well-known for having multiple wives and concubines for entertainment," he said.

Nicolaides said the passage was in the form of "an omniscient narrator passing a rumour to the protagonist ... it's a work of imaginative fiction".

He acknowledges the passage, from a period of his life when some of his writing was "flaky," offended Thai culture and tradition. "But I'm not that person now," he said.

He had returned to Thailand seven months ago, mainly to spend time with his girlfriend, who teaches at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, where he previously taught.