Behind bars in Bangkok | Bleader

Monday, January 19, 2009

Behind bars in Bangkok

Posted By on 01.19.09 at 10:11 PM

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Harry Nicolaides would be much better off if he were simply a character in a John Le Carre novel, one of the author's little men who get caught up in intrigues they can't begin to understand and pay the price. Then we could finish the book, toss it aside, and forget about Harry Nicolaides.

Unfortunately -- for him, certainly, and for anyone else vexed by rank injustice and senseless confinement -- Harry Nicolaides is both real and in prison. In Thailand -- where he was just sentenced to spend three years behind bars after pleading guilty to the crime of defaming the Thai monarchy. I once visited a young woman serving a much longer stretch in a Bangkok prison than Nicolaides is now facing. It wasn't pretty -- but then she'd been convicted of trying to smuggle drugs out of the country. Nicolaides's crime was to write a book.

He's been behind bars since August 31. He was arrested at the Bangkok airport as he was about to fly home to Australia. His mother back home has told her local paper that Nicolaides, 41, is appalled and terrified by conditions in his prison: he shares a toilet with 95 other brawling inmates, and after his calls for medical attention were ignored an ailing cell mate died before his eyes. His friend Scott Newton said visits were conducted in a "tiny, stinking hot room" where prisoners shout through a glass grille to be heard over "the fighting and wailing." Newton said Nicolaides has broken down several times during visits. "He's just desperate now. He's afraid of just becoming another number, of being forgotten and being left there to rot."

This article from The Age, an Australian paper, tells Nicolaides's back story. A former hotel concierge, known to his coworkers as "Pinstripe Harry" for his dapper attire, Nicolaides went off to see the world in 2003. He wound up in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, teaching English, writing online columns about ex-pat life, and working on a novel. He called the novel, written in English, Verisimilitude, and he carefully sent the manuscript off to the Bureau of the Royal Household, the Ministry of Culture, and other Thai government offices for vetting. He received no responses.

So in 2005 Nicolaides self-published 50 copies of Verisimilitude. He sold seven of them. A year later he returned to Australia to work, and he spent most of 2007 teaching in Saudi Arabia. But by late that year he was back in Thailand teaching. An arrest warrant was issued against him last March 17 but Nicolaides was not aware of it. He made five trips out of and back to Thailand after that date, and he was about to leave on his sixth when the police pulled him aside at passport control. 

That's his back story. This is Thailand's. In 2006 the Thai military declared martial law and took control of the government. Prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra went into exile. But later that year the army relaxed its grip and permitted elections. The People Power Party, which supported Shinawatra, took over the government and Shinawatra returned to Thailand. Late last August, amid growing political unrest, Shinawatra took off again, to avoid trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power. As pro- and anti-government forces fought in the streets of Bangkok, prime minister Samak Sundaravej -- who also happened to be defense minister -- declared a state of emergency.

In the course of this turmoil, Harry Nicolaides was picked up at the airport.

According to news reports, the offensive passage in Verisimilitude amounts to three sentences that concern the romantic life of an unnamed crown prince. As reporters covering Nicolaides were warned that it would be just as illegal for them to repeat the passage as it was for him to publish it, news reports I've seen don't say what the disrespectful sentences are. They do say that the law Nicolaides broke has never been invoked by the royal family itself, always by government officials who say the offense puts national security at risk.

Why? Because Thai democracy is constantly falling apart and being patched back together, and the near universal reverence in which the Thai people hold their King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81, has been deemed indispensable to keeping the country in one piece. Here's blogger Sean Nelson, an American who's taught in Thailand, calling Nicolaides a "fool," adding, "To openly publish such a book and remain in Thailand is asking for trouble."

Nelson continues, "If you do some research on the life of King Bhumibol, you'll see a great man. He's used his ancient powers to up-lift (in a close and personal way) impoverished rural Thais. He took a strong interest in up-lifting the far North of his nation out of suffering and opium-growing. Coffee is now the thriving crop and the land is ideal for it. Not only has he crossed boundaries by allowing commoners to openly look at him, but also to lay hands on him (laugh if you will, but it's a profound symbol.) Considering the culture to which he belongs, he has been a strong force for liberty and equality in Thailand. And, in my possibly wrong opinion, expatriates who under-mine the royal family or the crown prince shit where they sleep."

Which, from the descriptions of prison life in Bangkok, might be what Harry Nicolaides will be doing for the next three years. Unless the king pardons him -- and given the king's forgiving history with a law he has said he personally regrets, this is an outcome that's not only possible but even, we must hope, likely.

There are bloggers who maintain that Verisimilitude is so obscure they question whether the book actually exists. They seem to be looking for reasons not to sympathize with Nicolaides. But here's a post from the Akha Heritage Foundation (the Akha are a tribe who live in the hills of northern Thailand) that not only claims the book exists but reviews it, calling it a "trenchant commentary on the political and social life of contemporary Thailand....Savage, ruthless and unforgiving, VERISIMILITUDE pulls away the mask of benign congeniality that Thailand has disguised itself with for decades and reveals a people who are obsessed with Western affluence and materialism and who trade their cultural integrity and personal honour for the baubles of Babylonian America."

Then the post prints what it claims is an excerpt from Nicolaides's book, an excerpt describing the romantic exploits of a crown prince. Read it if you dare, but then don't plan a vacation to Thailand.

The Akha Heritage Foundation post says, "Write the Thai Government, the Australian Government, and demand his release." That would be a welcome development, and I'm not sure their post brings it any closer.


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