April 2009


The King & I

By Harry Nicolaides
The King & I

Sketches by an inmate of the Bangkok Remand Prison.

Life in a Bangkok Prison

Compound One. For weeks I lay on my back, delirious with influenza. When I was able to stand, I shuffled around like a zombie, pushed here and there by the heaving population of sweaty, half-naked inmates, most of them Thai, Burmese or Cambodian.

One night I was so overcome with anxiety that I started to hyperventilate. I begged the cell captain to open the cell door and allow me to walk the corridor. When I started to cough phlegm, I begged again. I shouted in vain for help, then fell to the ground. Someone pushed an old blanket under my head. It was the Thai boy to whom I had been handcuffed on the trip to prison. Everything else was unfamiliar: no guard or cellmate spoke English, and there was no way to reach anyone on the outside.

Each day we would wake at six o'clock, roll up our blankets and wait to be counted by the prison officers, the commodores. Once the officers were satisfied, we would walk the narrow stairs to the passages of the compound yard. More than 500 prisoners would scramble to the long troughs where, using small plastic tubs dipped in stagnant water, we would wash ourselves.

A line would form soon after in front of a tub of water heated over a portable gas stove. Most prisoners used containers stolen from the hospital as cups. The line always grew longer at the front, because prisoners would constantly push in, often using up the entire water allowance before most even got close to the tub.

By seven o'clock a bell would ring and prisoners would line up outside the mess hall, where plates of steamed rice husks had been sitting on the benches for half an hour. Though hungry I resisted the temptation to try the murky soups, having seen cats vomit after being fed the scraps. In those early days, after swallowing a few clumps of rice I would cup my hands together to fill them with tap water, knowing I was risking contamination. But I only had to eat the prison food a few times before I realised that visitors could send in food parcels. My girlfriend came once a week, making the 11-hour bus trip from the northern township of Chiang Rai, and two Australians, embassy officials, took turns visiting with special provisions.

After breakfast the prisoners would be seated in the concrete yard facing the office of the building chief. At eight o'clock the Thai national anthem was broadcast from a small radio, followed by the invocations of a Buddhist monk. Each assembly began and ended in the same way, with the counting and recounting of prisoners. From there we were sent to work.

The prison workshops were ramshackle structures held together with bundles of barbed wire, crumbling concrete and rotting shingles, each dedicated to a single task - making paper cups, stitching sandals, bundling plastic straws, assembling paper bags - and prisoners worked all day, earning $3 a month. Most foreign nationals, those from Africa and Asia, were sent to the workshops. Whites (a handful mainly from Belgium, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, Canada and the US) were assigned duties such as cleaning cells or washing troughs, which gave me the chance to talk to some English speakers.

On one of my regular visits to the prison hospital I encountered Christopher Neil, the convicted Canadian sex offender known as Swirly Face. We had a long conversation about legal strategies - we shared the same Thai lawyer - and handling the media, which was showing an interest in my case. On my subsequent visits to the hospital we met again, and I understood he was convalescing there. It was not until some weeks later, when another prisoner chided me for talking to Neil, that I realised who he was. After his discharge from the hospital, I ran into him a few more times between compounds.

In Compound One I also met Thaksin Shinawatra's lawyer - the one allegedly involved in bribing the Thai judges hearing the corruption charges against the former prime minister. We met in the small library, where we discussed the law of lèse-majesté - offending the monarchy - and prison life. He brought some legal texts with him and explained that if intent is absent in a crime, Thai law deems the defendant innocent. He recommended I plead guilty and use diplomatic channels to convey an apology to the palace while waiting for a royal pardon. Fighting would be futile, he said, as no Thai lawyer could dispute the charge without impugning the King and the institution of the monarchy. "Make yourself comfortable and wait," he concluded, before resuming his daily exercise routine in glowing white running shorts and sneakers. He was released a few weeks later.

In those first few weeks I began to receive regular visits from friends and consular staff. I also managed to scribble my first, desperate letters to my family in Melbourne. While my Thai lawyer had informed me that that the charge of lèse-majesté against me stemmed from a paragraph in my novel Verisimilitude, the details of the charge were unclear and I did not know how long I could expect to be held. What was clear was that the crime carried a maximum sentence of 15 years.


Compound Five. Three weeks after arriving at the prison I was transferred to another compound. Every 12 days I would be dressed in the standard-issue orange uniform and taken outside the compound to a part of the larger complex. I would wait with about 30 other prisoners to be taken, in groups of ten, into a small room where we would stand before a camera with a feed to a Bangkok court. Each time, a panel of judges on a TV screen would tell us that the police were continuing their investigations, and ask if we had any objection to being held for a further 12 days. I said nothing - other prisoners had told me that objecting made no difference.

During the first weeks, I had believed my release on bail was imminent. The charge, the situation, seemed preposterous: perhaps I would be summoned to a hearing where the matter would be resolved summarily. Yet each of my four bail applications failed and I began to see that nothing would happen until 12 weeks - the maximum remand period under Thai law - had elapsed.

I agonised over my plea, discussing the ramifications with my Thai lawyer, family and fellow prisoners. A guilty plea would allow the case to be heard and resolved quickly after the 84-day investigation period, but I risked accepting responsibility for a crime I did not understand. A not-guilty plea would keep me in prison for a minimum of six months after the first hearing, at 84 days, until a trial began - with no guarantee that the matter could be finalised in one trial.

Over the next month I met prisoners who had chosen to defend themselves and had spent up to three years in detention, making periodic court appearances. I came to see that the Thai legal system is designed to discourage people from contesting charges, and offers the inducement of a commuted sentence - half the declared sentence - if the defendant pleads guilty. Those who do choose to fight have to deal with errant witnesses, missing or incomplete evidence, translation difficulties, court-assigned interpreters and submissive Thai lawyers unwilling to challenge judicial authority. Some prisoners have even had the same judge for both their sentencing and subsequent appeal.

To learn more about lèse-majesté I did not need to go further than the compound library. Among the handful of English-language books, between Treasure Island and Great Expectations, was a copy of William Stevenson's The Revolutionary King - a work officially banned in Thailand. Ironically, it was written with the generous co-operation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It contains many details of the nation's political intrigues, its crises and coups, and a history of abuses of the lèse-majesté law. It also mentions the personal life of the Crown Prince, quoting a public statement he made about his former partner and her lover. Reading this, in a book published with the permission of the King, I was flabbergasted. Here were explicit details of an episode I had believed to be no more than a rumour among the Thai people - which is how I referred to it in my novel.


The cell I had been placed in was filled with heavy smokers. At night I wore a facemask, sleeping only fitfully, waking each morning with eyes and throat burning. I was staggered to learn that all prison cells are non-smoking and that to complain was to suggest the prison officers were not doing their job properly.

I was transferred, and for almost four months shared a cell with an international drug lord described by Australian newspapers as a very big fish and the kingpin of the largest drug cartel in the northern hemisphere. I was characterised as a very small fish caught in the crossfire of Thailand's domestic politics. When we weren't discussing legal strategies he would have me spellbound with his anecdotes about his career as an armed robber, drug trafficker and money launderer. His experiences - from Britain to Portugal, Amsterdam to Sydney - would be grist to the mill for the likes of Quentin Tarantino, whom he said he had met. He spent hours describing his trade secrets, from making and using false passports to techniques for avoiding electronic surveillance by the many law-enforcement agencies pursuing him, including the Australian Federal Police.

Such banter was a welcome diversion from the uncertainty of my own case, and it was not until later that I discovered I was part of his effort to thwart an attempt to extradite him to Australia. When he learnt that the Australian ambassador in Bangkok had visited me at the prison for a clandestine meeting in the director's office, he saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between the judge in his case and the Australian authorities. He instructed his Thai lawyer to subpoena the ambassador to appear in a Thai court and force him to acknowledge that the Australian government was making special visits to a man accused of denouncing the King.

The months passed, the visits continued and, just when I thought time was standing still, one of the other extradition cases in Compound Five - a British national charged by the FBI for trafficking steroids - was released into the custody of US marshals, who came to transport him to Washington. It was cathartic to see him leave after his eight months on remand, for I had come to like him, and his new situation gave me hope.


One morning we woke to learn that an escape attempt had been foiled. Several prisoners had planned to kidnap the compound chief and force guards to open the doors, and to that end had fashioned bolt cutters and knives from a workshop's scrap metal. The building chief made a speech, telling us that it would be a waste of time kidnapping a prison officer to aid an escape - the armed guards in the towers that overlook the compound were under instruction to shoot to kill, no matter what.

Prison discipline was tough and very few inmates took risks. Those who transgressed were stripped and taken to a small room behind the building chief's office, where several guards struck them repeatedly with heavy wooden clubs. The thumping and groans could be heard some distance away. Sometimes these beatings were the result of guards' anger towards prisoners; other times, they were simply sadism. Many of the victims were hospitalised with broken and fractured bones, cuts and bruising. Those uninjured were shackled with heavy leg irons for months.

The relationship between prisoners and commodores was curiously symbiotic. The latter behaved like feudal lords, seldom doing any work and delegating most responsibilities to their trustees, the privileged prisoners. It was a common sight to see prisoners prostrating themselves, or on their hands and knees massaging the legs of reclining officers. The officers showed little interest in serious fights or the constant flouting of prison regulations.

News of a prisoner's death would spread quickly through the prison. Once, I saw the emaciated body of a man carried through the compound and left on the steps of the building chief's office. The commodores eventually stepped outside to leer indifferently at the body, before motioning to Thai prisoners to remove the body. On another occasion a man was stabbed to death in a dispute over a carton of cigarettes. On yet another, the body of a young man who had hanged himself in the hospital dangled from the rafters for hours before it was removed.

The cycle of hope turning to despair became shorter and more intense as the months dragged on. When my food parcels were stolen, leaving me without anything but the prison rice to eat for days, I felt more alone than ever. Turning to my rickety footlocker for old food, I found only an infestation of cockroaches.


When the 84-day investigation period was over I began to experience delusions of reprieve. My first formal court hearing was set for 21 November. How to plead? My Australian lawyer, Mark Dean, SC, had written to me explaining the difficulty of contesting a charge of lèse-majesté in a Thai court, before a Thai judge. He recommended I plead guilty and allow diplomatic negotiations - always my best hope - to begin. However, my Thai lawyer informed me that I should plead not guilty at the first hearing, to ensure the matter went to a higher court where the presiding judges could consider a statement of mitigation.

On the morning of the hearing I woke feeling nauseated. I was given ten minutes to prepare myself to leave the compound. I started to retch and hyperventilate; I could not eat anything and was not permitted to take any food or drink with me. I joined a dozen prisoners in orange uniform and stood barefoot before the building chief's office. I had concealed some biscuits and a small carton of milk, but these were found and confiscated. We were searched and then marched to an area known as Central Control, where they fingerprinted us and restrained us for transportation.

Nothing can prepare a person for the experience of being shackled. In front of us was a giant iron pincer bolted onto a slab of wood the size of a sleeper. Each of us selected a pair of heavy, rusted leg chains. Two brackets of curled iron were fitted around each ankle; each leg was then placed on an anvil beneath the giant clamp, before the long handle was pressed down like a guillotine to squeeze the iron brackets around the ankles. While skin scrapes were common, my real fear was that with a slip of the wrist my ankles could be crushed like walnuts in a nutcracker. The chains remained on all day - from 6.30, when we were crowded onto a prison bus, until our return from court, at eight in the evening.

Inside the courtroom I stood alone, facing a glass panel that separated me from the judge and several legal clerks. The clerk presented me with a charge sheet written in Thai and asked me how I intended to plead. She explained that if I pleaded guilty immediately I would have my sentence halved, but if I pleaded not guilty the hearing would be adjourned to 19 January, with no reduction in sentence if I was found guilty.

I had no access to a phone or an English-speaking official, but managed to persuade the clerk that I was expecting my Thai lawyer, embassy staff and friends, and would enter a plea after seeing them. I was sent to the courtroom holding cell with some 30 other prisoners. By mid morning my friends and lawyer arrived and persuaded me to plead not guilty, despite my misgivings about serving a further two months in limbo.

Following the hearing I was sick for days with a fever. Requests for hospital visits had to be made at least 24 hours prior to admission and on weekends there were no admissions at all. When finally I got to the hospital I asked for antibiotics, to be paid for by a visitor. It took two weeks before I was called back to be given the drugs. By then the worst of the illness was over.


In the weeks leading up to the King's 5 December birthday celebrations speculation circulated about a general amnesty. Many prisoners wrote letters home with news of their imminent release; others packed belongings into bags; some sold prized possessions such as handmade chess sets. Through the bars of our cells we could see the fireworks over Bangkok. Thai men love their King as the father of their nation; it is a genuine affection for a leader I have not found anywhere else in the world. We waited eagerly, Thai and foreigner alike, but - perhaps because of the political upheaval - no amnesty was announced.

There was very little to indicate that Christmas was approaching in Bangkok Remand Prison. The night itself passed like any other, unobserved but for a few foreign nationals shedding a tear. I received cards and parcels from friends and family, but this was still the most difficult period of my incarceration.

In my many comings and goings from my compound to the visitor's area at the front of the prison I had encountered Victor Bout, according to the CIA - though vigorously disputed by Victor - the world's leading arms dealer. Victor often passed on books he had finished with, including Henri Charriere's Papillon. He also counselled me when he saw I was in despair. He would observe wryly that in Russia he would be given more space in which to die than Thailand gave him to live. Victor, described in the media as the Merchant of Death, became a regular visitor to our compound, where he discussed how he was entrapped in Bangkok, arrested without a warrant, and held without trial or hearing. Thailand is a legal mousetrap, he would say.

There are eight compounds in Bangkok Remand Prison, with 500 prisoners in each. Next to us was a larger prison housing those sentenced to seven or more years. The remand prison is, in principle, for un-sentenced prisoners, extradition and appeal cases, and those serving fewer than seven years. It is the Casablanca of prisons, albeit without the heroes or romantic intrigue of the film - unless you count the lady-boys. There is a thriving black market; there are corrupt officials, government loyalists and dissidents; and twice a day an old navy propeller airplane flies overhead.

The population is made up mostly of Thais, but there are small numbers of people from all over the world. Stories of false travel documents, multiple identities and fake credit cards are ubiquitous. I encountered political refugees from Sri Lanka with official UN travel papers requesting the host nation extend asylum to the bearer of the documents. There was a widespread tale of a man from Lichtenstein who was sent to the remand prison while his papers were authenticated. Thai officials had never heard of the tiny European principality.

Another man carried a genuine African passport but, because a large number of African nationals had been found with false travel documents, was nevertheless arrested and detained. He was travelling with his wife, whose travel papers bore identical stamps and dates to her husband's, and were accepted. The two were separated for a month before the Thai authorities realised their mistake. The man was released without apology or compensation.

Every month, 50 to 100 Burmese workers would arrive at the prison. These workers had been lured to Thailand by unscrupulous businessmen to work in the construction industry. When they had completed a month's work the employer, rather than pay up, would dob them in as illegal immigrants; they would be arrested and marched into the prison, often still wearing tops bearing the name of the Thai construction company.


Compound Six. Rumours had been circulating for a few weeks: the administration wanted to separate sentenced from non-sentenced prisoners - something it should always have done, in accordance with the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. When 12- and 13-year-old Cambodian and Burmese refugees are forced to share a cell with sex offenders, it is clear there is little regard for international human rights.

Compound Six differed from Five in one important way: the guards were more enterprising, accepting weekly payments from wealthy foreign nationals awaiting extradition to the US, India and Australia. One British national controlled the library, refurbishing it with a private bookshelf lined with bestsellers, several large cupboards, exercise equipment and a small galley. In an echo of The Italian Job, he and his mates were called the Self-Preservation Society.

In the mornings I would often see cream spread, breakfast sausages, honey, butter, muesli, croissants and cheese laid out for certain prisoners on one of the tables. Payments were being made to the commodore's bank account by third parties outside the prison. The commodore's wife would do the shopping at a local supermarket and the commodore would smuggle in the contraband after hours. Meanwhile, other prisoners lined up endlessly to get hot water from a rusted pot, and could not get basic medicines.

Begging for food scraps was the only way some prisoners survived, and I became accustomed to seeing open hands and mouths about the compound. I liked to share my small half chickens but they were nevertheless the object of lustful stares, and often stolen. The office staff would call, "Come to the office and meet your chicken!" I could feel the covetous eyes of prisoners when I collected it. I ate chicken every day for six months.

Rivalries over food and possessions often led to violent fights. One squabble over an old T-shirt resulted in the exchange of a few punches between two similarly sized prisoners. Just when it looked like they would settle down, a trustee - privileged prisoner - intervened, triggering a brawl. The two Thai prisoners were taken to the library, where they were kicked and punched before being dragged to one of the workshops and beaten with heavy wooden truncheons. These reprisals were brutal, cowardly and entirely unnecessary.

In my cell was an artist doing time for murder. He was very skilful, rendering exquisitely detailed ink sketches of prison life that he would give me in exchange for cigarettes. His work was stunning, but I grew increasingly concerned about the translator I was using to communicate with the artist. The go-between was a well-known police informant and one of Thailand's largest false-passport merchants. From him the authorities had seized up to 26,000 fake passports, visas and other travel papers for use around the world - documents which, he claimed, Thai immigration officials are now selling on Bangkok's black market.

He kept insisting that I give him the drawings to smuggle out through a guard, but I had misgivings about being set up. I knew that if I was caught it might jeopardise my case, so I concealed them as best I could, hiding them in new envelopes.


By the time my trial came around, on 19 January, I had learnt to be detached and I was ready to face my fate. Once again, I was shackled and transported to court. This time a large media contingent was present, despite my expectation that it would be a closed hearing. The Thai authorities made no attempt to conceal the shackles. It seemed those who had set in train the case against me were not only aware of the likely condemnation of the use of chains, but anticipated international antipathy towards Thailand and its monarchy. The case was heard in the morning and the judgement delivered in the afternoon: six years reduced to three for pleading guilty. Now I had a sentence, which was preferable to the abyss of uncertainty.

I returned to the compound a celebrity. The inmates had viewed my case on television and were happy I had received only a small sentence compared with the 50-year terms some had been given for credit-card fraud. There were prisoners who suggested I would be out by the end of the year, as Australia has a prisoner-exchange treaty with Thailand whereby its citizens must serve only part of their sentences in a Thai prison before being repatriated to an Australian one. There was also some speculation that I would be released on the occasion of the Queen's or King's birthday, when it was expected a general amnesty would be declared. I learnt later that some prisoners resented my seeming good fortune.

Following the trial my family lodged an application for a royal pardon with a supporting letter from the Australian government. My Thai lawyer estimated this process would take three years to complete: the application had to pass through the prison, the Department of Corrections, the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the Prime Minister, the Privy Council, the Principal Private Secretary of the King, before eventually reaching the King. There were, however, secret negotiations and representations to see the pardon expedited, though no one knew when these might take place. Revered Thai monks with connections to the palace made clandestine visits to ensure I was keeping well. All the intrigue left me sceptical and suspicious; I didn't know what to believe or whom to trust. I had unwavering faith in the King, but would my pardon application reach him?


Compound Three. A few weeks after my trial, I was transferred to Compound Three, ostensibly because I had been sentenced. However, not long after my arrival there I was shown a document revealing that the chief of Compound Six believed my life was in danger and had requested my transfer. The document was accompanied by a letter written in English and signed by the three foreign nationals in Compound Six known as the Self-Preservation Society. It was a complaint about what they perceived to be my special treatment by the prison director in co-operation with the Australian embassy. They threatened to exploit a relationship with a high-ranking military official in the palace to expose this, in so doing jeopardising my pardon application.

The leaking of the documents resulted in a bizarre investigation, during which I was told by the building chief that if I did not divulge the name of the staffer who had shown me the letters all staff would be sent away to be tortured, and warned that the pardon application process was to begin in the prison and must have the prison's recommendation before going on to higher authorities. The investigation was quickly dropped.

I settled into Compound Three, falling in with three Iranians. We breakfasted together each morning under the shade of a large Bo tree. During the day I was kept busy in the library, responding to correspondence that was arriving from all over the world: New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, Cyprus, Greece, the UK, the US and, of course, Australia. I received poetry, prayers and proposals; I was the subject of a sermon, a candlelight vigil and a tribal ritual. People I had never met wrote to say they had sent appeals to the Queen of England, the King of Thailand and even Bono, while Jeff Fenech came to the prison especially to see me. I remain grateful for the support of friends and strangers alike.

The media visited regularly but I was under strict instruction to remain tight-lipped about the pardon process, as the Thai government was monitoring news reports in Australia. When journalists visited and asked if I had any news I said that the Siamese cat living in the cardboard box in the corner of the library had given birth to only one kitten. Unsurprisingly, the reporters were not amused. I had heard that a 60 Minutes team wanted to smuggle a video camera into the prison where, with my co-operation, footage could be shot and then broadcast to the world. The plan was thought too risky and quickly abandoned.

 I could have told the international press about the mystery of the small white plastic balls in the compound yard. At first I thought they were pieces of a board game, and it was not until I saw men around the water trough with large, misshapen penises that I was told the gruesome truth. Many heterosexual inmates were mutilating their penises by making an incision with a shaving razor along the base. This allowed small plastic balls and brushes, ground down from toothbrush handles, to be inserted under the skin. The wounds were sealed, with varying degrees of success, with tobacco; most became infected and the prisoners required hospitalisation. For the few that were successful, the new, rugged contour was believed to enhance the sexual stimulation of their partners. The Thai prisoner who specialised in the operations was known as The Doctor.

Compound Three had the largest population of lady-boys in the prison complex. Most - as many as 70 - were in one cell. They spent their days preening, applying make-up and staring into brightly coloured budgie mirrors. Their androgynous features elicited both lust and disgust from fellow prisoners; many lady-boys cruised indiscriminately for sexual encounters. I had noticed the attentions of one, who seemed to turn up wherever I was. While I was in my cell one evening, an envelope was passed to me. It was a colourful illustrated letter from the lady-boy Run, describing intimate desires.


The next morning I stepped on a rickety manhole cover and plunged into a massive underground sewage tank, landing waist-deep in excrement. It was an inauspicious start to the day. I cleaned up as best I could and, a short time later, was summoned to the building chief's office. There I had my palm read and was told I would soon receive good news.

At four o'clock we were marched to the cells, counted as usual and locked up. I rolled out my floor mat and started to leaf through a book on Harry Houdini that the Australian embassy had sent me. Soon after, a group of officers returned with the building chief, who asked me to show my palm again. He nodded with some satisfaction and ordered that the door be opened.

I was taken downstairs into the compound, where I was informed I was to be freed at the request of the King of Thailand. The commodores who helped me empty my footlocker whispered that I was very fortunate, as I had been singled out from a prison population of thousands to be freed on that day. While they described the items I was prohibited to take out of the prison - phone numbers, notes or drawings depicting the prison, maps - I was piling into a plastic bag the envelopes containing the illustrations I had accumulated in Compound Six. I gambled that my discharge would be swift, as there was a certain aura conjured up by the royal intervention. I was right: the commodores were not inclined to search me.

We walked out of the compound, towards the front of the prison. In a conference room full of high-ranking officers, the prison director and several building chiefs, we sat down facing a large portrait of the King. A leather folder with blue-velvet lining was opened to reveal a crisp sheet of paper with a gold seal. The letter was read in Thai while a translator explained that the King had pardoned me for the crime of lèse-majesté. I was asked to kneel before the portrait and thank the King for his benevolence, after which I was congratulated. And I am deeply grateful to the King for sparing me years of suffering. I played enough chess in prison to know that kings and pawns seldom cross paths without consequence.

I was taken to an area just inside the main door of the prison, fingerprinted and farewelled by the officers. The officer taking my prints removed his own handkerchief and offered it to me to wipe the ink from my hands.

A steel door opened to reveal a dark loading bay, beyond which I could glimpse daylight and the barred gate. Before me stood six new prisoners preparing to be sent into the prison. I wished them luck. The gate opened and I was in the arms of my girlfriend. Over her shoulder I saw two vehicles, one belonging to the Australian embassy and the other to the policeman who had arrested me. After assurances from the consular staff I sat in the police officer's car and, with the embassy car following, we went to his office to prepare documentation. From there we went to Immigration to have my travel documents endorsed, and then to the airport.

Before I boarded the flight to Melbourne, my brother called to say he would meet me at Tullamarine. My father would come too, but not my mother: she had suffered a severe stroke. My jubilation at being released vanished and, ever since, my life has been in turmoil. But I am in Australia now, with my family.

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