A Thai Stands Up for Sitting Down

Before every movie screening in Thailand, patrons are requested to stand up and pay respect to Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A short film, played with the Royal Anthem as a sound track, shows fawning images of humble subjects or video clips of the king working tirelessly to help his people. Many Thais bow toward the screen after it ends to show respect.

Thailand imported the ritual from Britain, which in the 1910s regularly showed silent clips of King George V to the tune of “God Save the King" being played in theaters to whip up nationalist sentiment during World War I. The Brits scrapped the practice in the 1960s, but Thais started playing the Royal Anthem before movies in the 1970s and continue to do so today.

The social pressure to stand up is immense. So Chotisak Onsoong, a 27-year-old political activist who opposes the 2006 royalist coup, knew he would get dirty looks and comments when he remained seated in protest, as he normally does when attending a film.

But even he was surprised last September when fellow moviegoer Nawamin Witthayakul, 40, aggressively told him to stand up for the song at a movie theater in Bangkok's ritzy Central World shopping mall. According to Chotisak, Navawamin started yelling in the theater, saying, "If you are really Thai, why don't you stand up?" He then threw his popcorn and a bottle of water at Chotisak.

Aggrieved, Chotisak found a policeman and sought to press charges against Nawarmin. But Nawarmin turned the tables on Chotisak, filing a lèse majesté complaint against him. Police have now followed suit, pressing formal charges against Chotisak on Tuesday.

Thailand’s lèse majesté ‑ French for the crime of insulting the king ‑ laws are among the world’s stiffest, an anachronism that grows steadily more potent as such laws lose their muscle everywhere else, And cases here are by no means rare, although in most cases the king himself pardons the wrongdoer. In state propaganda, the Thai king is treated as semi-divine and most Thais never express dissent over that view in public. Since anyone can file lèse majesté charges, many of the cases are frivolous. Politicians routinely file cases against each other as a way to discredit an opponent, and other cases are sometimes leveled against foreign correspondents seeking to explain Thailand's monarchy to the outside world.

A Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March 2007 for throwing paint on Bhumibol's picture in Chiang Mai. He received a pardon from the king.

But as far as lèse majesté cases go, Chotisak's is more significant. Rather than involving politicians or foreigners, his case involves a Thai consciously rebelling against nationalist and royalist propaganda.

Sitting down during the anthem is my right to freedom of expression," Chotisak said in an interview through a translator. "The law doesn't say you must stand up; it says can you stand up. So it's not something that you must do."

Chotisak's case has attracted quite a bit of media attention, which is unusual for a lèse majesté case. While local newspapers typically only run wire stories about the cases in order to avoid compounding the “crime” with their own reporting, the Bangkok Post, Thailand's leading English-language daily, smacked the story on Page 1 with a picture, graphic and sidebar. About 20 other news outlets covered Chotisak’s appearance at the police station.

According to the Bangkok Post, in addition to lèse majesté, Chotisak may have violated the 1942 National Culture Act passed under a military dictator. It states: "Individuals must pay their respects to the national anthem, the Royal anthem and other anthems which are played at an official service, social ceremony or entertainment venue." Violators face a measly 100 baht fine (US$3.17) or up to a month in prison.

Chotisak says he wants laws passed under military regimes to be scrapped. He also makes a routine practice of disregarding the national anthem, which is played on radios, TV stations and public places at 8 am and 6 pm every day.

"The lèse majesté law falls under the constitution, which says that all Thais have the right to freedom of expression," said Chotisak. "Therefore, the lèse majesté law is unconstitutional."

The lèse majesté law has always been a touchy subject, mostly because anyone can bring a case without any input from the king himself. Moreover, no politician would dare propose scrapping the law, and police and prosecutors often feel the need to follow through on the charges out of fear that they might actually be violating the law by not doing so. This all made more difficult since it can barely be discussed in public.

"Somehow, Thai society has dead-ended itself, unable to go forward or back, unable to even address the extremely problematic nature of this law," David Streckfuss, one of the foremost scholars on the law, wrote last year. "Thai society has narrowed its options, leaving a single unavoidable logic of suppression: the law protects the monarchy. Anyone who questions the law must not care about protecting the monarchy. Such a person must be disloyal to the monarchy, and must be suppressed."

Whereas most caught up in the odd tangle of a lèse majesté charge just hope the issues goes away quietly, Chotisak wants the publicity. He is willing to become a martyr for a cause he believes in, even if it means going to jail for not standing up in a movie theater.

"He's very brave," said a friend of Chotisak. "Young student activists, think tank activists and some people in the general public agree with him but they don't have the guts to publicize the issue as much as him."