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.
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
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."