ANYONE who has been to a movie theatre in Thailand knows the routine: Before the film starts, everyone is asked to stand during a royal anthem to pay respect to the monarch.
During the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, it was rare for anyone to sit during the song.
And while many Thais still stand up, nowadays more and more people are opting to stay seated rather than pay respect to his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose short time on the throne has seen unprecedented protests calling for reform of the monarchy.
At a recent screening of the James Bond film No Time To Die at a central Bangkok theatre, nearly half of about 60 people sat down through the royal anthem without incident – a scene unthinkable just a few years ago, when movie-goers faced risks if they did not stand.
In 2019, a woman said she was assaulted for not standing up, while last year, another man was splashed with a drink for sitting through the 90-second song in the eastern province of Chanthaburi.
“Things are changing,” said Chotisak Onsoong, a political activist who had popcorn and a water bottle thrown at him in 2007 when he sat for the anthem.
He was kicked out of the theatre and charged with insulting the royal family, although prosecutors eventually decided not to pursue the case.
“Protesting and not standing up for the anthem are really the same thing,” Chotisak said.
Royalist groups have noticed the trend as well.
On Oct 29, a pro-monarchy Facebook group called “Good Students” posted a graphic of one person standing in a cinema before the start of the royal anthem with the caption: “Even if I’m the only one left standing, I’ll continue to stand up.”
The shift highlights changing attitudes toward the monarchy following more than 15 months of protests – including one of the largest in months on Oct 31 – calling for Thailand’s most powerful institution to have less taxpayer money and more accountability.
While the royalist government has not budged on any of their demands, which broke longstanding taboos in Thailand, political parties that had long avoided issues surrounding the monarchy are now starting to speak up ahead of an election that could come in early 2022.
Pheu Thai, the largest party in parliament and winner of the most seats in every Thai election since 2001, last week joined fellow pro-democracy organisation Move Forward in calling for changes to Thailand’s lese majeste law, which mandates as many as 15 years in jail for insulting Vajiralongkorn and other top royals.
In a sign of the sensitivity, Pheu Thai later clarified that it would not spearhead the amendment, but would facilitate the discussions in parliament.
Since mid-2020, at least 100 people were charged under the law, with the majority of cases stemming from online political comments and participation in the protests.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who rose up through the Queen’s Guards and led a 2014 coup, has sought to discourage protests while avoiding a violent crackdown that could inflame tensions further.
The king’s immense wealth has generated resentment among protesters, who want the assets transferred under the control of the Finance Ministry.
Vajiralongkorn is also the largest shareholder of Siam Commercial Bank Pcl, Thailand’s most valuable lender. — Bloomberg