Soldiers and moviegoers stand up for Royal Anthem at a cinema in Nongkhai province a month after the 2014 coup.
Soldiers and moviegoers stand up for Royal Anthem at a cinema in Nongkhai province a month after the 2014 coup.

It used to be unthinkable, and even punishable by arrest, to not stand before a movie as the Royal Anthem played. But times and Thailand have changed and it’s not uncommon to see a few Thais refuse to stand at the cinema today.

That doesn’t mean royalist attitudes among Thailand’s right-wing faction has soften, as an incident this week in Chiang Mai showed.

Outrage exploded among Thailand’s youth – the demographic that propelled the (now disbanded) Future Forward Party to prominence and is behind mass rallies demanding institutional change – after a hardline royalist splashed water on two young moviegoers who remained seated at screening of Walt Disney Co.’s “Mulan” in the northern province.

The incident highlighted the conflicting views of the monarchy, which is officially portrayed as an inviolate institution deserving of worship by all commoners.

“While the anthem was played, [a middle-aged man] suddenly splashed water from a cup onto two youths who remained seated,” a young man who claims to have witnessed the incident said in a widely shared post on Facebook.

Hardline royalists, meanwhile, have leapt to the monarchy’s defense by saying they will document all cases of lese majeste…

“I could hear the man taunting the youths over why they didn’t stand up.”

Although any criticism of the royal family is punishable by law with 15 years in prison, not standing for the royal anthem, which glorifies the country’s monarchs, isn’t against the law per se.

In recent weeks, numerous young Thais have said on social media that they would refuse to stand for the Royal Anthem in cinemas because they disapprove of the excessive official adulation of the royal family, which they see as an institution tied to anti-democratic political forces in Thailand, including the powerful military.

Much of the money allocated for the monarchy is spent in opaque ways, according to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a young politician who is leader of the Progressive Movement. 

“We have seen that the budget allocated to support the monarchy was least scrutinized,” Thanathorn said in a recent post on social media.

At youth-led pro-democracy protests that have been taking place almost daily since early July, several prominent protest leaders, including university students, have begun to violate an age-old taboo by openly calling for a reform of Thailand’s monarchy.

In response, the authorities have charged nearly three dozen of them with various crimes including sedition.

Hardline royalists, meanwhile, have leapt to the monarchy’s defense by saying they will document all cases of lese majeste, a serious crime in Thailand, and report them to the authorities so that alleged culprits could be charged, sentenced and jailed.

However, student leaders have said they will refuse to be cowed in the face of intimidation and will continue to advocate for sweeping political reforms in Thailand in the interest of greater freedoms and democratic rights for all citizens.

“We have been clear about freedom. We will talk about every issue [including] the institution,” said Parit Chivarak, a prominent protest leader who studies at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, adding that discussing the appropriate role of the monarchy in society was vital to the country’s political development.

A version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.