Thai PM urges moviegoers to stand for royal anthem as more sit

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said people should have the courage to stand during the royal anthem. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called on citizens to have the courage to stand during the royal anthem played before films at movie theatres, a longstanding tradition that more people are starting to ignore.

The issue is one of several that have laid bare tensions between the royalist political establishment and a restive youth-led protest movement calling for more accountability from King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The monarch arrived in Germany earlier this week after more than a year in Thailand that saw unprecedented protests calling for reform of the monarchy, according to the German tabloid Bild.

"On standing in the movie theatre, I'm concerned for those who want to stand but are afraid to do it as they may get bullied," said Mr Prayut in a speech at the National Defence College.

"We must have courage to stand. You should understand that we don't force each other on this."

During the 70-year reign of former King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, it was rare for anyone to sit during the royal anthem.

While the government repealed a legal provision in 2010 that made it illegal to sit through the royal anthem, the practice was still considered socially unacceptable until recently.

At a recent showing of the James Bond film No Time To Die at a central Bangkok theatre, for instance, nearly half of about 60 people remained seated.

A debate over the monarchy's role in society is heating up in Thailand, with more political parties seeking changes to strict laws that bar insults to the King and other top royals.

Fighting between royalists and pro-democracy politicians has fomented instability for the past two decades, which has seen two coups, extended periods of military rule and bouts of violent street protests.

The 69-year-old monarch, also known as Rama X, has spent much of the past year in Thailand in a bid to burnish his image after long stints in Germany in the first few years of his reign.

The King's immense wealth has generated resentment among protesters, who want the assets transferred under the control of the Finance Ministry, as well as the repeal of laws that serve to silence public discussion of the monarchy.

A protester holds up a sign calling for the reform of the monarchy laws in Bangkok on Sept 4, 2021. A debate over the monarchy's role in society is heating up in Thailand. PHOTO: AFP

Since mid-2020, at least 100 people were charged under Thailand's lese majeste law, with the majority of cases stemming from online political comments and participation in the protests.

On Wednesday, Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled that protester demands to reform the monarchy violated a provision in the military-drafted charter that bans any move to overthrow the royal institution.

While there is no jail penalty or fines attached to the charge, a guilty verdict may embolden prosecutors to take more action against demonstrators, including several facing lese majeste or sedition charges that carry steep jail terms.

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