The lights had gone down, the film was about to begin, and the young Thai couple were cosily ensconced in the big Bangkok cinema when the popcorn started flying. Most of it landed on the woman, hurled by a man to her right. Soon he was slapping her with a rolled-up film flyer, and screaming at her and her boyfriend to get out of the cinema.
As the rest of the audience joined in, jeering, throwing water bottles and urging on the assailant, the two made their retreat. The incident reached its climax this week when the boyfriend, Chotisak Onsoong, was charged with an offence that could land him in jail for 15 years. His alleged crime was simple: during the playing of the royal anthem which precedes all films in Thai cinemas, he had remained in his seat.
Mr Chotisak, a 27-year old businessman and political activist, is the latest person to be prosecuted under Thailands stringent lÃ¨se majestÃ© laws, which make it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the King, Queen or heir to the throne.
Unquestionably, many Thais revere 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose image is seen in almost every office, many homes and on giant billboards hung every few hundred yards above Thailands roads. But others see the law as a tool of oppression and a means of intimidating those who peacefully question the status quo.
"Not standing up is not an offence against anyone --- that's what I think," Mr Chotisak said in yesterdays Bangkok Post, after being charged on Tuesday. "The public have the right to make a choice whether to rise or not . . . I would like to stress that what I did was not intended to insult or express vengeance to the King. I was simply enjoying my right to freedom of expression." In Thailand academics struggle for the right even to discuss the monarchy, let alone criticise it. And in recent years there has been an increase in accusations of lÃ¨se majestÃ©.
Mr Chotisak is that rare thing in Thailand --- an overt Republican. His girlfriend is a Muslim, and objects to the idolisation of a human. But their ordeal was mild, compared with those of some dissenters.
I have to respect Chotisak, who is brave enough to challenge and question status quo. He also said the following:
"In a country where the majority of the people eat rice and I
choose to eat noodles, it is my right to choose. It's legal."
Parry, R.L. (2008, April 24). Filmgoer faces jail in Thailand for sitting during the national anthem. Times Online. Retrieved April 24, 2008 from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article3803939.ece
Thai activist challenges royalist ritual at nation's cinemas (2008, April 25). The International Herald Tribune. Retrieved April 25, 2008 from http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/04/25/asia/AS-GEN-Thailand-Royal-Anthem.php