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Thai Man Charged with Insulting King
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Thai Man Charged with Insulting King



In Thailand, just about the entire country makes up the fan base for the king, and a young man who's been charged with a crime of insulting the king could face up to 15 years in jail. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: The Thais are a pretty laid bunch, except maybe about their king. His picture is everywhere, in offices, in homes, on billboards, even on the sides of sky scrapers in the capital, Bangkok - a cult of personality carefully cultivated over the years. And when you go to a movie in Thailand and this song starts, you'd better stand fast.

(Soundbite of the song, Thai Royal Anthem)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

SULLIVAN: No matter how raucous the crowd, everyone stands and falls silent during the King's anthem - the music, accompanied by a video montage or homage to 80-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej, Asia's longest serving monarch.

(Soundbite of the song, Thai Royal Anthem)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. CHOTISAK ONSOONG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Twenty-seven-year old Chotisak Onsoong swears he wasn't trying to pick a fight the day he and his girlfriend refused to stand during the anthem. But given the way many Thais feel about the king, Chotisak had to know his act would elicit a strong response, and it did, from 41-year-old Navamintr Witthayakul, who was two seats away, fuming.

Mr. NAVAMINTR WITTHAYAKUL: The music stopped. I sat down. I turned to them. I said damn you, shame on you. You didn't stand up. Why didn't you love the king? And then I couldn't handle my anger anymore, so I stood up and told him to leave the theater. I said, you didn't stand up for the king's anthem, you should leave the theater.

SULLIVAN: Several other moviegoers joined Witthayakul in condemning the couple, and Chotisak and his girlfriend did leave. But he called the police and ended up filing charges against Witthayakul for harassment. Witthayakul responded with a far more serious charge of lese majeste against Chotisak for refusing to stand.

Mr. WITTHAYAKUL: You are supposed to stand. If you do not stand, you will be fined or will be jailed. That's it.

SULLIVAN: Not quite, because the law seems a bit murky on this point on the constitutional monarchy that is Thailand. Yes, it calls for a jail term of up to 15 years for whoever defames, insults, or threatens the king, the queen, or the heir to the throne, but Chotisak argues his refusal to stand doesn't constitute an insult to the king.

Mr. ONSOONG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: If people want to stand, that's fine, he says, but it should come from their hearts. He says he meant no disrespect to the king, but believes strongly that the law is outdated and should be scrapped - often used, he says, as a political tool by those seeking to discredit their enemies or to limit political discourse. And he thinks fewer people would stand if the law didn't exist. Accusations of lese majeste are frequent, prosecutions rare. But last year, a Swiss national was given a 10-year sentence for defacing images of the king on the monarch's birthday. The man spent several months in jail before being pardoned by the king, then deported. Navamintr Witthayakul says Chotisak Onsoong should be sent to jail, too.

Mr. WITTHAYAKUL: I want to see him do time. I think he should do time because he intended to do this. I don't know what the prosecutor and the judge is going to do with this. I hope they do the right thing.

SULLIVAN: Chotisak and his girlfriend, meanwhile, are renting their movies these days on DVD. And he says the threat of a 15-year jail term is not enough to make him change the way he feels.

Mr. ONSOONG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't want to go to jail, he says, but I don't think what I did is wrong. And if I had to do it again, he says, I would. Sometimes we need to do what we believe and be ready to face the consequences. Police say they'll continue gathering evidence in the case which will be given to a prosecutor who will decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a trial.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.

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