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Tea Leaves

The politics of Thai cinemas

To stand or not to stand -- an evening at the movies becomes an 'inflection point' in generational zeitgeist

Thais invariably stood up in cinemas for the king's anthem during the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, but times have changed.   © EPA/Jiji

On a recent visit to a cinema in Bangkok, I was reminded of the dual role that movie theaters play in Thailand. One, of course, is to show films, local and foreign. The other is to reinforce in the audience a belief that their monarch serves as a unifying pillar in the Southeast Asian kingdom. That lesson plays out just before the main feature, when the screen in the darkened auditorium displays a message requesting the audience to stand as the strains of the king's anthem fill the hall, accompanied by images of the king's achievements.

The response of audiences -- standing up for the anthem -- was almost universal until the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in late 2016 ended a 70-year reign. The collage of images that accompanied the royal anthem during his reign reinforced the carefully crafted official line that King Bhumibol was a benevolent father figure and unifier of the nation. To foreigners like me it was further evidence of what appeared to be a culture of devotion to the monarchy.

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