Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida greet royalist supporters outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Nov. 1. (Photo: AFP)
A middle-aged street vendor has caused widespread outrage in Thailand by physically assaulting a 15-year-old schoolgirl who failed to stand to attention during a routine playing of the national anthem.
In an incident that took place last week at a train station in the central province of Ayutthaya and was recorded on a mobile phone, a 45-year-old woman identified only as Poo can be seen in the immediate aftermath of the assault during which she had slapped the girl as she was sitting on a curb by the tracks.
In the recording, which has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter alone, the woman is shown haranguing the girl, a petite youngster who is seemingly in shock and is being shielded from further abuse by an alarmed school friend.
After being charged with physical assault late last week, Poo apologized and said she had grown enraged after seeing that the schoolgirl carried on sitting during the national anthem, which is played at 6pm every day in public spaces such as train stations and parks around the country.
“I did it because I suddenly became angry,” the woman said. “I grew up learning that we have to stand for the anthem.”
In recent weeks there have been several reported cases of people assaulting young Thais for failing to stand for the royal anthem (which is separate from the national anthem and exults the country’s king) in movie theatres where the royal anthem is played before every screening.
Although these incidents may seem isolated, commentators say they are proof of a widening generational divide in Thailand where many young Thais refuse to kowtow to a time-honored tradition that inextricably links patriotism to monarchism and acceptance of a rigid social hierarchy with the royals at the top.
“If you are Thai and don’t love the monarchy, you don’t love Thailand and you should not stay here,” a 41-year-old accountant who hails from a southern province but works in Bangkok told a UCA News reporter on Nov. 1.
However, numerous young Thais have been challenging such views on social media.
Many of them have also been attending regular mass protests whose aims include sweeping political reforms, including new constitutional checks on the monarchy.
For several months tens of thousands of school-age Thais from high schools, colleges and universities have been staging almost daily pro-democracy protests calling for the country’s autocratic Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief, to resign and for the country’s military-drafted latest constitution to be revised along democratic lines.
The student protesters have also been calling for limits to the political influence of the country’s royal family.
However, these demands have triggered a backlash from ardent royalists and ultranationalists who consider any talk of reform as nothing short of treason.
There are growing fears that millions of young Thais’ pro-democratic aspirations could soon be met with violence from rightist vigilantes or the authorities or both in an increasingly polarized atmosphere.
To forestall such an outcome, several commentators and opposition politicians have been urging Thais of all political leanings to keep their cool and refrain from violence.
“Both adults and young people have to be mature enough to live with different opinions. We can’t chase away people who disagree with us,” said Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, a member of parliament for the progressive Move Forward Party, which has been calling for democratic reforms of Thailand’s ossified political culture and hierarchy.
“We have to be able to coexist and stop inflicting [violence] on each other.”