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The 5 O'Clock Club: Showing respect, Thai style

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere...

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Respect is a tricky thing; it’s not always clear when people are giving it or why.

Respect is both given and earned, which is kind of paradoxical in my mind.

With the huge win on Sunday night, the Redskins seem to have gotten respect from people around the NFL, but to keep it, they’ll have to be consistent.

Respect can be maintained for generations, and it can be lost in a moment. Think about the 45 presidents of the U.S. if you don’t believe me.

Respect can be one of the most difficult concepts in the world to understand and discuss.

With Monday Night Football on tap for the Redskins this week, I have an extra 5 O’Clock Club post that needs some content, so I’d like to use the space today to share some information about living in Thailand. Let’s think of it as ‘culture day’.

Showing respect

Here, certain groups of people are shown great respect; in particular, parents, monks, and teachers. In addition, deference is demonstrated to people with great power or wealth through body language and verbal forms of address.

A Thai university student showing respect and deference to her teacher.

I am the recipient of the kind of respect shown in the photo above dozens of times per day, even though I am a foreigner. Teachers are among the most respected members of Thai society. Teaching, as I do, at Thailand’s most prestigious university, I am given great respect from Thais of all ages in any kind of social or business gathering when I tell them what I do and where I teach.

In the temple, Thais adopt certain postures which show the appropriate respect for the image of Buddha. This picture shows one of the most common body postures:

Thais sit with their feet pointed away from the Buddha at all times, as the feet are considered to be dirty and not a holy or sacred as the head.


In case you don’t know what prostration is, let me show you a picture of it:

A Thai government official prostrating herself before an image of the late King

Prostration is not uncommon in Thailand, where class and seniority are huge social drivers. Prostration includes, not only keeping the feet pointed away, but lowering the head, often putting it to the floor or the ground. Ordinary people will often prostrate themselves before the king or a member of the Royal family, though “officially” prostration is not required, since a revered 19th century King abolished the practice in the 1800s.

Here are some school children greeting the late king

Ceremonies are held regularly in Thailand where the participants are expected to prostrate themselves. In fact, there’s probably at least one ceremony per day where a member of the royal family appears in public and is subject to this kind of absolute deference, and there are other ceremonies where people prostrate themselves in front of statues or paintings of past monarchs, similar to the one pictured earlier in this post.

The recent “incident” at my university

One of these many ceremonies involving prostration was held last month at my university. It is described in a news article about the incident that took place during the ceremony.

The Aug. 3 ceremony was an annual freshman induction ritual in which all members of the incoming class are required to prostrate to statues of two past monarchs.

The ceremony at Thailand’s oldest and prestigious university was introduced in 1997.

The “incident” was precipitated when a student activist, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, and several other students stood up and walked out on the ceremony. Another student, Supalak Damrongjit, who tried to leave was put into a headlock by a university teacher

Botany instructor and administrator Ruengwit Bunjongrat was filmed placing a freshman in a headlock during the campus event

Netiwit, aka Frank, is known for his campaigns to abolish school regulations that he believed to be outdated and inconsistent with liberty, such as compulsory haircuts and uniforms.

The Aug. 3 ceremony was an annual freshman induction ritual in which all members of the incoming class are required to prostrate to statues of two past monarchs.

Netiwit insisted the students are required only to bow. The organizers for this year’s event said students may go down on their knees without having to grovel.

When Netiwit joined Chulalongkorn University in 2016, he caused controversy by declining to participate in the ceremony, in which students swear oaths to statues of kings Rama V and Rama VI, citing past royal admonishments against groveling.

The ceremony at Thailand’s oldest and most prestigious university was introduced in 1997.

When Netiwit and his fellow council members walked out of the same ceremony this year, a professor became enraged, hurling obscenities at Netiwit and placing 21-year-old Supalak Damrongjit, a fourth-year economics student, into a headlock.

Personally, I find it ironic that the students were being told to prostrate themselves to honor the statue of the very King who abolished prostration during his reign.

The university insists that no one was forced to do anything they didn’t want to do:

Bancha Chalapirom, the university deputy rector, insisted the university did not force students to sit while it was raining. He said there was a slight drizzle and students agreed to carry on with the ceremony and were given raincoats.

"There was no forcing people to sit or prostrate themselves either," he said.

Given the photographic and video evidence, and the stories told by the hundreds of people at the ceremony, I believe that the deputy rector is telling what we would, in Australia, call “a porkie pie”.

What do you think?

  • Is prostration before a painting or statue of former kings something that people should have to do?
  • If people want to prostrate themselves out of respect, is that a healthy thing, or a sign that there’s something wrong?
  • How about the practice of prostrating oneself to a living member of the royal family (as opposed to paintings or statues)? Does that change your opinion at all?
  • And, what do you think about the teacher who put the student in a head lock when he tried to leave the ceremony? Did the teacher step over the line, or was he doing the right thing in teaching the student proper respect and good Thai cultural values?

Netwit, the student activist who was the focus of one of the newspaper articles, who organized the walkout from the ceremony, was later removed from his elected position on the Student Council, along with four of his fellow protesting students.

  • Was that the right thing to do? Should Netwit have been punished for choosing not to participate in a ceremony that he felt was demeaning and inappropriate?
  • Do you think the students who were punished now have greater respect for Thailand and all it stands for?

Going to the movies in Thailand

One thing that often surprises foreigners visiting Thailand for the first time, is that the King’s anthem is played in the movie theater before the start of every movie. Basically, we’re talking about a patriotic song, with lyrics that praise the King and country, that plays while images of the King are projected onto the big screen.

All the people in the movie theater stand while the King’s anthem plays, many of them singing along.

It’s funny to some foreigners, this idea of standing in the cinema ahead of the movie. I’ve seen some of them actually giggling at the idea.

Some others chafe at the requirement to stand to honor a foreign monarch that they do not know, and likely do not care about. I admit that it felt odd when I first arrived 12 years ago, being told to stand in honor of this King.

Being an American, and having been raised to respect the Constitution and its guarantee of freedom of speech, I considered not standing. After all, why should I? What had this man ever done for me? What was he doing for me now, that he deserved my honor?

Of course, I never rebelled. I have always stood for the King’s anthem in the cinema; I have done what was expected of me, and never tested the tolerance of the Thais around me. After a dozen years of conditioning, I now stand automatically; like one of Pavlov’s dogs trained to respond to the dinner bell, I do what I am expected to do.

What would my dad have said about this?

My father was a fan of independent thought and action. He was a big believer in the Bill of Rights. I suspect that if he had been around to hear me say, a dozen years ago, that I was uncomfortable standing in honor of someone I did not feel in my heart I had a reason to honor, he might have shared his thoughts about that with me.

He might have reminded me that men and women throughout U.S. history have fought and died to defend the rights of Americans. (My own father was a career military man who helped pilot a boat to the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion.) I know what he would have believed if such a thing happened in America. “Sit, if you feel that’s right,” my dad would’ve said, for he was a believer in the concept that so many military people espouse: “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

But I don’t have to stand for a King’s anthem in America. My problem is here in Thailand. Dad would have known that there was one big difference between America and Thailand. The Land of Smiles is not based on an inviolate constitution and the rule of law; it is a constitutional monarchy, currently run by a military junta which ousted the democratically elected government in a military coup d’etat.

I don’t have the same rights here that I had in America, and that is a harsh reality that has to be faced.

This isn’t the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

There is no Bill of Rights, and I am not cloaked by the Constitutional protections that Americans are blessed with, and which they hold so dear.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

No, this isn’t America. Freedom of speech doesn’t reign supreme in Thailand. Here, common citizens can be forced to behave in ways that they find personally repellent. Here it’s not a matter of choice whether you stand for the King’s anthem or not.

The fact of the matter is, we have to stand.

In Thailand, it’s the law.

What happens if you don’t stand for the King’s anthem?

Let me share some excerpts from news articles with you that describe what happens when people flaunt the rules:

A Thai man faces a possible 15 years in jail under the country’s lèse majesté laws for refusing to stand during the Royal Anthem in a Thai movie theater. Chotisak Onsoong, a 27-year-old Thai citizen, could spend 15 years in jail for violating a law forbidding a person to “defame, insult or threaten” the nation’s royalty.

Short films of King Bhumibol Adulyadej performing kind acts, accompanied by the Royal Anthem, always precede movie screenings in Thailand. When Chotisak chose not to stand up for the anthem at the theater last September, another moviegoer hurled popcorn and a bottle of water at him. Later, that same moviegoer filed a lèse majesté complaint against him.

The Daily Mail in the U.K. carried this report about the arrest of a woman later that same year:

A woman has been arrested for refusing to stand up in a cinema when an anthem played in honour of Thailand's king - before The Other Boleyn Girl, the hit movie about [a] draconian monarch.

It is the second such arrest this year under strict Thai laws.

Rachapin Chancharoen could face up to 15 years in jail if convicted, police said after several cinema-goers made a joint complaint of lèse majesté - insults to the monarchy.

Lèse majesté

The reason behind all of this is that we have Lèse majesté laws in the Land of Smiles that prohibit criticism of the King, the Royal Family or the institution of the monarchy. I’ll use some information from Wikipedia to save myself from having to come up with my own explanation:

Lèse majesté in Thailand, based on Thai Criminal Code section 112, making it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent, has been on the statute books since 1908. The punishment is three to fifteen years of imprisonment per count.

Section 112 of Thai Criminal Code currently reads as follows:

“Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years."

While the Constitution adds:

“the King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.

There is no legal definition, however, of what actions constitute a defamation, insult, or threat against the monarchy, and there is plenty of room for interpretation. In 2015, a man was sentenced for a "sarcastic" comment online about the King's dog, Tongdaeng.

Lèse-majesté complaints can be filed by any person against anyone else, and they must always be formally investigated. Details of the charges are rarely made public. A section 112 defendant always meets with obstructions from the beginning to the end of a case, especially when asking for a provisional release. There are months-long pretrial detentions, and those who are charged are routinely denied bail, remaining in prison for many months awaiting trial. In most cases, convictions result in harsh sentences.

Judges have said that accusers did not have to prove the factuality of the alleged lèse-majesté material, but only to claim it is defaming in any way.

Here are some reports of other people who have been charged with lèse-majesté:

  • A Thai University professor was accused of the same crime when he asked his students if the “monarchy is necessary for Thai society?”
  • A Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years in jail for drunkenly daubing six pictures of 80-year-old King Bhumibol with black paint on the monarch's birthday. Oliver Jufer, 57, who had lived in Thailand for many years, was given a royal pardon after four months in jail and deported.
  • In 2013, a man was found guilty of "preparing and attempting" to commit an act of lèse-majesté. He had images and captions deemed to defame or threaten the royal family in his electronic device—which, his accusers said, potentially could have been connected to the Internet and been spread online. The police seized the material before it was posted. He was found guilty.
  • In 2016, a singer and activist, in addition to his prison sentence for defaming the monarchy, was ordered to write a song promoting “national reconciliation” after completing his sentence.

Protecting Thai values and culture

The Thai prime minister and others who support these lèse majesté laws say that they are necessary for the protection of Thai society, culture, values, and the Thai way of life. They point to violators as enemies of Thailand, its values, and its traditions, who deserve to be reviled.

Opponents of lèse majesté laws slam them and their application as being counter to the advancement of Thailand as a country. While those opponents fully support the Thai monarchy, they oppose the lèse-majesté laws and point to the principles of free debate, freedom of the press and freedom of expression — principles that I, as an American, hold dear — as being the appropriate vehicles for the support of the monarchy, and the advancement and protection of Thai society. These opponents argue that oppression does not teach respect.

It’s important to understand that in Thailand people deeply love their country and revere the King; public opinion runs strongly against those who don’t stand up in the cinema, and most citizens feel that violators should be punished to the maximum limits of the law, which means 15 years in prison.

In Thai eyes, failing to show respect for the King by remaining seated is like spitting in the face of all Thai people. Prosecution of that crime is seen as an important part of defending the country against it’s enemies, even when those “enemies” are its own citizens.

I confess that even after a dozen years in Thailand it all seems very alien and Orwellian to me — nothing like the country where I grew up.

But enough about Thailand, showing proper respect, oppression, prosecution, persecution, and the cost of personal freedom; let’s turn our minds to football.

I’m interested in the fact that two previously undefeated and powerful teams, the Broncos and the Raiders, lost this week to two other teams looking for respect in games that were deemed ‘upsets’. Those two teams — the Raiders and the Broncos — play each other this Sunday.

By Tuesday next week, the winner of Sunday’s game will be tied with Kansas City for the division lead, while the loser will have lost two straight, and will be in 3rd place in the division. From undefeated powerhouse to 3rd in the division in 2 weeks — talk about losing respect! One of these teams will be desperately scrambling for a win by Week 5.

So, how ‘bout that AFC West division race, huh?


Question 1: Which AFC West quarterback will end up with the most starts in ‘wins’ this season?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Derek Carr
    (25 votes)
  • 69%
    Alex Smith
    (87 votes)
  • 0%
    Patrick Mahomes
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Philip Rivers
    (2 votes)
  • 8%
    Trevor Siemian
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Brock Osweiller
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Paxton Lynch
    (0 votes)
125 votes total Vote Now


Question: Which AFC West quarterback will end up with the most starts in ‘losses’ this season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Derek Carr
    (1 vote)
  • 3%
    E.J. Manuel
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Conner Cook
    (1 vote)
  • 2%
    Alex Smith
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Patrick Mahomes
    (0 votes)
  • 76%
    Philip Rivers
    (87 votes)
  • 1%
    Kellen Clemens
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    Cardale Jones
    (2 votes)
  • 7%
    Trevor Siemian
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    Brock Osweiler
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Paxton Lynch
    (1 vote)
113 votes total Vote Now