BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of Thais thronged cinemas on Sunday to grab free tickets to an epic film featuring a mediaeval king, given away by military authorities keen to kindle patriotic feeling after seizing power to end months of unrest.
The army has been urging Thais to bridge differences after it staged a coup on May 22 to halt recurring violent protests by rival political camps, at odds for a decade. At least 28 people were killed and hundreds injured in the latest round of tumult since November.
Hundreds have been detained since the putsch, most close to ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, pitted against protesters allied with the Bangkok establishment. Attempts to stage protests against the coup have been snuffed out.
The army’s campaign to “return Thailand to happiness” has included free concerts and an order to broadcasting authorities to show all World Cup soccer games on free-to-air channels.
About 40 Bangkok cinemas offered a free morning showing of “The Legend of King Naresuan Part V” and movie-goers jammed a plush city-centre shopping mall - about five times more than the 500 seats available.
Army officers, caught off guard, scurried off to find crowd control barriers. “No one gets tickets until you form an orderly queue,” one officer, standing on a table, shouted through a loudhailer.
Organisers relented and disappointed patrons, many with small children, were offered cheap tickets at a later screening.
Junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has urged Thais to seek common ground and for schools to instil patriotic feeling.
The film depicts King Naresuan the Great, ruler of Siam, as Thailand was formerly known, and his drive to end the domination of invaders from neighbouring Burma during his rule from 1590 to 1605.
Featuring computer-generated battle scenes with warriors atop elephants, the film has nationalist overtones and focuses heavily on self-sacrifice and patriotic love.
“There are so many problems in society. I think this movie will help us feel patriotic and united,” Ngamjai Munkatanyu, 51, said after securing tickets for her two children and a niece. “That’s how we can survive.”
The movie’s prequels were some of the highest-grossing films in Thai box-office history. The cast includes military officers keen to promote the film’s message.
“All of us, the government, the private sector, must set down a foundation to create stability for the next generation,” Lieutenant-Colonel Wanchana Sawasdee, an actor and poster boy for the military who plays the king, said after an advance weekend showing. “This movie is part of that.”
The issue of succession to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, is sensitive in the country of 67 million. His son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has yet to secure the same devotion.
Some analysts suggest the dividends may be brief from attempts to heal divisions while the military holds power. There have been 19 successful or abortive coups in Thailand since the mid-1930s.
“It will work in the short term because Thais are pragmatic. We try to get everything that is to our benefit and suits our tastes,” said Kan Yuengyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.
“In the long term, this is questionable. People will think about their own rights and the rationale of a military regime. People will want to know who will be the next prime minister.”
Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel