BANGKOK – In junta-ruled Thailand, the simple act of reading in public has become an act of resistance.
On Saturday evening in Bangkok, a week and a half after the army seized power in a coup, about a dozen people gathered in the middle of a busy, elevated walkway connecting several of the capital’s most luxurious shopping malls.
As pedestrians trundled past, the protesters sat down, pulled out book titles such as George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a dystopian novel about life in a totalitarian surveillance state — and began to read.
In a country where the army has vowed to crack down on anti-coup protesters demanding elections and a return to civilian rule, in a place where you can be detained for simply holding something that says “Peace Please” in the wrong part of town, the small protest was a major act of defiance — a quiet demonstration against the army’s May 22 seizure of power and the repression that has accompanied it.
“People are angry about this coup, but they can’t express it,” said a human rights activist who asked to be identified only by her nickname, Mook, for fear of being detained.
“So we were looking for an alternative way to resist, a way that is not confrontational,” she said. “And one of those ways is reading.”
Their defiance, if you can call it that, is found in the titles they chose. Among them: “Unarmed Insurrection,” ”The Politics of Despotic Paternalism,” ”The Power of Non-Violent Means.”
The coup, Thailand’s second in eight years, deposed an elected government that had insisted for months that the nation’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts and, finally, the army. The junta’s leader says the military had to intervene to restore order after half a year of debilitating protests that had crippled the government and triggered sporadic violence that killed 28 people and injured more than 800.
In their bid to maintain peace, the army also has made clear that it will tolerate no dissent. The junta has censored the media and issued warnings to citizens to avoid inciting conflict and antagonizing the divided country’s political rivals. The list of targets so far has been long.
At least 14 partisan TV networks have been shut down along with nearly 3,000 unlicensed community radio stations. Independent international TV channels such as CNN and BBC have been blocked along with more than 300 Web pages, including New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Thailand page. Journalists and academics have been summoned by the army. Activists have fled the country.
On Wednesday, a sudden interruption of access to Facebook fueled widespread speculation that the nation’s new rulers were testing their censorship power; the junta, though, insisted it was merely a technical glitch.
Kasama Na Nagara, who works in the financial sector and joined the small book reading protests because she wanted her voice to be heard, said about 20 people were participating. Saturday marked the third day that the group had organized such a protest. They have been careful to avoid soldiers.
On Friday, the group was supposed to gather on another walkway where they had conducted a reading a day earlier. But when troops showed up, they called it off.
Other groups of protesters, mostly numbering in the hundreds, have marched through Bangkok and scuffled with troops several times over the last week, though no injuries have been reported. They have carried signs with messages clearly directed at the junta, including “No dictatorship” and “Free Thailand. Pro-Democracy. Anti-Coup.” Some have shown up with masks and black tape across their mouths.
Both groups are breaking a junta order banning political gatherings of five people or more.
Human Rights organizations are deeply concerned over how far the clampdown will go.
Some people have begun using encrypted chat apps on their smartphones, for fear of being monitored. And at least one major bookstore in Bangkok, Kinokuniya, has pulled from its shelves political titles that could be deemed controversial.
So far, Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in which authorities operating under the aegis of “Big Brother” fit homes with cameras to monitor the intimate details of people’s personal lives, is not among them.
“But we have Big Brother watching us now,” Kasama said. “It has become too risky to speak out. It’s sad. But it’s safer to be silent in Thailand right now.”
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.