Reading takes on a tone of defiance among coup critics in Thailand

Critics of Thai coup sit down in public places and read political books

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:12am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 6:05am

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 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 gathering was an 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. 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 military has made clear it will tolerate no dissent, and has launched a major campaign to silence critics and censor the media. The junta has warned all citizens against doing anything that might incite conflict, and the list of targets 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.

We were looking for an alternative way to resist ... One of those ways is reading
Human rights activist Mook

Journalists and academics have been summoned by the army. Activists have fled.

Kasama Na Nagara, who works in the financial sector, said about 20 people had joined the book readings. Saturday was the third day the group had organised such a protest. They have been careful to avoid soldiers.

On Friday, the group was supposed to gather on another walkway, but when troops showed up, they called it off.

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 political titles that the military rulers might consider 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."

So far, other anti-coup protests have been relatively small. As many as 1,000 people marched through Bangkok and scuffled with troops last week, though no injuries were reported.



Watch: Thai coup fails to dent tourists’ enthusiasm

Airline bookings to Thailand have collapsed, a travel association said yesterday, after the military took over the government on May 22, hitting the tourism sector that accounts for 10 per cent of the economy.

On May 19, there were around 28,000 inbound bookings for Thailand a day, according to sample figures from the Pacific Asia Travel Association. But on May 23, the daily cancellations tallied 5,000.

Short-haul bookings from countries such as China, where people typically book travel a few weeks in advance, have been hit especially hard, said Martin Craigs, chief executive of Pata. Bookings from long-haul travellers were not down as much because they tend to book further in advance, he said.

The coup followed months of protests against ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra that forced ministries to close for weeks on end, hurt business confidence and shrunk the economy.

Even before the military stepped in, the Tourism Authority of Thailand had cut its forecast for foreign arrivals this year to a five-year low of 26.3 million.