By now, we know the power of literature in international politics. We’ve seen books used as political weapons in China and Japan, as a propaganda tool in Soviet Russia, as a form of religious censorship in modern Russia, and as a means of empowerment throughout Africa.
And now, to demonstrate against the army coup that took place on May 22 and that has thrown Thailand under military rule, protestors in the troubled country are turning to a novel means of nonviolent protest: reading.
Thais are gathering in small groups in public places like sidewalks, train stations, and parks to silently read in an act of quiet defiance. Of course, the books they’re reading convey their protest: books about totalitarian states, real or fictional, like George Orwell’s “1984” as well as titles like "Unarmed Insurrection," ''The Politics of Despotic Paternalism," and ''The Power of Non-Violent Means."
"People are angry about this coup, but they can't express it," a human rights activist who wished to remain anonymous told the AP. "So we were looking for an alternative way to resist, a way that is not confrontational. And one of those ways is reading."
On May 22, the Thai military, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, launched a coup against the nation’s caretaker government under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and swiftly enacted a totalitarian regime with no tolerance for dissent. As Monitor correspondent Flora Bagenal reported, “Gatherings of more than five people in public have been banned; over 200 academics, journalists, and activists have been arrested and detained; and citizens have been warned they could be charged under martial law if they incite opposition to the junta on social media.”
According to the AP, some 14 TV networks have been shut down, including CNN and BBC, as well as more than 300 web pages and nearly 3,000 unlicensed community radio stations.
Hundreds of journalists, academics, and activists have been summoned by the government and some detained.
Under General Chan-ocha’s military junta, one can be detained for holding a “Peace Please” sign in the wrong part of town, according to the AP.
Which is why protestors have turned to books as an act of safe, nonviolent dissent. Protestors have been organizing book readings since late last week, holding the protests in small groups that are avoiding soldiers in order to remain non-confrontational.
A favorite is Orwell’s “1984.”
“My friends told me when they read '1984' for the first time they could never imagine there would be a country like that, but it’s happening now in Thailand,” protestor Pimsiri Petchnamrob told the Monitor. “People are really watching you, your computers are being monitored… and many people have been detained in undisclosed locations.”
Orwell’s famous novel imagines a future in which government authorities, in Big Brother fashion, outfit homes and public spaces with cameras to watch the public and personal details of peoples’ lives.
“We have Big Brother watching us now,” Kasama Na Nagara told the AP. “It has become too risky to speak out. It’s sad. But it’s safer to be silent in Thailand right now.”
In other words, they’re letting the books speak for them.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.