Orwell's '1984' suddenly fashionable on Bangkok streets

Instead of raucous street protests, demonstrators in Thailand silently read '1984' and other dystopian novels, taking a dig at the junta that seized power last week.

Pimsiri Petchnamrob
Protesters read from George Orwell's '1984' in downtown Bangkok, in a jab against the military junta that took power in a coup last week.

There are no whistles, no loud speakers, and no placards held up high in this quiet act of subversion. Pimsiri Petchnamrob stands silently in a mass of sharply dressed Bangkok commuters, her hands clutched around a copy of George Orwell's 1984.

Next to her a small group of young men and women, their faces sombre and their heads bowed low, also read books about fictional and real totalitarian worlds in silence.

This was the second such protest in two days in Thailand against the country’s military coup. In a city accustomed to roller-coaster politics and sometimes violent demonstrations, the defiant book club was barely noticed. 

“We did it because we are angry at the military dictatorship in Thailand but we don’t think confrontation is the way,” says Ms. Pimsiri, an activist who came up with the protest idea after recently attending a conference on non-violent political opposition in Boston. The participants read English-language copies of the books.

Pimsiri watched dejectedly as Thailand’s military moved in to seize power last week, for the 19th time in 80 years. Speaking on the phone the day after the second book protest, she says she feels what’s happening in her country now is frighteningly close to the fictional state of Oceania in Orwell’s novel, where independent thought is crushed and the Ruling Party is omnipresent.

“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,” says Pimsiri. “People are really watching you, your computers are being monitored… and many people have been detained in undisclosed locations.”

Thailand’s new leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is cracking down on opposition to the regime. 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.

Many in Thailand support the coup and see the draconian laws as necessary to bring about law and order after months of instability and violence. Others, who support the toppled government and former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, vehemently oppose the coup and accuse the generals of supporting the interests of the opposition. Pimsiri and her friends represent a third, much smaller, but growing group who don't consider themselves allied with one side or the other, but are fed up with their democratic rights being restricted. 

In response to the junta’s crackdown on comments on social media, many of them have changed their Facebook profiles to black or posted pictures of themselves with their mouths taped over. Every afternoon a few hundred people gather at Victory Monument in central Bangkok to register their opposition to the coup. So far, direct confrontation between soldiers and protesters has been limited to a few scuffles. Many fear it is only a matter of time before protesters become bolder, and the army uses more force.

“The more [the junta] puts pressure on people, the more they narrow the space for freedom of expression and the more they put people’s patience to the test,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan. 

Mr. Pavin was summoned by the junta to report to them even though he lives abroad. He declined the invitation and joked on a public Facebook post that he could send his pet chihuahua instead.

He says movements like Pimsiris’ 1984 book protest are a hopeful sign of a new political class emerging in Thailand. “I can’t say with any certainty that this is Thailand’s version of the Arab Spring,” he says. “But it could lead to the birth of a new generation in Thailand with new ideas and alternatives to the old system.”

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