Thai anti-coup protesters say it with sandwiches

Jerry Harmer (The Philippine Star) - June 9, 2014 - 6:12am

BANGKOK — Activists protesting last month's military coup in Thailand face a possible two-year jail term if they get too strident, so on yesterday they found a new way to show their sentiments: handing out "sandwiches for democracy."

A small group of student activists from Bangkok's Thammasat University had hoped to hold a picnic rally, but they found the park next to their campus sealed off by the authorities. So instead they paraded down a nearby street, handing out sandwiches and cakes to anyone who wanted them. One older man accompanying them shouted to onlookers, "Sandwiches for democracy!"

Other anti-coup activists have held silent public readings of symbolic works such as "Nineteen Eighty-Four," George Orwell's indictment of totalitarianism. But the intimidation level is high, with the authorities rolling out thousands of troops and police whenever they anticipate a protest. Those charged with breaching the junta's regulation against stirring up unrest are liable to be tried before a court martial.

One of the organizers of the picnic-turned-sandwich protest said the activists have to get creative if they are going to stay out of jail. "We are scared, but we are still trying to fight," said political science student Sirawith Seritiwat. "The situation now forces us to significantly adapt our methods."

The military council that took power May 22 has been the toughest post-coup regime in Thailand in over four decades, summoning more than 300 people perceived as threats to public order — including members of the ousted civilian government, activists and intellectuals — to elicit pledges not to instigate unrest. The most recent of Thailand's 12 successful coups were in 1976, 1977, 1991 and 2006.

Those seen as hotheads are detained without trial for up to a week, in order to give them time to cool off and consider the situation, the army says.

An overnight curfew affecting about a third of the country's provinces has gradually been eased, with hours shortened and exceptions added, particularly for tourist areas. The junta announced yesterday that it was lifting the curfew in three more areas: the southern city of Hat Yai, and the popular islands of Koh Chang and Koh Pha-ngan.

The curfew remains in effect in the capital, Bangkok, although it is only loosely enforced.

The beleaguered nonviolent protest movement suffered a major blow last week when a leading organizer was arrested at his hideout east of Bangkok, and much defiance now takes place online, where protesters encourage each other to post photos of themselves giving a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance adopted from the popular movie "Hunger Games." Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-cha said he didn't have any problem with people making the gesture, though he indicated he considered it un-Thai because it came from a foreign film.

The army overthrew a caretaker civilian government, claiming it had to intervene to prevent bloodshed between pro- and anti-government demonstrators. Bangkok had been stricken by street protests for more than six months, leaving 28 people dead and the economy reeling.

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