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Finding George Orwell in Bangkok

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George Orwell's classic novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four," which describes a surveillance society, was first published 65 years ago.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- It is a Saturday afternoon and I am wandering the polished hallways of Paragon, one of Bangkok's most luxurious shopping malls, searching for signs of protest. When a frenetic series of camera flashes light up the atrium windows, I hurry down to the front of the mall, toward a fast-growing throng of journalists, photographers and policemen. Pushing my way through the gawking crowd, I find the source of the commotion: A solitary protester. He sits alone amid the hubbub, solemnly holding aloft a copy of George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

     In the wake of the May 22 military coup in Thailand, hundreds of people came out to demonstrate against the overthrow of a democratically elected government. But the country's new rulers, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), proved astoundingly efficient at routing out opposition -- within weeks, the number of anti-coup protesters had dwindled to a mere handful. As Thais who oppose the coup grapple with the ever-decreasing space available to dissenters, Orwell's dystopian novel serves as both a cautionary tale and a handbook for defiance.

     The use of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" as a symbol of protest started among a group of young activists who organized public book readings to express their objection to the coup. There was nothing illegal about their silent gatherings; they never lasted longer than an hour and the number of participants in any one group was capped at four (martial law forbids public assemblies of more than five people). But even these small-scale events soon became impossible to conduct without provoking the ire of the NCPO.

     As in Oceania, the omnipotent state depicted in "Nineteen Eighty-Four," the NCPO's ability to control its critics relies primarily on fear. The ruling generals met the early peaceful protests in the capital with a disproportionate show of force, deploying some 6,000 troops to the city center. Organizers were swiftly identified and detained. Hundreds of politicians, activists and academics considered capable of inciting unrest were summoned to report to the military. Most of those detained were released after a maximum of seven days, but only after signing an agreement not to express divisive political opinions or stir up opposition to the NCPO.

     Surveillance techniques also include the use of undercover officers. One female protester was forcibly bundled into a taxi by plainclothes policemen, while another was taken away on the back of a motorbike by a security officer sporting the familiar green armband worn by registered members of the press. Likewise, the protester outside Paragon was not arrested by the uniformed policemen who surrounded him but by a team of undercover cops who materialized from the crowd. By using plainclothes officers in this public manner the NCPO sends a clear message; if the authorities aren't always in uniform then you never know who the stranger standing next to you might be or, as posters in Oceania warn, "Big Brother is Watching You."

     Perhaps even more unsettling than this blurring of lines between officialdom and civilians is the attempt to co-opt the general public. The national deputy police chief has offered 500 baht ($15.79) rewards for photographs of anti-coup activities. Government officials have been urged to report colleagues who express ideas that might threaten national security. And the vigilance continues online. While the NCPO has established working groups to scour the Internet, police warn that even to "like" something on Facebook could be used as evidence of potential insurrection against the new regime.

     While the ruling generals quash criticism and protest, they keenly promote their own good works. Among the numerous NCPO propaganda efforts is a song allegedly written by the coup leader himself, General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Titled "Returning Happiness to Thailand," it begins with a stirring piano instrumental and includes plaintive lyrics such as: "Give us (the military) a little bit more time and the beautiful land (we all once knew) will return." The song is broadcast frequently throughout the day on radio, television and public transport. By sheer force of repetition it is now imprinted in the singalong repertoire of most Thais.

     In keeping with the sentiment expressed in Prayuth's song, the NCPO has been holding "happiness fairs" around Thailand. In a recent report to mark two months in power, the organization claimed to have hosted more than 84,000 events of various sizes to promote political reconciliation in every province throughout the country. In late July, I attended the opening ceremony of what the NCPO touted as its biggest such event to date, a "Festival of Reconciliation to Return Happiness to the People." It was, by any reckoning, an impressive affair -- meticulously organized and held in a splendid setting on the parade ground in front of Bangkok's Grand Palace, home to past kings of the current royal dynasty.

     On the central stage, leaders from across the political and religious spectrum held hands and participated in group prayer and heartfelt declarations of peace and unity. As the sun set against the glittering golden spires of the palace, a dashing military officer in full uniform belted out Prayuth's song to the accompaniment of a live military band: "Let us (the military) be the ones to step in before it's too late so that we can bring love back (to the country). How much time will it take?"

     After more than a decade of vicious political friction and fighting, Thai society is so polarized it seemed unlikely that events such as this one -- no matter how well-meaning or expertly choreographed -- will be able to mend the deep rifts. Over multiple visits to the six-day happiness fair in Bangkok, it became clear that the event, while well attended, failed to attract many members of the so-called Red Shirts, who supported the deposed government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. And yet, as I wandered around the fair, I began to wonder whether happiness might not be so hard to deliver after all.

     Beyond the stage, the royal parade ground was ringed with numerous stalls and tents hosted by government ministries. There were games, regional delicacies, cut-price goods for sale, and plenty of freebies. Attendees queued patiently for cheap cooking oil and free toaster ovens. One of the longest queues I saw was for Kai Haa Dao (Five-Star Chicken, a popular grilled chicken franchise). Though the stall had not yet opened, news had spread that it would be handing out free chicken, and the line of hopeful recipients spanned half the length of the royal grounds. I asked one man at the end of the queue if he thought waiting so long for a bit of free chicken was going to make him happy. "Of course!" he beamed. "It's absolutely delicious. Haven't you ever tasted it?"

     When the lone protester in front of the Paragon shopping complex was asked by a journalist if he would continue to oppose the coup, he cited the gloomy prescience in the final pages of "Nineteen Eighty-Four." Quoting the last lines of the novel verbatim, he noted that the book does not end in victory. "It ends," he said, "with an ordinary person succumbing to dictatorship; he is brainwashed and swallowed up by dictatorship. If everyone else is willing to give up, then I'll probably have to give up, too."

     Indeed, some would argue that the lack of sustained protest indicates most Thais support the coup or at least are willing to accept temporary military rule. A poll, taken in mid-June, even found that over 93% of people were actually happy with the NCPO. Yet the NCPO's tactics against dissent and its own relentless propaganda allow little space for divergent viewpoints. In this co-opted silence, pronouncements on the public mood lack authority; when criticism is prohibited, praise is surely meaningless.

     So, as the NCPO imposes its singular narrative upon this chapter in Thai history by enforcing public displays of happiness and relegating discontent to the realm of private conversation, I find myself seeking out the few signs of resistance that manage to evade the hyper-vigilant authorities. There has been the odd snippet of graffiti ("damn coup"), swiftly whitewashed over. Someone told me about a plan to paste stickers around Bangkok that defiantly state "2+2=4," another "Nineteen Eighty-Four"reference -- "In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it."

     Some signs are nebulous but nonetheless compelling; in the weeks following the coup, the Thai-language edition of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" sold so well that its publisher announced the novel is now completely out of stock.

Emma Larkin is the author of "Finding George Orwell in Burma."

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