Sand- Witch Hunt in Thailand

You probably had a sandwich for lunch and thought nothing of it. But in Thailand these days, you have to watch what you eat, as well as what you say.

On 20 May this year, the military declared martial law in Thailand, with the stated aim of 'calming tensions'. Two days later Thailand's military declared that it had taken control of the country.

To mark 100 days of martial law, we published a report yesterday on life under military rule in Thailand. The picture that emerges is one of an authoritarian government intent on stifling all criticism.

Since the military seized power, hundreds of people have been arrested, there are multiple reports of torture and sweeping restrictions have been placed on freedom of expression including dictates on what people wear, what they read, who they can meet with and even what they eat.

Hundreds of websites have been taken down or blocked, “censorship panels” have been set up to monitor media, and people have been threatened with imprisonment for posting anything deemed critical of the military online.

It all sounds rather Orwellian, which must have been what occurred to some students planning a peaceful protest at Bangkok University in June. They had planned to eat sandwiches and read George Orwell’s seminal text on suppression and mind control; Nineteen Eighty-four. They were arrested and detained before they could take a bite, or turn a page. Not that they needed to really, after all, as Orwell has it; “The best books... are those that tell you what you know already.”

Since then, the humble sandwich has become a symbol peaceful resistance, leading state-run newspapers to warn people against eating sandwiches, and a senior police chief to say they are keeping a close eye on sandwich eaters. Ministry of Silly Walks, anyone?

It would be amusing, if it weren’t actually happening. The Telegraph reported advice to travellers that they “avoid wearing red t-shirts, which are associated with a group opposed to the military government”, and “don’t carry George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘1984’. You don’t want to be mistaken for an anti-coup protestor.”

Indeed you don’t, given the reports of beatings, asphyxiation and mock executions that opposition supporters have been subject to.

So where are we now? SPOILER ALERT - Just two weeks ago Thailand's junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha was named the new prime minister of the southeast Asian nation and his government is apparently less than impressed at being under investigation themselves. Reacting to today’s report a military spokesman said Amnesty needed to “get its facts straight.” Colonel Winthai Suvaree told Reuters "We have never violated people with opposing political views. There has been no physical violence or threats."

However he then added, seemingly contradictorily, that a ban on gatherings would remain in force "until the political climate improves.”

As I take a bite of my chicken salad solidarity protest and mull over his statements, I can’t help being reminded that “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

I think we had better continue to keep an eye on the people keeping an eye on the sandwich eaters.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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