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In Thailand, Young People Push The Boundaries On Public Dissent


Last week's deadly bombing in Bangkok was a crack in a relatively quiet year, a year in which a military regime gave a sense of stability after years of political turmoil. That same regime does not tolerate any dissent. And we're going to hear now from some of the few voices beginning to express discontent. Michael Sullivan reports from Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Last month, lawyer Wiboon Boonpatara Raksa left his home in the northeast and took his guitar to Bangkok to serenade his son, Pai, and Pai's friends, with this song outside the prison where they were detained.

WIBOON BOONPATARA RAKSA: (Singing in foreign language).

SULLIVAN: The 14 university students inside had been arrested for taking part in several peaceful anti-coup demonstrations, charged with holding illegal gatherings and sedition, brought to a military court in the middle of the night. Wiboon says he's proud of his boy.

RAKSA: (Through interpreter) He didn't do any wrong. He didn't break the law. My son was only exercising his freedom of expression. He didn't break any laws except the military's rules, and he got people thinking.

SULLIVAN: But if they are, they're pretty much keeping it to themselves. When the military seized power in May 2014, many Thais welcomed the coup, which essentially ended months, years of political uncertainty and violence - last week's bombing excepted. And those who didn't welcome the coup stayed mostly silent.

DAVID STRECKFUSS: For whatever reason, pro-democracy ties have become very fearful and there's a strange silence. It doesn't mean acquiescence, it means that they fear what might happen to them if they protest.

SULLIVAN: That's David Streckfuss. An academic who lives in the northeast of the country, he says one notable exception has been Wiboon's son, Pai, and his friends.

STRECKFUSS: They're a nightmare for the regime. They are students that are courageous and principled and willing to hold their ground against what they interpret as an illegal regime, illegal in their minds from the very day of the coup.

SULLIVAN: Pai and a few of his colleagues had been detained before, in November, for flashing the three- fingered sign of rebellion from the "Hunger Games" movies in public. That time, they were released after a few hours. He says his group, Dao Din, has long worked with local communities to fight for land rights and to protect the environment, and since the coup, he says, they'd been reaching out to others too as part of the new democracy movement.

PAI RAKSA: (Through interpreter) We first started talking with friends, and then we invited more people to join. We know this government has the weapons, and that we, as Dao Din, couldn't fight alone. We needed allies and we needed a strategy.

SULLIVAN: Part of that strategy ended up getting them arrested, but they were released after refusing bail, the military apparently deciding that cutting them loose was better than keeping them and having them become a symbol of resistance. The charges have not been dropped. They still face seven years in prison if convicted. But if they stay quiet, many people believe the military will give them a pass - many people, but not everyone.

WERACHON SUKHONDAPATIPAK: If you're doing something wrong, against the law, there is a consequence based on the law. I'm not in a position to say that if they're quiet, they will - you know, the charge will be lifted. That is blackmail, that is not law enforcement.

SULLIVAN: Major General Werachon Sukhondapatipak is the government's deputy spokesman, a thoughtful man who says he understands the students' concerns about democracy and freedom of expression. But he says that prior to last year's military intervention, the country had too much freedom of expression and political deadlock.

SUKHONDAPATIPAK: So our decision, our concept, our approach is based on sincerity. In order to move the country forward, in order to bring back, you know, harmony back to the country, we welcome all differences in opinion, but that kind of difference of opinion must not jeopardize the national interest.

SULLIVAN: General-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha says he'll return the country to democratic rule as soon as possible, though the date for when that might be keeps slipping. And the new constitution, proposed by the military, seems to ensure that the military and the traditional elite will exert tremendous power even after a general election. And for people like Pai, that's a deal-breaker. Pai says he and his friends had nothing to do with last week's bombing and he condemns it in the strongest possible terms. But he says that doesn't mean the democracy activists have given up.

PAI: (Through interpreter) It's going to be a while but we need more time to make a plan, more people to join our movement from all walks of society.

SULLIVAN: I ask him for a timetable. He just shrugs. Then he jumps on the back of a friend's bike and is gone - but not before turning around to yell, coming soon. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.