19 August 2014

 

 

BANGKOK, Thailand -- McDonald's restaurant, American Baptists, and the British ambassador have explained to people suffering under Thailand's coup why it is important to protect clown-faced Ronald McDonald, introduce atheist Buddhists to God, and know which Twitter hashtags criticize the military junta.

Hundreds of anti-coup Thais are meanwhile using The Hunger Games film, George Orwell's 1984, and flash mobs to protest in the streets for free speech, elections and an end to martial law while U.S.-trained soldiers and police seize anyone who complains.

McDonald's is not amused.

Thailand's fast-food franchise was horrified when it discovered their colorful Ronald McDonald statue is now an icon of subversive, slapstick anti-coup activity.

It began when more than 100 anti-coup activists repeatedly gathered in front of a McDonald's branch at a commercially wealthy intersection, Rajprasong, shortly after the May 22 putsch.

The spacious restaurant is air conditioned, open 24 hours and offers free Wi-Fi.

Dozens of protesters have been cramming inside to escape the tropical heat, refuel with food and drink, surf online with their smart phones, and taunt any armed troops positioned outside who are trying to intimidate larger crowds.

Yelling and waving signs -- some too obscene to quote under the junta's censorship -- the protesters then descended upon the restaurant's outdoor life-size statue of Ronald McDonald.

They pasted hand-written signs on his torso, plus a face mask of a dissident who is on the run to escape arrest.

The face mask photo of political activist Sombat Boonngam-anong, captioned "Catch Me If You Can," made the apolitical Ronald look like he was Mr. Sombat mocking the coup.

Inspired by that juxtaposition, a meme began floating around Internet showing Ronald McDonald running, laughing and pumping his fists in the air while four armed Thai soldiers desperately chase him.

"It has come to our attention that certain persons have recently used the McDonald's logo, symbol and trademark through several social media, and we believe that such acts may have purportedly been carried out for the purposes of furthering certain political interests," McDonald's franchise owner, McThai Co., Ltd., said on May 29 on its Thailand Facebook page.

McDonald's said such action "was carried out without any participation, authorization, acceptance or endorsement whatsoever on the part of McThai Co., Ltd.," which runs more than 190 McDonald's in Thailand.

The company "continues to maintain a neutral stance in the current political situation in Thailand."

If anyone uses Ronald or any other McDonald's symbols in the future, the company will "take appropriate measures to protect our rights under the law."

Under the regime's martial law, civilians can be tried in a military court for criticizing the coup or expressing anti-junta opinions.

On Sunday (June 1), when another anti-coup protest planned to gather in front of McDonald's, the restaurant pulled their Ronald statue inside, locked their doors, and pasted a notice on the windows which warned:

"NO PHOTO & Political related activity in the restaurant."

America's Baptists chose instead to promote God.

Their International Mission Board (IMB) leaders "are calling believers to fervent prayer for Thailand after the Royal Thai Army declared martial law...and gained control of the government in a coup," reported the Nashville, Tennessee-based Baptist Press, established in 1946 by the Southern Baptist Convention.

"About 95 percent of Thailand's population is Buddhist," it said, referring to the atheist philosophy which does not believe in any god.

An IMB worker "asked Southern Baptists to pray that the Thai people would be willing to let go of old traditions and powers they have always leaned on, [and be] willing to look at new ideas and open up to the Gospel," the paper reported on May 27.

"Christianity can thrive very well in harsh circumstances," the worker said.

His name was faked in the story, perhaps because the Baptists fear the junta would not like Americans or others using the coup's crisis as a wedge to convert distressed Thai Buddhists.

"Our prayer is always that God would use things like this to help people realize that peace really only comes from Jesus," said the IMB worker.

British Ambassador Mark Kent meanwhile attracted admiration among many Thais and foreigners concerned about the coup.

The British envoy filled his Twitter "profile" with hashtags highlighting updates about military rule throughout the world, including "#Coup #Junta #Human rights," while promoting an elegant photograph of a youthful Queen Elizabeth II.

In a wink to those in the know, Ambassador Kent also posted a YouTube link to The Who's 1971 cynically rebellious song, "Won't Get Fooled Again."

"Please feel free to suggest people follow me on Twitter," the British envoy told readers who asked about the coup's restrictions.

"It is illegal to criticize the coup and you should be wary of making political statements in public," he said, posting a British government advisory about Thailand on Saturday (May 31), one of about 20 countries to issue similar warnings.

On Sunday (June 1) more than 100 brave Thais, mostly young men and women, thronged one of Bangkok's most popular shopping malls, each extending an arm above their head while pointing three fingers skyward in an imaginative new gesture against the coup.

Troops armed with assault rifles and backed by a Humvee equipped with a heavy machine gun, rushed to disperse them at snazzy Terminal 21 mall.

Not many people knew what the three-fingered gesture meant, until they were told it was inspired from The Hunger Games, chosen because the film echoes the desperate plight of Thai protesters against a military junta supported by Bangkok's wealthy elite.

In the film, the main character Katniss Everdeen played by Jenifer Lawrence, courageously raises three fingers and then kisses her fingers in an emotional sign of determined survival to her loved ones and friends.

In response, they raise three fingers in solidarity while watching her on huge screens when she fights against being murdered in a political game orchestrated by an aristocratic dictatorship.

In Thailand, the new gesture is expected to be popular among many who already flash a two-finger V sign as a cute way to liven up photos of themselves.

Within hours of the shopping mall protest, a soldier armed with an assault rifle and wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet, appeared in a photo on Internet kissing his three fingers, simultaneously disguising his identity.

Thai protesters at the mall also unfurled a big black-and-white banner which said "Thailand 1984" under a painted portrait of coup leader Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha scowling as an Orwellian Big Brother.

The banner paraphrased the late British author's doublespeak quotes to mock the junta and stated: "Coup is Peace, Election is Slavery, Loyalty is Strength."

Troops arrested a handful of people, but the protesters achieved a victory by prompting the regime to pour 6,000 soldiers and police into Bangkok's streets at several key intersections across the sprawling capital.

Several main streets, rail transport stations, parks and glitzy shopping malls shut down where the regime expected protests that did not appear -- creating the biggest protest success since the May 22 coup.

Dissidents used Twitter, Facebook and other social media to suddenly announce their protest sites in a flash mob strategy, empowering a tiny number of activists to engage the junta in an expensive, frustrating and embarrassing chase.

Martial law forbids political gatherings of five or more people, so Thais have also been clustering in groups of four on busy walkway bridges where they silently read books by Orwell others who write about dictators crushing freedom.