The Skytrain walkway in front of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre is usually noisy and bustling with human traffic.
But on a recent Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere there was uncharacteristically tranquil, a definite aura radiating from a group of youngsters who were standing around, silently reading.
Their presence attracted attention. Commuters stared, some doubling back to gawk at the readers. Nobody could work out why people would choose to pore over books in the middle of a pedestrian thoroughfare; why don't they sit in a comfortable, air-conditioned library or some fancy coffee bar?
After one hour, the group dispersed. There left no posters or pamphlets to explain their action, pinned up no manifesto. There was no donation box to solicit funds.
These young people were protesting against the huge budget set aside by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to finance its World Book Capital publicity efforts.
"We don't want to organise or mobilise a campaign. There are many campaigns under way in this country and especially in this area," said Sakrapee Rinsarn, one of those responsible for organising an eloquently theatrical demonstration they have dubbed Yuen Arn Kan Ngieb Ngieb (Standing And Reading Quietly).
"We just want to raise the question: Why does the BMA think it necessary to spend 1 billion baht on Bangkok World Book Capital 2013?
"We are not a formal organisation. We don't have back-up. So we just designed a campaign to show that reading is a simple activity and it shouldn't cost very much," said Sakrapee, 24, a self-professed bookworm who graduated from Burapha University with a major in book publishing.
The reference to "reading quietly" is a dig at the World Book Capital slogan coined by the BMA, which goes: Arn Kan Sanan Muang (Reading Out Loud Across The City).
Back in 2011, Bangkok was designated by Unesco as World Book Capital 2013, a move intended to give international recognition to a city which promotes a culture of reading and has good facilities for book enthusiasts. The BMA is reportedly spending 1.5 billion baht on developing the city's libraries, acquiring more books and running book-reading activities and a public relations campaign for a whole year in order to show that Bangkok is indeed worthy of the World Book Capital title. The municipal authorities are also planning to spend another 200 million to construct a new library on Ratchadamnoen Road. If it does ever get built, it has been suggested that this state-of-the-art book repository will be kept open 24 hours a day.
The "Reading Quietly" campaign came into being as a result of a discussion between Sakrapee and a bunch of friends which included Nakin Poonsri from Rangsit University. All avid readers and politically active, they were disturbed by the BMA's lavish spending on the World Book Capital project and decided to "do something simple" to make the general public question the validity of this use of tax-payers' money.
To publicise their proposed "literary act-up", the friends used social media sites and conducted a poll asking participants which area in the city they thought most suitable for what they hoped would be an attention-grabbing stunt. Those who got involved gradually became friends and start hanging out together and taking part in various joint cultural pursuits. The group launched its first act-up in July. The Skytrain walkway was their second outing.
In Nakin's opinion, very little of the large sums of money being spent by the BMA will have any long-lasting effect in strengthening the culture of reading among Thais.
"The money should be spent wisely on developing existing libraries or reducing membership fees and buying better books. But what we mainly see from the BMA's Bangkok World Book Capital efforts are posters, PR gimmicks and lavish exhibitions that have no empirical or lasting impact on promoting a culture of reading," Nakin said. Another person involved in the protest is Rapi Songkuntham, a Mathayom 5 student at Triam Udom Suksa.
"I think the BMA's spending for Bangkok World Capital 2013 is rather funny and runs counter to the reality of books and how you get people interested in them. I believe that a culture of reading must be promoted in schools beginning early on at the primary level; it cannot be achieved by short-term PR activities," stated Rapi, who took part in both public "read-ins".
Award-winning local writer Utis Hemamun praised the Reading Quietly campaign for demonstrating effectively that reading is joyful yet low-cost activity.
"The group scores by showing the joy of reading for what it is. Speaking as a reader, for me reading is simply an activity which one can do any time, anywhere. You don't need a lot of money for it or any fancy infrastructure."
As for the BMA's World Book Capital campaign, Utis is reserving judgement.
"To be fair, the BMA might also be spending some of the budget on developing libraries and increasing the availability of books in BMA schools and city libraries, but news about that hasn't been printed so the public doesn't know how and where BMA is spending the money. We only see the posters and the PR campaigns. In my view, posters and PR campaigns are not enough to establish or strengthen reading habits."
While the BMA's campaign is due to wind up soon, Sakrapee, Nakin and their friends are determined to continue their efforts by launching "Library In Your Hands", a campaign to mock and challenge the BMA's plan to build more public libraries. And the new campaign, we were assured, will feature more of those eloquent public read-ins.
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About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter