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Members of the New Democracy Movement activist group and supporters hold up pictures of the 14 students who had been held for holding anti-coup protests, during a rally outside the military court in Bangkok, Thailand, July 7, 2015. A Thai military court on Tuesday released 14 students held for almost two weeks for holding anti-coup protests in defiance of a ban on public gatherings, but the charges against them have not been dropped.Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

The protest was hardly the stuff of revolutions. Fourteen students, clad in flip-flops, jeans and T-shirts, clustered around the Democracy Monument in downtown Bangkok in late June. They draped a black flag around the monument's central structure. Written on it in white ink were the words "no coup." Only a small crowd gathered to hear them speak, and join them in singing to call for democracy's return.

But under Thailand's military junta rule, even the mildest of protests are illegal. A day later, authorities arrested the students and charged them with "violating national security," a charge on par with sedition. They were detained until Tuesday, when a military court ordered them released from custody, saying the students are not a flight risk.

The students do, however, represent what could develop into a potent challenge to the military regime, which faces growing opposition to the tight chokehold it has maintained on civil liberties for more than a year. The generals took power following dramatic protests that unravelled Thailand's most recent democratic government.

By jailing and charging the students over their mild-mannered protests – charges that still stand, and could drag the students before a military court – the junta has shown itself to be a jittery warden of a nation it has promised to return to democratic rule.

"The situation is fragile and the regime doesn't want to take risks," Verapat Pariyawong, a Thai lawyer and political commentator, said. "Their reaction to the students is just an episode illustrating their constant panic."

Jailing young people is a risky strategy, he added, and heavy repression may not "help [the generals]. It may in fact very well harm them."

The students' supporters say their arrest marked an important moment. People cowed by the junta came to the streets in the hundreds to demand their release. More than 300 academics also signed letters asking the government to release the young people, a risky move. Authorities questioned 30 of the signatories.

The students "are winning the hearts of the people, that's the victory," Yukti Mukdawijitra, a professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University who has worked closely with the students, said. "That's what they have achieved."

Prof. Mukdawijitra felt the impact of the May 2014 coup personally. He fled to the United States soon through the international network known as the "scholars at risk" program that aims to protects academics who face censorship and persecution. He was in danger because of his work proposing changes to the country's rigorous lèse majesté laws, the world's strictest and most heavily enforced. Thailand's military and monarchy are closely aligned.

Prof. Mukdawijitra returned to Thailand a month ago, but said he remains on edge.

"I don't feel that safe," he said. Symposiums and seminars must be cleared by authorities. Discussion of the country's constitution, military policies or junta rule is all forbidden. "It's still really stiff. We do not have freedom of speech. We cannot talk about a lot of things."

Though discontent has boiled over into angry discussion on Facebook and other social media, few Thai have been willing to take to the streets.

That's what made the student protests remarkable, as one of the few public challenges to military rule. The regime has shown itself extremely sensitive about such demonstrations. At one students were dragged away for performing the three-fingered Hunger Games salute – a symbol of defiance against a totalitarian regime; at another a student was arrested while reading aloud George Orwell's 1984.

Many students have also fought for environmental and social issues, merging causes in ways that have brought together otherwise hostile political groups, known as the "yellows" and the "reds." The activism of the young people represents rare unity in the deeply divided country, "a spring of hope for Thailand," according to Evelyn Serrano, executive director for Forum-Asia, a regional human rights organization based in Bangkok.

"Their hope is to be a spark, and they're starting to get some sympathetic ears, at least amongst other students," said David Streckfuss, director of the Council on International Educational Exchange program in the Thai city of Khon Kaen. "They know that if no one takes a risk in standing up to the regime then the regime will stay on and on."

Yet for now, the number of Thais willing to do the same has been low enough that some have grown dispirited, particularly as opposition parties, universities and much of the country's middle class remained silent over the students' detention.

"What is soul-destroying is the comfortable silence from certain sections of our society. You can almost hear a pin drop," wrote columnist Songkran Grachangnetara in a Tuesday Bangkok Post opinion. He nonetheless held the students up as a slight reason for optimism.

"I sense the junta fear the courage of these young rebels, and I think I know why: Courage is contagious," he wrote.