Martial Law in the City of Angels

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September 27th 2006
Published: September 27th 2006
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We interrupt our regular broadcast to bring you a special report from Bangkok, as the proverbial dust settles after the recent coup d'etat and life returns to normal... =) Thanks to all of you who've called or emailed over the last week to check how I was; your concern is much appreciated but totally unnecessary! To reassure you a little, I thought I'd put up some photos I took the other day and tell you a bit about what it's like to be living here right now. If you're looking for a well-informed and insightful analysis of the current political climate and intelligent predictions for Thailand's immediate future, I'd suggest you look elsewhere. Instead, this will just be a farang student's perspective of the situation in Thailand, (and that's a fairly limited perspective!).

Last Tuesday, when the coup took place, I was out with some friends at a local bowling alley. Towards the end of the night, one of my Dutch friends received a call from his dad, who was watching CNN back home in the Netherlands. It was fairly surreal when he returned to tell the rest of us that at that very moment, four tanks had converged on Bangkok's Government House and a coup d'etat was apparently underway, as we spoke. Foreign news feeds were taken off the air and Thai stations all played the same feature on the royal family, so it was hard to get any hard facts for a while. Fighting the silly temptation to head downtown myself, I went to one of the many 24-hour net cafes near the university, (the Thai students love their all-night online gaming sessions), and tried to get an idea of what was going on.

The next morning, the staff at the International College held a meeting for all of the exchange students. Most of what they told us was common sense - get in touch with friends & family back home, don't go out in big groups (public gatherings of more than five people are illegal - a law we were in clear violation of while being told this), avoid the city centre for now, and so on. But it was still a surreal feeling to be told that we were currently living under martial law and that a 6pm curfew had been instated. To be pefectly honest, I enjoyed it all immensely. After all, how often does one get to experience a coup d'etat, (not that we were actually experiencing much at all of it, but still...). Noone had been hurt and it seemed unlikely there'd be violent demonstrations, so I didn't feel too guilty about enjoying the whole situation so much.

Wednesday was declared a 'public holiday' - no classes and many shops were closed. Rumours abounded: that the military leadership were sharply divided and that fighting would break out soon, that Thaksin (the ousted Prime Minister) had returned secretly and was orchestrating his triumphant return already, that internet and mobile phone coverage would be cut, and so on. But later that day Thai TV stations began broadcasting again, showing footage of tanks rolling through familiar streets, and a little later the foreign stations were unblocked as well. Within 24 hours of the coup's taking place, life had pretty much returned to normal, (at least for us in Rangsit).

The coup leaders had stressed from the start their loyalty to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, an approach absolutely essential if they were to gain the trust and cooperation of the Thai people. Soldiers wore yellow arm-bands, (yellow is the King's colour), tied yellow ribbons to
Party atmosphereParty atmosphereParty atmosphere

A shot of a tank turret through balloon strings
their guns, and draped yellow flower-garlands over tank barrels. At first, the King made no official statement of support, although many people suggest that the coup could never have taken place without his support. But on Friday, in a nationally-televised ceremony, a royal decree of assent was read out, confirming the King's support for caretaker-leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin and the 'Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy' that he heads.

It would be difficult to overstate the power that the King exercises in Thailand. Officially, he has very little political power at all. However, in practise, he is enormously influential due to the high respect in which he is held - by literally all sections of Thai society. For example, in 1992, he ended a period of escalating street violence with just a few quiet words to the two main rivals, as they kneeled together at his feet. Very rarely does he directly intervene however, often requiring only a brief statement or conversation to make his feelings understood - and they are very rarely ignored, (Thaksin being a notable exception).

His image and influence are everywhere - on billboards, TV, newspapers & magazines, the royal song during previews at the cinema (for which everyone stands), and so on. Thai people wore yellow every day during the celebrations of his 60th anniversary; now the official 'wearing-yellow-in-support-of-the-King' day is Monday. One only needs head out to a shopping centre or go downtown, on any Monday, to appreciate the sea of yellow shirts and the depth of respect & devotion behind them.

Of course, the former Prime Minister (Thaksin Shinawatra) certainly has his supporters as well, (particularly in the rural areas, where his shameless vote-buying has been roundly and frequently criticised). The general opinion of Thaksin is that he is undoubtedly corrupt, selfish (his family paid no tax whatsoever on a recent $1.9 billion deal) and arrogant. However, his economic shrewdness is equally undeniable, (he was a billionaire businessman before entering politics), and his policies have strengthened the economy and benefited many in Thailand. A sentiment I've heard expressed many times is that Thaksin is a greedy & arrogant bastard, but a bastard who did great things for the country's economy and was therefore tolerated, (even admired by some).

Despite this popular support for both the King and Thaksin, they are two very different people from all accounts, and
'Coup festival''Coup festival''Coup festival'

Complete with tanks, balloons, ice-cream stands, and both the royal and national flags flying high over all.
apparently tension between them had been growing in recent months. I read an article the other day based on an interview with a professor of political science at a well-known Bangkok university. He suggested that "this coup was nothing short of Thaksin versus the King". Explaining the different approaches of each man, he said that "the King spent four decades to win the hearts and minds of people, quietly doing many public works. Thaksin tried to do it in four years, through populist handouts". Summing up, the professor stated that "people liked Thaksin, but they love the King". Perhaps I've been brainwashed as well, by what is undeniably extensive & effective propaganda use, but my time in Thailand has led me to hold the King in very high regard. I have to admit I find it reassuring to know he has given his approval to the current leadership and is keeping an eye on the situation.

At any rate, that's my (very limited & admittedly biased) understanding of the situation. As I've told many of the people who've called me from back home, anyone with access to BBC, CNN or pretty much any English-language news station, (except maybe Fox News of course), probably has a better idea of what's really going on here than I do! As I said earlier though, things seem to be back to normal here, for all intents and purposes. One of my best mates from back home is flying into Bangkok in a few days, and I've had no hesitation in reassuring him of the stability of the situation. Trying to find him in the opening-week chaos of Suvarnahumbi Airport, (Bangkok's new airport, replacing Don Muang), is going to be the tricky part...

By the end of last week, the whole city had settled back down, and I went downtown with some Thai friends on Friday night. As far as we knew, a curfew of 6pm was still officially in place, but Bangkok's party-life continued virtually untouched. The only difference I could see was the occasional group of soldiers at major road intersections, but they made no move to stop vehicles or enforce the curfew in any way. When we left the club, at around 3am, Bangkok seemed as busy & lively as always. It was very hard to imagine that a coup had just taken place and that we were technically living under martial law.

I returned to town on Sunday, with Danna (one of the new American exchange students), to find out what else there was to see. Heading straight to Government House, where the central events of the well-executed and bloodless coup had taken place, we joined the yellow-shirted throngs of Thai's at the barricade. Soldiers wandered along behind the fence, basking in the affectionate attention, posing for photos, accepting flowers from the crowd, sometimes stopping and chatting for a while. We were there for about 10 minutes before they opened up the gates and everyone poured inside, to the four tanks still positioned there. Kids climbed all over them, old ladies hung yellow-flower garlands on them, and literally everyone posed for a photo in front of them. The soldiers had been issued a recent order, to "smile more", and this was evident. I was also impressed by their patience, getting photo after photo with crying babies and nervous little kids, (not to mention a couple of nosy farangs).

Since the King's official endorsement of the military action, I'd known there was likely to be a much more relaxed & stable atmosphere in town, as well as an outpouring of support and affection for the soldiers. But this... It was literally like a country-town festival - but with tanks and fully-automatic machine guns thrown in for good measure. Laughing families took happy snaps with friendly soldiers, little kids bought ice-creams before climbing up onto the nearest tank, enterprising kebab-vendors did a brisk trade (coup-watching is hungry work after all!), soldiers accepted flowers from the crowd and looked for new places to hang them on their tanks... Everyone seemed extremely relaxed and optimistic about the future. It wasn't exactly what I'd expected and I found it a little strange, but also reassuring in a way.

At any rate, this entry is already way too long, so I'll let the pictures tell the story from now on and get back to writing catch-up blogs on the last couple of months. Up next: "Scuba Diving with Bruce Lee"... =)

(Happy Birthday for today Dad - hope you like your presents from Cambodia!)

Additional photos below
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27th September 2006

Intriguing blog mate!
You're totally right Michael, its seems more like a fun-fair than a political uprising. I too would have loved absolutely every minute of it!. Of course, in 10 years you can stretch the tale out a bit... Dont you remember how you heroically rescued several innocent children from the threat of a merciless oncoming tank in a heated exchange of gunfire? All while wearing a yellow tshirt.
27th September 2006

Safe yet surreal!
Well, Michael, your experiences just keep getting more and more interesting! Thanks for the Birthday gifts and for your phone call tonight - I had a great day!
28th September 2006

cool blog - I'm off to thailand next week and knew it would be ok but it's always nice to hear it first hand...... liked the Laos one too keep em coming!!!
28th September 2006

Nice photo , nice blog, I am living in bangkok also but seem nothing effect me and my friend at all just hope we will get a new prime minister soon. :D
28th September 2006

I guessed you would find it all fascinating and enjoy the concept of being in the midst of a coup :-) The photos are intriguing and just slightly bizarre!
10th October 2006

Nice pics
Hurray! You even referenced my photos. Nice. Really good entry. You put mine to shame. I'm getting so used to the Thai version of English where one speaks as clearly with as few adverbs and adjectives as possible that I've forgotten how fun it is to write elloquently. Thanks for reminding me.

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