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Democracy Gets Sucker-Punched (Again) in Thailand

Source: Getty

Thai soldiers at a train station stand guard to secure the city center area on June 1, 2014, in Bangkok, Thailand.

My First Coup

Witnessing Thailand’s Strange, Slow-Burning Military Coup

Why you should care

Because a bloodless coup is still a coup, and this one has cost Thailand a lot.  

I was sitting in the window of a Bangkok coffee shop on May 22 when Thailand’s most recent coup — its 19th since 1932 — was declared. I watched it unfold in real time, not on the busy streets outside but on Twitter.

It was 5 p.m., and soldiers had barricaded political leaders from rival factions in the building where peace talks were being held. At the same time, every TV station had been shut down, and normal programming was replaced with five men in uniform who told people not to panic — they were now running the country.

Outside the café window, life carried on. People sipped coffee, bought and sold street food, and walked home from school. Everything appeared normal — so much so that I wondered whether the coup was real.

The protesters began running toward the soldiers, and I started questioning why I had been stupid enough to indulge in protest tourism.

While everyone else seemed remarkably relaxed, I was on edge and decided to retreat to my apartment to study Twitter feeds. Emails and texts had started streaming in, and my only response was that I knew no more than they did, but that if the situation got worse, I would be on the first plane to Kuala Lumpur.

Then, like any member of the self-documenting generation, I felt like I had to take a photograph. I wanted to capture the surreal mix of anxiety and indifference. After all, if a coup takes place and it doesn’t appear on your Instagram feed, did it really happen?

Eventually I got my one-and-only coup photo of the day. Waiting at a red light on a major intersection, I snapped a picture: You can see several cars in the forefront, a traffic attendant and four commuters and, nestled in the shadows under an overpass, a soldier in full fatigues carrying what looks like a semi-automatic rifle.

Cars on street, people on sidewalk

Source: Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin

Soon, a curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. was declared, then extended by a week and adjusted to midnight to 4 a.m. For foreign residents and visitors, the only concrete effect of the coup is that it has cramped our social lives.

The background to the current crisis is impossibly complex and stretches back decades, but the basic details are these: Thai society is undergoing seismic changes. In the last decade, the ruling royalist elite — known as the yellow shirts — has been threatened by the rise of a populist movement, widely supported by poorer people outside the major cities, predominantly in the north. This conflict has hinged on former prime minister and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, a leader with huge popular support from those known as red shirts; he was deposed in 2006.

Thaksin now lives in self-imposed exile, but many suspect that he has retained his influence on Thai politics via his sister Yingluck, who was elected prime minister in 2011. Protests against Yingluck’s administration broke out in November of last year and continued until May 7, when she was ousted by a Thai court on charges of corruption, just weeks before her government was toppled by the military.

After two days of obsessively tracking #ThaiCoup, curiosity got the better of me. I ventured out with friends to visit Victory Monument, one of the city’s main intersections, where an anti-coup protest was kicking off. A crowd a few hundred strong was walking around the monument. Perhaps they were from the red-shirt faction, angry at the recent ousting of the prime minister. Or maybe the younger protesters, casting off the traditional red-yellow divides, were simply demanding honest and competent governance.

It is scary to be reminded of what a privilege it is, as a citizen of the West, to take democratic institutions for granted.

In general, Thai people seem reluctant to weigh in on the situation. Criticizing the junta or the royal family or inciting violence could land them in military court. It’s rumored that a taxi driver was recently arrested for discussing inequality in Thailand with a passenger.

People had gathered on the skywalks that run above street level. We joined them, both for the view and to steer clear of possible clashes: Public gatherings of more than five people are illegal under martial law. After about an hour, not much had happened, so we left; the protesters dispersed too.

The protests’ magnetic draw pulled me back the next day. This time, the crowd was about twice the size, and the slogan-shouting had grown much louder. I was watching them march peacefully around the monument when clusters of police began to appear on the skywalk where I was standing and on the street below. Traffic had virtually stopped, and I soon understood why. Looking around, I saw that the road behind us had been blocked off by armed soldiers standing four or five rows deep.

As the protesters began running toward the soldiers, I started questioning why I had been stupid enough to indulge in protest tourism. Within moments, a number of protesters were standing inches from the soldiers and shouting in their faces, risking arrest or worse. Thankfully, the sidewalks were clear. I hurried past and made a beeline for home, my adrenaline levels slowly returning to normal.

Aerial view of trucks with soldiers unloading in middle of intersection

Source: Wason Wanichakorn/AP/Corbis

Thai soldiers are deployed at a business intersection in Bangkok, Thailand, on June 1, 2014.

That confrontation also ended without violence. Although Bangkok has seen a string of incredibly tense encounters, thus far the coup has been bloodless, and international interest has ebbed. But from where I’m sitting, this “peace” simply proves how effectively an army can strip democratic freedoms with the mere threat of force.

Political leaders, academics and journalists have been detained, the media has been heavily censored, and protesters have been arrested. Individual free speech is highly curtailed, and the junta has repeatedly threatened to target social media users who post criticism of the regime (Facebook briefly shut down last week, to widespread horror). Many international governments have denounced the coup and may impose sanctions in the coming months. What’s more, the country is highly dependent on income from tourism, which has slumped in the face of the recent unrest. Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has announced that the junta is likely to stay in power for more than a year. Yet the coup has been so cleverly managed that it’s now almost invisible.

A quote from a Ukrainian protester that ran in the New Yorker recently gave me pause. “In the West, you get your democracy just like you get your coffee and your morning paper. … You don’t have to think about it. It’s going to come every day,” he said.

Being in Bangkok isn’t physically scary. Life goes on, I check Twitter for updates and make sure I’m home by midnight. But it is scary to be reminded of what a privilege it is, as a citizen of the West, to take democratic institutions for granted.

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