By Ismail Wolff, a freelance reporter based in Bangkok (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 26/09/06):
AROUND 8 last Tuesday night, I was sitting in an Irish pub in the heart of Bangkok. Two friends and I were downing pints of Heineken when a familiar topic came up: How likely is a coup?
We almost felt embarrassed to talk about it. It was unlikely, said one friend, a journalist. I doubt it will happen, said the other, a defense analyst based in Jakarta. I concurred. Suddenly my phone beeped. I had a text message: “Coup under way — rumor.” Tanks rolling through the streets of metropolitan Bangkok? Surely not.
My friends agreed. Rumors of a military coup against the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, widely accused of corruption and abuse of power, had circulated for months, and none of us were about to be duped by a late-night text message.
Then there were more phone calls.
I asked the bartender to switch over from ESPN to Thailand’s Channel 5, the TV station run by the military. It wasn’t showing the normal evening programming. Instead, it ran video of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej helping farmers to sow rice and performing other benevolent acts, accompanied by crackly marching music and patriotic songs about the people’s love for their nation and monarch.
This, I knew from reading about the 17 previous coups here over the past 60 years, was a telltale sign of a military takeover.
Yet I was still skeptical. As everyone had been saying over the past year, the days of coups were over. Thailand had moved on. It had become a lighthouse for democracy in the region, and its political system was now strong enough to deal with widespread social divisions. As others gathered around the television, watching in disbelief, it seemed that the country’s past had just caught up with it.
Suddenly, all the public TV stations, by now under the direction of the military, ran a statement from the army and police commanders. They had “taken control of the situation in Bangkok” and politely asked for the public’s cooperation.
“We apologize for any inconvenience,” it signed off. Typical Thai politeness, I thought. Is this really what a coup feels like?
My shock, however, was not shared by the rest of the country.
As journalists sprang into action, Bangkok shut down. It happened like clockwork, almost as if a director yelled “Cut!” and a whole city of six million packed up the set and went home.
Street vendors casually closed up their food carts and wheeled them off to the shadows. Bustling streets slowly emptied as bars and restaurants shut up shop early under orders from the new junta. No signs of panic anywhere.
My friends and I heard that tanks had surrounded the Thai Parliament and so hopped in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, whose driver charged us about 10 times the normal rate.
At the Parliament building, hundreds of people had surrounded the tanks, chatting and taking photos in the spattering rain. No one seemed dismayed to see armored vehicles rolling through the capital. “This is a good day for our country,” I heard repeatedly.
Many people had been drained by the months of a high-stakes political battle between Mr. Thaksin and his opponents, which had been characterized by huge street protests, random bombings and the posturing over who had the endorsement of the king.
Thais were becoming increasingly divided and weary, without a sitting Parliament since an election six months ago that had been boycotted by the opposition and voided by the courts. They just wanted it to end, even if that meant the military ousting their elected leader, imposing martial law and suspending the nine-year-old Constitution.
As the tanks and troops took up positions across Bangkok the next morning, people came out to show their support for the soldiers, giving them flowers and welcoming them to their neighborhoods. The king also gave his blessing to the new military governing council, which has promised to install a civilian prime minister next week.
The message that Thais kept trying to tell me was that Thai democracy should not be compared to any other country’s.
“Our country will be better for this,” a close friend said to me as we sat smoking cigarettes and staring at troops on the corner by his house. “Today is a better day than yesterday. You may not understand, and may never will, but we needed to create a fresh start, and that is what has happened.”
That attitude prevails nearly a week after the coup. Early yesterday evening, I went to a protest at Thammasat University, where 30 years ago, on Oct. 6, 1976, the military and its henchmen massacred dozens of students at a pro-democracy demonstration, burning many alive, hanging others from trees and mutilating their bodies in front of a large crowd.
Yesterday, though, the mood was calm and there were no soldiers to be seen, even as speakers condemned the new junta’s restrictions on civic and political rights, including holding protests like this one.
But many of the students who stopped to listen as they passed by still said that they believed that the coup was the only way out of a political imbroglio. Nearly everyone I spoke to remained “sabaay jai,” or comfortable at heart with the military takeover. At least on the outside.
As I headed home from the protest, I got caught in a torrential monsoon downpour. I sought shelter with some soldiers guarding a bridge that crosses the Chao Phraya River.
“Were you surprised when you were ordered onto the streets of Bangkok last week?” I asked one of the young soldiers.
“No, it’s what we’re here for,” he told me, smiling. “If the people didn’t want us, then they wouldn’t bring us flowers and food,” he said as he pointed to the large pot of khao tom, or rice soup, being served up for dinner.
As the rain battered down from the heavens and I sat under the canvas sharing khao tom and watching television with the smiling soldiers, I wondered whether they really would have shot someone if they were ordered to. I’m sure they would have. After all, that’s what they’re here to do.