Imagine if you’re waiting for the school bus one day and the librarian walks over and casually says…
“There’s no school today, the government’s been overthrown.”
That was exactly what happened to me on the morning of September 19, 2006. You see, I was studying in Thailand at the time and in the dark of night, the military had staged a bloodless coup d’état, ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was in New York City at the United Nations.
Having only been in Thailand for a little over a month, I was aware that there were great tensions between rich and poor, in other words, Thaksin’s enemies (the rich) and his supporters (the poor), a divide that still exists today (see my primer on the ongoing Thai political crisis), though you probably know them as the Yellow Shirts (Thaksin’s enemies) and Red Shirts (Thaksin’s supporters). Still, I don’t think any of us expected it would come to this!
My inbox was chock full of emails wanting to know if I was alright. Access to information was incredibly limited, as the Thai military, now in control of the government, had ordered all TV stations to stop broadcasting. In fact the only thing on TV were continuous loops of patriotic songs with images of the Thai King (who was thought to have sanctioned the coup).
Bangkok was under a state of martial law. Tanks could be spotted on the streets as soldiers with bright yellow ribbon tied to their rifles kept a watchful eye on the populace. The yellow ribbons were to signify their allegiance with the King, whose official color is yellow as he was born on a Monday.
The Calm of Hua Hin
But fortunately, I was some 180 km south of Bangkok in the peaceful seaside resort town of Hua Hin, where the “chaos” in the capital felt a world away. Apparently my university had realized this and had taken steps to notify all of our parents that we were all safe a few hours after the coup (while we were all sleeping, when it would have been impossible for them to know if we actually had been in Bangkok, but hey…).
At a meeting on the morning of the coup, the school’s rector had advised us that we should hold off on going to Bangkok until things calmed down again.
But I had a conundrum. A mere 5 days earlier, I had dropped off my passport at the Vietnamese Embassy to get a visa. Being passport-less at a time of political upheaval seemed like a frightening concept, so after consulting with the university’s staff, it was decided that in 3 days I would head to the capital to collect my passport.
Bangkok was a rather unreal scene. Yes, life went on as normal in the Thai capital, but nearly everywhere you looked, a jarring sight caught your eye. It was all those troops and armored vehicles stationed everywhere! That’s just something you don’t see in cities! I mean, what is this place…a war zone (sadly with the subsequent violent crackdowns on anit-government protesters, it may very well be)?
With my passport in hand (now complete with a Vietnamese visa sticker) I returned to my quaint, seaside resort. There, and on my many future visits to Bangkok, it became easy to forget that the Thai coup had even happened. Life was normal. People were happy…or so it seemed.
The people who surrounded me were members of the Thai aristocracy; individuals who despised Thaksin for what they deemed his corrupt ways. Of course, there was a storm brewing. And it wasn’t too long after I left Thailand that this whole cycle of political turmoil began once again, sparked by the restart of free and fair elections.
What perhaps amazed me most about the entire situation was the way it was portrayed in the U.S. media. In a testament to their angle on sensationalism, reporting that I saw depicted the situation in an incredibly overblown way. I remember reading a story on CNN’s website that cited “intense conflict” after the coup. Being on the ground in Thailand, I looked around and said, “What conflict?”
Regardless of the outcome of Thailand’s complicated political situation, I know that I will never forget the words of that faithful librarian who announced the coup. After all, how many times in your life do you hear a phrase like that??