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??
25 replies on ““There’s No School Today, The Government’s Been Overthrown””
What a crazy experience it must have been. I remember when that event happened but I forgot what happened afterward… Did they manage to overthrow the gov for good? I’m gonna look it up now.
The short answer is no. The coup acted as a trigger point to intensify the divide between Thailand’s classes and when free elections returned a year later, Thaksin’s party overwhelmingly won, much to the irritation of of the aristocracy who set off on a series of large scale protests, culminating with the dramatic seizure and blockade of Bangkok’s airports in November 2008. Once an ally of the aristocracy becams the Prime Minister, Thaksin’s supporters cried foul, as no new election had been held. And so they began staging massive protests, culminating in a bloddy dispersment just last year. It seems like a cycle that could continue indefinitely. I have a lot more on this in my primer on the Thai political crisis.
Funny the situations we find our selves in whilst traveling or living abroad. As per usual, the media beat things up beyond all proportions, and the drama’s were mostly in isolated area’s throughout the city. You still wouldn’t want to get caught up in any of the mess though, and the sight of armored vehicles on every street corner would make you feel a little uneasy and ready for anything.
Funny situations indeed! It sort of gives you a different perspective on things. After my semester in Thailand, I returned to the U.S. and was driving cross-country when I encountered an ice storm that had knocked out power in large swaths of the midwest. Wtihout power, nearly every single hotel I stopped at was closed. And I couldn’t help but think that we’re whimps! In Laos there was no power for a week and people just go on with their lives…
Sensationalism in the media… I don’t believe you. Interesting times and quite an email.
Stay adventurous, Craig
Hehehehehe…yes the cable news networks aren’t sensationalist. No, not at all…
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I lived a similar experience myself when my country went from communism to democracy and they shot the president. The army was on the streets trying to hold the masses back, and at some point they started randomly shooting the people. There were even tanks in the city. Most of the guilty parties have never been found, who knows in what foreign countries they flew.
Always fun when dramatic stuff happens… Where are you from originally?
@Aaron: I am from Romania 🙂
Wow! Now that had to be the most surreal day… No school due to government over thrown. You had to feel dizzy for quite a while after that and like you said, so much of life went on without a hitch. Thanks for making me stop, think and imagine.
Haha well it certainly was quite a day!
I’ve never been on the road when something like this happened, but it was frightening enough when there was a big uprising/protest in Quito about a week or so after I left there in September. Glad to hear this situation wasn’t as bad as the media made it seem and you were safe.
I think situations are rarely as bad as the media makes them sound. I mean, even my well traveled mother said she wouldn’t want to move to Mexico because it wasn’t safe, even though the drug gangs are centered specifically around the U.S. border. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t really make that distinction at all.
Sounds not unlike the string of events that happened in Egypt recently but obviously a bit safer maybe? Never been in a coup situation. Did that leave you with a self-imposed “house arrest” for the next few days?
Um yes I’d say much safer than Egypt. A coup strikes me as much more dramatic though. I also had tue advantage of not being in Bangkok. But yes I was in Bangkok just a few days after.
interesting post. i’d have been terrified if i had to go get my passport and have to explain to a soldier that i didn’t have it. gulp! thankfully you didn’t have to deal with any of that. i like how that librarian came out so matter-of-factly and proabably went back to her studies. ha.
Yeah it was slightly uncomfortable…
slightly uncomfortable?! i’d have been sweating bullets man. way to stay cool.
Hahaha well you learn to roll with the punches when you travel…
Interesting post. That’s crazy to hear that you were there when the government was overthrown…
And I couldn’t help but think that we’re whimps! Most of the guilty parties have never been found, who knows in what foreign countries they flew. The coup acted as a trigger point to intensify the divide between Thailand’s classes and when free elections returned a year later, Thaksin’s party overwhelmingly won, much to the irritation of of the aristocracy who set off on a series of large scale protests, culminating with the dramatic seizure and blockade of Bangkok’s airports in November 2008. Thanks for making me stop, think and imagine.
It’s a cycle that has been repeated again and again (take a look at the massive Red Shirt protests of 2010). I’m quite shocked that the Yellow Shirts haven’t taken to the streets again after the last set of (fair) elections that put Thaksin’s sister in power!