Front-Row Seat at the Coup

By Jamie Schelz

Nothing new here. I ride my bike through the streets and it’s all the norm — loud pink taxis swooping up fares, red buses chugging up Sukhumvit Road, growling mobs of motorbikes mustering under traffic lights. I do not see a single soldier, gun, or tank. Everyone seems intent on business as usual.

Wasn’t there a coup d’état here last night? Aren’t we under martial law?

Looking a little closer, however, the evidence is there: The traffic sprawls much farther than usual, and is even more chaotic.

The TV at the Witch Pie Factory, where I eat lunch, doesn’t offer regular programming. Instead, it is broadcasting a static test pattern bearing the five insignia of the branches of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. Presumably, all the other channels are doing the same.

There is a sheet of paper taped to the door of my building, informing all occupants that, effective immediately, there’s a curfew in Thailand: We’re to be off the streets from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Intolerably, the little family-run laundry across the street has not finished ironing the 20 articles of clothing I brought in two days ago. This has nothing to do with the coup. This I am actually familiar with. I narrow my eyes to slits but then smile graciously (as one must). I am laughed at.

But it’s a military putsch — my first. I’m fired up. I expect to see tanks, and I want everyone else to share my excitement and fuel my outrage. But all the Thais I speak to decline, knowingly, to make a big deal of it: “It happens,” they say, shrugging. “We’ve had worse.”

As if we were due one.

And, perhaps we are.

The last coup was in 2006, and before that it was 1991. There have been five in the 38-year span of my time on this planet. Each time it’s been the same story. There’s a pattern, and there’s perhaps a problem with Thai-style democracy.

For seven months now, the normal functioning of government has been stymied by yellow-clad protesters (the so-called “yellow shirts”). Their opponents are the red shirts, who, generally speaking, represent Thailand’s working class. While nationwide the red shirts far outnumber their jaundiced counterparts, the yellow shirts (representing the moneyed elite) are highly concentrated in the capital, where, consequently, they wield inordinate power — managing in recent months to shut down Bangkok’s major intersections, invade government buildings, and frustrate attempts to hold fair and open elections.

Despite all this, they fell short of their goal of ousting the reds from their commanding majority in Parliament. The red shirts, for their part, were unable convincingly to neutralize their opponents, who kept popping up with new insults and challenges to their authority.

And so it was an impasse, and unrest crept into the streets. Among other things, there have been grenades lobbed, guns fired, an occupied bus set ablaze. Twenty-eight people have lost their lives in seven months. The army, for all appearances loath to intervene — despite repeated calls, since November, to do so — finally stepped in on Tuesday, May 20, declaring martial law, and then again the following Thursday, when they seized power from Parliament in a bloodless coup.

The army’s claim is that they could not risk the growing violence, which is plausible enough. But it remains unclear how long they intend to remain in power, and their talk of “reforms,” which they say must happen before new elections are held, are greeted with skepticism by many Thais.

The army has traditionally sided with the minority yellow shirts, who have not won a national election since 1992. Nobody knows what the proposed reforms might entail; but if, this time, the military sticks to precedent and installs an unelected, unpopular yellow government, it would be regarded, especially by vocal student organizations, as an affront to the people. Should that happen in the current climate, nobody can predict what would result.

Unfortunately, that is the pattern: The red shirts have handily won all five elections since 2001, and except for once they’ve been ousted each time — twice by the military, twice by the courts. Thais are getting tired of their popularly mandated governments being usurped by powerful Bangkok interests.

The news reports that, since the day of the coup, about 200 journalists, politicians, and academics — from both sides — have been detained by the military. Most complied and were released after a day or two, though one esteemed academic, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, responded to his summons by claiming to be too busy — and valiantly offered to send his pet Chihuahua in his stead.

There have been daily anti-coup demonstrations at the Victory Monument in central Bangkok. There’s been talk of an uprising out of Isan, the northeast stronghold of the red shirts. There’s even been talk of civil war. It’s hard to imagine, but not impossible to imagine.

We’ll see.

At the Witch Pie Factory, there’s still a static armed forces test pattern on TV. The traffic has gotten worse, not better. We’re still being told to be off the streets after 10 o’clock.

For now, though, and for me, the city is functioning more or less as usual. The stores are open; the people, characteristically unruffled, get on with it; the schools and government offices are functioning.

I finally got my ironing back.

By all accounts, no tourists have been troubled.

It’s three days later, and I’ve still not seen a soldier or a tank.

For those of us who live and work in Bangkok, it is still good to be here. There is a breathlessness, a calm-before-the-storm feeling. Maybe that’s just the early onset of rainy season.

We’ll see.

Jamie Schelz taught cultural history at the Ross School and for seven years worked at BookHampton in East Hampton. He has lived in Thailand since 2010 and teaches science and social studies at Wells International School in Bangkok.