Living in Bangkok during the coup of 2006
I wake up sweating. My air conditioner has given out in the middle of the night as it so often does, and my neck and stomach are now soaked in my own epidermal excrement. I brush my hand across the back of my neck and wipe away the clammy sweat, then continue into the living room of my flat.
Upon turning on the television I am surprised to see that the same propaganda commercials depicting the king that soaked up all of the basic channels last night are still playing on repeat.
It is now September 20 and last night the military coup directed by General Sonti overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on charges of massive corruption and nepotism. I am a student at Chulalongkorn University, one of the most prestigious schools in Thailand, and all of my classes have been cancelled in the name of this so-called ‘National Day.’
Last night the coup blocked out all foreign channels and turned off all normal programming subjecting its citizens to countless clips of king-themed propaganda used from past military coups. I could barely understand what was happening in these films except for one of them which I managed to barely translate. As I stood in front of my couch that night, the word hok sib was being chimed repeatedly in the lyrics, and a small documentary began to play.
Hok sib means sixty in Thai, and this refers to the kings 60 years on the throne, which has classified him as the longest reigning monarch in the world. The documentary depicts a small child with her mother waiting for the king to pass by. She enquires why so many people wait to see the king when you can barely see his face. The clip flashes back to when her mother was a child, asking her parents the same question. The roads aren’t paved. She is wearing ragged clothes. Her face is covered in dirt. The mother explains to her daughter that King Bhumibol made Thailand what it is today and literally built the country from the ground up, glorifying him to a stature comparable to an ancient pharaoh.
The crackle of all the televisions whizzed through the hallway outside of my flat as I made my way into the outside world. Rumors had been circulating all night, and small pirate radio stations had advised citizens not to travel far from their homes and to take caution. Considering the brutality coups’ have created in Thailand’s past, this wasn’t exactly a bad idea; but, I had plans of my own.
I walk up to the orange motorcycle taxi drivers outside my apartment building and ask one of the men to take me to where all the tanks are perched on the west coast of Bangkok. They are quick to offer explanations for why their prices are so gross and I humor them.
Maidai. Wanee roht tit mak mak. “I can’t do this price. Today there is a lot of traffic,” one man explains. I leave the smug bastards alone and as they depart from my sight I can’t help but notice their bright, wide smiles.
Instead I decide to take the convenient and modern sky train, which boasts an entire two rail lines, to the center of the shopping district, which is located just north of my university. It is the middle of the week and the students that should be parading around the malls with their uniforms are visibly absent. There is hardly anyone traveling during what should be the most congested time of rush hour traffic in Bangkok.
The door to the sky train opens and I am instantly greeted by the wall of humidity, as well as eight soldiers strapped with grenade belts and automatic weapons that take the appearance of newly furnished AK-47’s. They are all very dark-skinned Thais – not at all like the white-skinned Chinese decedents that make up the Bangkok population – and they are all idling around in no particular order, silent as stones. The tips of all their guns are ribboned with bright yellow strips of cloth that eagerly signify their support for their god-like monarch.
As I walk further down the street away from the sky train platform, it becomes hard not to notice the military base that has been deployed overnight in the middle of the shopping district. European tourists are walking by in haste with a look of worry and slight terror in their face, while the Japanese are taking pictures.
The turret mounted hummers and large green military transportation trucks seem extremely out of place in the middle of one of the busiest tourist sections of Bangkok. I look on towards the chaos in bewilderment as a tall white man approaches me.
“None of this surprises me anymore,” the tall man sighs in his Swiss German accent. This is the 18th military coup that has been conducted under the reign of King Bhumibol and for the most part these acts have become accepted as a common state of occurrence. The Thais are cautious in their actions under the circumstances, but react without pause when brushing past armed military personnel. Since it is ‘National Day,’ all public facilities and businesses have been closed, which would explain the lack of traffic on the otherwise congested Bangkok transit.
Just then, the Swiss onlooker and I spot a gray truck pull up next to the turret mounted hummer and the driver disembarks. The white-skinned Asian driver and his passenger are both wearing yellow T-shirts, a sign used to signify their love for the king, and they proceed to unload about 30 cases of water and three boxes of what looks like bread into the arms of willing soldiers.
The course of action against ousted PM Thaksin came quickly, and with little funds left from his administration, supporters of the coup started to appear in record numbers with flowers, bread, water, and any other goods that could aid their courageous endeavors. PM Thaksin had won the majority vote when he bribed shanty villages outside of Bangkok by installing large satellite dishes and handing out mobile phones to people who barely have plumbing or roads. The elite citizens of Bangkok were in the minority – but they held the power, making these actions and countless other counts of corruption a direct cause of his demise.
I decide to make my second attempt to coerce a motorcycle taxi driver into navigating me through the congestion caused by the blockades around the parliament building. I find a price that is fair for the time being, and I jump on the back of this tiny Thai man’s motorcycle without a helmet (a common forgotten luxury), then we proceed to make our way into the traffic.
As we approach the center of the action the traffic gets worse. Black-tinted air kicks up behind some trucks touching my tongue with the taste of a twenty pack seconds before I can put on my surgical mask. Luckily, I was smart enough to take a motorcycle taxi, and we weasel our way in between cars at 30km/hour, making ease out of the traffic. When the traffic on the road becomes too congested, we jump onto the sidewalk and make our own special lane. As we brush by passing pedestrians on the sidewalk, a quick glance in their face reconfirms that a motorcycle on the sidewalk is quite acceptably in Bangkok and a large grin grows on my face.
After dodging the pedestrians and low hanging wires on the cracked sidewalks of Bangkok, we re-enter the highway and jump into traffic beside a turret mounted hummer. I glance up at the solider appropriately positioned behind the large machine gun and he looks back at me. The wind is rushing past the soldier’s face, and the yellow ribbons on his gun and uniform are whipping him in the cheeks. I smile at him and he returns the favor.
My motorcycle taxi makes a left toward the parliament house and we are halted by a blockade consisting of three large tanks and about 30 reporters carrying camera equipment – connecting them to their relative part of the world. The crank and clank of the tanks seem to be drawing in a small crowd, while repelling others who are too timid to close in on the fully operational steel monsters that have absorbed the avenue with the sound of their engines. The tanks form a gigantic wall, preventing the citizens from having any say in the decisions the active military junta will face over the next few days. I offer the motorcycle taxi the fee we previously agreed upon, and make my way toward the people clamoring about beneath the tanks.
The photo opportunities here seem to be drawing in some very large equipment. A large balding man brushes his oversized television camera up against my shoulder, abruptly pushing me back about half a meter.
“Sorry about that,” he grunts in a rough voice. The letters on the side of his camera are clearly written in Russian, and he catches me staring at the incomprehensible scribbles.
“We arrived here this morning from Korea,” he mumbles in a tired moan. “Do you know where anything is going on?” I look up at the tanks and the armed soldiers standing around with blank looks on their faces and laugh. Reporters coming from overseas who haven’t spent more than a day in Bangkok will never be able to understand how intricate Thai politics are. Should I even bother trying to explain about the Village Fund bribery of PM Thaksin, or his monopoly over the mobile phone companies – or the fact that when you’re dealing with a hierarchical society and a PM becomes more wealthy and powerful than the king negative consequences are certain.
No. For certain the only buzz words that will reach the western world are ‘coup’ and ‘tanks.’ Even if the reporters did understand the deep implications of Thai politics, I’m certain you wouldn’t hear anything about them, or the fact that this just so happens to be the 18th time a military coup ran through the streets of Bangkok since King Bhumibol took power 60 years ago.
It’s dusk now and another gray truck appears from the east with more men in yellow carrying bread. The entire media circus charges over to shove cameras into the faces of the peaceful supporters – taking shots of people that will certainly never air in either Europe or the Americas.
After our holiday is over, life through the eyes of the Thais seems to go on as normal, but my feelings of normalcy seem to be more fleeting. The country is now being controlled by a military dictatorship which has abandoned the 1997 constitution and declared martial law.
On my way to class I can’t help but stare at the military base that has set itself up on the main platform outside of the sky train. Some of the soldiers are standing around at attention while the higher ranking officials are huddling around a plastic table gambling in public – a punishable offense before the declaration of martial law. A soldier passes a cigarette over to his superior and lights it for him. The higher ranking officer puffs a plum of smoke out of his mouth that resembles a giant cumulus cloud and smiles back at the grunt.
My first class of the day is accompanied by normal gossip and details of what everyone did on their day off. My American teacher approaches the front of the classroom and displays today’s issue of the Bangkok Post with a vivid headline that simply, strongly reads “COUP!”
He starts to lead a discussion about the events that led up to the decision to overthrow a democratically elected leader, and how the world will look upon these actions.
“Certainly a bloodless coup will make the world rethink the definition of coup,” proclaimed my teacher.
Just then, a tiny voice cooed from the back of the class, “Under the current martial law, I don’t think it is legal or appropriate to talk about politics in groups of more than five people.”
She was right. The right to peacefully conduct a public assembly was now banned according to the new amendments instituted by martial law that was in effect as of yesterday. My American teacher lowered the newspaper, and with a grin of acquiescence, continued to guide the class in a discussion from the prepared lesson.
My next and last class of the day was accented by very strange undertones as well. Our normal teacher had called out, and instead our lecture was to be guided by a female substitute teacher. When the nine male students that are in my class of 50 boisterously marched into the room wearing jeans and sneakers – clearly breaking uniform regulation – it struck me as no surprise. The men in Thai universities are quick to rebel against the strict uniform code that has been in place since formal education was established, while the women always wear their uniform to straight perfection – silver buttons, white shoes, tucked in shirt, silver pin with university crest, tan belt, and a black skirt included.
Today the atmosphere of rebellion was different than previous days. It can be said that the difference between men and women in Thailand starts when they speak. They use different language diminutives to address whether they are male and female, so just by hearing someone speak you can determine their sex. Like any other day, the women were in uniform and all sitting in the front of the room, while the men sat in the back of the room with their white shirts un-tucked from their jeans.
I could only imagine what went through the female substitute’s mind when these young men pulled out a deck of cards and started placing money on the table. A heavy-set Thai with short black hair strikes it lucky and leaps a foot into the air. The small shriek he lets out is accentuated by the strong stench of spicy salad still on his breathe from lunch. The teacher does her best to keep up with the growing noise in the back of the class but little can be done to overpower Pao’s winning streak.
Truly the sights and sounds of the revolution were in the hearts and minds of the citizens. The Thai’s are great at hiding their true emotions, and instead they chose to replace them with hurried smiles.
As I walk down Sukhumvit road, the main artery of Bangkok, I notice very little change in the manner of the people. There are some armed soldiers at particular intersections, but the Thais show absolutely no concern – at least on the outside.
As I pass Soi Nana, I was almost pleased to see the old European men with their tiny dark-skinned Thai escorts. For me, this had become a sight of normalcy, and now reassuring proof that the coup had not been frightening enough to stop the large Turkish sex-tourist population.
The katoeys (or transvestites) I passed by, slicked their soft hands down my shoulders and whispered sa wadee ka into my ear, reconfirming that they indeed define themselves as women despite their large feet and Adam’s apple – a state of normalcy that continued to keep me smiling.
Walking by the street vendors trying to sell me pirated DVD’s and various opium pipes also seemed to make me happy. One man walks beside me and whispers in my ear, “Boom boom, ping pong show, sexy DVD.” Bangkok nightlife at its tamest is not even close to boring.
Before I turn down my friend’s street, I hear an old woman singing a familiar tune. It is not uncommon to see old, blind people walking down Sukhumvit with a microphone and an static-stricken speaker hung over their shoulders chanting some sort of hypnotic Thai tune – yet this tune seems to be drawing the crowd in towards the wrinkly old woman’s fleshy black eye sockets.
People are wai-ing (a Thai bow where you press both palms together) and giving the woman more than just pocket change. A katoey slips a 50 baht bill in the woman’s cup and wais. “Hok sib…..hok sib….hok sib,” is all I can get out of what the woman is chanting, but I know exactly what it is about. She is singing the song of the revolution, and proclaiming her love for their mighty king who has led them fearlessly through countless military infractions and corrupt governments; but, has yet to steer his beloved country down the wrong the path. For the patrons that slowly gather around her, her gait is clear. If she had eyes, she would cry.