What a coup
With martial law declared and the Thai Prime Minister out of the country, the capital seems to be settling in to a very comfortable putsch. Corinna Schuler reports from Bangkok.
by Corinna Schuler |National Post | September 21, 2006
Only in Thailand, the famed "Land of Smiles," could the day after a coup look quite like this.
Children playfully inspected tanks in the streets, soldiers snapped pictures of one another with cellphone cameras, and expat mothers tut-tutted over newspaper headlines while sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks.
The generals who had declared martial law the night before apologized for the "inconvenience" and assigned a comely former pop star to read announcements on television.
"It's all so very Thai," Hugh Young, an analyst at Aberdeen Asset Management, said as he took stock of the situation from his offices in Singapore.
"It's bloodless, it is widely presumed to have the sanction of the King and, generally, there is no panic."
As revolutionaries go, army chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, the man who masterminded the coup, cuts a benign figure. He politely assured journalists at a news conference yesterday that he has no long-term aspiration for power.
"After two weeks, we step out," he said, adding his military team is considering a list of candidates who "love democracy" to replace Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted Prime Minister.
Mr. Thaksin, who has faced widespread street protests over alleged corruption, appeared to have abandoned earlier attempts to hang on to power by phoning in commands from his New York hotel. He cancelled a planned speech at the United Nations and boarded a plane for London, but issued no statement about his plans.
The question of his fate was the subject of giddy debate among university intellectuals, market ladies and middle-class workers.
"Oh, everyone says he wouldn't dare come back," said a man who would give his name only as Mr. Tain, 53, a manager at a state-run enterprise. He was busy snapping pictures while his wife posed before a tank with a beaming smile and a raised clenched fist.
Mr. Tain was so outraged when the Prime Minister sold off his telecommunication empire without paying a cent of tax, he joined nightly street rallies this spring in an effort to force him to resign. "This is a sweet victory," he said.
Yesterday, there was no sense of tension as hundreds of residents ventured out to greet soldiers and adorn tanks with red roses.
"I feel absolutely safe and secure," said Kathleen Spiess, a Canadian who works as an administrator at an international school. "I lived through the FLQ crisis in Montreal, and I can tell you this does not compare.... I went out for lunch today and the restaurant was the same as any other Wednesday afternoon."
Initially, people feared a violent reprisal from Thaksin loyalists as news broadcasts were taken off the air and the army ordered schools, banks and government offices to close. Foreigners became alarmed on Tuesday night when some businesses and restaurants shut abruptly, forcing diners to abandon their meals.
"People next to us were just starting on their appetizer," said a dismayed Melissa Varma, an American doctor living in Bangkok.
"Keep your kids inside," one Canadian neighbour advised in a late-night phone call. School officials sent text messages saying children should stay home.
But talk of bloodshed dissipated yesterday as soldiers sat on their tanks and giddy children lined up for a touch.
"Scared? No!" declared a genial 23-year-old soldier who like many others had tied a yellow cloth around the muzzle of his M-16 -- a sign he is loyal to the royal family.
"There will be no violence," he added, chuckling. "There is no rival. We are with the King."
This, perhaps, is the key to the coup's success: The putsch has been sanctioned by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a monarch so revered that the slightest indication of his preference is seen as the last word on any matter.
Billboards carry his portrait at every major intersection. Movie theatres precede every film with a playing of the royal anthem while the audience stands in silent attention.
The fact coup leaders were filmed coming from the palace after the coup started -- and the King did not denounce the action outright -- was widely seen as a royal nod.
"This is good for all Thais," said Suttida Chatnukroh, a 32-year-old mother who wore a T-shirt with the royal emblem and brought her boy out to see the tanks. "I voted for Thaksin last time, but now he is corrupt and he must go."
Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire, started his own grassroots Thais Love Thai political party and won two landslide election victories on populist policies. Farmers, for instance, got cheap loans, and poor people were guaranteed health care for just $1. He remains beloved in rural areas.
But urban elites saw this brash former police officer as an outsider who shook up the establishment to enrich himself and his cronies.
The charismatic Mr. Thaksin had become increasingly autocratic, clamping down on media critics and weakening institutions meant to act as a check on government. When the United Nations criticized his human rights record, he famously quipped, "The UN is not my father."
In an effort to silence swelling protests, he called a snap election in April. But key opposition parties refused to take part, and the country has been left without a sitting legislature.
The King earlier called the situation "a mess."
Foreign analysts agree Thailand's international image will take a knock and investor confidence will be shaken. But the ease with which urban Thais accepted the coup reflects the immature nature of their democracy.
There have been 17 other coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Though the last putsch was more than a dozen years ago, Mr. Thaksin was the first prime minister to lead an elected government through a full four-year term.
Some residents immediately knew the army was taking charge again when "coup songs" -- nationalist music -- began to play on local TV stations.
Nationalism is so imbedded in the Thai psyche that when the royal anthem is played over loudspeakers in parks and transit stations each day, joggers come to a dead stop and commuters stand still rather than race for a coming train.
The country's militaristic history is also comically reflected in security guards at Bangkok apartment buildings and office blocks who routinely click their heels and snap to a salute as residents pass.
Mr. Thaksin's main deputy has been arrested -- or "invited to stay" -- at army headquarters, as one military spokesman put it yesterday.
But Gen. Sondhi, the coup leader, insisted: "Thaksin is a Thai and a fellow countryman, and there will be no problem should he decide to return."
However, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, noted Mr. Thaksin still has some allies in the army.
"This is not a man who likes to lose," he told the Foreign Correspondents' Club last night.
"He does not easily accept defeat. I don't count him out as yet."
© National Post 2006