A Thai dancer in traditional dress walks in front of tanks at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
When the news of the coup d’etat first came in from my friend in England, I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. What should I do? Tell Jay to pull over immediately and hide? Rush home and get ready? I knew those Che Guevara T-shirts and Rage Against The Machine CD’s were worth keeping! And Molotov cocktails are easy to make, right? Or did we just keep going and hope there would be no violence?
Coming from a country with a mature, coup free democracy, I had no idea what to expect. As it happened I was lucky enough to witness probably the most peaceful coup of all time.
It started in dramatic style. Thaksin Shinwat – on the advice of his personal astrologer (no that isn’t a joke) – was out of the country when it began. On hearing of the army movements, he transmitted a notice of a state national emergency and a nationwide curfew on one Thai TV channel. Less than two hours later, General Sondhi appeared on a separate channel to inform the nation what had happened. Then all media outlets were cut for about twelve hours. You have to wonder if events during Thaksin’s vacation have caused him to seek a refund from his astrologer.
Most folk in Thailand discovered the news the next day, but this nation has seen coups before and most people recognised the symptoms.
This time around though, things were different. No shots were fired. No students crushed. Heck, people were taking pictures next to the tanks (I’m still hoping to get a snap with Dylan), civilians were giving flowers to the troops, and some soldiers were seen smiling! A clear violation of Thai government employee conduct! The whole thing felt more like a parade than a revolution, far more “A Season to Remember” than “Apocalypse Now”.
The fact that most Thais have welcomed this is due in no small part to the sheer corruption and arrogance of the previous regime. I have mentioned this at length before but like so many others, I never saw a coup as a realistic possibility for an ending.
General Sondhi cut a smart figure in front of the national and foreign media. Smart and stern, yet occasionally cracking a genuine smile (something Thaksin never did), he has promised to install an interim PM and hold elections next year. In the meantime, he has called for an overhaul of government.
I don’t want to weigh heavy on politics here, but it’s worth noticing that many of the problems I discussed before have now been dramatically up hauled. Thaksin’s cronies – and there are many – have been bought or are being sought for justice. The instigator of the thuggish attacks on anti – Thaksin protesters , the head of Intelligence Services who framed Thaksin’s opponents for Lese Majeste, the supposedly independent bodies such as The National Counter Corruption Commission and the Office Attorney General have been replaced with those who were not sycophants to the PM. Only now are some Thai people beginning to understand the true depth of the previous regime’s corruption, greed, dishonesty and utter lack of remorse that couples with the alleged human rights violations such as the numerous executions commited during the (commendable in theory) war on drugs.
The harsh side to the coup is that some press freedoms have been temporarily restrained. In fairness, Sondhi’s military experience has made him aware of threats to an immediate retaliation, Thaksin’s chief PR drummers have been detained, and radio stations in the North East where the villagers form the bulk of the former PM’s support have been temporarily cut. For his part, Thaksin’s ego has, as ever, denied him any humility. He has told the press he is “taking a break” from politics – an act he eschewed when his antics had the country on the brink of a class war – and is rumored to be residing with Mohamed Al Fayed.
In reality, Thaksin must surely have known the game was up when the King – revered by the Thais – quickly endorsed the coup. Thaksin’s assets are now under investigation and the next few weeks should throw up some very interesting revelations.
The international reaction has been predictable: mostly timid condemnations. That’s understandable, since most world leaders would not be fully aware of what really happened in Thailand, particularly since Thaksin was a master manipulator and gifted with a silver (albeit forked) tongue. He had frequently cut the image of a modern leader and once told the world press “Thailand is a model for democracy”.
The US response was a little irking for the Thais. Apparently forgetting Ngo Dinh Diem, Saddam Hussain , Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Fidel Castro’s exploding cigars , George Bush condemned the coup and suggested a withdrawal of US aid. Other countries have followed suit.
For the Thais though, things continue as almost normal. They’ve seen it all before and at least nobody was hurt this time. For me, it’s reminded me that despite how fashionable the British find it to criticise and whine about their own country, we also have many things to appreciate about our own set up. And while it may be a drop in the ocean, it still feels good to see that at least sometimes, the bad guys get a little of what they deserve.