Thursday, September 19, 2013

9/19: my first coup d'état!

October 6, 1976: one of the bloodiest coups in Thai history.

Do you remember your first coup d'état? I do.  It was September 19th, 2006 and I was living in Bangkok, Thailand. 


I had just retired to bed with jet-lag and an illicit copy of The King Never Smiles (delivered that morning from Amazon). 40 winks later, around about 9.30 PM, I was roused out of bed by my long-suffering wife, the Contessa.


"Wake up, dear, there's been another coup!"


Thank Heavens. I had always wanted to experience life in a military dictatorship at first hand. Tanks on the streets, martial law, curfews, the great unwashed at the end of an establishment kicking, the whole kit and caboodle.   


You got more rights than you know mate: Thammasat University,  6 October 1976


It was (and is) a regular occurrence in the Kingdom of Thailand.  There have been 19 coup d'états since the Siamese Revolution of June 1932.



Sten Guns in Sukhumvit (1932)

The London Times, June 24th, 1932

Despite the jet-lag I put my thoughts in order. There was some chit-chat about a possible coup in official circles before I left -- but there was always talk of a coup in the coup prone Kingdom of Thailand. The country had not suffered a military intervention for 15 years and was functioning as a stable democracy in the region Now it was happening all over again. Was it coup number eighteen, nineteen or twenty? My history was jet-lagged to boot.  


And it can turn nasty in Bangkok: Black May 1992


The 1990s television set was blaring away in the living room. The Council for Democractic Reform (CDR) and the Council of National Security (CNS), under the leadership of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, had seized power and grave figures in jazzy uniforms from the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Army were now in command (obey them and be free)

Why did the coup happen? These men were opposed to the rule of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the most successful democratically elected politician in the history of the Kingdom (much to the green eyed fury of Bangkok cognoscenti). Thaksin had come to power in 2001 and although he was popular with the rural poor of the Kingdom, his autocratic style, huge wealth and politically dominant Thai Rak Thai party made him electorally unbeatable. A coup was the only way to get rid of his elective dictatorship and it was timed to cost PM Thaksin maximum loss of face -- the ousted leader was at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. 


"Communists" nobbled at Thammasat Uni, October 6, 1976.

I got on the phone to a DFID mandarin.  Was there any info his end, any word on troop movement? The tanks had come into the capital from the North, from a region of the Kingdom supposedly loyal to the mugged PM (more calculated loss of face for Mr. Thaksin) Suddenly, the phone went dead. No signal. The line had been cut by the Junta. 


The internet was also down. I pulled out the radio and turned the dial to the BBC World Service but then remembered that its shortwave service had been cancelled in the recent round of BBC cutbacks (ditto Liberia and the Ivory Coast just before they had coups). The only thing I could get on the wireless was a riot at a football game in Hungary.   


Over to the Contessa's version of events. This is an edited transcript of an email that she sent home to concerned family and friends after lines of communication had been restored in the capital.  


Sept. 19, 2006: tanks surround PM Thaksin Shinawatra's offices


"It all started on Tuesday evening around 9.30pm'ish (local time), there I was watching season 2 of Las Vegas and wondering how such crap TV gets commissioned when I get a text from Jessica.  As ever this woman is on the ball, she was the person that first alerted me to the Twin Towers back in 2001 with a phone call and here she was now texting to find out if I was OK what with "tanks and all..."  Now I took one look at that message and figured she'd made a typo, so I cheekily replied back to the effect of 'all OK here thanks for the chat yesterday on the phone'.  Well, quick as a flash, she was back with "um, yeah that's all fine, but what about the Army on the streets woman!".  The penny dropped at that point - ahhh, the coup that everyone was denying in the papers these past weeks must have happened.  A quick check of the TV showed that all the Thai channels had been taken off air and rousing patriotic music and pictures of the King were on instead.  Flick over to CNN and our man Dan Rivers was on the scene somewhere in Bangkok indeed reporting that tanks were rolling into town and Government House had been seized. 


Tanks for the Memory


I jumped around rather excited by this, woke Alex up - he had sloped off to bed earlier.  "Honey", I cried "I think we're having a coup.  Tanks are rolling into the city!".  Several unmentionable words were to be heard from under the duvet and Alex was up and leaping over the bed to get to the TV in the sitting room.  Flick onto BBC and they had finally managed to pull themselves away from a live feed to the UN Security Council in New York where all we'd been treated to was an endless procession of probably important people, but we didn't know who, coming into the building.  Now we had a photograph of Jonathan Head (SEA correspondent, BBC) and him on a crackly line saying "yes, tanks are now in the city".  But unlike John Simpson, he wasn't liberating Bangkok... Thanks Jonathan...  Back to CNN I'm afraid.


Media on the Job


Alex was by now glued to the TV flicking back and forth and I thought I'd better tell our neighbour XXXX she is after all REDACTED at the Embassy, so I felt I should probably alert her to impending martial law... I nipped across the hall, rang the bell, silence then movement and XXXX appears "XXXX, switch on the TV, the coup has started!"  "Oh, wow, really? I was on the balcony having a fag and talking with my friend - Chloe, this is Isabel, Isabel, Chloe"  With swift introductions over, XXXX's TV goes on and Isabel feels it might be a good time to try and get a taxi before it all goes tits up so she heads out into the mean streets of Sukhumvit to find a taxi to take her home. 


"We'll need 400 Pad Thais, 800 bottles of Leo and ten gallons of palm oil."

Now XXXX only has CNN on her TV and by this point they were running a loop of the same tank and the same bit of traffic being directed by a solider, so she comes over to ours and we put the Beeb (BBC) on and again watch Jonathan Head not quite knowing what is going on and Alex, ever the consummate host, asks "Glass of wine anybody?"... Well, what a good idea XXXX and I thought, so for the next couple of hours, the three of us sit in front of the TV drinking wine, and phoning and texting everyone we could to find out what is going on.  The UN security team were going mad and I was bombarded with about 20 texts all telling me the same thing which was essentially to stay indoors, a state of emergency has been announced.  By about midnight the land line was cut and by quarter to one in the morning all international news had been blocked and the satellite shut down. 


Finding coverage on the Radio, I was momentarily confused as they were reporting on rioting and disturbances in the streets, along with a call for "their football team to be reinstated" and now I was beginning to get worried until I realized that they were reporting on Hungary not Thailand... phew. XXXX was still talking with her boss, but they couldn't get to the Embassy as the power was off (due to construction work not revolutionary coup leaders) and in any case it had just started to rain and in Bangkok when it rains you really don't go outside.  I got another UN security message telling me to stay at home the next day and until further notice and our friend Ollie invited us to the Embassy Residence for a party if a curfew is imposed! 


Coup Cocktails and Ferrero Rocher at the Ambassador's Residence?

I got the impression that we were all handling this thing rather well....  Apparently, Hilary Benn MP, was stuck at the airport as the planes were grounded and he was trying to get back to London - not sure what happened to him in the end, but I suspect he got himself back home..."


Hilary Benn in 1969: former Secretary of State for DFID and ex Holland Park comp!


So by about 1.30am we all decided to call it a night, we had no further news and I was about to run out of credit on my phone. So we all sloped off to bed wondering just what Wednesday would bring. I woke up with rather a tender head (I think it was two bottles we had in the end) and decided to head out into the street to get a paper if there was one, get some money before the banks are cleared out and just see what is happening.... which was in fact not much.  The Army had declared Wednesday a public holiday and so government, schools and banks were closed.  People were still about but it was subdued, news was still sketchy about exactly what the Army proposed to do, the telephone lines were still cut (so no internet), the satellite and cable channels were still blacked out.  At around 3pm these all came back on, but since then, the news is frequently cut whenever news of the coup is mentioned.  The Army has decreed that only 'positive' news should be given.  This means that whenever the international channels try to air analysis or comment it is cut.  The Army have asked the Thai press not to report people's comments or emails on the matter and in fact they have now called themselves The Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (well this is at least what they want the English translation to be) and imposed martial law...



Has this been a good thing?  Are people happy?  It's hard to say.  What is certain is that under Thaksin, it was going to be much harder to get him out by democratic means.  He had spent the past 18 months changing laws so as to make any democratic move to oust him harder and harder.  Will the Army be a benevolent ruler?  Well, have they been in the past....  The opposition parties for now are accepting the change, but are asking for a quicker timetable to elections - the Army are saying they are going to rule for 12 months with a caretaker PM in place, the opposition are asking for elections in 6 months.  Time will only tell whether it remains calm.  Already, there is a crack down on protests or gatherings, news is censored and I should think it will only get worse.  The presence on the streets of uniforms is limited to key installations and TV networks and main intersections but otherwise it is not that apparent that anything has happened.  The world still turns and the national anthem is still played on loudspeakers twice a day as before." 


Many farangs went out to look at the huge build up of military forces in the capital. The expat kids had never seen tanks on the streets before and rushed out to greet them and pose for pix.



"These were up by Parliament, quite a weird scene really - excusing the tanks- as it was like a festival or army show with children up on the tanks (they wouldn't let us on unfortunately), families posing with soldiers, you could buy food and incense sticks for the troops and as always there was some guy selling balloons." 



"And as you can see they had to put up crowd barriers around the tanks to stop people swarming all over them. I drive past at least 3 tanks on the way to work everyday, the troops look bored, but not to worry the high command has officially ordered them to keep smiling." 


And what of the aftermath? Americans were concerned that a "Muslim General" was now in command but 5% of Thailand is Muslim and General Sonthi was at pains to stress how moderate he was.  This did not stop US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately cancelling $24M worth in military aid to Thailand as mandated by the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act (resumed in 2008).


There was no strict martial law and no curfew. The News blokes were disappointed. They wanted to be around when the discourse turned to gunfire but the coup was a bloodless coup, and they didn't have anything dramatic to report


Coups are a perennial feature of political life in Thailand. But life in a dictatorship is not necessarily bad. It is just a system of rule. Perhaps Thailand, like so many other nation states, is better suited to a dictatorship than a democracy. Will there be another coup in Thailand? Let's just say it's inevitable, and leave it at that.