I’ve been in Bangkok through the 2008 “yellow shirts” demonstrations against the government of now-deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, through the 2010 “red shirts” protests that supported him, and, as of May 22, my first military coup.
The takeover of the government by Thailand’s army followed six months of street demonstrations aimed at bringing down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin, who was himself overthrown by the military in 2006. The army says this most recent coup was necessary to restore the peace, as the opposing political sides seemed unable to break their deadlock while protests resulted in the deaths of dozens and hundreds of injuries.
How has this affected my life in Bangkok? Not much, so far. My commuting has become more difficult, and I’m much more conscious of my words, and the color of my shirt. But it’s still the Bangkok that I’ve come to love for its vibrancy, its mix of modernity and old-world Asia, the food, the world-famous massages, and the bright colors.
I was born in Japan, schooled mostly in the U.S., and first came to Bangkok in 2000 for a summer internship with a project against sexual exploitation of children. Work on a project for HIV prevention brought me back in 2001 and then in 2007, when I met my German-Thai husband. We have small children we’re raising here (and we appreciate the affordable childcare) and live comfortably in a Thai family compound, with members of my husband’s extended family living in multiple houses inside a gated compound. My husband likens the whole place to Downton Abbey.
I sing for Opera Siam and its affiliated Orpheus Choir and work as a project management consultant to an international organization. (The organization doesn’t want us to comment on Thai politics, so that’s why I’m not using names.) My office is located in the old-fashioned government area near the center of Bangkok, where there are a number of popular targets for protesters: the Government House where the prime minister has offices, Bangkok’s police headquarters, parliament, and other military offices.
This last batch of protesters (the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, or PDRC, who opposed Yingluck’s government) decided to camp out on the main road smack in front of my office, thus blocking most of the office’s entranceways. For a while, the wide avenue was filled with tents, portable showers, port-a-potties, and communal dining areas. Eventually the number of people dwindled, especially after the king’s birthday last December, but the road remained blockaded. When the police attempted to reclaim the nearly deserted area in February, the protesters scrambled back to fight for their space. In the clashes there were casualties, and the area was left again to the protesters, who again mostly deserted the area as soon as it was not being threatened. They then consolidated their forces in Lumpini Park, a more convenient location in modern, downtown Bangkok.
Despite these disruptions, life has actually gone on quite normally for most of us Bangkok residents. The malls are still filled with people, we have no problems getting groceries and gas, businesses are open, public transportation is bustling as ever. If it weren’t for how the roadblocks added to already notorious Bangkok traffic, you might have thought these disturbances were occurring in another country.
For me, the road closures around the office doubled my commute from 20 minutes to at least 45 minutes, and I’ve heard colleagues lamenting some mornings about how their normal 45-minute drive to work took them as much as two hours. Recently, our office was closed for two and a half weeks when the protesters moved en masse back to our area, and we had to telecommute.
Another effect of these political upheavals has been that my husband and I have become extremely conscious of the color of our clothes. We dare not wear yellow (a remnant of the “yellow shirts” protests), red (likewise from “red shirts”), or any clothes that bear the three colors of the Thai flag: red, white, and blue (PDRC supporters wore Thai flag paraphernalia), for fear of our sartorial choices being taken as a political message. Some mornings will find us asking each other, “Does my shirt look too red?” or “Do you think this is too yellow?”, and it’s a running joke that we’ll soon run out of colors to wear.
Everyone is eager to talk about the political crisis, including on Facebook. What strikes me most is how emotional people are about Thaksin, who isn’t in the country anymore, but whom many think is orchestrating events from afar. One seems either to love or hate him and his family; there’s no middle path. Facebook is a minefield, with the real danger being that a carelessly made comment on my part might lose me friends whom I otherwise like. I try hard to say nothing more than that I hate the horrible traffic that the protests are causing.
The other thing that strikes me is how most people generally seem to welcome and trust the military. There was a picture circulating on Facebook where the head of General Prayuth, the man who instigated the coup, was Photoshopped onto Superman with a comment: “Our Hero!” It could be that Thais are simply used to coups—by one count there have been 24 in the 82 years since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. (I got a good laugh out of a headline from Thailand’s version of The Onion stating that the most recent coup marked the discovery “of a new species of coup.”) Of further note, I’ve hardly heard a word mentioned on the role of the monarchy, which plays an essential role in Thai society and politics. I can only conjecture that most Thais seek “good” authorities—such as the monarchy and the military—to take control.
The general feeling in Bangkok following the military coup seemed to be that of relief. (See this piece by an eclectic conductor/composer/science fiction novelist friend, Somtow Sucharitkul.) I confess, even I felt a sense of satisfaction to hear that the main opposing political leaders were scolded for not getting along and then stripped of their powers. It was certainly a relief also that the military immediately dismantled the protest sites; our office has reopened and we can get back to work.
Thailand is the only home that my children have known, and it’s hard to see turmoil tearing it apart. Naturally, I hope for some kind of resolution, although it’s hard to tell how to reconcile a people who seem to be split down the middle. I hope that the military makes use of its stewardship of the government to find some miraculous compromise that all sides can reasonably accept. Otherwise, one can see elections taking place down the line, the pro-Thaksin party winning again (or not?), and the losing side taking to the streets again in protest. I can only pray that we won’t find ourselves saying: Here we go again.