Thursday, September 21, 2006

Military Schmoup: Democracy Inaction

Bangkok has visitors! Today crowds of onlookers are taking to the streets with their cell phone cameras, snapping pictures with the gentlemanly delegates, goggling at their oversized vehicles. Is Real Madrid in town again? No, even better. Smile! You’re in a military coup!

While PM Thaksin was in New York to give a speech at the UN, the Thai military moved in and changed the locks. Thaksin has been losing more and more support this year, culminating in his 57% majority victory in a one-party election this April. Bowing to 100,000 person daily protests, he said there would be another election, and that he would not be running. Then he said he would run. Then he left for New York.

In a very un-military-like (but very Thai-like) avoidance of confrontation, the military simply waited for Thaksin to be safely on American soil, and then rolled in the tanks and set up shop from there. I’m surprised they didn’t wait until Friday to break the news to him.

After I got the call that the coup had taken place, I turned on the tube and watched karaoke music about the King. Occasionally a very serious man would come on and say something. (I would learn the word for coup the next day). Well, that takes care of the media. I sat back, looked out at my quiet, sleeping village, and realized I was the only one who had any idea what was happening.

The man said that the next day was a holiday. Yipeee! Thanks!

Despite the day-off, I went to my gov’t office, which was closed, and started asking a lot of questions. Everyone sat around in casual clothes on plastic chairs, joking around and waiting for something to come on the TV. “What day are you leaving?” they asked me. “I’m not leaving.” I said. “But all the falang are leaving Bangkok.” “Can I have your washing machine?”

“It’s good and not good,” one friend said, “The country is divided in two.” Thaksin wasn’t popular anymore. He still carried the North and Isaan by healthy margins, but alienated the Bangkok middle class and the Southern Muslims. Nevertheless, he would be a formidable opponent and probable favorite in another election. “But you had elections scheduled in another month,” I said, “Why did this happen?” “Because the Army is powerful. Past and Present, the Army has controlled Thailand.”


Soldiers in front of the Democracy Monument, compliments of the BBC.

At 9am, General Sondhi, a Muslim appointed as head of the Army by Thaksin to put a friendlier face on the government’s oppression of Southern Muslims, came on and declared martial law, abolished the constitution, and declared that the Army had no intention of ruling Thailand. My friends and I gathered around a tin-roofed hut decorated floor to ceiling with pictures of the King, where we watched the General on the security guard’s tiny black and white TV. When he got done speaking, everyone sat back down, and engaged in a heated conversation about how to replace the reflector on the back of my bicycle. “Isn’t this a big deal?” I asked. “Thailand is like this,” they said, “Sometimes the military will come in and take power. They always give it back eventually.”

We boiled a chicken and then ate sticky rice. It was any other day in Thailand. A few hours later, everyone jumped up to look at the TV again. What could it be? Big news from England- Newcastle came from a goal back to win in their latest Premier League match. Then we sat back down and had an hour-long conversation about English soccer.

On my way home, I jokingly asked a woman at the local store in anything was new. “Portsmouth is in first place in the Premier League!,” she said, “It’s unbelievable!”

I went to check the internet with a friend of mine because I just couldn’t believe that in the middle of a military coup, we were receiving karaoke to watch instead of news. I checked Yahoo! News, who apparently thought “Military Coup Ousts Thai Prime Minister” was the fifth most important story of the day. Number one was “Pudgy in Paris? A Recent Diet Bestseller May Have it All Wrong About French Women’s Waistlines.”

After printing out and reading a bunch of articles from the BBC, including English transcripts of all the “communiqués” being released from the Army, I handed them to my friend (who can speak and read English) and said, “Here you go, Press Free.”

I asked him, “Do you think other governments will recognize a government that came to power after a military coup?” “Burma will,” he said.

As I’m writing this, I just saw video from the international conference that confirmed almost all the developed world did exactly that. Thaksin wasn’t a very good “populist” if none of his constituents cares that he was undemocratically removed from office. No matter how corrupt he was, it seems to me the really unpopular losers are elections, which will take place in over a year, instead of next month.

Edit: The United States has since publicly "denounced" the coup, although have not gone so far as to pull buesiness out of Thailand or demand that the gov't revert to its democratic predecessor. This means I still have a job. And also marks a moment in history when the views of the US gov't are in unison with my own. Kudos!

One reason that everyone here is so calm and unconcerned about the coup is that there is widespread faith in the military leaders to return power to the people, which they have vowed to do. And that this has happened numerous times before. I am not well enough informed about the situation to judge the new government. But I am a keen observer of hypocrisy, and it seems to me that countries so concerned with building new democratic governments should be just as concerned with protecting existing democratic institutions by refusing to recognize the military governments that overrun them.

According to the news from Bangkok (where Thaksin was exceedingly unpopular), more than 80% of Bangkok residents approved of the bloodless coup. 100% of my co-workers were ecstatic about getting the day off. “Weren’t you supposed to get two days off to vote for senate and parliament next month?” I asked. “Yeah, why?”


Parents capturing an historic event for their children- their first coup! Gee, I remember mine like it was yesterday...

This is my second coup, my second ousted democratically elected leader, but my first Junta (temporary one, anyway), First Aristide, then Thaksin- two men I would most certainly heckle upon meeting, but would much rather their powers transferred through a hole in a ballot than a barrel of a gun.

The government is calling itself the Administrative Reform Group under the Democratic System with the King as the Head of State. Wanna play a game? Look at a map of Asia, then see which countries have “Democratic” in their official name, and then count the number of elections they’ve had lately. The council has promised to appoint a non-military PM within two weeks, who will smile wider and more naturally than the soldiers telling him what to do and say for the next year. They have asked heads of the former Ruling Thai Rak Thai to report to the council, where they have been “invited to remain in military custody indefinitely”. Another Thai Rak Thai leader was “invited to remain” in jail for gathering in a political group of more than 5, which is now illegal, carrying a term of up to six months. Smile!

I was speaking on the phone with my friend who was walking around Bangkok today, and he was upbeat. Crowds were walking the quiet streets, taking pictures of tanks and giving flowers to soldiers. My friend said the soldiers were stopping cars, asking where people were going, and then amiably giving them directions to their destinations. “There are a lot of soldiers congregating around the Democracy Monument,” he said, “I guess that’s kind of funny.”




Disclaimer: The views enclosed in the previous document do not necessarily represent the views of Peace Corps, its volunteers, and most certainly not the US gov’t. They are merely musings of a confused, naïve 25 year old who takes great pleasure in finding humorous irony in serious subject matter. They cannot, in whole or in part, be taken seriously, believed, reproduced or sold without the express written consent of Major League Baseball or its partners.

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