A 'relaxed and a friendly coup'

I'm witnessing history, experiencing a coup d'etat. And it's not at all what I expected. Here I am in Bangkok, a city I've long dreamed of visiting. But instead of hanging out on Khao San Road, as a visitor to this fascinating city would normally do, I'm in my hotel room.

I can't be outside the hotel between 10pm and 5am, thanks to the curfew imposed Thursday evening when Thailand's military seized power. So I followed #ThaiCoup on Twitter and wondered if I would encounter any action before I leave.

When I landed in Bangkok around 6:30am on Wednesday morning I was expecting to see soldiers and feel a tense atmosphere hanging over the city. I couldn't have been more wrong.

We drove across the city to a convention centre, where an international food exhibition and trade show was taking place, and later headed downtown to our hotel.

I didn't see a single tank or soldiers, and all the people I spoke to said the military was only in the two areas of the city where the protesters were.

Thursday morning I finally got a tiny little taste of the martial law.  As my tour guide Lek and I headed towards the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, we discovered a number of streets with unmanned military blockades.

I saw three soldiers walking down one street as we made a detour through Chinatown, but that was all.
By that point the only effect of the coup on me was heavy traffic, but unlike in Muscat, the drivers were very patient and calm and I didn't hear a single horn. It really didn't feel like a country losing its grip on democracy.

Later that evening, after a day spent exploring temples and enjoying spicy Tom Yum soup, Lek and I were walking into a cultural centre when a friend back in Oman sent me a message asking if I were safe, which alerted me to the coup d'etat which had been declared just minutes before.

One would think such news would be shocking and frightening, but when I turned to Lek and asked if we should be worried, she just gave me a resigned smile, shrugged, and said, "No, it's normal. It happens all the time here."  We finished our sightseeing a little earlier than expected when we heard about the curfew. (Lek told me the next morning that she couldn't find a taxi, tuk-tuk or even a motorcycle taxi and had to walk 30 minutes to the nearest train station.)

Despite my constant observations, I still didn't see a single soldier or military vehicle anywhere around downtown Bangkok as my driver took me back to the hotel shortly before 10pm.

The only problem was the heavy traffic.   As I looked out at the streets around me, there were people milling about, sitting at open air restaurants, and little sense of the impending curfew.

The only things that seemed a little out of the ordinary, besides being stuck in the hotel, were a letter from the hotel management explaining the situation and the number of TV channels all showing General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the Army Chief, briefing the public about why the military had taken over and suspended the constitution.

He claimed it was necessary to prevent an escalation of violence, ensure public safety, and allow for political reform before elections are held again. In much of Thailand both local TV channels and some international channels have been taken off the air, replaced with the military TV channel.

As I flipped through the channels in my hotel room, I counted nearly 30 that were blocked, including the BBC. CNN's twitter feed claimed it was off the air in Thailand, but it was still accessible in my hotel.

Friday morning the headlines in the local papers were all about the coup, but still no one I talked to expressed any concern. The city was quiet that morning as one of my Thai hosts, Lek and I made our way out of the city to visit some tourist sites. The military had ordered schools, universities and government offices to stay closed, so the streets were rather empty, and I still didn't see any military presence.

Finally, on Friday afternoon driving back to the hotel after a day out in the seemingly peaceful and calm rural provinces west of Bangkok, I saw a couple of soldiers downtown, just a block or two from my hotel. But rather than standing on guard, they were posing for photos with passers-by.

Later that evening Twitter was abuzz with news of anti-coup protests downtown and the detention of Yingluck Shinawatra. But the real trend was selfies with soldiers.

As one man told me, "Like everything in Thailand, the coup is friendly and relaxed."

The author is a Special Correspondent with Times of Oman. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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