Post-coup Thailand: Curfews, martial songs, and selfies

Anti-government protesters waiting on Thursday night at the Royal Plaza in inner Bangkok for buses arranged by the military to send them back home to various provinces. - PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Anti-government protesters waiting on Thursday night at the Royal Plaza in inner Bangkok for buses arranged by the military to send them back home to various provinces. - PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

It was Valentine's Day when I last saw security forces try to push protesters out of inner Bangkok.

Back then, the anti-government groups had occupied the vast Ratchadamnoen Nok avenue for over two months, and had fortified their improvised entrances with barriers and sandbags.

It was tense.

Tense enough for me to head out with a flak jacket and helmet. Tense enough for columns of police to retreat immediately when enraged protesters tried to reclaim their rally site by hauling in new sandbags, and when a small explosive went off near the confrontation zone.

Fast forward three months, and it was a different picture altogether as soldiers cleared the site of protesters.

In the dim glow of streetlights, bedraggled supporters of the People's Democratic Reform Committee quietly hauled sacks of belongings to a staging point where the army had arranged buses for them to return home outside Bangkok.

The sandbag-covered sentry boxes were abandoned as the erstwhile protest guards strolled around saying their goodbyes. "May we have the opportunity to meet again!" said one to another.

Vendors held fire sales of protest paraphernalia. "Ten baht each," one vendor shouted, pointing to the range of hand-knitted brooches and earrings all covered in ubiquitous blue, red, white of the Thai flag.

Some couldn't resist their last selfies on their mobile phones in front of the stage that declared in bold print "Victory". Others sat mindlessly on thin ground mats, their smiles weary.

It had, after all, been nearly seven months since they first took to the streets, invaded government offices, sabotaged the Feb 2 election, and then shut down key intersections in Bangkok in a bid to overthrow the Puea Thai-party run government.

But, faced with a caretaker Cabinet that refused even to yield as it was debilitated by a court judgement, and a Senate hesitant about helping it supercede the government, its campaign appeared headed nowhere.

Enter army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who had previously stayed on the sidelines of Thailand's six-month long political crisis despite repeated pleas from protesters to intervene.

He relented on Tuesday, swiftly declaring martial law, and then staging a coup - the army's 12th - just two days later, after detaining representatives of all the conflicting parties at an army compound.

Just as swiftly, he sent troops in to disperse both anti- and pro-government supporters massed in different parts of Bangkok.

Whether by design or default, it gave the PDRC a face-saving way out of its protracted campaign. While its leader Suthep Thaugsuban was detained, the army had - in the space of two days - toppled a government that it had been trying in vain to dislodge.

The whole nation, meanwhile, had to contend with the now familiar rituals that come with a Thai-style military coup.

A curfew was set from 10pm and would last till 5am, creating a massive crush at skytrain stations and snaking queues at bus-stops. Schools were ordered closed for three days. Bangkok's Soi Cowboy, a lane filled with neon and bare midriffs on any given night, was eerily dark.

Viewers tuned into any TV channel were reduced to watching a static screen of the newly created "National Peace and Order Maintaining Council" accompanied by martial songs.

Every few minutes, a military spokesman read out new announcements issued by General Prayuth. One declared that the general would assume the duties of the prime minister. Another summoned key members of the Puea Thai party, as well as deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, for a meeting on Friday morning.

Finally, there was one that warned social media operators against spreading "provocative" messages.

The messages would continue into the night till the wee hours of Friday, when the country would wake up to new realities of life under the men in green - yet again.

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