Monday, June 23, 2014

Coup? What Coup?

Regular contributor, John Borthwick checks out post-coup life in Thailand and finds that it’s safe to go back in the water.

Peace be with you...

“If you didn’t read the papers or watch TV, you’d never know that there had been a coup,” Andy, a longterm Thailand resident and professional Muay Thai coach, tells me on Koh Samui. I arrived in Bangkok about a week after the coup of 22 May 2014, by which time life had settled back to near-normalcy. Martial law? Where? I saw a few soldiers at the airport and, later, several HumVees parked beside the highway. No roadblocks, no ID checks and not an even halfway serious application of the curfew hours.

The curfew was quickly lifted in major tourist centres and then, by June 13, across the entire country. (An early priority — very Thai — was to lift it in time for the next full moon party on Koh Phangan.) Were I not a keen consumer of news, I too might have said, ”Coup? What coup?”

During the early days of martial law, global news services including BBC World and CNN managed to find small flash mobs in Bangkok and, using enough stock “khaki” footage and “crisis” commentary, give the impression that the city, indeed the whole country, was on the verge of eruption. Foreign governments issued travel warnings, and visitors by the thousands cancelled their flights.

Clearly there had been a long political crisis in Thailand. The Army eventually responded to the deadlock with a bloodless coup d’etat. As in the past, the declared intention is for the generals — the National Council for Peace and Order — to hand over the reins to an elected government. Fifteen months is the perhaps optimistic projection.

Few Thais want military rule. But even fewer wanted to see their country paralyzed and polarized as it had increasingly become. In my time there I did not meet one Thai who vehemently opposed the coup. (Certainly there are those, many even, who feel otherwise, but I did not encounter those opinions.) Mostly, people just wanted to get on with their livelihoods and, regardless of their political inclinations, in general had welcomed a circuit-breaker in the Red vs Yellow political stalemate. Their more immediate worry was the damage being done to Thailand’s reputation for both investment and tourism by simplistic, dramatised network news reportage.

Equally baffling for them was to see foreign governments issuing alarmist statements, such as Australia’s: “Martial law continues to be imposed nationwide ... exercise a high degree of caution ... due to the possibility of civil unrest and the threat of terrorist attack, including Bangkok and Phuket.” Sixty-two countries posted travel advisories, including — incredibly — 19 “red alerts” against all travel to Thailand.

Meanwhile, any Thai or tourist on the ground knew that it was perfectly safe to go back in the water (so to speak) in Phuket, Samui, Tarutao or the Ping River, because it had never been unsafe.

On June 12, the influential businessman, American-born Thai citizen William Heinecke, published in the Bangkok Post an open letter to the foreign diplomatic corps and international media. Among his points were:

— I am distressed by the interpretation by a number of Western governments and the international media of both the Coup ... and the situation that led to the Coup. Put succinctly, many of you have gotten it wrong.

— The military showed great restraint as it stood by watching the situation deteriorate, allowing ample time and opportunity for the politicians to resolve the crisis. The price for that period was paid for by the Thai people ... and only when it was clear that that there was no other reasonable solution did the Thai military step in.

— There are no concerns whatsoever for personal safety within Bangkok’s large expatriate community or the millions of tourists still enjoying their holidays in Thailand, yet this is not mentioned in the international media reports or travel warnings.

— Thailand remains a peaceful and welcoming country.

See soon you in Koh Chang, Samet, Surin, Mae Hong Son, Khao San Road or any part of Thailand you like.

Enjoying the good life in Thailand. Pics: John Borthwick

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