Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Thai coup - echoes of 1992?

I have been following with mild interest the news coming out of Thailand about the "peaceful coup." A few articles, such as this one in the Washington Post, mention in passing the last coup, which occurred in early 1992. I was living overseas at the time, and arrived in Thailand just a few months after the 1992 coup took place. I unwittingly stayed in a cheap guesthouse a few storefronts north of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok just days before it became the center of anti-Suchinda demonstrations (Suchinda Kraprayoon was one of the coup leaders who was appointed PM in April 1992).

What followed was an almost heady experience seeing thousands of ordinary people taking to the street to peacefully protest Suchinda and his regime. Remember, this was only three years after Tiananmen, which had also started out peacefully. The Thai demonstrators basically shut down the center of Bangkok, and camped out around the monument and down the main North-South drag (Ratchadamnoen Nok). The military set up barbed wire to block off certain side streets leading to the monument, but people could come and go freely through the warren of alleys in this area. The area became filthy as city services stopped in this area, and the thousands of people just threw garbage onto the street.

Then the violence started. I am going to excerpt from the travel diary I maintained to describe what happened, from my vantage point. The pictures that accompany this post were taken with my cheap little portable camera. I have to admit some of my curiosity got me into very dangerous situations during those days, but curiosity about the world and what goes on in it is part of my character, is why I became a journalist and is why I am studying history right now at the Extension School. Note the observations related to government control of the media, and propaganda efforts to disperse the protesters.

Here are the diary entries, copied from my little paper notebook that I carried around with me at the time:


May 19, 1992: ... The shit has hit the proverbial fan, so to speak. The rally on Sunday night turned violent, when a small body of younger protesters (mostly male teens) rushed the concertina wire with motorcycles and pickup truck on the canal bridge about 500 m south of my guest house on Ratchadamnoen Ave, and attached and destroyed a police and fire station nearby, as well as police cars and fire trucks. They threw things at the rows of armed soldiers and riot cops, who regrouped and charged back, some shooting. Five ended up dying, and the gov't declared a state of emergency.

I slept through all of this, and it wasn't until Jim went to Liz and Paul's room next door at 9:00 and started saying all of this [that I realized what had happened]. The state of emergency meant that everything in Bangkok was shut for three days, including the schools where they teach English. Immediately I wanted to run out and see what had happened and what was going on, but then I told myself that I would find out soon enough. I had a shower and brushed my teeth, and then went downstairs.

Everyone except Faza and Morris was there, and the night gate was almost completely shut (it would remain that way the whole day). Someone had gotten the Bangkok Post, which gave a little information on the front [page]. The inside pages were half blank, the stories about the rally had apparently been censored. I went outside to get a copy for a souvenir, but all the stalls near Khao San Road had sold out. I also saw several hundred combat troops had lined up on both sides of Tanow Road where it intersects with Ratchadamnoen Road. Ratchadamnoen was closed because demonstrators occupied it all the way up to the monument and past it up to Phan Faa Bridge where the trouble had occured the night before.I went to the telephone and called up the embassy. A Thai woman explained that Americans should stay away from the area around the Democracy Monument and the Grand Palace (i.e., the area where I live) and stock up on food. I gave her my name and passport number, and when I told her where the Sweety Guest House was, she goes "Oh! What's going on now?" I told her. This [exchange] kind of surprised me. They don't have a clue. Don't the diplomats have sources in the Thai government and military?

I walked around the protestors' area. There were several thousand, most of them sitting and lying down under shaded storefronts and trees. Banners were strung up everywhere, and tons of garbage (mostly newspapers) littered the streets. On several side streets and at that bridge, police had placed concertina wire and were arrayed with shields and batons. Demonstrators sat on my side, some chatting and banging out rhythms with empty water bottles. Loudspeakers blared messages on both sides, and the police messages were greeted only with booing. I took some pictures and went to find some food.

The New World Department Store was open, but barely active. I bought a Nation downstairs, the last [copy]. It was not censored, and had a picture of four cops wailing on some guy with batons, who was curled up in a foetal position on the ground. The paper was heavily critical of the government, as opposed to a Thai government paper which had photos of injured policemen and rioters tipping over cars. I saved both ...

It was early afternoon by the time I got back, like 1:30 or so. I was tired so I lay down to rest. I had been lightly dozing for about an hour when I woke with a start. The light sound of crowds tlaking outside the hotel had been replaced by the sound of small roar. [I went out to the hall.] Jim had also heard it, and we hoisted ourselves up to the window facing Ratchadamnoen. The lines of troops and riot cops had moved about 100m closer to the monument [i.e., in our direction], and the crowds were jeering them. ... Both of us ran downstairs, grabbing our cameras. A few others dropped their cards and followed.

The troops were apparently trying to move the protestors into a smaller area. They would move about 25 or 50 meters at a time, then the protestors would sit dfown in front of them and run away the next time troops moved about a half and hour later. At first I was behind troops, but then moved toward the monument, in front of the police line. At this point there was a horrendous noise, past the monument in the direction of the bridge. It sounded like a hundred motorcycles revving their engines without any mufflers, next to my head. A kind of rippling, popping sound. Some people ran toward it, some away. I moved closer, up to the square which contains the monument. I realized that it was gunfire. It stopped momentarily, then resumed.

A [Western] reporter ran past, and I asked if they were firing live ammo. "Yes, in the air." Soon I could see the line of troops, approaching from the bridge. I turned around and stood on a flowerbed next to a building, neer some Thais. I didn;t like the feeling being between two lines of armed soldiers moving closer, kind of like the closing doors sequence in Star Wars. Soon the firing line had crossed the monument, and encircled it. Only a few were firing their weapons, but I decided to get behind the other [police] line, right in front of the Sweety [my guest house]. Most of the demonstrators had run down side streets or on the sides of the line next to the buildings like me, and were now behind the line, chanting or clapping when the monument soldiers stopped firing.

I stood around for an hour, then moved inside the Sweety. ... I went to the front entrance of the Sweety, on Ratchadamnoen Ave. The plate glass windows and doors were barred, and everyone was looking outside. The soldiers and cops to the left [south, toward the Democracy Monument] had turned around, backs to the monument and were facing the roaring crowd [in front of the hotel]. Some people on the far side of the street threw small objects, and that caused the soldiers to let off a volley. Everyone outside the window [of the guest house], several thousand people, either dived or started running. The soldiers starting marching forward [north, on a path that would take them past the guest house], helmeted riot cops about 50 meters behind them. they fled the shooting troops, but some people ran to the sides of the lines, and huddled by the buildings, raising their hands in the air. The soldiers ignored them and moved on, toward the main body [of protestors]. Some were still throwing things, and everyone was shouting. The riot cops approached our view. Some civilians, many of them women, had sat down against the bars of the Sweety. The first cops indicated with their batons for them to move on, but they cowered down even farther. A few cops came to the crowd, and started hitting them with their batons. This was about five feet away from my face, and the image of the white-helmeted, khaki-uniformed cop bringing his baton down into a group of young women and men wearing T-shirts will be etched into my mind for a long time. I snapped a picture, then moved away from the door because the same policeman gave me a look like "if those bars weren't there, you'd get some as well."

The others -- Gillie from Israel and Mark from the UK and Faza and the Big Boss [this was the guy who owned the guest house] and I don't remember the others had also watched this. Those who had cameras took pictures, and we all jerked when a soldier fired into the air about 20 feet from our position. ...

The protesters were forced down Ratchadamnoen, and stopped in the area where it intersects with several major roads, near the oval field where the busses normally depart. I walked down KSR just after dusk to cash a T-cheque, and went beyond that. There was a huge crowd, many tens of thousands of people, bigger than I had seen in the afternoon. I had no idea how big it was, people everywhere as far as I could see. I turned down Ratchadamnoen. Young men had seized a few busses, and had burned a water truck and pickup. Dozens were standing on [the vehicles], yelling at the police. There was a roar around me, and I knew there would be trouble later. I picked up a shell [casing] from the ground, and went about 20m from the front of the demonstrators. They were waving flags and shouting at that line of solders, a hundred meters beyond. The soldiers had a bank of spotlights turned on the protestors, and all I could see of them was a line of shields with the eyeslits, the soldiers crouched behind. I left, not wanting to be around when the troops started [in].

I went back to the Sweety, and spent my last 30 baht on Indian food across the road. I started watching Bullitt at 9:30, then went outside to the barricade near Tanow Road, made out of empty plastic tree pots. The rumour-mongering-Aussie-beer-drinker-who-used-to-work-in-Japan was there, talking about tanks and saying "It's cat and mouse" every five minutes. ... Gov't loudspeakers played cheezy music, then stopped. At about 10:30 there was a movement of more soldiers north, and soon after, a volley. Everyone ran to buildings and posts for cover, and civilians and reporters near the line hightailed it toward us. When the firing stopped, we could hear an enourmous roar from the angry crowd, and we saw twirling sparks which blossomed into flames -- Molotov cocktails. A few busses were pushed forward, some lit on fire. The soldiers fired more, and not just in the air. I saw tracers going horizontally. Then the troops pulled back about 50 meters, and the firing was only sporadic.

They made us leave the barricade, but I jumped up on a fence separating the sidewalk from a parking lot. A Thai man next to me spoke English, and explained a few things about the situation. He said we were not in danger, as long as the police were there and the burning mob 500 m down the road. We watched the fires reflecting off the buildings, and the occaisional ambulance. At one point a bus drove toward the line of soldiers, who ran out of the way. Some fired, and the bus lost control and crashed into a tree. The accelerator was stuck, and the engine revved for about a minute, smoking until someone turned off the engine. Camera flashes surrounded the cab, and ambulance went up. The next morning I found out that four teenagers had commandeered the bus and had been killed in this incident. The toll for the night would be 19, according to the Nation.


The moral of the story (besides avoiding riots and other civil unrest abroad) is that sometimes coups may replace a government without a single shot being fired, but violence occurs weeks or months later as the political situation changes and people react to the new order. The current coup is so far peaceful. But I would hardly call the situation stable.

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