From Inside The Coup

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It’s now been a full four days since the head of the Thai Army officially declared a coup d’état in the politically troubled country, and as an expat it has been a somewhat surreal experience to witness.

I think many expats will recognize the feeling of not really belonging in the country they currently call home while also feeling isolated from our home countries. This feeling of being a little stranded in no-man’s land has certainly been amplified for me in the past days.

For those who may not fully understand what has lead Thailand to this point (even I’m still trying to fully understand it all), the Wikipedia entry is a good summary of how it’s all come about.

I have the privilege of working with some very smart, politically-aware Thai people. I also have the privilege of having a wide and varied network of expat friends and colleagues, all with varying degrees of having experienced and witnessed previous coups in Thailand. But none of them really sums up Thailand’s version of democracy better than Chris Wright, a contributor to Forbes Magazine (23 May 2014):

So here’s how democracy works in Thailand. An election is held. It is disputed. Sometimes it is repeated. It is still disputed. The government is protested against. It is accused of corruption. And then, generally, it is removed by a military coup.

Anti-Coup Protests taking place about 500m from my workplace

Anti-Coup Protests taking place about 500m from my workplace

This one is the 12th coup of the modern era. Probably. Military activity is so frequent around Thai politics it can be hard to define what is a coup and what is not. As Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka put it: “That’s 24 times in 82 years since constitutional monarchy. That’s once every three years. It’s tradition. Like Songkran. Without the wet T-shirts.”

For now, everything is business as usual (or at least between the hours of 5am and 10pm while there is a military-enforced curfew). However there is no doubt that Thailand’s international reputation is taking a beating on a number of levels.

Personally, I do not feel the coup is as dire or frightening as some of the international media appear to be portraying it to the outside world. There has been no violence, very little force and certainly no bloodshed that generally seems to be splashed across international news sites of the military overthrows that have taken place in other countries. There have been a small amount of vocal yet peaceful protests in Bangkok against the coup, as well as some pro-coup rallies, but they haven’t reached the size and scale of the anti-government protests earlier this year, which amassed thousands of people across the country.

In fact, most Thai people I know are generally supportive of the coup. As the quote shares above, this is how they do things here and this is the system they are used to. While we (westerners) may not agree and certainly don’t understand the complexities of Thai politics, it appears to be the only way forward for the country. According to today’s news, the junta is moving ahead with reforms that many people said were desperately needed in order to eradicate the corruption that has plagued the country and its government for years.

However, a number of international governments have made clear statements they condemn any kind of military takeover to being counterproductive to the principles of democracy and strip away human rights. We’ve already seen the military take control of the news and place gag orders on some journalists and, as someone who is used to a free press and access to an abundance of information, this is the part that concerns me the most. After working in PR for over 12 years, I have seen what happens in a crisis situation when there is a lack of information – innuendo and rumor that leads to panic and a much direr situation than would have been if people had been kept informed. However, I also understand the need at a time like this where civil order hangs in a delicate balance to keep news to-the-point and fact-based – all it could take is one highly antagonistic story and the previously peaceful protests can turn much darker. And that’s not a desirable outcome for anyone, on either side of the fence.

Anti-Coup Protestors take to the streets in Bangkok's central shopping district, closing off streets

Anti-Coup Protestors take to the streets in Bangkok’s central shopping district, closing off streets

Furthermore, the international community’s condemnation of the coup has had quite a few Thais up in arms over their interference telling them to leave and/or butt out. While I understand Thailand’s desire and quite frankly its right to figure this out the way they know best for their country, I also understand Thailand’s reliance on foreign assistance in a number of forms. The “we don’t need your help” response couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s at a time like this that Thailand needs all the help it can get. As the coup drags on, the economy will stall thanks to freezes on foreign investment as many countries and companies have policies and codes of conduct that prevents them from doing business in a military-controlled country, further fuelled by a significant dive in exports and the number of tourists travelling to Thailand thanks to concerns for personal safety and lack of insurance companies willing to protect them. When a country’s future development relies on a thriving economy, a coup doesn’t instill the level of confidence that’s needed urgently in order to propel development forward.

In the past few days I have had a number of friends who have trips planned contact me in a panic wondering if they should cancel. In short the answer is no, please keep your travel plans! It appears that the 10pm to 5am curfew isn’t being strictly enforced, particularly in the island regions so you can stay out well into the night hours sipping cocktails from coconuts without fear of being marched back to your hotel (unless, of course, you’re misbehaving which I would never recommend, coup or no coup). Tourism is a major economic driver contributing more than US$16 billion to the local economy, and it’s imperative on a number of levels that tourists continue to come to Thailand, from the number of small Thai-run businesses that rely on a steady stream of tourists to survive, to business tourism that brings in large scale events and expos and fills all the large hotels, as it all helps keep people in jobs and the economy somewhat steadily ticking over.

The quiet street outside my apartment during the coup - normally there is a small amount of traffic

The quiet street outside my apartment during the coup – normally there is a small amount of traffic

It will be interesting to see how the situation continues to unfold and develop in the coming weeks and months. Even though some aspects may be cause for concern, it feels like Thailand is on the precipice of a new, prosperous dawn sprinkled with so much positive potential (even though it make take a while to get there).

For now, I have come to call Thailand home over the past 15 months and for me home equals safety. And I feel safe.

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As an Australian living in Bangkok, it would be natural to assume Marissa is one of the many glampackers that discovered Thailand's silky sands, crystal clear waters and abundance of knock-off handbags and decided to never leave.

As much as she sometimes wishes her life in Thailand resembled something similar to The Beach (oh, Leo!), Marissa took an out-of-the-blue opportunity to further her professional PR career with one of the world's leading strategic communications agencies in March 2013 and hasn't looked back.

Marissa envisages her career and the abundance of international flights in and out of Bangkok will keep her there for the foreseeable future. And the Pad Thai is pretty good too.

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