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Coup in the Land of Smiles

Many in Bangkok refuse to surrender their night life despite country's military imposing a 10pm curfew.
Last modified: 24 May 2014 14:44

It was the first time I had experienced a military putsch in the Land of Smiles.

Back in 2006, the army ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup while he attended the UN General Assembly in New York.

That event marked the beginning of the problems that Thailand faces today.

Coming from Canada, where uniformed soldiers rarely appear outside military bases, I panicked when my friend called.

"There's been coup, soldiers are on the streets," he said.

I hopped into my car, drove to the nearest grocery store, and loaded up with water, big bags of rice and as many diapers as the cart would hold.

But there was no need for concern. The next day, young women were seen giving flowers to soldiers on tanks.

Thaksin was later charged with corruption and fled the country to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, from where his opponents claim he continues to rule through his proxies.

'Economy going down'

So on Thursday night, after the military again seized power and declared a 10pm curfew, I decided to go out and see what people had to say about the latest putsch.

"The army is looking to finish this once and for all," a waitress said as she cleared my table at 8:30pm, as the pub on Sukhumvit Road prepared to close.

She added bleakly: "This problem has been going on for eight years. The economy is going down."

Indeed it is.

Thailand's faltering economy may well be a significant factor for the coup, as it has been battered by the political discord.

Figures released this week by the National Economic and Social Development Board, the state planning agency, lowered its GDP growth forecast for 2014 to 1.5-2.5 percent, from three-four percent.

Exports - the main driver of the Thai economy - continued to falter, threatening to plunge the country into recession.

Declining tourist numbers

Others were more concerned about their night-time activities than depressing economic statistics.

"People like me who like to go out to the pub or club, what are we going to do? Now we're stuck at home," said Kriengwut Tantragoon, 34.

Clamping down on Bangkok's notorious nightlife will surely lower already declining tourist numbers.

One of the most visited places on the planet, tourism figures dropped five percent in the first quarter of 2014 - about 400,000 less travellers - as the political turmoil scared people off.

May could see a 12 percent plunge after the coup.

By 10pm, Bangkok's usually traffic-jammed streets were eerily barren.

A tuk-tuk driver pulled up in his three-wheeled ride.

"I know where there's places open," said Angsa in his broken English, smiling mischievously.

Strangely desolate streets

After racing effortlessly down the roads, an excited Angsa pulled into a narrow alleyway and parked.

He walked me into a small bar with 10 ladies in tight dresses facing a crowd of drinkers.

The mama-san, a heavyset woman in her 60s wearing a leopard-skin headband, gestured towards them and smiled.

After some refreshments, we were back zooming down the strangely desolate streets.

After midnight, we discovered an open-air beer bar that had defied the military's orders.

A television screen above blared martial music with a static sign that read: "National Peace and Order Maintaining Council."

Suddenly police arrived and all the waitresses bolted to the entrance to greet them with smiles.

I couldn't decipher what was said, but soon after the officers departed and the music came back on.

It was back to business in the Land of the Smiles.