A dozen coups later, will Thailand ever be stable?

Protestors gather at a Shutdown Bangkok event on Jan. 16, 2014.
Protestors gather at a Shutdown Bangkok event on Jan. 16, 2014. (Photo via Flickr by Victor Dumesny)

“I just saw the word ‘Thailand’ in the same sentence as ‘military coup’ in the news.”

“What is going on in Thailand right now? I’m worried about you.”

“Please respond and tell us you’re ok.”

As the news broke of Thursday’s military coup in Thailand, worried emails and texts streamed in from my family and friends in Seattle.

Fears of a military coup have reached a fever pitch since Thailand’s Constitutional Court ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 7. Earlier this week, on May 20, the Thai military declared nationwide martial law in anticipation of ramped-up protests in Bangkok.

Yingluck is the fourth prime minister to be removed from office since 2006, when the military expelled her notorious brother Thaksin Shinawatra. Some have called Yingluck’s removal a “constitutional coup,” and interpreted martial law as the next step toward forceful removal of the current government.

Finally, on Thursday May 22, the Thai military proved them right with a bloodless military coup.

I try to reassure my friends and family that the dire news they read in the U.S. is far removed from daily life in much of Thailand. Chiang Mai, the northern city where I live and work, is 500 kilometers and a world away from the center of unrest in Bangkok.

Thailand’s northern and northeastern regions are largely pro-government, or “red shirt,” and generally distinct from the anti-government “yellow shirt” protests that have waxed and waned in Bangkok since November.

In Chiang Mai, the Shutdown Bangkok protest movement was represented by a single subdued demonstration outside a university art center in January. I stopped by and watched without incident.

The protest’s guitar songs, smiling participants, and lazily waving Thai flags lulled me into a sense of calm. The Bangkok violence and unrest I heard about on the Thai news remained an abstraction.   

When I visited Bangkok for work in February, the fourth month of the protests, I sought out a Shutdown Bangkok protest site without hesitation. Wanting to show the “real Thailand” to some visiting friends, I escorted them to one of the largest sites.

We found just what I had hoped and expected to find. In a carnival-like atmosphere, vendors sold t-shirts, whistles, and signs. Cardboard cutouts of Suthep Thaungsuban, the leader of Shutdown Bangkok, stood around the football field-sized site for protest-goers to pose and take pictures with.

A "tent city" pops up around the Shutdown Bangkok protest site in February 2014. (Photo by Gennie Gebhart)
A “tent city” pops up around the Shutdown Bangkok protest site in February 2014. (Photo by Gennie Gebhart)

A well-organized tent-city bookended the site, and food kitchens churned out food for everyone in attendance. Through the afternoon and into the night, musicians onstage played Thai organizing songs that would have been at home in my parents’ Woodstock box set. Protestors sat down on their signs as if they were picnic blankets and settled down for dinner.

I felt proud to have introduced my out-of-town friends to the peaceful and orderly side of Thailand that CNN and the Wall Street Journal don’t broadcast.

But when I went home that night and scanned the headlines, I was horrified. While my companions and I had been looking at t-shirts and listening to protest songs, grenades had been ripping through a protest site on the other side of the city.

I realized how lucky I was to have ended up at the protest site that did not fall victim to violence that day.

That was when I started to worry.

Three months later, with widespread fears of military coup becoming reality, I cannot stop worrying.

I am not worried for my own safety, or for that of the other foreign residents and travelers who are lucky enough to be guests of this country.

I am not worried about the curfews, military checkpoints, and blacked-out TV and radio stations that are among the immediate, nationwide results of this week’s coup.

Currently broadcasting across all TV channels, a message reads, "Peace and Order Maintaining Command."
Currently broadcasting across all TV channels, a message reads, “Peace and Order Maintaining Command.”

I am not even worried about various media outlets’ zealous predictions of civil war and secession.

I am worried about the unpredictable and less easily named consequences of this decisive military action. In a country that has now experienced 18 actual or attempted coups since the founding of its constitutional democracy in 1932, this most recent military coup offers no resolution.

If anything, it is a case of déjà vu with few instructive precedents for the current situation.

Thailand’s “color politics” can tempt one to divide the country into neat categories: pro-government “red shirt” poor farmers on one side, and anti-government “yellow shirt” Bangkok elites on the other.

Such characterizations, though not comprehensive, are at least indicative of the divide that threatens to cripple the nation.

As the crisis unfolds, each side has revealed itself to be less interested in democracy and more interested in a high-level struggle for absolute political power. Simple definitions and straightforward analysis elude observers despite, or perhaps because of, this political landscape of extremes.

The resulting uncertainty — the feeling that Thailand remains in uncharted waters after years of episodic unrest — is more ominous than any well-articulated political forecast.

Among my Thai friends, I feel this insecurity. Rather than taking sides, many Thais are simply fed up with their country’s increasingly polarized politics and the violence it can bring.

The dynamic stalemate that Thailand is now struggling with — of which this chaotic week is only the latest episode — will end eventually.

But I am most worried that, as a friend in Chiang Mai often repeats to me, “Whichever side wins, Thailand will lose.”