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Thailand: Life under a martial law

Wednesday 4th June 2014

Within four days last month Thailand went from a democracy to a state under martial law.


Thai protesters march against the military coup.

Photo: AFP

“People are urged not to panic, and can carry on their business as usual. Declaring martial law is not a coup d'etat,” a message on the army’s television channel said a little over two weeks ago. Two days later, the country’s government was thrown out.

The country had been in political chaos. Protesters had been demonstrating against the government since November. An election in February had been ruled invalid by the courts after protesters disrupted polling, and another wasn’t scheduled until July.

Weeks before the coup, caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party had been expected to win the February election, was ousted by a court order. Nine of her cabinet members also had to step down.

One of the members of Yingluck’s cabinet who wasn't made to resign, Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, took over as prime minister on May 7. Two weeks later, the military came knocking. 

Kiwi expat Te Aro Pairama-Lewington, 21, found out about the coup from friends and through social media. “Twitter and Facebook have been very good sources, but all mainstream channels on TV have been blocked, so for people without social media I'm not actually sure how they've been able to get updates.”

Te Aro Pairama-Lewington, left, and Dane Ambler.

Photo: Supplied

A nightly curfew – now lifted in three beach resorts, but still in place across the rest of the country – has kept locals and tourists indoors. The curfew had been imposed from 10pm to 5am, but the military has since shortened it to bewteen midnight to 4am.

Before the coup, Te Aro worked in a bar. “It's put some strain on me personally … and I imagine my colleagues too, because we won't be getting paid for the days we've been closed which is a bit frustrating.

“Some bars stay open past the curfew and push the boundaries a bit. There’s still a lot of people going out partying and clubbing at night so for some places they’re okay with staying open. I haven’t been to work since Wednesday [May 21], because we haven’t opened.”

Tourism makes up 7 per cent of the Thai economy and Te Aro says the curfew would have been especially hard on workers who had families to support. “A lot of people protesting the curfew are no doubt in this situation.”

Many of the places where anti-coup protests haven taken place aren’t far from the tourist epicentre of Khao San Road. Many young New Zealanders in Thailand for cut price debauchery will know the area.

Not all young New Zealanders living in Bangkok see the coup as damaging for Thailand.

Dane Ambler, 23, says the military is “restoring order to a corrupt nation”. Many Thais think it is a good thing for the Yingluck government to be ousted along with the remnants of the Thaksin government. “The reason for the coup is to stop violence around the city. People seem to be missing the positive aspects.”

He was teaching a class when he found out about the coup. “A student tried to explain what was happening in broken English, I was unable to understand her so she found the translation and showed me the word “coup” on her phone. All of the students called their parents, and the school was immediately closed.”

Shanna Hooper has been living in Bangkok for three years.

Photo: Supplied

Shanna Hooper, 21, left Wellington three years ago and has been living in Bangkok since. She says the city feels more hostile since the coup and “most people are afraid”.

“Many protesters left the city as soon as they heard the army had taken control. Usually the city is very lenient with the law and rules but as soon as the martial law was imposed everyone follows the rules.”

Te Aro says there’s been no indication how long martial law will last. “Maybe it will stop in a few days or a few weeks but so far there’s been no timeline set ... I imagine there will be a big uprising if it's for more than a few weeks, to be honest.”

Thailand is no stranger to the military overthrowing the government. In the past 82 years, has attempted 19 coups, 12 of which were successful. Before last month’s coup, the most recent was in 2006 when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Yingluck’s brother) was ousted.

In the past six months, there have been 28 deaths and over 700 injuries. The May 2014 coup, said army commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, would bring safety and prevent violence in the streets though how long the uneasy calm lasts remains to be seen.

In 2010, there were 90 deaths as the military suppressed ongoing protests.

Photo: AFP

Te Aro is unsure of how long he will stay in Bangkok depend on how long the restrictions that come with martial law last for and the degree of danger. “In the current situation I think I will stick it out and stay, but maybe look at getting out of the city and go to one of the islands for a week or two while things hopefully settle down.”

Thailand’s coup has been a wake-up call; he used to take New Zealand’s safety and security for granted. “Once you leave and start learning about politics in other countries it gives you a pretty clear idea of how lucky we are to grow up in such stability,” he says.

Shanna doesn’t plan to leave Thailand yet either, but says: “I would say anyone living in New Zealand is very lucky and should not take the stability of the country for granted like I did.”

This content was brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.

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