Friday, November 17, 2006

Letter from Thailand (3)

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love martial law

HUA HIN, Thailand. -- My wife answered the telephone at 5 a.m. The caller was one of her friends in Japan, which is two hours ahead of here. She had just read the news in the Asahi Shimbun.

“There’s been a coup d’etat!” she said.

“Where,” I answered stupidly.

“Here, in Thailand.”

We turned on the TV, but all of the Thai channels were showing nothing except file footage of the King. Finally, we found an Australian channel that informed us that the army had seized power in Bangkok and ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They showed a lot of pictures of soldiers standing in the rain in front of their tanks, smiling at onlookers. Later, we’re told the soldiers were ordered to smile. Well, this is the Land of Smiles.

I don’t live in the capital. I had come to Thailand five months previously to work for Asia Times Online, an online news magazine which has its main office in this seaside resort town about 200 km south of the capital.

There were few signs of the coup in Hua Hin that day, except that the post office was closed. Two days later I took the van to Bangkok to renew my work permit, and we ran into a major military roadblock half way there.

Most of the pictures of the coup showed friendly soldiers in berets posing pleasantly with civilians and their children. It reminded me of the People Power Revolt in the Philippines in 1986 that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos.

That image was accentuated by the yellow ribbons that the soldiers tied around their arms and the barrels of their guns. Yellow was the color of Corazon Aquino; here it is a sign of loyalty to the King.

But the soldiers we encountered on the way to Bangkok were dressed for business: helmets, flak vests, a humvee with a soldier manning the machine gun on top. I don’t mean to say they were intimidating.

The officer in charge gave our van a look over and then waved us on with a jaunty salute. Evidently they were looking for vehicles with suspiciously large numbers of young men being smuggled into the city to stage a counter-coup.

The next day my wife had to make a “Ranong run” to renew her tourist visa. It is something that expats living in Hua Hin do. Ranong is a village on the border with Myanmar about 500 km south of here. People take a ferry across the bay to the very southern tip of Myanmar, turn around and re-enter Thailand with a fresh stamp in their passport.

But when she got there after a grueling five hour van ride, she found that Myanmar had, in the interval, closed the border. Then it was another five hour-trip back empty handed.

So now we live under martial law, although you would scarcely notice it. The soldiers have returned to the barracks, a retired general serves as prime minister of a caretaker government. Life goes on.

There seems little or no censorship, as far as I can tell. We don’t submit our copy to the military for approval. Strangely enough we were the beneficiaries of the coup. That’s because Asia Times Online is a small cog in the empire of Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul.

Sondhi was in a kind of death struggle with the prime minister. Earlier this year, if you looked hard enough in the back pages of the newspaper, you might have seen small stories with headlines like: 200,000 DEMONSTRATE IN BANGKOK against the prime minister..

You could be sure that Sondhi was cheering them on, not just through his own vernacular news organs and talk show but in person. You could say that the prime minister was not amused.

Of course, the government had plenty of levers to make Sondhi – and our – lives miserable. Sondhi was, of course, hit with numerous lawsuits and charges of lese majeste (insulting the King, a serious offense here).

At the same time, Thaksin and his friends began to squeeze his sources of credit and income, some of which came from outside the country and thus under direct government scrutiny.. It was as if somebody had put their big heavy foot down on the money hose.

For us pay day came and payday went with nothing to show in our bank accounts. After two weeks we became restive, not knowing what exactly was going on – Hua Hin can be a little remote in that respect – or if we would ever get paid.

In September Sondhi was forced to close another English-language publication called ThaiDay, which appeared as a supplement with the International Herald Tribune.. Sondhi told one website he was afraid that the New York Times, which owns the IHT, would face trouble if he were charged with treason.

We at Asiatimes Online wondered whether we would be the next victim. A couple members of our small staff quit and looked for work elsewhere.

Then came the coup. Thaksin was deposed and exiled in London. Suddenly our salaries were posted promptly on payday. It was as if somebody had lifted its foot from the money hose.

So here we are today, publishing as normal, getting paid as normal. It is a strange feeling being caught up like this in a Thai political struggle. But I suppose that if you must to be caught up in a coup e’tat, it’s better to be on the winning side.


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