Jan/Feb 2007 Nonfiction

Coup De Thai

by Nora Jean Bonner

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber

Before I moved to Thailand, I understood the term "quick-change," better than the word "coup." I'm an actress from Detroit, or at least, that's how I identified myself after college, before switching careers and nations-of-residence, all in the name of taking a stab at something different, like a steady income. While living in the States I was lucky enough to become friends with a man (and his wife) from Thailand. Back in Bangkok he directed one of his country's top survey/research centers but when I met him, he was in Michigan studying for an additional Master's in Qualitative Research-Methodology. I'd been earning extra money by helping foreigners with their English language skills. The director told me about work opportunities for native-English speakers in Thailand, and said that if I was ever interested, he might be able to set me up at the research center.

I did decide to move to Thailand when, in the Motor City, my car began to express that it would rather be in automobile-hospice-care than on the road and I didn't have enough money to buy a decent replacement. The Thai university's president (with help from my director friend, no doubt,) arranged for me to live on the Bangkok university campus for free and to work for a decent wage, editing documents and also teaching English to the Thai-speaking staff. As I packed my bags for a new life half-way around the world, my mental image of Thailand consisted of smiling faces, or maybe of a tsunami, but not of a Prime Minister being ousted while away on U.N. business.

I'd been in Thailand for little over a month when, at eleven-thirty on a Tuesday night, my coworker called to warn me that I should not, under any circumstances, wander out into the neighborhood.

"Go out?" I asked, hiding a nervous laugh. I pictured a rapist or sniper on a rampage, but simply assured P'Tao that I had no reason to leave my room so late at night. (P, by the way, is a friendly title Thais give to those who are even slightly older than themselves, and means "older sibling." "Nong" means younger sibling.) To better assure P'Tao of my safety, I pointed out that it was raining; nothing makes me feel dirtier than skipping over soda-cans or roaches floating on a flooded Bangkok soi (street). Even so, I asked her to explain what was going on.

"Something is happen." P'Tao apologized in her near perfect English. "I cannot explain." But she tried to anyway. "The television channels turned off and there is announcement that no one should go out."

I couldn't get any more information out of her. If she had mentioned the word "coup," I probably would have thought there was a dove-attack or something, since my knowledge of government-related terms was, at that time, at a minimum. Despite this, I thanked Tao for her warning and wished her some rest, since we'd both have to get up early the next day.

I was in no condition for sleeping, so I opened the curtain that covered my wall of windows and looked out, from the fourteenth floor, at all of Bangkok. This view more than compensated for the tiny, dorm-like room that the university had provided for my living-space. Below, I saw nothing unusual: The glowing skyscraper windows, miles away, blinking through the rain; the haze of tiny headlights racing along the highways; the occasional flash of lightning, giving the sprawling skyline instants of visibility.

After I'd watched the city for a few minutes, I switched on the television to CNN, to find the controversial figure that runs my home country going on about United Nations matters, but I didn't hear him much. I watched, instead, streaming across the bottom of my screen, a written announcement that the Thai Military had placed tanks all around Prime Minister Thaksin's office and the capitol. Just as I'd been able to finish reading all the words, the television snapped to black for a few moments before CNN was replaced with a blue screen covered with white Thai script.

Around this time, I heard the Americans clamoring through my hallway. I shared a floor with some students from Maryland who were on a six-month study-abroad program that the university has hosted for years. I had never talked to these students until that moment, which seemed the perfect opportunity to introduce myself.

"Hi." I shook a girl's hand, "I live next door. Can you tell me what's happening?"

She introduced herself and the details of the Coup.

As the girl described the majority of Bangkok's population and their hatred for Thaksin, I thought of the time a few weeks earlier when I had asked my Thai friends and coworkers about him. I had concluded, from rumors and from opinions in the Bangkok Post that he wasn't popular in these parts, and I had asked them what he had done to bring about this opposition. P'Tao had told me that she didn't like to speak of politics because she never has enough information, but she didn't think Thaksin could be trusted. Others had given me the same answer, though some dropped hints that they thought he'd squandered some of Thailand's money.

I wasn't surprised that my Thai co-workers were opposed to their leader so much as by their reluctance to discuss their views. In my circles, back in the States, we've been known to spend hours complaining about presidential administrations, expressing our fears about where the country was headed, and raging about our distrust of the government. We could give dissertations on the subject. I knew that the Thais, while forbidden to speak ill of the King (an offense, I've heard, that can land a Thai in jail or send a foreigner packing), were allowed to bash their Prime Minister. Still, I received no straight answers about why Thaksin was corrupt. That is, until I spoke to the American next door.

The Marylander told me that half of Thailand's population, from the rural areas, actually supported Thaksin, and so the situation might get kind of sticky. The Bangkok taxi drivers, she mentioned, were mostly farmers whose crops had failed, so there might be some opposition in the city over the next few days. She also explained that Thailand has had several coups in the past. We agreed in our hope that the Thais would resolve this one quickly and peacefully.

Meanwhile on the TV in my room, the Thai script had changed to Thai patriotism-footage of their benevolent king that looked to be from the 1970s. I watched as he graced the lush greens, blues, and yellows of a Thai river in a rowboat, sitting beside his lovely, benevolent queen. This must have been Thai for, "Everything is under control." Pure voices singing national anthems rang out from the television speakers as I flipped the channels and found on every one of them: His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX.

Anyone who's been to Thailand knows His Majesty's warm, sheepish smile and black hair parted to the side and ending into a friendly wave above the left side of his forehead. Since I've been here, I've admired his photography and paintings in the gallery at Dusit Palace. I've celebrated his birthday every Monday (with the other Thais) by wearing a yellow button-up shirt with the King's winding, triangular symbol over my heart. I've stood up for him in movie theaters after having been asked to do so (first in Thai and then in English,) by two small boys up on the big screen, perched on a mountain top, then watched with the rest of the audience the colorful, patriotic footage that followed—similar to what appeared on my television that night.

Subtitles appeared below the T.V. images:

The mightiest of monarchs complete with transcendent virtues
Under whose benevolent rule
We your subjects receive protection and happiness
Prosperity and peace!

I fell asleep wondering what it would be like to be the king that night, one man carrying all that weight for his country.

I woke up at seven-thirty the next morning when my boss called to check if I was all right. I told him I was fine and requested more details about the coup. "I will explain in the office," he said, "but today has been declared a national holiday." I knew that he meant the military had ordered everyone to stay home from work—probably to prevent people from conspiring against them—but still, I struggled not to give in to the urge to wish him a "Merry Coup-mas."

I went back to sleep and woke up to the telephone again; this time it was another coworker, P'Nui. I chuckled when she asked if I was all right. "Of course, why shouldn't I be?"

"I just want to make sure you are not scary."

I was relieved to know she could not see my grin through the phone line.

P'Nui also delivered the information that, despite the holiday, our office was open. She, herself, would stay at her home across town, but encouraged me to go there if I needed anything.

After we hung up, I coveted a commemorative coup-edition of the Bangkok Post, so I threw on some jeans and ventured out towards the neighborhood. Next to the elevator, I found a sign that read "Classes are canceled today. There will be a meeting on the twelfth floor. Please do not wander outside of the neighborhood." This must have been posted for the students in my hall. Outside of the neighborhood—that was encouraging because I only wanted to wander inside the neighborhood.

The streets were quiet, empty of the usual street vendors, and filled with stray dogs. I counted six or seven university security guards near the gates, instead of the usual two or three. These guards wear solid olive suits, red armbands, and berets, as opposed to the army soldiers, who can be identified by their camouflage uniforms. On the way to the bookstore where I often bought a paper I passed a couple of young students outside at the chicken soup shop, but they were the only non-guards I could see.

The stores and restaurants on that strip have no fourth walls and face out to the street, like a stage. From the sidewalk I looked into the bookstore, where I could usually find newspapers on display, and found only an empty bin. A woman with pale, smooth skin and wearing a red sundress came out and said something to me in Thai that I figured meant, All sold out. I thanked her in Thai (khob-kuhn-kah) and decided to check in at the office and see if they had a copy of the paper there.

On the other side of the university campus, the office seemed as bustling as if it weren't a holiday, though many of the regular researchers had apparently stayed home. As soon as I walked in, the girl who sits at the desk next to mine approached me to ask, "Are you okay?" Others asked if I was worried. I explained to them that I was more worried for their well-being than mine, but thanked them for their concern. Then I asked for a paper.

The girl, Nok, laughed. "Today is holiday!" Then she translated my question into Thai for those who didn't understand me. They laughed. I must have shown my discouragement, because the secretary handed me a piece of coconut cake with stringy, yellow bits of jasmine on top, urging me to go off and enjoy my holiday. I grabbed some pork-fried rice on the way back to my room and then celebrated the holiday by catching up on sleep.

Later on that evening, I went out again to get some dinner (no cooking in my room) and ran into my German friend, Sonja, who lives across the hall. "What did you do today?" I asked her.

"Actually," she said with a satisfied smile, "My Thai friends took me downtown to see the tanks." Sonja told me about how some of the people decorated the tanks with flowers and posed for pictures in front of them. A few days later, a photograph of Sonja and her friends posing in front of an army tank ended up on the cover of a Chinese newspaper.

For the week after the coup, I spent my spare time answering my U. S. friends' requests for coup details. It seemed, from their urgent words (the strongest of these being, "Are you dodging bullets?"), that the information they got from the U.S. media differed from what was actually going on. I explained the flowers on the tanks, and that the situation seemed peaceful, but my friends challenged the idea of a peaceful coup: "Could a coup ever be called peaceful if guns and tanks are used to keep that peace?" My friends also spoke of an article posted on the BBC news site that described how the United States declared their disapproval of the matter.

I knew I couldn't speak for all Thais, and that there were many Thai people who had put their faith in Thaksin, but I felt that some ground had been trespassed here. It's their government, I protested many times, why should anyone else dictate how their government should run things?

While whipping around downtown on Bangkok's BTS sky-train, I asked P'Nui to verify my take on the current events—to tell me if I had captured what had gone on in Thailand for the past year. As far as she could understand, she concurred, but then added that Thailand is a unique country, much smaller than the U.S. and therefore, what works for Thailand might not work for the places that are dishing out the critiques. I agreed.

The next weekend I stayed the night at P'Tao's house on the other side of Bangkok from the University. We had to get up early and take a bus back to the office. The traffic was as stiff as a brick wall and the bus was so crowded that we had to stand pinched together and hang onto the blackened straps above our heads. The diesel fumes that came in through the windows were making me nauseous, so I asked P'Tao if she'd let me buy a taxi for the rest of the way. She agreed and insisted on paying for half, so we got off at the next stop.

I hadn't realized that the next stop was right in front of the international airport. Soldiers holding enormous guns lined the sidewalk along the highway and I began to understand why my friends back home were worried—this was the picture of Thailand they'd seen on the news. I searched for tanks but could not find them. Still, the tropical sunlight gleaming off the guns gave me chills in the 90-degree heat.

"Do you want a picture with the soldier?"

I shook my head but I muttered, "If you don't think it would annoy him—"

But P'Tao was already ten feet away, talking-up the soldier. She waved for me to join them and I dug my camera out of my bag. The soldier gathered a few of the others posted near us and I smiled as wide as a person can with three guns in her face. P'Tao snapped the shot, and when I moved to leave, she pushed me back towards the soldier. "Stay there!" she said. "He wants me to take picture of you with his camera." Sure enough, the soldier was reaching into his pocket for his own digital camera.

After the picture, I told him, "Khob-kuhn-kah," and we ventured towards a prime spot to hail a cab.

In the taxi, Tao gloated at the picture she'd just taken and laughed. "See? Thai soldiers are very kind."

I barely heard her. I was thinking about what the girl from Maryland had told me, wondering if the cab driver was against the coup. Though all of my Thai friends were educated coup-supporters, the driver might have been one of the ex-farmers who supported Thaksin. Until that moment, I had barely remembered that there was another side. A perplexed enlightenment filled me, like the day I was in grade school and found out that there were enough Republicans in Michigan to elect a Republican governor, even though the entire inner-city Detroit population that surrounded me seemed to have voted for the Democratic candidate.

Then my eyes fell on a clear sticker posted in the corner of the passenger-side window: Red, white and blue stripes, a heart, and familiar Thai script: We love the King. The words were also engraved next to the hearts in Tao's yellow bracelet.

I sighed. "Long Live the King."

P'Tao laughed. She didn't know how much I'd meant it.


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