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Wong Chun Wai
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Asia

It's business as usual in Bangkok

The Star/ANN | Wong Chun Wai | Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Suvarnabhumi Airport, as Bangkok's international airport is known, was busy when I arrived at 11.30pm local time - shortly after the curfew began following the military coup on Thursday. Flight MH0796 that I flew in was about 70 per cent full.

The mostly Malaysian passengers appeared to include many who had come for shopping, judging from their conversations.

The coup did not seem to bother them.

I wasn't deterred either as I had already set on doing three things - to get away for a weekend after some busy corporate duties, to attend the funeral of the 101-year-old mum of Thailand's most famous journalist Suthichai Yoon, and to have a meeting with the Bangkok-based English daily The Nation on its media operations.

I was also assured by my friend Pana Janviroj, the executive director of Asia News Network - of which The Star and The Nation are members - that it was perfectly safe for tourists arriving in the Thai capital.

If I was stopped by soldiers at any security checkpoint, all I had to do was to wave my passport. But there was not even a single checkpoint and as a matter of fact, not even a soldier in sight at the airport.

The military, through its National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, has actually issued an order that the curfew does not cover all air passengers with arrivals and departures scheduled during the curfew hours between 10pm and 5am.

Taxi services are also available at the airport round-the-clock and that's another exemption under the curfew laws.

And by the way, the toll will still be collected along the highway to the city; the military has given an exemption to that as well.

And don't worry about not having enough shopping.

It's business as usual for the duty-free shops at the airport.

The Thais are practical people. They are upset that the 10pm curfew is hurting the economy.

This is a city that never sleeps and Bangkok is known worldwide for its nightspots. The curfew spells disaster for those in Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza. The street vendors are fuming.

As I headed towards the city, the highway was generally empty, save for some taxis ferrying air travellers who had just arrived. When I finally reached the city, I couldn't quite recognise the hotel that I was putting up at.

The surrounding buildings in Patunam, which included shopping malls, were not lit up. The food vendors were absent, giving a somewhat eerie, if not sad, feeling of the curfew. It felt ghostly; this is not the Bangkok that I know.

This is my first experience of a curfew after the one in Malaysia in 1969 when I was a mere Standard Two kid. The curfew was imposed following the racial riots that had broken out in the country but in that one, the order was "shoot on sight" anyone who defied the curfew.

Although the Thais are nonchalant about the coup as they have experienced at least a dozen military coups since Thailand abandoned absolute monarchy in 1932, they have stuck to military orders.

Some analysts, including a political scientist who pointed out that it could be actually more than 12, argued that there were 11 "successful" coups and nine "unsuccessful" ones and even "obscure references to aborted military interventions".

In a series of announcements, the military declared the Constitution invalid, dissolved the caretaker Cabinet, banned gatherings of more than five people, imposed a curfew, shut down schools, and instructed TV stations to replace their regular programming with messages from the military and patriotic songs.

Even MTV Thailand and cartoon channels have gone off the air and all I saw was a still screen emblazoned with the coats of arms of the army, air force, navy and national police, which have detained politicians from both sides of the divide who were about to bring Thailand to a civil war.

Ex-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is being held at an army camp. Her aides were told to bring her clothes and necessary medicine.

Most Thais I spoke to said the coup is necessary to inject immediate sense into the bickering politicians.

A small anti-coup protest held at Pathumwan earlier was quickly stopped by soldiers.

But amidst the seriousness of the situation, there were media reports that protesters who had been paid to attend rallies were now demanding payment to "quit"!

Ironically, heavily armed soldiers stationed in various strategic spots in the city are also seen happily posing for photographs with tourists or even playing photographers as you pose with their colleagues.

Needless to say, there are plenty of selfies, too.

During the day, Bangkok is so busy that no one can feel the country is under martial law with the top politicians locked up.

This is Thailand, after all - land where the locals will tell you not to worry too much and to just take it easy as everything will be okay.

Mai pen rai, as they say in Thai.

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