What would it be like if Thailand’s military coup were happening in New York City instead of Bangkok?
If you know Manhattan, imagine opening the Sunday paper to read that as of 9, am all subway stops between Houston and 42nd Street would be closed, because the military government had heard rumors of protest plans. All the stores in that area would close as well. Local street vendors would be cleared out. The area would be flooded with troops (thousands of them) and the government would urge people to avoid the area.
That is more or less what happened today in Bangkok’s central shopping district, an area with several giant, hyper-modern malls surrounding a few elegant plazas, decked out with larger than life video-billboards — places that normally teem with public life. Three stops of the Bangkok Transit System sky-train were shut down. Instead, every entrance to the stations – which are also used as public pedestrian walkways – were blocked by with armed military in riot gear.
The area was not deserted, but it was sparsely visited. As I wandered through with my camera, I felt the eyes of soldiers following me. A foreign media photographer nodded at me, as he searched for a story. It felt like the biggest story was the awkward tension that had replaced the bustling street life of Bangkok. As one person tweeted, “Central World [mall] is ghostly and silent today, never saw it like that on a Sunday.”
Very small protests emerged and then scattered, only to reconvene elsewhere, mostly avoiding arrest. With around 20 people, they were a strange contrast to the hundreds of uniformed men they opposed.
The threat of dissent, however, succeeded in reducing profits for the malls.
When those small protests popped up, they also adopted a new trend: a three-fingered salute, referencing the movie “The Hunger Games.” The Thai Free news said over Twitter that the three fingers stand for liberty, equality and fraternity. Whatever its origin, the salute emerged today as a new anti-coup symbol, being adopted by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD)’s Twitter feed.
Political gatherings of more than five people have been banned by the coup leadership. The military have also shut down radio stations that tended to favor the government, and recently ordered that any red flag be replaced with the national flag. In some parts of Thailand the red flag is flown to show political support for the UDD, which was recently ousted from Government by the coup. International news channels, CNN and BBC are still blocked in local television service.
As I will be leaving Bangkok this week, I will not post anymore about my experience in the land of coups. But I will continue to follow the situation and reference any interesting developments in this blog.