May 26 2014
Update: The curfew has been fully lifted.
Update, May 28, 2014: The nationwide curfew is now in effect from Midnight to 05:00, pushing back the start time by two hours. In Bangkok, the BTS skytrain and MRT subway are now closing at 23:00. All other information in this post remains accurate.
Defiant protests in Bangkok have provoked fresh fears of violence after the Thai military junta seized total power in a coup last week. The military has invoked a nationwide curfew from 22:00 to 05:00 and detained over 200 politicians, academics, activists and journalists. Travellers are advised to avoid protests, ensure travel insurance is valid and monitor the situation closely.
Sunday’s protests culminated with well over 1,000 demonstrators holding “Fuck the coup” signs and shouting “Get out! Get out!” at soldiers near Victory Monument. The day also saw an anti-coup protest outside of a McDonalds in the Siam Square shopping district where red shirt activists often met during the 2010 protests that ended in a brutal crackdown. A small anti-coup protest also took place near the US embassy, while a pro-coup demonstration was held at Democracy Monument.
On Friday and Saturday, protests took place in the Lat Phrao area of north Bangkok as well as Victory Monument — the only site to host protests for multiple days — and the area around MBK and Bangkok Art & Culture Centre. Since the coup began, no protests have lasted longer than a few hours in any one place. All have defied a ban on gatherings of five or more people.
In contrast to the long-term rallies that occupied key parts of the city in the months leading up to the coup, anti-coup protests have popped up unpredictably, fueled by scores of real-time updates on social media. Some tense standoffs unfolded between soldiers and protesters, with a handful of arrests made. No violence has occurred apart from minor scuffles.
Some protesters shouted angrily at soldiers who had expressions that appeared to range from steadfast to confused and even emotional. Other protesters seemed to sympathize, even bringing the soldiers gifts of bottled water. Soldiers in the “front lines” were unarmed, but many standing just behind carried automatic weapons. Police have also been present but appeared largely indifferent on Sunday.
Chitlom, Phloen Chit and Victory Monument BTS skytrain stations were temporarily ordered closed by the military at different times on Sunday to prevent protesters from reaching the rallying points. Protesters marched unheeded for around two kilometres to Victory Monument, clogging major roads along the way.
The junta has hinted that it will not tolerate protests for long. We expect the protests to lull as people go back to work early this week — but probably escalate later in the week unless, perhaps, the military cracks down in the interim. An AP report summed up the junta’s touchy position:
The army faces a dilemma in engaging the protesters: whether to try to crush them and risk an even angrier reaction and international opprobrium, or to tolerate them and risk emboldening them.
An editorial by the Economist added:
(The military) cannot rule the country unless they are prepared to use force.
Travellers should be aware that while some travel insurance will no longer cover any travel to Thailand, virtually none will cover injuries or other problems that result from a coup and related protests.
It was business as usual in the vast majority of Bangkok over the weekend despite the isolated pockets of protest, and the city was calm as children went back to school on Monday morning. Protesters have mostly avoided the historic district, including the Khao San Road backpacker area. All tourist attractions are open as normal; there was even a breezy farmer’s market at Jim Thompson’s House on Sunday.
The former long-term protest site near Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Road has now been cleared. Groundskeepers are planting grass and trimming bushes at Government House — even if there’s no elected government to use it. Travellers may want to avoid the Army Auditorium in the Thewet area, which is being used as a military command and detainment centre. Checkpoints are scattered around Bangkok, but it’s generally not a problem to get around.
The curfew remains in effect, though it’s being lightly enforced in some parts of the country. Bangkok’s BTS skytrain and MRT subway are closing at 21:00, three hours earlier than normal. Some Bangkok city buses are now running from 04:00 to midnight. Most inter-provincial buses and trains, including overnight journeys, are operating as normal.
Along with all other airports throughout the country, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang international airports are operating as normal. Taxis are available to shuttle travellers from the airport to hotels during curfew hours. Travellers are also free to go to the airport when the curfew is in effect, though we recommend getting there before 22:00 no matter when your flight leaves (see our last post for airport hotel info). Travellers must carry passports and proof of air travel with them during curfew hours.
Elsewhere in the kingdom, soldiers reportedly fired their weapons into the air to disperse protesters near Tha Pae gate, an area popular with travellers in Chiang Mai on Saturday night. Apart from this and a few other isolated incidents, it’s been business as usual in Chiang Mai as well. Apart from the curfew, the rest of the country has been unaffected.
Thailand’s troubled deep south has seen an escalation in bombings since the coup began, though travellers generally avoid this area anyway. After some confusion last week about Thailand’s borders, it’s confirmed that foreigners can cross all borders as normal, whether leaving or entering Thailand.
Perhaps more worrisome than the immediate situation on the ground is the hardline approach adopted by the military. The Thai senate and all other remnants of civilian government have been disbanded. The constitution has been scrapped. Anyone defying the military’s sweeping orders faces a court martial.
After an unusually long wait, Thailand’s 86-year-old king officially approved of the coup this morning. Former anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was released earlier today. Ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been released from detention at the Thai Army Club in Bangkok, but the Wall Street Journal has reported that she’s now under house arrest.
Over 200 people have been detained by the military in what some are calling a purge of the “Shinawatra clan”. A few defied orders to report and are now in hiding. There has even been talk of Yingluck’s older brother, Thaksin, setting up a government in exile. Himself an ousted former prime minister who now lives in self-imposed exile overseas, Thaksin’s opponents accuse him of corruption, human rights abuses and insulting the monarchy. Yet his Pheu Thai party is unbeatable at the battle box.
Among those being detained are a number of journalists and academics who aired opinions critical of the military. The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand issued a statement that it’s “deeply concerned by the detention of journalists”. An outspoken senior reporter for The Nation, Pravit Rojanaphruk, was among those detained. Before turning himself in, he tweeted:
— Pravit Rojanaphruk (@PravitR) May 25, 2014
Human Rights Watch issued a statement that “Military rule has thrown Thailand’s rights situation into a free fall“. Defying an order to turn himself into authorities, Japan-based Thai professor :
Even the Myanmar government, previously under an entrenched military rule, has voiced its disappointment at the setback of Thai democracy.
Many in the international community have derided the military’s actions. Among dozens of foreign government-issued travel warnings, the US advised its citizens to cancel “non-essential” trips to Thailand.
Some television stations were allowed back on the air over the weekend, but a handful of partisan Thai and international news stations have remained blocked. The military reserves the right to censor information as it sees fit. Still largely unaffected, the internet, and especially social media, has become the main platform for people in Thailand to voice their views. The military seems hesitant to block sites like Facebook and Twitter, which are beloved in the world’s most Instagrammed country.
The potential for armed resistance by militant red shirts is also worrisome. Weapons were seized and over 20 suspects arrested in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, a red shirt stronghold, late last week. As we wrote this piece, news broke of a soldier being killed during a raid on red shirt militants in Trat province. Many analysts believe that organised nonviolent protests, or sporadic armed resistance, or both, are likely in the coming months.
Travel warnings, issues with travel insurance and general disgust with what’s happening in Thailand will no doubt cause many travellers to cancel their trips. As things stands right now, we would not a cancel a trip to Thailand or even Bangkok — but we understand why people would. The situation is fluid and there is a potential, especially in Bangkok, for more protests that could lead to bloodshed. There are plenty of good options if you seek an alternative to Thailand.
We recommend that travellers check in with this thread on the Thai coup in the Travelfish forum as well as the Travelfish Facebook page and a Twitter feed that’s live on the Travelfish homepage, while also checking in with the following media outlets.
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