‘I Didn’t Know What To Expect. It Was My First Time Under Martial Law’

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By Dave Besseling

Illustration By Samia Singh

I LOVE the word junta. Even more, I am fascinated that during Thailand’s political roulette — Army green, Royalist yellow, Thaksin red — these last few years, I’ve not seen the word used once. But when the Thai army staged a coup in 2006, it was the first word that came to my mind.

It was an underhanded move by the Royal Thai Military – — stealing into Government House in Bangkok while then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was away from his desk.

While Thaksin was likely informed of the coup during his flight to New York that night, I was in Thaksin’s old stomping ground of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, when the Land of Smiles started to show a different kind of teeth.

I was with a couple of Thai friends in a dingy bar, sitting at an upturned industrial spool used for a table. Then, as if on cue as it had been on 9/11: a chirping chorus of mobile phones. The ringtones drowned out the insects humming in the overgrown patch of grass outside.

A friend had taken the bus to Bangkok that morning, for three days of hedonism before a mutual friend flew out of the country. It turned out to be three days of lockdown. She was in a hotel room, under curfew, absorbing conciliatory messages on television, telling everyone to stay calm, things are under control. The last time this sort of thing happened, there were more than a few deaths in the streets of Bangkok. She was nervous. “Stay inside, I’ll call you later.”

Behind the barman, a television hung precipitously over the shelves of Sang Som, 100 Pipers and Hong Thong. It was written on the screen, in Thai abugida, that the trouble was confined to Bangkok. Stay calm. Things are under control.

The King of Thailand’s emblem above the script conveyed the authority it sought, and I was surprised to see everyone take the message at face value. “This is a message from my king,” said my friend, apparently placated. “Dave, my king says it, now army rules.”

We were officially under martial law.

Days later, I read news speculating whether King Bhumibol had okayed the thing or not. That night, however, there was no question in my mind. I entered my room and switched on the television. Gone was CNN, BBC, NHK, Al Jazeera, everything. Aside from the Orwellian daze I’d already seen at the bar, the other channels were broadcasting grainy images of the king in his younger days — dedicating hospitals, cutting ribbons, navigating a map or looking through binoculars, all set to karaoke-like singalongs; a show reel identical to the Royal propaganda films shown to audiences, standing at attention, before every movie shown in a Thai cinema.

I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time under martial law. I called my friend in Bangkok. She was fine, just getting ready for bed. When I turned off the TV, I heard helicopters circling Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city. When their Doppler whooshes passed overhead, lights on the choppers sent barcodes of shadow across the walls. It was anything but a restful sleep in Thaksin country.

A friend had gone to Bangkok that morning, for three days of hedonism. It became three days of lockdown

Chiang Mai’s old city centre is square-shaped, surrounded by a moat, and the next day, there were sentries. At Chang Puak, the old city’s north gate, there were jeeps, a Gatling gun and a few soldiers standing around with machine guns pointed at their toes.

A family passed me, and the mother and two children sidled up to one of the soldiers. The father got down on one knee, and squished a camera to his nose. His family, hunched in around the soldier, did what the Thais are most known for. They bore their teeth and smiled.

As the days went by, military presence decreased but still existed, as did my fears.

Dave Besseling Is 31. He is a Canadian writer and artist living in New Delhi

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