English | Thai  

NOV 2007 - FEB 2008

Dominic Faulder

Former President, Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Correspondent, Asia Inc.
by Dominic Faulder
I spent most of 1977 travelling in South America. It was a time when juntas ruled virtually every country there, and the tension was sometimes palpable. In Argentina, I was nearly machine-gunned outside a police station and later narrowly missed being blown up by a small bomb at a bus station. In Paraguay, I had a bayonet stuck up my left nostril, and in Colombia I was dragged up an alley by a military snatch squad during a general strike in Bogota, the capital, that left an estimated 60 dead.

And I wasn’t even looking for trouble.

Such experiences bred in me a certain wary respect for tin hats, and were useful for spicing up essays on the “politics of the developing world” at university. But it was not until I reached Thailand that I actually ‘witnessed’ a coup d’etat, albeit a failed one. It was the so-called April Fool’s Day Coup of 1981, and happened as I was leaving Bangkok for good. I loathed everything about the place and had packed my bags. I had paid my hotel bill and was preparing to leave for the bus station. It was only then that the receptionist asked me where I was going.

“We have had a revolution,” she explained mysteriously. “There is no transport.”

“Well you’d better check me back in then,” I said in my most imperious tone, feeling a complete idiot. How on earth could one have been through a ‘revolution’ and not seen a thing?

In my defence, it was such a dismal little failed coup that one of its sponsors fled to Burma to save face. There may have been tanks involved, but all I ever saw close up was three soldiers slurping noodles near the Grand Palace, their guns resting against a nearby wall. I have no idea whose side they were on, but they were very polite. Normality soon returned and I went off to photograph Thingyan, the Burmese equivalent of Songkran, in Mandalay.

My farcical first encounter with a failed coup was the worst kind of preparation for my second. Having got stuck in the early-morning traffic, I arrived a little late at Royal Plaza on ‘Black Monday’, 9 September 1985, and started photographing the antique tanks arrayed there. I noticed their engines were running, but had no inkling of what had occurred just minutes before. No cell phones or SMS in those days.

An ashen Thai colleague suddenly grabbed me, and told me that Australian cameraman Neil Davis, a veteran of countless firefights in Cambodia and Vietnam, had been killed when tank fire was suddenly rained down on a nearby army radio station. His soundman, American Bill Latch, had been taken to hospital with critical wounds. Another Thai reporter told me later that he had entered the shattered radio station and seen at least eight corpses lying beneath curtains hastily pulled off their rails.

Forces loyal to the government were being deployed, and another round of fire soon followed despite civilian onlookers being everywhere. A woman in a taxi stuck in traffic on Samsen Road was killed by a round that went straight through a bus without hurting anybody else. She was one of at least four civilians killed that day. Others as far away as Nonthaburi market were wounded by stray rounds.

As I left the confrontation area, people were eating ice cream and queuing at banks, largely oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. Loyal generals were on television talking down the coup makers, negotiating an exit from a possible tank battle in the administrative heart of the city. It was a dark, often surreal day for which nobody has ever been held to account.

My third coup in Thailand was more in the vein of the first. After an excellent Malaysian curry, I was having a doze on a friend’s sofa when a call came through from Cyprus. The BBC was reporting a coup in Thailand. On a Saturday? Ridiculous. I raced off to find that the few tanks briefly rolled out had already returned to barracks. Embarrassing shades of 1981 here. I feared another invisible Thai revolution under my nose.

There had indeed been a coup, accomplished by the simple expedient of hijacking most of the cabinet as its C130 aircraft taxied for a flight north to a royal audience. Some soldiers in rather flea-beaten combat fatigues had sealed off Government House as well as the streets surrounding ousted Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan’s home. Apart from some strange anti-aircraft guns, no real military hardware was on display after this blood-free affair.

The story I filed that evening made a good splash as the foreign lead in London’s Independent on Sunday. What made it truly remarkable was that a far bigger foreign story was going down in the Middle-East: the actual land invasion of Kuwait by allied forces in the first Gulf War. Since details were subject to a complete news embargo until after press time in Europe, Thailand’s little bump along the road to democracy, far from being ignored as a trivial sideshow, ended up with maximum exposure. There was simply no bigger story to actually report on that historic day. Another 24 hours, and it would have been the coup that nobody abroad even noticed.

Having become something of a connoisseur of recent Thai coups, I have to say that the latest was probably the smoothest. It had some political gravitas in terms of not simply being about selfish military factions jostling for power; nobody was hurt, the new airport still opened, after a fashion, on time; and the yellow ribbons and roses were certainly nice touches. As coups go, I would rate it pretty warm and fuzzy.

But there is no room for complacency. The bloodiest confrontations in recent Thai history were in October of both 1973 and 1976 and May 1992. Hundreds died when the military here clashed with the very people it exists to protect. I covered the aftermath of the military takeover in Burma in September 1988, and the clash between forces loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen in July 1997 when civilian-military relations also went seriously badly awry. It was all very ugly stuff.

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” remarked Winston Churchill. We all know the quote, but it doesn’t allude directly to democracy’s single greatest gift: a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power whenever needed. We can only hope Thailand’s generals leave as silkily as they came in. •