General Orders

Thailand’s 19th Nervous Breakdown

Yes, the Thai military has thrown out the government once again, and the top general has made himself prime minister. A report from Bangkok under curfew.

05.22.14 6:25 PM ET

BANGKOK, Thailand — The normally garrulous waiter hurried about frantically as he helped move patio tables into the bowels of one of the more popular bars in Bangkok’s Silom area. “Sorry, cannot talk right now; I have to go home,” he shouted in response to my question. Similar scenes played out in adjoining nightlife and business areas, as Thais rushed to clear the city’s streets before a 10:00 p.m. curfew.

Thailand’s latest coup d’etat was under way late Thursday night, the 19th real or attempted coup since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, and the normally bustling capital was feeling the heat.

Army General Prayuth Chan-ocha had announced the overthrow of the country’s caretaker government around 5:00 p.m., claiming he was doing so to restore stability and law and order after six months of sometimes violent street demonstrations by protesters determined to force that same government to resign.

Immediately after the announcement, normally fun-loving and relaxed Thais—obviously very familiar with coups and attempted coups—went on about their business as usual. But the declaration of a 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. curfew changed the picture.

Thais sprang into action—or, perhaps one should say, inaction. Streets already legendary for mammoth traffic jams became virtual parking lots in the public’s zeal to get home. For a time, key arteries such as Sathorn Road, Wireless Road and Ploenchit Road became passable only by foot, with even nimble and wily motorcycle-taxi drivers stymied in their attempts to navigate the logjam. And so swift was the imposition of the curfew that some foreigners were taken by surprise.

A British man lowered himself into a street-side chair at one restaurant in the Patpong area, ordered his drink and then started to talk about the imposition of martial law. “That was yesterday,” I informed him. “The army has now seized control; we have a real coup here and there’s a curfew; you have to be home by 10:00 p.m.” He stared uncomprehendingly for a moment then said, “Is this for real? There’s no mistake?”

I’m a journalist, I told him. I don’t trade in fake information.

“But it’s only 7:30 p.m.,” he sputtered, looking at his watch. “You have two and a half hours,” I responded. “Drink up.”

By about 10:15 p.m. the streets were virtually deserted. Many shops, stores and bars began closing around 9:00 p.m., and were dark by 9:30. Even the 7-Eleven shops shut down. Some establishments that had heard the announcement directly didn’t bother to open at all.

Thai commuters pack a bus as they rush home after a curfew was imposed following the Thai army chief's announcement that armed forces were seizing power in Bangkok on May 22, 2014.  Thailand's army chief seized power in a military coup on May 22, ordering rival protesters off the streets and deposing the government in a bid to end months of political bloodshed.   AFP PHOTO/Christophe ARCHAMBAULT        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty

Commuters pack into a bus as they rush home after a curfew was imposed in Bangkok on May 22, 2014.

All the while, few soldiers were to be seen anywhere, clearly having been instructed by top brass to keep a low profile. TV screens were dark or adorned with royal and military symbols, with military and patriotic music playing on a loop and “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council”—the euphemistic name the generals have assigned to the coup administration—prominently displayed in Thai and English. Local stations, from Thairath to Voice TV, Nation TV, TNN24 and THV, are shut down. The government is blocking CNN, BBC, Bloomberg and other foreign networks; Al Jazeera English, curiously, remains on the air.

Even normally eager-to-talk sources have gone to ground, unsure how punitive the military might be in its actions against critics. No sources answered their phones. One sent a terse text message in response to voicemails: “Really sorry can’t talk right now.”

He had every reason to be cautious. The army detained a number of prominent political figures Thursday, including former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and the leaders of rival protest groups, Suthep Thaugsuban of the People’s Democratic Reform Party, and Jatuporn Promphan of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. It is not clear what the whereabouts are of now ex-caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan. As for Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted two weeks ago by the country’s Constitutional Court after many months targeted by her opposition’s carefully organized chaos, she was rumored to have fled the country, but her aides issued a denial.

No one knows what the military has planned for the next few days. But the generals have already heard strong condemnations from Britain and France, along with the United Nations’ expressions of concern about human rights. The United States is “reviewing” its military ties with Thailand and Secretary of State John Kerry said there’s “no justification” for the coup. So Thailand’s top brass will be under tremendous pressure to restore democracy.

But that clearly won’t happen any time soon: Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was expected to retire in the next year or so, sent a spokesman Thursday night to announce on television that there will be no interim prime minister. The general has named himself prime minister of Thailand.