As you'd expect, my move to Asia has brought with it a string of firsts, like the first time I ate a dish with Sichuan peppers and my lips went numb, and my first time seeing the Great Wall of China.
Sept. 19 brought another one: my first coup.
I was in Thailand sightseeing with my wife after a work trip when the military decided to overthrow Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Tanks surrounded government offices, the constitution was ripped up and martial law was in force. Worried family and friends in the U.S. and our new home of Hong Kong e-mailed to ask if we were all right.
I'm not sure they believed me when I said not only were we fine, but on the surface the whole thing seemed so, well, strangely normal.
I'd never seen a coup firsthand, so it was tough to say what one should look like. Of course it is disturbing to see a democratically elected government overthrown by force in a fragile instant. But from the vantage point of a couple of tourists in Bangkok, it didn't always feel like a history-making day.
It started out with something you'd expect: information control. At our hotel room, the TV channel we were watching went black. Some shows on other channels had been replaced with patriotic images, and the BBC signal was out. An English news network from Singapore was still broadcasting, and they were reporting there'd been a coup, with images of tanks at the government complex.
Around our hotel, though, things looked normal — a little quiet, and the hotel staff didn't seem too concerned. The airport was open; we saw no reason to worry about making our flight the next day.
In the morning we made our way to Victory Monument, commemorating a Thai win over French colonial forces in 1941, passed some shops that were opening, and caught a train downtown. Siam Square looked much the same, with stores opening, people walking around and no soldiers in sight.
It was hard to gauge reactions. Our cab driver to the airport talked for 30 minutes about how the military was afraid of losing power, and he defended the ousted prime minister for running the economy well and extending government health care to the poor.
Others thought Thaksin corrupt. He was the target of street protests for selling his business tax-free and pocketing US$1.9 billion, and critics accused him of undermining democratic institutions and not showing deference to the king.
I'm not a Thai expert, but you can tell unity is important there. At any one time, it seems a third of the country wears a yellow polo shirt, the color of the king.
Jennifer and I were, of course, lucky that it was a “peaceful” coup. After we left, it became a tourist coup, with people getting pictures taken with soldiers, yellow ribbons on their guns. It's an odd image, but maybe fitting for what seemed a strangely “uneventful” coup.
As we got to the airport, we complimented our cabbie on his English. He said he learned it from an American soldier stationed there when the U.S. Army had bases in Thailand to support the American war in IndoChina. At the time, Thailand was run by another military junta. Here's hoping history doesn't repeat itself.
Toloken is a Plastics News correspondent in Hong Kong.