BANGKOK — In the wake of a military takeover, Bangkok is a city just shy of normal. Roads are clogged with the usual traffic, but at intersections here and there, armed soldiers are camped out in tents. Shoppers stroll into malls, but in one instance Saturday, they brushed by hundreds of coup protesters holding signs reading, “We want elections” and “Thailand Spring.”
If Thailand’s cycle of once-
a-decade coups demonstrates the country’s political weakness, the aftermaths have often shown its unflappability. Nightlife carries on. The economy doesn’t flinch. Bangkok retains its reputation as a colorful pleasure capital.
This time, though, many Thais say they aren’t sure whether their country will emerge unscathed. Some 48 hours after the military’s intervention, and the subsequent detention of a number of politicians and academics, people on both sides of the political divide voiced fears that a whole new set of long-lasting grievances would emerge.
In the capital Saturday, signals were mixed. There were Belgian beer fests and bike races, art festivals and street food. But there also was a nighttime curfew in place, newly imposed martial laws and a small but burgeoning anti-coup protest movement — dissent that violates a military edict and was not seen much after previous coups.
“We are ready to accept any leader put into position the right way,” said Chat Kimpong, one of the coup protesters. “You have young people here, middle-aged people here. This is a very dangerous sign for the military” to have this defiance.
The military has worked quickly to consolidate its powers, and on Saturday it dissolved the nonpartisan Senate, Thailand’s last functioning legislative branch. The junta, led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, also dismissed the national police chief and the head of the Department of Special Investigation, akin to the FBI.
If the coup proceeds as planned, the military will use the next months to draw up reforms, heal political wounds and begin the transition to a new civilian government. Thais are divided about whether that can happen, and history says it won’t.
Many who opposed the ousted elected government say the coup has allowed for a reset — and a release of tension — after months of violence. Supporters of the ousted government, meanwhile, say the military is a partisan player in camouflage, helping a largely urban group of elitists unseat a majority that commands broad support in the northern rural areas.
“The coup is good,” said Malewan Thanabut, 70, who runs a small restaurant in Koh Lanta, a popular tourist area in the south. “Will we lose a little bit for a couple days? Yes, but overall it is better for the country.”
The junta has detained scores of political leaders on both sides of the dispute, and on Saturday, it also demanded that 35 outspoken academics and pro-democracy activists turn themselves in or risk arrest. The majority sympathized with the pro-government group, known as the Red Shirts.
“The coup could be a necessary evil to release pressure,” said one senior bureaucrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe what he called his personal thinking. “But it depends on the military’s next steps. They cannot be seen as being partial. Already, there is some sentiment that they are acting against the Reds.”
Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and faction leaders from both sides are in detention, their location unknown. Human Rights Watch said Saturday that Thailand’s rights situation was in a “free fall,” with the military banning dissent and imposing a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew. The normally rowdy media, facing heavy censorship, now deliver a bland, uncritical version of the news — one in which the junta-run National Council for Peace and Order most assuredly will instill peace and order.
For relatives of the detainees, the past few days have been taxing. Kwanchai Sarakum, 62, who runs a pro-Red radio station in the north, was among those ordered to turn himself in. He headed to an army headquarters Friday along with his wife, who dropped him off. The soldiers took his wife’s cellphone number and said they would be in touch.
“I’m still waiting to hear from them,” said Arporn Sarakum, who had a seat in Thailand’s Senate.
Foreign governments have warned in recent days against travel to Thailand, and the United States has advised Americans to “reconsider” any nonessential trips, particularly to Bangkok. On Saturday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that in addition to the previously announced suspension of foreign assistance, the United States has also canceled an annual military exercise that is now underway in response to the coup, as well as some senior-level exchanges.
But Thais say their country, even under duress, is still functional. Thailand has seen 12 coups since 1932, and Thais of a certain age have coup stories that coincide with almost every stage of their lives. Boonchai Chunwittaya, 51, remembers seeing images of military coups on television as a child, feeling “a little scared” as a young adult during a coup in 1991 and participating in street protests that led to a coup in 2006.
This time, for Boonchai, the coup amounted to just a modest disruption.
For months, he and hundreds of other vendors have been preparing for an annual Asian food expo, held at a convention center on the outskirts of Bangkok — a celebration that last year drew 93,000.
On Saturday, the first day the expo opened to the public, Boonchai, an instant-coffee vendor, thought things looked close to normal. Only a few vendors had backed out. Police tape was wrapped around the Japan Pavilion. An area for Cambodian rice was closed off and darkened. A booth draped in Vietnamese flags had turned into a rest area.
But the crowds were good, and Boonchai believed that for most people, the coup “wasn’t a problem.”
“We’ve lived with this kind of situation for a long time,” he said. “You could say we’re acquainted. The current situation and the past ones, it’s almost the same.”
Lennox Samuels and Voravit Chansiri contributed to this report.