Chiang Mai survives its first week of coup

Despite its Red Shirt reputation, Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai, has remained calm since the coup.

Chiang Mai, Thailand – A week into the coup, army troops continue to be a highly visible presence on Chiang Mai’s streets with bases set up at two of the main gates that ring the old city. Soldiers keep watch from buildings overlooking their positions and in the evenings roadblocks are set up and cars are searched.

Many tourists don’t seem to mind, stopping when they come across soldiers, not out of fright, but to ask for photos with them. It’s a scene that looks set to be repeated for some time to come.

“I still think I’ll be here for some time, maybe a month … maybe longer,” a Special Forces soldier not authorised to speak to the media told Al Jazeera. His timeframe may be optimistic given the leader of the military government, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, said on Monday the army would maintain power “indefinitely”.

The same Special Forces officer also indirectly acknowledged the risks involved for the army, saying: “Some people love us but other people will hate us for what we’ve done.”

Life goes on

In spite of the coup, the city’s routines both old and new, have continued for most of the population without much interruption.

Barefoot monks from the city’s temples or wats, walk past armed soldiers while collecting alms and giving blessings while school children head to school seemingly unfazed by either the soldiers or razor wire.

At Tapai Gate, the main entrance to the old city, a group of senior citizens continue to do their early morning exercises while army troops stationed there wake up and go about their morning duties. Later, a young couple have their wedding photos taken as bored soldiers look on.

On Monday, security forces used the area to carry out highly visible anti-riot drills while tourists watched and took photos.  
Chiang Mai’s newest arrivals continue with their holidays much as before, haggling with tuk-tuk drivers and sauntering about the city in various states of undress though, according to locals, in increasingly smaller numbers.

Sophie, a young backpacker and volunteer from Holland, had already paid for her trip and said: “I’m glad I didn’t leave because I don’t feel unsafe for now but if it goes mental in Bangkok, I will leave Thailand even though here [Chiang Mai] is still chill…”

She adds that friends back home think the situation sounds crazy, “but it’s not actually. Everyone is taking photos [with the soldiers] and I took a photo, and I was like ‘this is too touristy’, but it’s funny”.

Not so funny for some

But despite the relaxed atmosphere, Chiang Mai, like the rest of the country, is firmly under military control.   

Raids and arrests have taken place across both Chiang Mai and the country, though today, the military government claimed 124 people have been released, with only 76 now remaining in custody.

The raids, along with the tough talk from the military government, have sent a chill throughout Chiang Mai’s Red Shirts, with local journalists complaining of having difficulty contacting even low level supporters.

I'm sure we will come back to democracy because we have a great king.

by - Em, local tour operator

On Tuesday morning, the army raided the Warorot Grand Palace hotel, which doubles as a base for the Red Shirt Rak Chiang Mai 51 radio station, for the third time since they took control of the country. The station is supported by the owner of the hotel, Sairung Wattanapongkun, who was in Bangkok at the time of the search.

A large photo of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in Thailand’s last coup, dominates the lobby. On the third floor the doors were splintered after being kicked in earlier by the army. Puy, 26, who has worked as an employee of the hotel for 5 years, told Al Jazeera the army took 5 laptops and a number of ping pong balls, which they claimed were for making bombs, during the operation.

Outside, a lone Red Shirt stands next to a cart proudly showing off photos of Thaksin and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who until recently was Thailand’s prime minister. Up until now, unlike Bangkok, public displays of opposition to the coup have been few and far in between.

On Saturday, a group of anti-coup protesters gathered at the Chang Puek Gate and lit candles and held signs before being dispersed by the security forces, resulting in at lest three arrests. The gate is now permanently occupied by security forces made up of the army’s Special Forces, a regular artillery division and anti-riot police.

On Monday, a small flash mob posted pictures on Twitter outside the Icon Center with anti-coup signs. By the time any news media had arrived, they had disappeared, though the media clearly were not the only ones monitoring Twitter. Minutes after the news media arrived, a Humvee pulled up and two soldiers started searching the area.

Tourist Town

Chiang Mai has long relied on tourism and depending on the year, up to two million international travellers visit the city, many of them young backpackers looking to party.

At one local nightspot, Zoe in Yellow, popular with both young Thais and backpackers, one of the most immediate effects of the coup becomes obvious.

Soon after 10pm as the crowd senses the night is drawing to an end they begin chanting “one more song, one more song” as each song ends. A small group of foreigners briefly change the chant to “f@ck the coup, f@ck the coup”.
Unsurprisingly they fail to stop the inevitable. The music goes off and lights come up.

Locals and backpackers slowly stagger out, while an army patrol of two Humvees passes behind them, though neither group shows any interest in the other, despite it being almost half-an-hour after the start of curfew.

Sophie, 23, and Andrew, 24, had only just arrived in Bangkok when the curfew was declared and had spent the night before partying on Khao San Road.

“The next day we went to do the same again and noticed none of the stalls were set up. Then we learned we had to be home by 10pm. I don’t feel like its been too bad in Chiang Mai but it did spoil Bangkok for us,” Andrew told Al Jazeera.

But it’s not only the tourists who are irritated by the curfew.

Tong, 22, a graduate of international business, said that in Chiang Mai there are “many Red Shirt supporters and no Yellows” though her main complaint is ,”I can’t go out at night.” Her friend laughs before adding: “We have to start at six.”

The curfew begins to bite

For many locals the curfew is more then an annoyance or inconvenience; it’s a matter of economic survival.

Meaw, 31, who works in a small bar attached to a small hotel, says tourists still come to have a cocktail but leave at nine and “the clubs and pubs are affected much worse”. 

Perhaps sensitive to the potential anger, the military government, as of today, moved the start of the curfew to midnight.

Em, a local tour operator has seen business fall markedly. “Right now the first businesses effected by this incident are the nightclubs and we are the second most effected by this situation,” he told Al Jazeera.

Despite the effect on his business and wanting the country to return to a “pure democracy” he is sick of the political divisions and willing to give the army the benefit of the doubt.

Em added: “I’m sure we will come back to democracy because we have a great king. It’s a military dictatorship?
Definitely not, because maybe the military saw the situation get worse and then they think it’s time to do something to make the situation better.”

Though he acknowledges that is far from guaranteed, and neither is Chiang Mai’s current calm, as organised resistance to the coup is likely to grow. Em told Al Jazeera in the coming weeks “there may be protests in Chiang Mai, and in my view, there may be ambushes [of the army] too.”