Soon after the coup in late May 2014, which did not surprise anybody, the army dispersed the crowds—red shirts and yellow—who had been fighting for months, from the streets of Bangkok. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, commander of the Royal Thai Army, appointed himself prime minister with the blessings of the ailing king, who it is said had given his consent to the last coup of 2006 also.

After a few days of detention, the svelte Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister, and other politicians were released; the media were summoned and warned not to excite passions and carry only “true stories”; the night-time curfew was relaxed and citizens assured there would be fresh elections in a year’s time. Foreign tourists were seen posing with smiling soldiers holding machine guns on the streets. Soon shops and schools reopened and the stocks index gained some points. It was business as usual.

To sweeten the air even more, the army is now generously televising the 2014 FIFA World Cup football matches on free-to-air TV channels to a football-loving people. What more could Thais ask for? By the time the tournament is over, the coup will be a thing of the past.  

As if to atone for their mischief, the army then began to appease people by offering free tickets to promote “love and harmony” and win over their hearts and minds. The movie was The Legend of King Naresuan (Part V), a patriotic extravaganza about a Siamese king of the 16th century. To sweeten the air even more, the army is now generously televising the 2014 FIFA World Cup football matches on free-to-air TV channels to a football-loving people. What more could Thais ask for? By the time the tournament is over, the coup will be a thing of the past.

Pity about the bloodshed and arrests. Otherwise, this coup, like the 11 or 12 before, went off quite smoothly. Predictably, the Americans made some complaints, as did the Australians, about restoring democracy and so on, and many other countries warned their citizens to avoid travelling to Thailand.

In fact, with proper planning, coups could be turned into a big draw and attract more visitors to the country. The Tourism Authority of Thailand should look into turning the phenomena to its advantage, and add substantially to the 26 million who visited last year. A declaration from UNESCO stating military coups to be “world heritage” sites would help greatly in having the idea taken seriously. Like the coming of comets and other natural wonders, these events could be predicted months before and preparations made.

After all, it is a country where spectacle is commonplace and accepted in almost any form. Just a year before I moved there in 1989, there used to flourish a bar called Nazi, with waiters dressed as German officers, complete with swastika armbands and jackboots. It was forced to close because of complaints from the Israeli ambassador, I was told. What a spoilsport!

Then, a few years into my stint, there was a serious proposal by a local politician to have re-enactments every evening—along with a cast of thousands and a sound-and-light show—at the site of the barbaric forced labour camps that the Japanese operated while building the infamous bridge over the river Kwai. Then there are the elaborate transvestite burlesques, performed nightly.

So a real or choreographed coup, staged every four years or so with loads of advance publicity, would be well within the realm of Thai imagination. Astrologers could be consulted for an auspicious date and time for the event (just as it has been done many a time with past coups, I am sure). Acclaimed performance artists such as Marina Abramović could perhaps be included to take part too. Imagine her standing quietly before the long barrel of a tank gun for hours on end, eating rice, one grain at a time. That would be profound. There could be a writing competition for the best new Constitution. A beauty contest on the side. The possibilities are endless.

And if all goes well, some years down the line the whole thing could go on the road like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for performances across the world. What a money-spinner it could be! And everybody, from the military to the government, would get a piece of the pie. As the famous refrain of a popular 1990s radio presenter goes: “This is Thailand. The show goes on!”


Despite being wedged between the British-ruled Malay peninsula in the south and Burma in the northwest, and flanked on the right by French Indochina, Siam, as the country used to called, managed to remain independent of western powers all along. A succession of kings belonging to the Chakri Dynasty had ruled over the backward agrarian country as absolute monarchs since 1782, taking many wives and keeping slaves. Their capital Krung Thep (City of Angels) stood on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, amid rice paddies, crisscrossed by klongs or canals where time passed slowly.

The people were almost all Buddhists who practised the Theravada form of the religion, mixed in with Hindu Brahminism and animism, and spoke a tonal language that is a mish-mash of Sanskrit and Pali, with some Chinese thrown in. Belief in spirits and the healing powers of amulets was strong, and remains so to this day. And as in all of southeast Asia, Ganesha was a much-revered God and popular motif in art. Along with rice and timber, elephants had also been exported by ship to neighbouring countries, including India, for centuries.

The people were almost all Buddhists who practised the Theravada form of the religion, mixed in with Hindu Brahminism and animism, and spoke a tonal language that is a mish-mash of Sanskrit and Pali, with some Chinese thrown in.

So matters stood until 1932, when a bunch of military officers and civil servants trained in Europe decided to change all that. Calling themselves the “Promoters”, they launched a bloodless coup in June that year, telling the reigning King Rama VII to carry on as a “constitutional monarch”, and began modernising an old country steeped in superstition and feudalism, to match the more “civilised” versions they had lived in, in the West.

They began with the name: exotic “Siam” gave way to Anglicised “Thailand”, meaning “land of the free”. A constitution was written up; and also a booklet on proper etiquette, dress and behaviour: women and men were urged to wear western clothes and shoes when outdoors. Those failing to do so were turned away—even if pregnant or very sick—from hospitals. Men had to wear hats and kiss their wives before leaving home in the mornings; betel nut chewing, a widespread practice, was banned, and cutlery was introduced at mealtimes. There were many other cosmetic changes: new flag, new anthem, and so on. That was their idea of modernisation.

Within a year, in 1933, the second coup was launched, and soon thereafter, another. By the time the present king was crowned in 1947—after the mysterious death by gunshot to the head of his older brother, Ananda (King Rama VIII)—there had already been three. Plus a few attempted coups. A shy, gangling boy born in the US and schooled in Switzerland, who hardly knew his country and spoke Thai poorly, thus became Rama IX, a “Devaraja”, king of Thailand at the age of 19.

His name, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is easily decoded into the Sanskrit Bhoomi-Bal Atulya-Tej, meaning “strong as the earth, of incomparable brilliance”.

Despite all the odds, the uncharismatic young man, thrust into the world’s glare, quietly prospered and quickly gained the respect of his subjects. As a “constitutional monarch” he did not play a direct role in the fledgling democracy but still commanded enough power to make all visitors to his court kneel before him and gradually, by design or fate, a powerful cult grew around him, as had been the case with all his predecessors.

The monarchy could, in a sense, be described as a benign but all-pervading force, overseeing the governance of the country by an elected prime minister and cabinet and an independent judicial system based on Buddhist principles. The armed forces operated independently, and all were ultimately answerable to the king and had to prostrate on the floor before him.


Thailand’s fortunes surged dramatically when the US launched a full-scale war in Vietnam. Being strategic allies, the Thais offered their full cooperation and American military bases and supply depots were established at a number of places along the southeast coast. Every few weeks, as the conflict raged, planeloads of American soldiers came for three days of rest-and-recreation before flying off again to fight the Vietcong. It was, by all accounts, a wild time and a lot of Thais, especially those in or close to the military, got very rich.

“I can remember GIs carrying girls over their shoulders into the Reno Hotel,” I was told by Michel, a Frenchman and long-time resident of Bangkok. Remnants of that long party are still evident in Bangkok and Pattaya, where a lot of decrepit 1960s-style hotels bear names like Florida, Miami and Niagara, so named to make the American guests feel at home. (I would like to dispel a popular myth here about how all that American rabblerousing corrupted Thai morals and sowed the seeds of its best-known attraction. But prostitution has been endemic to Thai and East Asian culture for centuries.)

Bowling alleys, massage parlours the size of hotels, and go-go bars sprang up to keep the young Americans happy, and a young Thai singer called Visut added the prefix El to his name, swept back his hair and entertained the troops by gyrating his hips in time to well-known hits of the Memphis King.

It’s interesting to note that the US forged a friendship treaty with Thailand way back in 1833, its first with an Asian country. So it is not surprising that the US was the first country Thailand turned to for help in the wake of the Second World War. Also, the Thai currency, the baht, was tied to the US dollar at 25-to-1 for decades until the financial crash of 1997 broke that bond and sent it sliding (it now trades at around 32-to-1).

The legacy of Vietnam still lives on in Thailand. The American embassy in Bangkok is one of its biggest in the world, employing a staff of thousands and serves as a regional hub. That aside, there are other military operatives and much cooperation between army, navy and air force with their American counterparts, with periodic training and large exercises such as Cobra Gold taking place every year. Needless to add, there are scores of American spooks and the CIA is believed to have interrogated many foreign suspects in secret locations on Thai soil in the wake of 9/11.

Thais by and large revel in their status as America’s true ally, and toe the capitalist ideology. The communist party has been banned since the 1950s and relations with its poorer communist neighbours—Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia—are merely cordial, the Thais treating those nations with contempt and scorn at the best of times. Exploitation, not cooperation, is the agenda. They might be staunchly Buddhist, but the Thai version belies an appetite for riches and merriment bordering on the pathological.

“Sanuk” is the cornerstone of Thai culture, but not easily translated. It means “fun and easy”. If anything in life is worth doing, it must be sanuk. If something requires too much thought, it is not. They are proud of having a literacy rate of 98 per cent; yet most Thais will read nothing more than newspapers and comic books. Philosophy, science, history, metaphysics … No, thank you. Not sanuk.


In the last three decades, life has been fun in Thailand, with tremendous economic growth telescoped into a short span of time. The robust economy took off in the late 1980s, growing at around eight per cent through the next 10 years. Japanese investment in the manufacturing sector and mass tourism led the growth, while agriculture flourished, making Thailand the world’s biggest rice exporter. In mining, Thai tin outstripped that of Malaysia to become the prime source. The per capita income by the late 1990s rose to around $700. It was common to hear inebriated customers in bars suddenly yell out, “Thailand, number one!”.

Nobody, except the Arabs in their heyday and later the Russians, could have beaten Thais for conspicuous consumption. Living there in the early 1990s, I was witness to decadence on a truly Roman scale. They spent money like it was going out of fashion. Luxury wristwatches and cars were widely collected, and millions were made and lost at gambling tables in Macau (the pastime being banned at home). Having tired of Scotch, urban tipplers developed a taste for French wines and every year, the new vintages were announced and sampled in glitzy hotels. While in one hotel by the riverside, the canny manager—a Punjabi incidentally—dreamed up the father of all dinners, costing one million baht ($30,000) per person. It proved to be a big hit and has become an annual fixture on Bangkok’s social calendar.

Not much development took place in the countryside though, where farmers still toiled in the fields with buffaloes, and the income gap between urban and rural grew wide but nobody cared very much. The capital and other tourist resorts were all that mattered. In them, skyscrapers rose like clumps of bamboo and tourist numbers multiplied every year: some flying in just to play few rounds of golf on any of the hundreds of courses in the country.

The nation’s populace is made up of the native Thai as well as emigrant Chinese, who flooded in around the turn of the last century, and Indians, mostly Sikhs. Today the Chinese number is in the millions and, in Bangkok, form almost half the population, controlling most big businesses and many banks. The Indians are much smaller in number, very wealthy and own much property and textile shops. “They are neither Thai nor Indian,” Dolly Singh, one of the more sophisticated of them, once told me. She was right. They are merely vulgar.

The king meanwhile had quietly prospered, living in the sprawling Chitralada Palace surrounded by a rectangular moat in a leafy suburb of Bangkok. His wife Sirikit had borne him three children, a boy and two girls. The eldest, Prince Vajiralongkorn, is next in line of succession, and unfortunately the least suited for the job. The sisters are not eligible however, as Thai law permits only males onto the throne. The darling of the masses is the eldest, Princess Sirindhorn, seen as being studious and diligent. The prince is reviled and feared by almost all, and a thousand and one tales of his philandering and fighting circulate in every corporate office and alleyway. He is known for his rudeness, failure in academics, and deep interest in nightclub singers and TV starlets. He has been married thrice, looks like a thug in a B-grade movie, and is rumoured to be HIV-positive.

He was spoilt by the queen, say the people, who don’t think very much of her either. In the late 1980s, a big financial scandal centred around the rigging of the national lottery erupted and was in the news for a long time. The culprits were sent to jail. But the brains behind the fraud was said to be none other than the Queen. Once attractive—a quality her daughters did not inherit—she is said to have tons of jewellery, undergone lots of cosmetic surgery, and habitually travels overseas, taking with her more luggage than Elton John.


A constitutional monarchy it may be, but a cult of personality surrounds the king and his immediate family. The lèse majesté laws are very strict and regularly enforced, resulting in long jail terms for Thai offenders and ouster from the kingdom for foreigners, who may never return. Censorship in matters relating to royalty is all-pervasive: even that silly costume drama The King And I is banned. And news of the palace massacre in Nepal in the late 1990s which sealed the fate of the royals there was very lightly touched upon in the media.

So although he rarely makes public appearances, the king seems omnipresent, almost godly, and enjoys widespread loyalty. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at over $30 billion, making him the richest royal in the world.

The king’s portrait is ever-present on the walls of shops and offices, and adorns the currency notes. When newspapers run his photographs or those of the family, they are always on top of the page, above those of commoners. On December 5, the king’s birthday—which was proclaimed National Day in 1962—large cut-outs of his are put up, like Christmas trees, outside shopping malls and institutions. In cinemas, the dirge-like royal anthem, not the national anthem, is played out just before the main feature.

So although he rarely makes public appearances, the king seems omnipresent, almost godly, and enjoys widespread loyalty. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at over $30 billion, making him the richest royal in the world.

Now all the love and reverence has given way to gloom and worry. The ageing Bhumibol is confined to a wheelchair and speaks in hoarse whispers. Parkinson’s disease and depression are just two maladies attributed to his condition. He must be very worried indeed as his long reign draws to a close. The randy crown prince was ensconced with his retinue in a hotel in the English countryside when the recent crisis unfolded, and at 58, it is unlikely he will return home and learn to take his duties seriously. Nor will anybody, least of all powerful military men ever take to him. It is easy to envision them holding a toy gun to his head asking him to give his imprimatur to the next coup. Or they might exile him permanently.

It does not seem likely that the tin-pot soldiers will learn any time soon that coups are against the law, and desist from disrupting the country’s governance. Some traditions must be followed after all, and boys will be boys. What the country needs, and has never had, is a strong leader, whether military or civilian, who will stamp his authority upon the country’s political firmament and steer a steady course. It is intriguing that not one of the Thai dictators was able to stay in power for too long, unlike in Spain or Brazil, and leave a lasting legacy. They have all been mercenary and reckless, merely content to grab as much of the spoils as they can and depart the stage to make way for someone new.

This is Thailand! The show must go on.