As of May 28, the U.S. Department of State issued a Travel Alert to all U.S. citizens considering a trip to Thailand. In response to the Royal Thai Army’s decision to impose a nationwide curfew, a ban on political assemblies, and a limitation on the liberties of the media, the Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens “reconsider any non-essential travel to Thailand, particularly Bangkok.”
In recent years, with some well publicized civil unrest in Thailand, it’s not unusual for the U.S. Department of State to issue occasional bulletins, advisories, and traveler warnings.
I have been traveling to Thailand for more than 36 years, and have never felt threatened or put in a position where my safety was compromised. I’ve had a home there since 1992 and I have a deep affection for the country and its people.
Although the word “coup” has understandably dangerous connotations, it’s also important to put the term in historical context.
Since the Siamese Revolution of 1932 that resulted in the creation of the nation’s first constitution, the Thai government and its people have experienced at least 15 coups d’etat—more than any other country in history.
But what constitutes a true coup d’etat is subject to continual debate. Many people automatically think a coup means violence, often preceded by the assassination of a sitting ruler. In Thailand, a coup is a relatively peaceful event. The group wanting the coup usually goes to the King for his blessing. If it’s given, the coup happens. The leader is removed. Occasionally, the Army makes itself known with a public display of strength in numbers. Then, within a few days, the local Thais put flowers in the muzzles of the guns, everyone poses for pictures, and then goes home.
With the most recent problems in the land of smiles, Thailand’s political polarity has been a source of social instability since protests began in November 2013. But most Thais familiar with these protests have reacted rather calmly to all the commotion. They may not like it, but have adjusted to it as a relatively normal ritual.
So, once again, we have a de facto coup in Thailand. The prime minister was removed by a high court. There was a power vacuum. The military wasted no time moving in to take control. As usual, daily life remains more or less the same on the streets of Bangkok, as a number of jovial locals take selfies with the soldiers.
This current coup is different in one respect: The Army announced it expected to stay in power for at least the next 18 months. One of the reasons the army moved so quickly to take power is to avoid any street violence in the wake of the prime minister’s ouster. But a far more compelling reason has to do with the King himself. Thailand’s King is the longest reigning monarch in the history of the world. For an overwhelming majority of Thais, he’s the only King they’ve ever known, and he is revered.
But for nearly four years, the King has been ailing and his health has been gradually deteriorating. While the line of succession is clearly marked with the King’s son poised to assume the throne, there are a growing number of Thais unhappy with that choice, claiming the unpopular son is simply not equipped for the job. There’s a growing movement supporting the ascension of the Princess instead.
So, the unwritten/unspoken reason the Thai Army announced it intends to stay in power for the next year and a half is that the army leadership is convinced the King will die within the next 18 months. This is a quiet preemptive move of security—anticipating the King’s passing to maintain control of the streets and vital installations ahead of the event.
Now comes the easy part.
Given all this information, should you travel to Thailand?
That’s a rhetorical question but, if you need help with the answer, it’s a resounding yes.
Don’t just depend on U.S. State Department advisories. Check with the British Foreign Office for the advisories they send their citizens. I often find them more helpful, with more immediate, up-to-date information.
History reflects Thailand’s resilience, and this political upheaval has so far been bloodless. General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, leader of the army and—for the moment, the country—insists that the military rule is essential for “society to love and be at peace again…and asks the public not to panic and to carry on their lives normally.”
There’s a strong economic incentive to maintain the peace: tourism dollars and jobs. Travel and tourism contribute roughly $74 billion to Thailand’s economy, making up about 20 percent of its total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Drastic changes to the volume of visits would be catastrophic for the well-being of country.
Here’s my definition of normal: just be smart and be aware…then go.
This is a time where social media can be your friend. Twitter, for one, is an excellent way to get real-time information about the social climate throughout the country. Additionally, join the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which lets U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad enroll their essential details and trip information with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. This way, the U.S. government will be aware that you are in the country in case the situation turns violent, and will send you updates and alerts.
In the unlikely event that the situation in Thailand deteriorates rapidly, do NOT head for the U.S. Embassy, because the U.S. Embassy is the very first place that shutters. Instead (and the U.S. State Department loves when I advise this) head immediately for the British, Australian, or Canadian Embassies. In my own personal experience, they are welcoming and have been my lifesavers if the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan.
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By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com