On 22 May 2014, Thailand’s military seized control of the government in a self-professed effort to 'reform the political structure, the economy and the society.' Nearly six months on, the junta continues to rule Thailand, having formed a military-heavy national legislature headed by Prayuth Chan-ocha, himself the former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army.
Coups are nothing new in Thailand – this is the country’s 12th since 1932 – but the current situation has understandably left travellers with a few questions.
Is it safe to travel to Thailand amid its politcal uncertainty?
In a word, yes. Although there’s always a risk that the political situation could escalate – immediately following the coup there were heated anti-military protests, and a potentially violent backlash by pro-government supporters is possible – at the time of writing Thailand's political situation does not generally make the country any less safe to visit.
So what does the military coup mean for travellers?
Despite the military’s declaration of nationwide martial law (which effectively rendered the Thai constitution null and void), daily life more or less continues as usual in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand: tourist attractions are still open, and tourism-related businesses and services remain operational. Indeed, in a highly unusual public relations campaign called ‘24 Hours Enjoy Thailand’, the Thai military claimed that martial law should be seen as a draw for tourists, as, according to them, the situation makes the country safe for travellers 24 hours a day. Yet there are a few issues that could impact travellers directly:
- Public criticism of the coup or military, including ‘liking’ or sharing via online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, is best avoided. Even before the coup, Thailand was home to some of the world’s strictest laws barring criticism of its monarchy, an entity with longstanding and close ties to the military.
- Two unique methods of protest, specifically, prominently reading or displaying the classic George Orwell novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and sandwich eating (yes, you read that right) have been banned, and travellers should avoid doing either of these in an overtly provocative manner.
- Restrictions on media mean that some foreign news outlets have been blocked.
- Travellers have been advised to check the specific terms of their travel insurance, as claims arising from military insurrection are common exclusions in travel insurance policies. In response to this, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has created Thailand Travel Shield (tourismthailand.org/ThailandTravelShield), a low-cost travel insurance supplement.
It’s worth mentioning that some of the junta’s actions – ostensibly efforts to win the hearts and minds of foreign visitors – have had a positive impact on tourism in Thailand. On the island of Phuket, taxi and tuk-tuk rings with links to organised crime have been disbanded, beach vendors and jet skis have been banned, and illegal beach structures have been torn down. In a move that will be welcomed by some travellers, beach parties in Surat Thani province, with the exception of Ko Pha-Ngan’s infamous monthly full moon party, were banned by the junta until further notice following the murders of two British backpackers on Ko Tao in September 2014.
How it got to this: the coup in context
It’s a long and confusing saga, but the roots of this most recent coup can be traced back to conflicts between the largely middle- and upper-class, Bangkok-based monarchist 'yellow shirts' and the predominately poorer, working class 'red shirt' supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In 2006, Shinawatra was forced from office in a bloodless military coup. In response, red-shirted Thaksin supporters took over sections of central Bangkok and staged a series of anti-government demonstrations, some of which turned violent. The protesters were eventually dispersed by the Thai military in May 2010, resulting in 40 deaths.
In 2011, after a succession of interim governments, Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became prime minister in a landslide victory for her party. Two years later, yellow shirt protesters accusing Yingluck of corruption launched a series of anti-government protests culminating in Yingluck being forced to stand down and, on 22 May 2014, a yellow shirt-sympathetic military seizing power. In July, a military-dominated national legislature was created, which later designated former Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha as Thailand’s 29th prime minister.
How long will this last?
At this point, it’s still too early to say. At the time of writing, there was no confirmation on when martial law would be lifted, and the military had not yet divulged a timeline for a return to civilian rule.