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The International Writers Magazine

Tranquil Coup d' Etat
Eliot Ballard

I am standing in front of a smashed car. Its hood is crumpled like wadded paper, and someone has spray painted a Thai slogan over its caved windshield. Soldiers file past. To my left, protestors are waving signs. "No To Dictatorship," they scream silently, "No Thaksin No Coup." "Restore Democracy NOW."

To my right, a mob of reporters are thrusting notepads, boom mics, and cameras into the faces of agitated citizens, who hide behind their posterboard shields as they descend a set of unidentifiable public steps. Wait. My eye snags. It is caught on an elderly, bald-headed man clutching a hand-held video camera. The protestors, the reporters - their purpose is evident, their role unambiguous. But what is he doing here?

My decision to visit the National Gallery is made in the same manner as most of my plans: with a shrug of the shoulders. I can spend hours deliberating at the snack machine, but when it comes time to decide where to travel, when to travel, or how to spend my time while I travel - in other words, any decision greater than the age-old 'Snickers vs. Twix' dilemma - I may as well flip a coin. Go figure.

So, the Gallery it is. What else do I have to do on a humid Bangkok afternoon?
I walk out onto the street and into the sticky sunlight. I soon pass the gate of a government building. Although I walk past the compound almost every day, I can never stop myself from staring at the stern-faced soldiers posted at the gate. More specifically, I cannot stop myself from staring at the barrels of their M-16s, which are ubiquitously adorned with scraps of faded yellow ribbon.

A similar gate marks the entrance of the Gallery, but there you will find no soldiers. It is guarded instead by a sculpture of a great, yellow, irregularly shaped Buddha head. The head sits directly on the grass and two small, childlike figures reach up to it, arms outstretched in a fractional, affectionate embrace. The Buddha smiles benevolently, and his eyes admit a bit of playfulness. The soldiers at the government building never smile.

The first exhibition is of King Bhumibol's own paintings. The King is actually a rather accomplished artist - some of his brushwork is quite striking - and he has made a great effort over the last five decades to support the arts in Thailand. On the 1000 baht bill, he is even depicted with a camera around his neck. He cradles it, gently, in his left hand, and his right hand is curled, thumb touching forefinger, in a Clintonian gesture of composition. His eyes are sharp, but gentle. It is an intimate portrait; he could be your best friend's father. 'Ok kids, get together. Ready? 1, 2... 3. Mozzarella!'

The rest of the Gallery showcases traditional and contemporary Thai art, from centuries-old Ramayana scenes to multi-media reflections on the emptiness of materialistic culture and the human casualties of the sex trade. Ultimately, though, it is not what lies within the gallery that proves notable but what lies at its end.
As I leave the final sculpture room, I walk into an unmarked exhibition. Two young men are peeling the plastic coating from a sign in large raised print. Beside them a third man, standing on a broad dais, pastes sections of newsprint onto a wall-sized collage.

The caption reads "'Tranquil Coup d' Etat:" Pictures by Photojounalists.

It is one of these pictures that holds my attention hostage. The crowd. The old man. The video camera. What is he doing there?

Unexpectedly swept up in the wake of a military coup, no doubt... and he brought his handi-cam. I want to hear his story. The protestors will give me a generic catalogue of injustices, the reporters will give me the protestors' demands and the official rebuttal of the government spokesperson. This man will tell me of the crush of the crowd, the stink of hot breath and bodies, the anticlimactic waver of the protestors' endlessly voiced slogans. They will tell me what happened - the statistics, the figures, the experts' analysis. But I can find that anywhere. He will tell me what it was really like to be there.

I want my information not from the people reporting the news, nor those reacting to it, nor even the ones in power making the news, but from the mouths of the people living it, the ones not making news.
I take out a small notebook and begin to draw. The notebook was a gift from my uncle, a tiny moleskine with a sticker on its cover of Dali's The Poetry of America. As I transfer a scribbled likeness of the photo onto my page a slight, middle-aged Thai man sidles up beside me.
"Ah, very clever!" he exclaims. He seems on the verge of clapping with delight. "No pictures," he says, referencing the gallery's no-photography policy, "so..." He gestures toward my notebook. "Very good, very good."

We make the usual small talk: he has lived in Ohio, not far from where I studied, and he once visited - pleasantly, it would seem - my hometown of Philadelphia. He walks off and I turn back to my drawing. After finishing I walk with slow, measured museum gait through the rest of the exhibition. On the near wall, a group of camouflage clad go-go dancers perform for the troops; a young couple poses for wedding photos before a tank; a group of costumed Power Ranger-esque superheroes mingles with a crowd of onlookers. As I pass the first partition of the display I see the same slight man directing a photographer, who turns his tripod-mounted camera to a row of black and white pictures.

These are portraits of soldiers. All of them carry guns, and the ribbons on their barrels have been hand-tinted bright yellow against the grayscale background. I think once again of the guards along my walk.
I ask the man if he is involved with the exhibition, and he explains that these are the collected works of photojournalists who covered the coup. He is one of those photojournalists. His name is Nikii. His gestures are swift and emphatic, and his speech spills out in short bursts; this imparts an air of efficiency, directness. The skin on his face is pulled a bit tight. I ask him about the ribbons, whether the yellow represents loyalty to the King throughout the partisan tumult of the coup. He shakes his head impatiently. The ribbons are not so symbolic, he tells me - they are used primarily to identify units and prevent friendly fire. I wonder silently: if the coup is so peaceful, why is this necessary? If former P.M. Thaksin has no support in the military, who would the ‘friendly’ soldiers be mistaken for?
Nikii puts his hand on my shoulder, sweeps the other through the air towards a far corner of the room. These photographs show the interaction between soldiers, monks and children.
"In Thailand," Nikii explains, "all of these things exist together."

There are images of soldiers giving alms to monks, monks offering blessings to soldiers, children seated smiling in humvees, oversized helmets hanging loosely on undersized heads. I mention my own interest in photography his head snaps up with birdlike enthusiasm. His eyes sharpen.
"Ah, you are an artist, yes?"
"Well I don't know if I'm an artist, its only for myself..."
He brushes this aside with a vehement shake of his head, eyes closed as if he is trying to chase away a headache. He has no patience for self-deprecation.
"No no, it doesn't matter. Art is in here." He jabs at his temple with a crooked finger. "I think you know this."
I nod silent assent. He moves on.
"I think the coup worries other countries, I think they are afraid we are moving backward..." He leaves this statement open. I nod obediently. "But this is just our way. It does not change anything. It is only political. Besides, there is trouble everywhere. Even in the US, in Ohio, when I lived there..." he trails off, unable to recall something. I know almost immediately what he is thinking of.
"Yes, Cincinnati. I was living near Cleveland when that was happening." It can be easy to forget the riots in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Chicago, placemarkers for our history’s uglier chapters.
"You see? Every country has times of unrest."
"Still," I say, "it can't possibly help tourism."
"No, no, I think tourism will not be affected. It is only political."
The other man photographs us quietly while we speak.

As Nikii turns back to his work I ask if there is a postcard or flyer for the exhibition. His eyes dart up into his head for a moment, then he walks me briskly across the room. In the far corner, behind yet another partition, an enormous photographic printer sits amid an array of visual equipment. From its mouth hangs a long poster, perhaps ten feet, with a series of images from the display. Five identical printouts lay on the ground below it. At first I think it is part of the exhibition. Then Nikii takes from behind the machine a ruler, a sliding exacto knife, and a cutting mat.
"Here, take one," he says, dropping the mat on the ground beside the posters, holding out the knife and straightedge. I raise my eyebrows.
"Yes? Any one?"
We deliberate silently, crouched over the string of images. He points to a photograph of tanks rolling in file against the backdrop of the capital.
"Maybe this one?" he suggests.

I choose instead a black and white photo of a newspaper on a table. On the paper sit a cup of coffee and some kind of pastry, beside it a pair of sunglasses. I choose this one for its reflexive quality: a photojournalist’s photo of a photojournalist's photo of the coup. Nikii stands over me as I cut. I brace the straightedge with my knee. At one point the knife slips under the ruler, bowing like a sawblade. It leaves a round bite in the edge of the picture, and when Nikii turns his head I carve the remains of my mistake from the adjacent poster, hoping he won't notice the defect. As I thank him for the keepsake I hold the poster in both hands, reverently.
"Take it home," he says to me gravely. "Tell people what is really happening."
I nod.
"Yin di thii dai rujaak," I tell him haltingly. ‘It is good to know you.’
He smiles quickly, broadly.
"Ah, yes. Yin di tii dai rujaak."
I curl up my poster and walk into the sunlit lawn of the Gallery's sculpture garden.
As I walk out of the museum grounds I take out my notebook and open it to the likeness I have drawn of the photograph. Beside the white-haired man I draw an arrow. I write "This man is NOT a reporter."
I've had it getting my news from reporters.

© Eliot Ballard March 2007

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