The International Writers
Coup d' Etat
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
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
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.
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
"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?
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
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
"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 historys 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
"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
"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
photojournalists 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."
"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
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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