The Digital Journalist
Thailand's Rose Revolution
November 2006

by Richard Humphries

It had been just another Tuesday night at home in Bangkok. I was just sitting down with a cup of tea and was about to continue with the never-ending task of scanning my archive when my mobile phone rang. It was my friend Steve.

"Rich, there's been a coup!!!"

"Err, what!"

"There's been a coup; there are APCs rolling down Silom Road right now mate, get your kit!"

Anti-Thaksin Shinawatra demonstrators loyal to army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin show their support for the coup in front of an M-41 tank near the United Nations offices in Bangkok, Thailand. Sept. 20, 2006.

Richard Humphries/Polaris
Straight away I flick on the TV and sure enough, reports were coming in on the BBC about a possible coup in Bangkok. But at that stage the reports were still very vague. I checked the local Thai TV channels; all of them were off the air and showing only file footage of the Thai Royal family. A quick check on the Net revealed more. It seemed that Royal Thai troops loyal to army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin had indeed staged a coup d'etat in Bangkok to oust caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was in New York and due to address the United Nations General Assembly.

The report said that heavily armed troops, along with tanks and armored personnel carriers, had taken up positions around the Government House and the Royal Plaza areas of the city. The coup makers called themselves the "Democratic Reform Council," led by General Sonthi; it said they comprised the commanders of the three armed forces and the national police chief.

Thailand has been caught in a political limbo for months now after massive anti-government protests forced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to hold early general elections last April. With the opposition parties boycotting those elections and demanding the prime minister's immediate resignation, the results were annulled and Thaksin Shinawatra took on a caretaker role until new elections could be held in October. There had been quiet rumors of a coup for some time as Thaksin's detractors accused him of stall tactics regarding the new elections.

M-41 tanks are adorned with roses placed on them by members of the public to show their peaceful support for the coup. Troops loyal to army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin staged a coup d'etat in Thailand's capitol, Bangkok, to oust caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Sept. 22, 2006.

Richard Humphries/Polaris
My mobile phone rang again; it was James McGrath, my editor at Polaris Images in New York.

"Rich, you know what's going on right?"

"Yeah, I'm on my way out the door right now."

"OK great, I have got you two days on this with Newsweek magazine. Get what you can tonight and file something by tomorrow morning my time, OK?"

Ten minutes later I was on the back of a motorbike taxi speeding my way towards Government House, close to the Royal Plaza. During the ride there I noticed how totally normal things on the streets appeared to be. The traffic was moving around smoothly, food stalls were open with customers sitting at tables. I thought to myself, do they know what's going on? Or perhaps they know something I don't? Either way my thoughts were drowned out, quite literally, as the skies above Bangkok opened up. We sought refuge at a bus shelter until the storm passed.

The first signs I see that there has even been a coup appear when I arrive at Government House. Two M-41 tanks, plus around 30 heavily armed troops, have taken up positions on either side of the road. An ever-increasing crowd of media and curious onlookers surrounds each of the tanks. Spotlights from the world's TV news crews illuminate the scene; people taking pictures of themselves on their camera phones far outnumber them, however. I get what pictures I can in the dark and through the drizzling rain and then jump back onto my waiting motorbike taxi and head for the Royal Plaza.

A Royal Thai Infantryman loyal to army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin holds roses given to him by members of the public after the Thai military staged a peaceful coup to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Sept. 20, 2006.

Richard Humphries/Polaris
Once I arrive I pay off my now very nervous and edgy motorbike taxi. It's there that I hook up with several photojournalist friends and we decide to walk the length of the Plaza down towards the U.N. building. Every road going in and out of the area is blocked by at least two tanks and every vehicle is stopped and turned away. We were, however, in no way hindered as we worked, and in fact it all felt rather "normal." It's then that I notice that all the soldiers have tied yellow ribbons around their arms and around the barrels of their weapons. This is to show their loyalty to the King of Thailand, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has endorsed the coup -- yellow being the color of the Royal Household. We get what pictures we can along the way and then move on to the offices of the coup leaders themselves, at the Royal Thai Military headquarters. With the exception of two tanks at each end of the road and a few armed guards outside the compound, the area is quiet and we decide to call it a night and take the opportunity to go and file our pictures. It was 3 a.m. When I get back home a quick look on the TV revealed that all international news channels had been taken off the air.

After a couple of hours' sleep I got a call from another friend of mine who was also covering the story. We arrange to meet outside the Thai military headquarters about an hour later. The scene that I arrive to is so unbelievably different from the one I saw the night before. There are now huge crowds of people gathered at the main gate, and they are all holding large bunches of what appear to be roses. As I get closer and move in and amongst the crowds I see that roses have been put all over the place. Soldiers are holding bunches of them; they are in their pockets, in their helmets, even poking out from the barrels of their M-16 rifles. The tanks and armored vehicles lining the roads have roses placed in every conceivable nook and cranny and every time a vehicle enters or leaves the Thai military compound it is showered by a hail of flora, along with cheering and clapping from the crowd. I even witness small children clambering up onto tanks to pass flowers to the crew sitting on the turret. The soldiers and tank crews themselves look relaxed as they pass the time reading newspapers and eating food, much of it handed to them in large plastic bags by members of the public.

Children climb on an M-41 tank in the Thai capital. Troops loyal to army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin the previous night staged a coup d'etat in Bangkok to oust caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Sept. 20, 2006.

Richard Humphries/Polaris
By the early afternoon there are so many people walking around looking at the tanks, getting their pictures taken, it's simply amazing. Parts of Bangkok have now taken on an almost carnival atmosphere. This despite the fact that we are now under martial law and any public gatherings of more that five people are banned, as well as any public discussions of a political nature.

I spent the rest of the day hopping in and out, and on and off various types of transportation while trying to get as much coverage of the story as I can. Throughout my day I crisscross Bangkok, going from the Royal Grand Palace to Hualamphomg train station and from the shopping malls in Siam back to the Royal Plaza once again. But as my New York deadline starts to loom I make the decision to call it a day and head home to file the day's take.

As I look through my pictures I cannot help thinking to myself, "Where will this all lead?" The new government has stated that these measures are only temporary and that it will restore power back to the people in the form of general elections as soon as possible. I hope that the festive scenes that I have witnessed over that last 24 hours will lead to a peaceful and transparent transition of power.

As I finish captioning the last picture and get ready to file I realize with complete horror that my Internet connection is down. Is this the final move by the coup leaders to block all international news coverage? With 30 minutes to my deadline, I hop in a taxi and head to the Landmark Hotel on Sukhumvit Road to use the 24-hour Wi-Fi that I know they have in their lobby. I make the deadline, just. It's 4 a.m.

© Richard Humphries

Richard Humphries is a Bangkok-based photojournalist covering South-East Asia, specializing in documentary photojournalism and regional news photography. Richard has been shooting as a professional photographer for about 10 years or so and has lived in Indonesia and Malaysia before recently moving to Thailand. He has worked on various assignments throughout the region and is represented by Polaris Images. His work has appeared in publications such as Time Asia, Newsweek, and The New York Times. He speaks fluent Indonesian and Malayu. Richard is currently working on a long-term documentary project in Thailand's deep south, photographing the daily life of the Muslim population as it struggles to deal with a violent Islamic insurgency. Visit his Web site,

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