On a quiet midweek afternoon, five days before the third anniversary of the coup, Somchai Pisankhate, a 60-year-old motorcycle taxi driver based in the usually crowded Victory Monument area, said in a tired voice: “Look around you. Don’t you think it’s rather quiet for a travel hub?”
Evidently drained as he looked for a prospective passenger, Somchai recalled when the area, once the prime transit centre for Bangkok commuters, was way more lively.
“There were street vendors everywhere around the area we are standing on now. And there were pedestrians and passengers who were attracted by the street food and cheap clothes,” said Somchai, who has been a motorcycle taxi driver for nearly a third of his life.
“But now since all the stalls have been removed from the picture, there are fewer people and fewer potential passengers, too.”
Somchai said he understood the National Council for Peace and Order’s effort to bring back, improve, and keep order in society.
“But this is like an ecosystem,” he said. “You know, you cannot just take out one species and hope the rest in the system will remain unaffected, because we are ‘affected’.”
Three years ago, the country was stuck in an impasse, causing a standstill in parliamentary politics and also the daily lives of the people.
The junta stepped in and said they would “return happiness” to the people. The step has had a dramatically different affect on people.
Some have had their high hopes realised after the military took charge, while others have suffered more over the past three years, being deprived of their rights.
While both sides compete for their piece of “happiness”, citizens such as Somchai feel they have been left out of the equation.
Before leaving to give a ride to a high-school student, Somchai hastily continued his outlook.
“This is why democracy is essential, I guess,” he said. “Politicians, no matter how corrupt people say they are, actually have to listen to us because they need our votes. Unlike this order-keeping regime which comes and goes and does not have to listen to us.”
Sakchai Pairoh, 43, who lives hand-to-mouth as a taxi driver in the centre of Bangkok, expressed a similar viewpoint.
“I think things have seemed slow and stagnant in the past few years,” he said.
As he struggled to make a turn in jammed traffic, Sakchai said that if it had not been so quiet he would have made a decent amount of money that afternoon.
“It might be true as people are saying … that the economy is very, very bad,” he said.
He said that he noticed people are more careful with money.
In the central business district, which used to be a goldmine for taxis, drivers now find it more difficult to get a hire.
Asked whether business has been affected by online services such as Uber and Grab, the veteran driver said: “I’ve adapted to the change, too. I’m also on Grab. Still, things are slow unlike the last five years or so.”
He said he had not quite received his share of “happiness”. “I don’t blame them [the government] and I totally get their good intention. But we have to admit that maybe they don’t know what they are doing, hence the ailing economy right?
“They are not professional in the governance area, so I think it’s best for everyone to return the work to those who are.”
In the area known as the fashion and lifestyle hub of the middle to upper class – around the area of Siam Square, in the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre – one citizen said she was “elated to be under the politician-free regime”.
Retired government official Samruay Petchpong enthused that the country was so much better now because there was peace in society and stability in Parliament.
“I’m happy for the country now that there are no demonstrations in the street. People can live peacefully,” she said.
“And I’m happier now compared to three years ago also because now we don’t have nepotism to cripple the system. I didn’t like that very much.”
Student Thipparat Songsang, 20, had a less than optimistic view of politics.
“I don’t know. I’m moderately happy as life is supposed to be,” she said.
“But I don’t think it has anything to do with politics. Politics is kind of distant.
“Things are all the same to me no matter how politics changes. The poor stay poor and the rich stay rich. And I still see the same old problems in the deep South, here in Bangkok and everywhere. What’s the difference?”