BANGKOK – In the early evening of May 22, 2014, all TV screens in Thailand turned blue and up flashed an army emblem. That was the first sign of change. Suddenly, the country's army commander appeared to say he was now in charge.
Without firing a shot or spilling any blood, the military had staged its second coup in eight years — and its 12th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
A stern-faced Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said at the time he had acted to restore stability after six months of political deadlock, protests and deadly violence. He said his goal was to heal Thailand's intractable political divide and "quickly bring the situation back to normal."
Two years later, Thailand is still firmly under military control, although Prayuth has changed his title from general to prime minister.
Outwardly, the country has returned to normal. Bangkok is clogged with traffic, protesters have stayed off the streets, resorts and beaches are full of tourists. But under the surface, Thai society, politics and freedoms are in a state of flux. What do Thais think about the coup, and how has Thailand changed in the two years under military control? The AP presents the views of ordinary people and well-known figures in Thai society to answer those questions in their own voice.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a leading expert on Thai politics from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"Thailand has changed, but in a way that goes back to the past rather than into the future."
"A lot of people had some relief when the coup took place after six months of mayhem and protests. On a daily basis, Thailand became unworkable, ungovernable."
"Initially, there was relief that we had some law and order. Safety in the streets, no demonstrations. But at the expense of pent-up frustrations. And also at the expense of popular rule that people have come to expect."
"But two years is a long time in Thai politics. Now people are saying, yes, we had some law and order, to the extreme in fact, too much of it. People have been detained. There has been a lot of coercion, violations of basic civil liberties, at the expense of longer term stability."
"The way ahead is murky. Most worryingly, the coup makers do not have an exit strategy. And it looks the generals aren't taking over for the future of Thailand and the Thai people, but for the generals themselves. So I think more people are seeing that and more people are showing dissatisfaction that is going to mount."
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a Thai journalist who is one of the junta's prominent critics.
"It's pretty bleak."
"As a journalist, there's been a lot of self-censorship as well as the arbitrary detention of those who refuse to stop calling this regime illegitimate. I have been detained without charges twice. Most recently they have banned my travel to Finland to attend the World Press Freedom Day celebration, which is co-organized with UNESCO."
"These are very concrete examples and prove that there exists repression against the media here in Thailand."
"Thailand needs able journalists to continue to do their jobs properly despite the fact that they are facing the threat of arbitrary detention and charges as well as possibly the threat of being put on a military tribunal."
"The future is pretty uncertain as we speak. What is certain is that the younger generation of Thais have been made to realize that freedom and democracy cannot be taken for granted. That we are now seeing a small but a very active group of university students playing a pivotal role in protesting and resisting the militarization of Thai society."
Kornkanok Khamta, 22, a political science student at Bangkok's Thammasat University who has become an anti-coup activist.
"In the first year after the coup, I was really just an ordinary student. But after that year, I started becoming more involved in student and youth movements with my friends. I realized that I've been abused by the government. When I speak out or try to express normal things in public, I've been stifled by the government. And this is not right.
"But it's not just being stifled or blocked, they have 'attitude adjustment' camps. They have physically invaded human rights. After I came out to speak against (government) corruption, I was put in military court, jailed and detained."
"Some groups have become less vocal. Some closed down their Facebook pages after the army apprehended the administrators of an (anti-government) Facebook page. But the only reason we're still fighting is because the more we get threatened or punished, the more we feel we need to act. If no one does or says anything, they will win."
Bill Heinecke, U.S.-born billionaire whose company Minor International owns 147 hotels, including the St. Regis, Marriott and Four Seasons in Thailand. Among his 1,800 fast food and retail businesses are the Thai franchises for Burger King, Swensen's, the Gap, Esprit and Brooks Brothers. Heinecke is now a Thai citizen.
"There certainly has been change. Bangkok if we remember correctly was almost at a standstill. No one could vote, an election couldn't take place, traffic was blocked, protests were ongoing. So we've seen a return to stability. And that's always good for business."
"When you see instability on the streets, and in the mass media worldwide, it effects our business in every possible way. There's a lack of confidence, there's a lack of tourists, the economy was being strangled."
"I think we've seen a return to normalized business. I think there has been significant improvement. To me, I know of no one that's concerned about the protection of their rights — in terms of living peacefully, going about their business. Yes, if you say, 'Do I have the right to rally in the streets?' you may not, but to me that's less critical than it is to make sure we can all continue with business and to make sure we can provide education for our kids."
"Is it perfect? I'm sure it's not. Is it better than it was? I think it is."
Punthit Unhasut, 45, software developer in Bangkok.
"In my opinion, the country has changed for the better. Before, during the political turmoil, the country was at a standstill because the two political sides didn't like each other. Because of that country was not able to move forward in business or politics.
"Since the coup, even though the two political sides still don't agree with each other, it's like there's a mediator who forces things along."
"But in the long term having a junta might not be good because so many international countries have failed under military rule. Coups are not a good thing, in general. But at this point right now, it's a good thing because the country was not moving forward for so long. It's what we needed at the time.
Payao Akkhahad, the mother of 25-year-old volunteer medic Kamolkate Akkhahad who was shot dead while treating political protesters sheltering at a Bangkok temple in 2010 after the army swept in.
"The coup was not the right thing to do, considering we're supposed to be a democracy."
"You can't trust this government. They keep promising things like reforms, changes, and this and that. They promised us elections and that hasn't happened yet. Things have just gotten worse and worse, and if we go out and try to voice our opinions, we get silenced and put in jail. They say that we have to follow the law and the rules that they made but they haven't even followed it themselves. Instead, they abuse their power."
"It feels like our breath doesn't belong to us anymore, it belongs to the army. If we breathe too loud, we get in trouble. I'm one of the few people who are publicly against the government."
Kasit Piromya, former Thai foreign minister from 2008-2011 under ex-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
"The military establishment is doing things that should not be done. And not doing things that should be done. They have not been answering to the cries of the people on the street. They say they should be in power because they are the stabilizing factor — their presence in the political process provides stability to the country. So Thailand now has less democratic practices, less freedom of expression and human rights."
"The political divide hasn't disappeared. It's just been silenced. But the military is still in power. They love power. They are going to be embedded for a long, long time. There will be an election, we don't know when. Then we will be a mini-Myanmar, a mini-China with one party — the military party or military backed sets of smaller parties. after the election,
"I think they're bringing Thailand into further brinkmanship."