When Des Moines, Iowa-based photojouranlist Jack Kurtz first arrived in Thailand, he was ready to cover stories about climate change and immigration. To say that his plans have changed would be an understatement. For just under a year, Jack has been extensively covering the state of political unrest in Bangkok and around the region.
The country in Southeast Asia has been in turmoil since the election of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011. According to Jack, many in Bangkok were angered by the implementation of a couple of populist policies by Yingluck, including a controversial amnesty bill. Tensions in the country ran high, and in 2013, large protests organized by Suthep Thaugsuban (an opposition member of the parliament) against the bill quickly grew into a general anti-government protest. This opposition ultimately caused Thailand’s government to come crashing down. New elections were announced for February 2014, but continuous problems, including riots, blocked polling places and even a shootout at a Bangkok mall, caused the courts to nullify the election.
In February, following the botched election, there was a violent clash between anti-government protestors and police. Protesters threw grenades, killing one policeman.
Protests continued, and in May, courts ruled that Yingluck was guilty of corruption (she had continued to govern as a caretaker during the elections), leaving Thailand without a government. Following General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s declaration of martial law on May 20, political parties gathered at a facility to work out their differences. According to Jack, because Prayuth didn’t think the politicians were making progress, the army has now taken control of the country — detaining what could be thousands of politicians, academicians, journalists and human rights activists until they sign statements saying that they will obey the junta and avoid politics.
Throughout his time in Thailand, one thing remains consistent: Jack’s number one concern is safety. He’s had to deal with everything from tear gas at a registration venue, to being trapped on a street with police and anti-government protestors shooting at each other.
In those circumstances you need to be aware of what’s going on around you and who you’re with. I try not to work around the most hardcore anti-government protestors, who don’t like foreign journalists and have threatened to beat up or kidnap us. When it gets really violent, I try to work with other journalists so if something happens there’s someone around who knows me and can, hopefully, help me get help.
Although Jack has covered political violence in Mexico and Haiti, he says that covering Thailand at this time in history is a completely new experience for him.
I’ve never worked in an environment where there was essentially no government for months at a time. This situation was fluid, it was absolutely not a war zone, but it also was not normal. It was surreal.
As for Jack’s future in Bangkok? When things settle down, he’d like to get back to his original goal — covering stories about climate change and immigration in the region. But that all depends on the actions of the Thai people.