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Chabad offers shelter during Thai coup


BANGKOK, Sept. 19 (JTA) — As more than a dozen tanks were encircling Thailand’s Parliament building in a military coup d’etat, hundreds of Israeli backpackers were seeking shelter in the local Chabad House a mile or so away.

The four-story establishment on Khao San Road, Bangkok’s famous backpacker district popular with young Israelis, generally pulls down its shutters after 10 p.m. On Tuesday, though, it stayed open well into the night.

Hearing rumors of an impending coup in the late afternoon, Rabbi Nehemya Wilhelm began warning Jews and Israelis to stay off the streets. At around 7 p.m., “a Singaporean friend called to tell me that a large convoy of tanks and armored vehicles were heading toward Bangkok,” Wilhelm said.

For weeks, Thai media have been rife with speculation that several disgruntled army generals might attempt to stage a coup against the beleaguered prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Although Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais, party won by a landslide in elections last year, persistent allegations of corruption have severely dented his populist appeal, especially in the capital.

Earlier this year, mass protests calling for his resignation rocked the capital for weeks on end. Tuesday evening, at least 14 tanks and several armored vehicles with machine guns mounted on top closed off the avenues leading to Parliament. All local television stations went off the air.

The situation remained peaceful, however, as drowsy soldiers idled around their tanks and Humvees. A few curious onlookers braved the drizzle to take photographs.

No sooner did CNN and BBC start broadcasting pictures of the unfolding military takeover in Bangkok than frantic parents in Israel began calling Chabad House on Khao San Road.

“Interestingly, they seemed to know more about the situation back in Israel than we did in Bangkok,” Wilhelm said.

By midnight the normally rowdy backpacker strip was deserted, with bars and restaurants all closed. Inside Chabad House, dozens of Israelis were searching the Internet for international news of the situation unfolding only a couple of miles away.

“It’s ironic that we should come all this way from tanks and guns in Israel only to end up in this balagan,” or craziness, said Uri, a 24-year-old traveler from Tel Aviv. He then typed an e-mail to reassure friends and relatives back home that he was safe.

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