Thai junta prescribes ‘national happiness’
With free meals, music concerts and dancing soldiers, Thailand’s junta is waging a propaganda offensive to encourage “national happiness” following a military coup that has severely restricted civil liberties.
Since seizing power on May 22 from an elected government, the army has banned public protests, censored the media and summoned hundreds of politicians, activists and academics for questioning.
The army, which has ruled out elections for at least a year, says its intervention was needed to end months of bloody political unrest.
And now the coup-makers are trying to portray the softer side of military rule, with propaganda programmes on the television and festivities in the streets.
“Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years, but since May 22 there is happiness,” army commander-in-chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha said in a recent televised address to the nation.
While the coup has its supporters, particularly among the Bangkok-based elite who loathed the previous government, the happiness campaign masks what activists say is a severe deterioration in human rights.
“I think it is mere propaganda,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
“It is blunt and too obvious.”
But for the hundreds of Thais who attended an army-hosted festival this week in Bangkok, the spin doctors’ medicine appears to be working.
“People coming here today are happy and today society started to smile,” said Chutamat Kritcharoen, 45, while a group of young soldiers showed off their muscles on stage to a delirious crowd.
“Happiness is coming back to the people.”
‘Land of crisis’
Arunee Omsin, 59, said she was most happy about being able to venture out onto the streets without fear of a repeat of the gunfire and grenade attacks that shook Bangkok for months before the coup.
“We want the Thai style of atmosphere back. In the past people called us the Land of Smiles, but now we have become the Land of Crisis,” she said while queuing up for a free meal of rice and omelette.
Nearby, children stroked a horse from a military cavalry regiment, while several Thais enjoyed free medical check-ups and a young woman posed for a photo with a soldier in camouflage.
“This event is seen as a fresh start for Thai society so people can face each other and talk, using music as a medium, or with other activities,” said Colonel Sombat Thanyawan, a cavalry regiment commander.
With a carnival atmosphere and free food, the festivities are reminiscent of the anti-government protests that precipitated the coup.
The organised activities are accompanied by tight control of national media, who are obliged to regularly interrupt their normal broadcasting to transmit the junta’s messages.
Behind the happy images, anyone caught protesting against the coup in public risks trial in a military court and possible imprisonment.
While Bangkok residents may welcome the festivities, “rural people may not buy it hook, line and sinker,” Chambers said.
Related story: There's a new Thai TV star - coup leader General Prayuth