Tuesday 20 February 2018

Junta aims 'to return happiness'

A man sings as female Thai soldiers dance during an event organised by soldiers called Return Happiness to the People (AP)
A man sings as female Thai soldiers dance during an event organised by soldiers called Return Happiness to the People (AP)

Cheer up, Thailand - that's an order.

The military junta that seized power in the country last month has no plans to restore civilian rule any time soon, but it has launched an official campaign to bring back something else it says the divided nation desperately needs - happiness.

The project has involved free concerts, free food, female dancers in camouflage miniskirts and even the chance to pet horses trucked into Bangkok with makeshift stables and bales of hay.

The fair-like events are supposed to pave the way for reconciliation after a decade of political upheaval and coups.

But critics point out the feel-good project is being carried out alongside an entirely different junta-led campaign - an effort to stifle all opposition to the army's May 22 coup, which deposed a government elected by a majority of Thai voters three years ago.

"The very first question you have to ask is, who's happiness are they talking about?" said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of South-east Asian studies at Kyoto University who has refused to respond to a junta summons ordering him to return home and report to the army.

"I'm sure this is not happiness for Thais who want a civilian government, whose rights were taken away by the coup," he said. "It's surreal. And it's ridiculous to believe this will create an environment conducive to reconciliation. That can't happen when the military is harassing, hunting and detaining its enemies."

Last month's coup, the twelfth in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, ousted a civilian government accused of abuse of power.

The junta said it had to restore order after half a year of political turmoil left dozens dead and the government paralysed.

But since taking power, the army appears to be carrying on the fight of the anti-government protesters by mapping out a similar agenda to redraft the constitution and institute political reforms before elections, and going after politicians from the grassroots Red Shirts movement who had vowed to take action if there was a coup.

Deputy army spokesman Col Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said the clampdown was necessary because "if you let people talk at the moment, they will talk with emotion, they will be very critical".

The aim of the project, dubbed Return Happiness to the People by the military, is to get people "to relax", he said. "We're trying to create an atmosphere to gain trust and build confidence. That is the plan."

And the junta is serious about it.

The weekly radio address of military ruler Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha is now titled Bringing Back Happiness to the Nation. It is also now prefaced with a new song called Return Happiness to Thailand.

At a junta-sponsored event on Wednesday in Bangkok - part concert, part street fair - an army truck operating as a mobile kitchen dished out thousands of free Happy Omelettes and Rice.

Doctors from a military hospital gave out free medicine and checked blood pressure. A line of soldiers with riot gear and shields and face paint stood ready for crowds to snap selfies.

The event drew mostly residents who supported the takeover, and it took place at a roundabout where just a few days earlier tense soldiers in riot gear had faced off against hundreds of anti-junta protesters.

"Some people may not be happy with the coup, but they have to accept what has happened and live in the moment," said Kanyapak Deedar, a 32-year-old airline employee who stood swaying as a Royal Thai Army rock band with drums, guitars and saxophones entertained the crowd.

"Not everyone can be satisfied," she said. "But the soldiers have restored order... and it's time to move on."

Similar events have been held in Bangkok and elsewhere, with music and free haircuts, and there are plans for more.

"We are not forcing happiness. We are asking for co-operation," an army spokesman said. "We believe this is a time for healing and we must listen to one another and understand. We realise our society has been divided for quite some time."

Thailand has been deeply split for nearly a decade. On one hand is an elite, royalist establishment based in Bangkok and the south that can no longer win elections and says the democratic process had been subverted by "the tyranny of the majority".

On the other side is a poorer majority centred in the north and north-east that has watched the governments it has voted into office ousted again and again - by coups and controversial court verdicts.

Press Association

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