BANGKOK – Cheer up, Thailand. That’s an order.
The military junta that seized power 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 this divided nation desperately needs — happiness.
The project has involved free concerts, free food, alluring female dancers in suggestive camouflage miniskirts, even the chance to pet horses trucked into downtown 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 putsch, which deposed a government elected by a majority of Thai voters three years ago.
“The very first question you have to ask is, whose happiness are they talking about?” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of Southeast 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 12th in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, ousted a civilian government accused of abuse of power and corruption that had increasingly been cornered by protesters, the courts, and finally the army.
The junta says it had to restore order after half a year of political turmoil left dozens dead and the government paralyzed. And it insists it will be a neutral arbiter.
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 Shirt movement that had vowed to take action if there was a coup.
Although the junta has censored partisan media on both sides, it has begun prosecuting opponents and summoned hundreds of politicians, mostly those who supported the former government or were perceived as critical. The moves have forced some of the nation’s most prominent activists and scholars to flee or go into hiding.
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 Prayuth commissioned 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 Omelets and Rice.” Doctors from a military hospital gave out free medicine and checked blood pressure. A line of soldiers with 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 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 on a blue plastic chair 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. Weerachon said the events would preface the establishment, in every province, of official “reconciliation centers” in coming weeks, for people to come together voluntarily in a calm environment to discuss the nation’s problems. Precise plans are still being drawn up.
“We are not forcing happiness. We are asking for cooperation,” Weerachon said. “We believe this is a time for healing and we must listen to one another and understand. We realize our society has been divided for quite some time.”
A satirical cartoon this week in The Nation, a local English-language newspaper, portrayed the junta campaign this way: A lone anti-coup protester stands in front of a line of smiling tanks reminiscent of the iconic “Tank Man” photo from Tiananmen Square in 1989.
As two undercover policemen drag an anti-coup demonstrator into a taxi — a reference to a recent, real-life incident in Bangkok — a smiling tank commander shouts through a megaphone: “Unhappiness will not be tolerated!”
Thailand has been deeply split for nearly a decade. On one side 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 centered in the north and northeast that has watched the governments it has voted into office ousted again and again, by coups and controversial court verdicts.
Prayuth, the military ruler, said the divide forced him to take power last month.
“We were unhappy, so I had to ask myself, ‘Can we let this continue?’ We tried everything to resolve the problems through peaceful means. Nothing was successful,” he said. “What we are doing today is to try and bring everything back to normal. We intend to return happiness to everyone.”