Thailand's military launches Operation Cheer Up amid round-up of activists
Military pushes feel-good campaign while it rounds up political activists
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 a campaign to bring back something it says the 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 takeover, 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 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 twelfth since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, ousted a government accused of abuse of power and corruption.
The junta says it had to restore order after half a year of political turmoil left dozens dead and the government paralysed. And it insists it will be a neutral arbiter. But since taking power, the army appears to be carrying on the fight of anti-government protesters by mapping out a similar agenda to redraft the constitution and institute political reforms before elections. It is also going after politicians from the grass-roots "red shirt" movement who 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 backed the government or were seen as critical.
Deputy army spokesman Colonel 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, was 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 General Prayuth Chan-ocha is now called Bringing Back Happiness to the Nation. It is prefaced with a song Prayuth commissioned called Return Happiness to Thailand.
At a junta-sponsored event on Wednesday in Bangkok, an army truck operating as a mobile kitchen dished out thousands of free "Happy Omelettes and Rice".
"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, 32. "Not everyone can be satisfied. But the soldiers have restored order ... and it's time to move on."