The Thai Army’s new campaign, which is staging free festivals across Bangkok to “bring back happiness” to the Thai public following last month’s military coup, includes selfie opportunities, free food, hot meals, dance performances and the chance to pet ponies.
A bizarre combination of an army-controlled street party and a music festival, the “parties” have been taking place in parks and squares, where the public is showered with free food and drink and can watch the army sing and dance.
The campaign is by order of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took control of Thailand two weeks ago in a military coup that has been condemned nationally and internationally. About 300 people have been detained since the army seized power on 22 May, among them academics, journalists, activists, politicians and human rights defenders. Those protesting against the coup have held flash mobs in shopping malls, holding up banners likening junta-ruled Thailand to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and flashing three-fingered “Hunger Games” salutes.
The junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, has been circulating the theme of “happiness” extensively since overthrowing the elected government. It has plans for a new “happiness index” to determine how people feel after the coup, while Prayuth is delivering a weekly TV and radio programme called Returning Happiness to the People.
At the very site where demonstrators were until a few days ago, the army yesterday set up trucks, loudspeakers, a stage and even a petting zoo – complete with bales of hay, horses, a cowboy mannequin and a ceramic teepee.
Nearby there was a ‘selfie’ stand in front of a giant banner reading HAPPINESS, allowing the public to take pictures of themselves with soldiers in riot gear. “Oh, he’s so handsome, take my picture!” shouted one young woman.
The coup has prompted a selfie-craze of sorts, with the trending Twitter hashtag “Show me a hot soldier” morphing into photos of Thai people in fancy dress, then even of newlyweds posing with soldiers or next to army trucks.
At the main stage, a mix of propaganda and performance was taking place. The crowd went wild as young male soldiers drummed helmets and metal food plates in a Thai military version of Stomp, throwing red roses and money at the stage, followed by a dance show with women in PVC miniskirts and glittering belts.
“Does this make me happy? Yes,” said Farida Lee, 40, who was taking pictures of the dancers. “It makes the nation happy, sure. Without the army we would have had more fighting, more problems, more people killed. This is a good thing. Prayuth is good.”
As for the free haircuts, oddly they were nowhere to be found. “No haircuts today,” said a soldier watching the show, who did a polite little bow and said: “I’m truly sorry.”