Since last week, “happiness” festivals have been organized across the country providing free haircuts, free food, free massages, and free health check-ups. Soldiers entertained big crowds in traditional protest venues.
The junta was been taking these steps to improve public support for the coup. The free telecast of World Cup games was cheered by many Thais, a number of whom were unable to watch the games in 2012 due to TV licensing issues.
When the army launched a coup on May 22, 2014, it quickly seized control of TV stations and allowed only the airing of army announcements and patriotic songs from the Cold War era. It has since then eased restrictions on some TV programs but mainstream media remain strictly regulated.
The junta also announced the free screening of “The Legend of King Naresuan”, a film about a revered leader who defended and expanded the reach of the Thai kingdom. The proposed train fare hike was also delayed to make the people happy.
Earlier, Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha delivered a speech defending the coup and vowing to “return happiness to the people”:
We understand that we are living in a democratic world, but is Thailand ready in terms of people, form and method? We need to solve many issues; from administration to budget system, corruption, and even the starting point of democracy itself – the election. Parliamentary dictatorship has to be removed. All these have caused conflict and unhappiness among Thai people.
What we are doing today is to try and bring everything back to normal. We intend to return happiness to everyone living in Thailand, both Thais and foreigners.
In order to achieve reconciliation, some activities will have to be carried out including recreational and entertainment activities so the people are relaxed and ready to talk. We want to stop all conflicts.
The government has set-up numerous reconciliation centers in a bid to end the conflict between warring political forces.
Prior to the free airing of the World Cup games, the junta ordered TV stations to play the song “Return happiness to the people” written by the army general. The lyrics of the song, allegedly penned in just one hour, reflected the message of the army to the people. Below is an unofficial translation of some parts of the song:
Let us be the ones who step in, before it is too late
To bring back love, how long will it take?
Please, will you wait? We will move beyond disputes
We will do what we promised. We are asking for a little more time.
All we ask of you is to trust and have faith in us
The land will be good soon
Let us return happiness to you, the people
General Prayuth also asked anti-coup protesters to raise five fingers instead of the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute:
There have been gestures of holding 3 fingers in protest – that is fine. I have no conflict with you. But perhaps it would more appropriate if you can do this within your homes rather than in public. But how about if we all raise 5 fingers instead – 2 for the country, and the other 3 to signify religion, monarchy and the people. Raising 3 fingers is copying foreign films, but we should be proud of own identity.
Since day one of the coup, the army has banned protests and the public gathering of five or more people. Despite this prohibition, however, many Thais continued to organize creative forms of protest actions.
A variation of the three-fingered protest salute:
This woman protester, trying out a new three-fingered salute, shouted “I love Thailand.” pic.twitter.com/45ZmqehkdM
— Andrew RC Marshall (@Journotopia) June 8, 2014
But General Prayuth has his own version the three-finger sign:
— ThaiPBS English News (@ThaipbsEngNews) June 13, 2014
To contain the protests, the junta deployed soldiers in crowded places, including trains:
— georgehenton (@georgehenton) June 8, 2014
After the “Hunger Games” salute was outlawed, protesters tried a different form of action:
Meanwhile, the junta continued to summon hundreds of Thais suspected of being critical of the army. But Col. Werachon insisted that those ordered to report to the army are not being detained since they were provided with amenities like “air conditioning” and “good food”. He also explained why the army is confiscating the communication gadgets of the “detainees”:
We talk to them, we try to convince them to put the country’s interests before their own. We don’t want them to have information from the outside. We just want them to be on their own.
But Prachatai interviewed some of those detained by the army and shared their harrowing experience:
Activists who had been summoned told Prachatai anonymously that they were interrogated in front of at least ten officers whose identities were not revealed. The officers asked them opinions about the monarchy, the coup and explained the necessity for the military to carry it out.
One activist was forced to log into his Facebook account and let the authorities browse through his activities and examine which groups of people he was connected to. Another, an independent online broadcaster who was thought to film that play, was also forced to give his Facebook account to the military. The officers checked his Fanpage where he put up hundreds of clips on political events and seminars.
Social media regulation
The government has repeatedly warned netizens not to criticize the army and the coup regime. But so far, the army has been unable to stop Thais from sharing critical information and even protest announcements. Recently, a senior police officer threatened dissident netizens that they will be tracked down, arrested, and charged for violating the law.
Also, it has been confirmed by a Norway-based company that it blocked Facebook in Thailand for one hour on May 28 after it was requested by Thai authorities. It contradicted the claim of the government that the blocking of Facebook was caused by a technical glitch. The Telenor Group based in Norway issued this statement published by The Next Web:
This restriction, which was implemented at 15:35, potentially had impact on dtac’s 10 million Facebook-using customers. Telenor Group believes in open communication and regrets the consequences this might have had for the people of Thailand.
Perhaps to assure the international community, the army announced June 13 that it will set up an interim government in August or September. It also lifted the curfew in more than 20 provinces. Regardless of what many people feel about the coup, it achieved the effect of restoring a sense of normalcy in many parts of the country, especially for tourists:
It's a fact that since the coup in #Thailand, it's safer for tourists than it was before. No more daily shootings, bombings or mass protests
— Richard Barrow (@RichardBarrow) June 13, 2014