Thai Army Tries to Put a Happy Face on Coup

Interrogations, informants, psychological operations and covert maneuvers have turned Thailand into a militarized society where eager collaborators and muzzled opponents are rewarded by the coup regime's "Happiness" campaign.

The junta is trying to obliterate dissent with its officially concocted "Return Happiness to the Public" strategy. The slogan is repeatedly hailed in banners and broadcasts under the army's guns. The regime will "boost the people's happiness," Radio Thailand promised on June 4.

Supporters of the May 22 coup say they are thrilled and delighted. Bubbling with plans about cleansing the country of corruption, they also boast how they are saving everyone from domestic "terrorist" violence. Foxy young women in camouflage mini-skirts and sleeveless camouflage blouses excitedly danced for the public on an army-installed outdoor stage on June 4. Army and police bands played. A Thai Psychological Operation team representative, Sgt. Chamnan Rungruang, watched approvingly.

The coup stripped Thais of many of their human rights. But people are being told to celebrate the bloodless putsch, which also destroyed a democratically elected government and trashed the constitution. Civilians – including foreigners – can now be shoved into military courts for trials without appeal. A widely-disseminated YouTube video showed a young woman being forced into a car and driven away by plainclothesmen after she gave the three-finger salute to military officials.

Luckier people are temporarily detained without charge by soldiers who try to squeeze peoples' hearts and minds into harmonious "reconciliation."

For some, the junta's "Return Happiness to the Public" campaign seems creepy, tacky, fake and forced. But the behavior modification campaign is the brainchild of coup leader Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. If successful, it could also banish the general's personal misery which he says has plagued him since 2005.

"Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years, but since May 22 there is happiness," Prayuth said, describing the past several days of apparently obvious cheerful jubilation resulting from his coup. The general made the remarks in a recent speech which he ordered all TV and radio stations to broadcast.

When his nine-year-long dejection began, Prayuth tried to create happiness by participating, during the following year, in a 2006 military coup which also toppled a democratically elected government. But that appears to have failed to bring joy, and the general said he languished in an internalized, politically-spawned sadness until he seized power on May 22.

Now that Prayuth and his supporters are beginning to feel happy, they are targeting the Internet's social media as a priority to ensure everyone else is equally merry.

"The information operations will be both overt and covert" to push the regime's statements, the Bangkok Post reported on June 5. The "overt" activity will be through the "Return Happiness to the Public" campaign, including free public entertainment, community services and heavily censored "news" conferences.

Facebook, Twitter and other sites popular among Thais and foreigners – who swap coup updates, criticism, satire, insults, threats and subversive advice – will be invaded by "several army agencies" that will communicate with the public, it said.

"Based on the US approach, Information Operations are carried out by operations officers, rather than civilian affairs officers," an anonymous source told the paper.

"Unable to shut down the social media, they are trying to submerge it under propaganda and snitches," an individual with the twitter name FreeMindTH tweeted June 5.

"Not only Thais, but foreigners opposing #ThaiCoup on Twitter [are] now being reported 2 junta Twitter account by vigilante," tweeted Pravit Rojanaphruk, a respected Thai journalist who had been summoned, interrogated, detained and released.

"Liar! @PravitR what vigilante? we are law abiding citizen!" responded Somchai Lao, a self-proclaimed "peasant" supporting the coup. Somchai then forwarded Pravit's tweet to the regime's @armypr_news and @1st_Army_Area twitter accounts which monitor Internet.

Some foreigners are getting twitchy about the informants. "Yes, I've been reported to armypr_news by momoko_queen," said human rights activist Alessio Fratticcioli on Wednesday (June 4) referring to his twitter nemesis.

"This officer was taking pictures of a Thai woman who spoke to me briefly just now about disliking the coup," said Samantha Hawley, Southeast Asia correspondent for Australia Broadcasting Corp., who posted a photo of a Thai policeman wearing a brown beret in a Bangkok street.

Many of the 300 or so politicians, academics, writers, activists and others who have been "summoned" for interrogation were released after agreeing not to criticize the coup.

"I was released after being interrogated by the military and police for three hours," wrote Suthachai Yimprasert on June 4 in an open letter. "Seven to nine interrogators...knew my history and background. They had read the articles that I published," he said.

"I maintain that I do not only oppose this coup...I have never seen a coup that has been able to solve anything. Instead, each time the problems have only expanded," Suthachai said.