On the heels of a military coup late last month, happiness has returned to Thailand -- or at least that's what the the country's generals would like their subjects to believe.
In a surreal PR campaign launched this week, the military has been staging festivals under the headline "Happiness Returns to the Public" that feature music and performances, including appearances by young women clad in provocative camouflage dresses and studded chokers.
At a rally at Bangkok's Victory Monument, where the women you see above appeared, the military even offered free medical checkups, haircuts, food, and drink. In the run-up to the rally, Sgt. Chamnan Rungruang worked the crowd and told jokes. "It's my job to interact with the public," he told the Bangkok Post, which noted that the sergeant had "been trained to perform on stage and keep audiences entertained and relaxed."
This year's coup marks the 12th time since since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 that the Thai military has toppled the government, so it's perhaps not surprising that the military keeps sergeants-cum-comedians on staff for the days following a coup d'etat. Not long before the military chose the Victory Monument as the site of its celebratory rallies, the opposition had been using the area to protest the coup.
But the PR campaign to bring back happiness comes in response to what is arguably a more bizarre phenomenon: Protesters opposed to the coup have adopted the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games franchise as their own. The salute supposedly represents equality, liberty, and fraternity -- yes, the French national slogan coined during that country's revolution.
"At this point we are monitoring the movement," Col. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a spokesman for the junta, told the Guardian about the Hunger Games-referencing protesters. "If it is an obvious form of resistance, then we have to control it so it doesn't cause any disorder in the country."
In case you're not up on the Hunger Games, the three-fingered salute is a form of silent protest against the series' authoritarian government:
So with opponents of the coup making use of an imagined Hollywood symbol to voice their discontent and the military preaching a doctrine of national happiness amid martial law, the situation in Thailand has reached a stalemate. The military leadership has said they will require at least 15 months to implement the necessary political "reforms" before staging elections, and the opposition has made little headway against the military regime.
"Stage three is a general election under an absolute democratic system that is acceptable to all sides," General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the junta, said in a televised address. "Laws will be modernised so we can have good and honest people to run the country." Whom the general considers "good and honest people" remains unclear.
In the interim, the military appears set on pushing a saccharine form of politics -- they've even said they will roll out a happiness "index" to gauge the citizens feelings about the coup -- in the hope of maintaining stability. On Wednesday, the military lifted martial law in selected tourist spots, a bid to boost the country's beleaguered tourism industry, which has suffered immensely as a result of the political turmoil.
But there's little to worry about. After all, there are sergeants who have been "trained to perform on stage and keep audiences entertained and relaxed."
By Elias Groll, blog.foreignpolicy.com