“Return happiness to Thai people” was the promise made by the general Prayuth Chan Chan-ocha one year ago when he seized power in Thailand. On 22 May 2014 the Thai military staged its second coup d’état in eight years and assumed full control of the country after several months of political turmoil and street protests.
“The Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years. But since May 22, there is happiness”, he said triumphantly.
Thai society has been increasingly polarized in the last decade by a political crisis that has pitted two groups against each other. On one side are the “red shirts”, mainly poor farmers from the rural areas in the north and northeast of the country. On the other side are the Democrat Party, the oldest party in Thailand, and the “yellow shirts”, a group mostly formed by middle class urbanites from the capital, Bangkok, and people from the southern provinces in the country, the stronghold of the Democrat Party.
While the red shirts are supporters of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a military coup in September 2006 after winning two elections in a row with his social policies, the “yellow shirts” and the Democrat Party are ultra-royalist nationalists who see Thaksin and his associates as a threat to the old order.
In the aftermath of the 2014 coup, the Army tried to create an atmosphere of celebration organizing festivals and concerts in the streets and squares in Bangkok. In those events, Thai citizens were treated with free food, drink and even haircuts, and were given the chance to pet a pony or take a selfie with soldiers singing and dancing.
Mr. Prayuth also composed a ballad called “Return Happiness to Thailand” and launched a TV program with the same title in which today he still explains to the public some of the plans his government is devising for the country.
The coup and its aftermath would look somewhat like a soft political satire if there was not hidden a quasi-totalitarian agenda behind Mr. Prayuth’s policies.
The military has consistently silenced any criticism since it assumed power, and has summoned or arrested dissidents to undergo what has been termed as “attitude adjustments”.
In a report entitled “Attitude Adjustment: 100 days under martial law”, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International denounced hundreds of arbitrary detentions of academics, activists, students or journalists, by the military regime. Most of them have been arrested for more than seven days without formal charges or access to a lawyer. Moreover, the organization has documented that some detainees suffered beatings, death threats, suffocation or even mock executions while in custody.
And, after one year of military dictatorship, the harassment against any kind of opposition has not abated.
“The junta’s orders to the media to abstain from criticizing them are still in effect and three weeks ago, Voice TV pulled off its morning news talk program which is critical of the military regime”, says a journalist who prefers to remain anonymous. “As for myself, I have to seek permission from the military junta whenever I wish to travel abroad and an Army colonel who ‘looked after’ me while I was detained without charge last year had sent me a friend request on Facebook, which I accepted”.
Most recently, the military government announced that it will hold a meeting for 200 local and international journalists to teach them how to ask “constructive questions” and “not distort facts.”
“There has been no order from any of my bosses, but it is my duty to build healthy relationships and mutual understanding with the media”, said the Army Signal Department Commander, Lieutenant-General Suchart Pongput, when he made the announcement.
The control of the media started shortly after the coup. Back then, the junta instructed journalists to stop interviewing academics critical with the military arguing that they could “cause confusion” in society. The voices of these academics remain silenced in the universities, and many of them have been summoned by the military to refrain from carrying out activities that might prove to be “divisive” and “disrespectful to the law.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the repression and persecution against dissidents that has followed the coup have forced to leave Thailand the highest number of academics, activists, journalists and politicians since the successive crackdowns on pro-democracy movements during the 1970s.
“An academic who thinks differently about the military government has to censor himself if he wants to work and live in Thailand. The main reason is [the current law], which allows detention for up to seven days without charge”, says a law scholar who also prefers to remain anonymous.
Apart from the repression of dissidence, the new regime is trying to mold the minds of the Thai children through indoctrination in the education system. In schools throughout the country, kids are now required to memorize a list of “Twelve Values” dictated by Mr. Prayuth in a new poem released by the Ministry of Education. Among these “Thai Values”, figure prominently the love for the nation, the Buddhist religion and the monarchy, and through them the junta is trying to teach Thai people from an early age a “correct understanding of democracy.”
On March 20, the martial law that was imposed two days before the coup was lifted with the aim of giving confidence to the tourism sector. However, military power has been strengthened. The junta replaced the martial law with the Article 44 of its interim constitution, which has been widely criticized by human rights groups. The Article 44 actually broadens the junta authority and confers it an unlimited and unchecked power. For instance, it allows the military to carry out detentions without any warrant or formal charges.
“There has been real resistance to the coup from day one. But this has come in the form of small protests and civil disobedience, and has not been organized and mobilized by well-established movements. Even though the actions of these individuals have been quickly suppressed by the Thai authorities and the dissidents have been sent to prosecution in military courts, we still see that many in the Thai society still refuse to accept the legitimacy of the NCPO junta”, says Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The military has arrested citizens who staged symbolic and peaceful protests seemingly as innocuous as reading George Orwell’s novel 1984, or using the three fingers salute from the Hollywood blockbuster The Hunger Games, which has been adopted as a defiant gesture of protest against the coup. “When I made this greeting I was stopped by a plainclothes police and taken to the military club. They made me sign a document ensuring that I would not do so again”, explains Nachacha, a 21 years old student.
More than one year after a coup carried out “to restore democracy” to the Thai people, that seems a prospect more distant than ever. Promised elections have been delayed indefinitely and, while Prayuth explains to the Thai people how happy they should feel, many are wondering when their democratic rights will be restored.