Conflict & Justice

Be happy, orders the Thai government — or else


Female Thai soldiers sing patriotic songs on a military truck as soldiers and police take positions to prevent demonstrations against military rule.


Erik De Castro/Reuters

Thailand is often called, “The Land of Smiles." And that's exactly what the new government wants to create. 

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

On May 22, the country's civilian government was ousted by the Thai military after nearly seven months of political unrest. Army General Prayuth Chan-ocha took control, imposed martial law, shutdown all foreign media outlets and blocked access to social media outlets like Facebook.

And the government wants its countrymen to be happy about it.

The military government has just launched a "Return Happiness to the Public" campaign that will feature free concerts, free food and even free haircuts. The Be Happy campaign is supposed to placate Thais who have grown weary from a decade of political turmoil and coups.

"The military junta is really stuck in the mindset of the 1950s," said Arthur Birago, a former Thai resident. "They believe Thailand is the center of the world. Their king is the king of the kings and everybody has to take them serious(ly)."

So they're trying to convince the residents of Thailand that what they've done is actually a good thing.

"They want to say, 'Thai people are different. We don't need freedom and democracy. We have a king and we make decisions under consideration what the king wants, and that's the best for Thailand. So they started a PR offensive."

Birago ran a gem business in Thailand, before leaving the country after eight years when he felt he was losing certain freedoms he had enjoyed.

"You could do what you want; you could say what you want. But after the last military coup in 2006, it changed dramatically. The level of freedom of speech decreased. Everything became more and more fanatic," he adds.

One of the symbols of protest against the newly installed government was a three finger salute that was used in the The Hunger Games books. In it, protesters held up their index, middle and ring fingers together and salute, representing their rejection of the military authoritarianism.

"It stands for the ideals of the French Revolution which are freedom, justice and brotherhood," Birago said. "The problem is that the Thai junta realized that it was a symbol of protest, they banned it. So now anyone who raises their arms in public is arrested."

Unfortunately, Thailand has other parallels to the Hunger Games, and also to George Orwell's dystopian book “1984." Prayuth is stamping out all resistance, said Birago, who has been outspoken against the government on different social media platforms.

"So [Prayuth] arrested everybody who dares to defy him. It has become a totalitarian royalist dictatorship," Birago said.