Originally published at Siam Voices on June 10, 2014 [Author's note: Due to the military coup of May 22, 2014 and subsequent censorship measures we have placed certain restrictions on what we publish. Please also read Bangkok Pundit's post on that subject. We hope to return to full and free reporting and commentary in the near future.]
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.
These words accompanied by the soft melody of synthesized strings could be mistaken for the lines of any other contemporary Thai pop ballad. However, going back a few seconds shows that this song tackles an entirely different theme with a certain schmalz:
Today the nation is facing menacing danger The flames are rising Let us be the ones who step in, before it is too late
The lyrics belong to the song ”Returning Happiness to Thailand” (in Thai: ”คืนความสุขให้ประเทศไทย”) and is claimed to be written by army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha himself in just ”one hour”, but it’s still ”a message from his heart,” according to local media reports.
The song is just one part the military's campaign to win back the hearts and minds of the Thai people after it launched a coup d’ètat on May 22, seizing absolute power, largely censoring media, detaining hundreds of people - many of them members of the toppled government, their supporters and outspoken academics and journalists - and generally cracking down on any criticism of the coup.
National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta calls itself, launched its reconciliation efforts last week in Bangkok with a street fair:
At a junta-sponsored event on Wednesday in Bangkok — part concert, part street fair — an army truck operating as a mobile kitchen dished out thousands of free "Happy Omelets and Rice." Doctors from a military hospital gave out free medicine and checked blood pressure. A line of soldiers with shields and face paint stood ready for crowds to snap selfies.
The event drew mostly residents who supported the takeover, and it took place at a roundabout where just a few days earlier soldiers in riot gear had faced off against hundreds of anti-junta protesters. (…)
”Cheer up, Thailand! Junta aims to return happiness”, Associated Press, June 7, 2014
If the first two weeks since the power seizure were about ‘shock and awe’ (especially in the provinces whose population supported and elected the toppled government), the efforts since then are focusing on what the junta sees as the most pressing issues, but doing so with a benevolent appearance.
Apart from the street fairs, the junta is also paying back rice farmers what they are owed from the Yingluck Shinawatra government's ill-fated rice pledging scheme, and other populist measures like fixing fuel prices and protection from loan sharks. Furthermore, it is currently reviewing the big-investment projects of the previous, looking what it can salvage as its own policy.
Another main point of the junta’s efforts are the so-called ”reconciliation centers” that are being set up across the country. The general concept of these ”reconciliation centers” are to create a space where people and groups with opposite political viewpoints (think red shirts vs yellow shirts) are brought together to the table with the military acting as the self-appointed mediator.
The organization tasked to oversee these centers is the Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC), a body that has been around for a few decades, as David Streckfuss explains:
The military's Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), set up 50 years ago to ostensibly root out communists, has now been charged with helping parties separated by the political divide to "dissolve their differences” at “reform centers."
”Thailand's Military Is Forcing People to Stop Worrying and Love the Coup”, by David Streckfuss, VICE NEWS, June 3, 2014
It’s not only ISOC’s involvement that makes critics skeptical of these centers, but also its links with history:
"I think the army tried to apply the techniques and concepts from the Cold War era during which they fought with the Communist Party of Thailand,” said Kan Yuenyong of the Siam Intelligence Unit.
“They apply concepts like the Karunyathep Centre which is like a re-education centre, and then after the program they can get back to the society as normal people."
Karunyathep centre was set up in the 1970s, as part of the military's soft approach towards Communist party members. Captured communists would be sent to the re-education camps to be taught about democratic values before being released.
However, the military maintains that the reconciliation centers will operate in today's context and that this time, participation will be voluntary. "The concept might be quite similar but the implementation is different, we understand the context of the current situation,” said Colonel Weerachon.
”Speculation, unease over Thai reconciliation centres”, by Arglit Boonyai, Channel NewsAsia, June 5, 2014
Whether or not these centers will bring reconciliation remains to be seen. A recent 'peace ceremony' in Nakhon Ratchasima is nevertheless being hailed as an "unprecedented" success.
With the military junta slowly taking shape and setting its goals, much depends on how heavy-handed its actions will be against those that do not support the coup. Especially in the age of social media, the traditional methods of the junta to sooth the dissent are becoming less effective and prolonged restrictions on free expression and political gatherings could further de-legitimize the military rule.
To put it in the words of aforementioned song by the junta: "What danger is the nation really facing?"