“Happy” in Thailand? How the Coup Regime is Still Suppressing Democracy

NCPO-sponsored performance and party in Thailand. Photo by Prachatai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

NCPO-sponsored performance and party in Thailand. Photo by Prachatai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Three weeks after seizing power, the Royal Thai Army led by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has been assuring the Thai people and the international community that everything is returning to normal. Curfew hours have been shortened and even lifted in many tourist areas and provinces. Reconciliation centers established by the army have been providing various free services to the community. But despite these recent developments, suppression of pro-democracy movements continues. From mass media to academia, many disturbing signs of continuing repression in the country remain.

Widespread repression of journalists, critics

The coup regime has summoned and detained hundreds of critical journalists, academics and former politicians over the last three weeks. Martial law allows officers to detain people for no more than seven days — most detainees are eventually released but only after signing a contract pledging not to participate in any political movement or demonstration. If they violate the contract, authorities will file charges against them and their bank accounts will be suspended. Those who refuse or fail to report to the National Council for Peace and Order (the official name of the coup regime) are then pursued as criminals. 

Hunger Games salute outlawed

More people were arrested for expressing sentiments considered as a disapproval of the coup like carrying a blank paper. Raising a three-finger salute imitating the ‘District 12 sign’ from the film Hunger Games has been outlawed. 

Though the graphic emblem of the coup has been removed from TV screens, censorship is still enforced directly and indirectly. But the emblem is just a symbol — self-censorship remains. News reports are like a feel-good-drama where everyone is happy under the wings of the junta: the standard narrative lends legitimacy to the army’s takeover and those who disagree with authorties are quickly tagged as enemies of the state. 

Facebook under fire

When Facebook became inaccessible for one hour on May 28, 2014, many suspected that it was blocked by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). MICT and NCPO denied that they restricted access to Facebook which they blamed on technical error. But recently, Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported that Telenor, which runs one of the mobile phone networks in Thailand through its subsidiary DTAC, acknowledged that there was an order from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to block the social networking site.

Police Major General Amnuay Nimmano of Metropolitan Police Bureau warned netizens that ‘liking’ the Facebook pages of anti-coup groups is already a criminal offense and argued that ‘liking’ subversive web pages is equivalent to spreading illegal data through a computer system.   

All of this suggests that authorities really were attempting to block social media. But nobody knows why the restriction lasted for only an hour. Was it simply a technical glitch? Was it a dress rehearsal before the real show? Or could authorities not withstand the anger of netizens over the hour?

Academic freedom stifled

The Ministry of Education has forbidden teachers from criticizing the NCPO. The Ministry is also drafting a new curriculum that would promote nationalism, discipline, and civic duties. Many people described this thought control project as a way to discourage Thai children from questioning the country’s authorities. 

Party for peace?

The NCPO has been organizing various spectacles across the country to promote the theme, “Returning Happiness to Thais.” These events include the offering of free food and drinks, musical performances of soldiers in uniform, and the taking of selfie pictures with soldiers holding a huge ‘happiness’ banner. 

This is the reality of Thailand today: Under the coup regime, Thais are obliged to be ‘happy’.

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