BANGKOK — Cheer up, Thailand. That's an order.
The military junta that seized power here last month has no plans to restore civilian rule any time soon. But it has launched an official campaign to bring back something else it says this divided nation desperately needs — happiness.
The project has involved free concerts, free food, alluring female dancers in suggestive camouflage miniskirts, even the chance to pet horses trucked into downtown Bangkok with makeshift stables and bales of hay. The fair-like events are supposed to pave the way for reconciliation after a decade of political upheaval and coups.
But critics point out the feel-good project is going on alongside an entirely different junta-led campaign — an effort to stifle all opposition to the army's May 22 putsch, which deposed a government elected by a majority of Thai voters three years ago.
"The very first question you have to ask is, whose happiness are they talking about?" said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of Southeast Asian studies at Kyoto University in Japan who has refused to respond to a junta summons ordering him to return home and report to the army.
"I'm sure this is not happiness for Thais who want a civilian government, whose rights were taken away by the coup," he said. "It's surreal. And it's ridiculous to believe this will create an environment conducive to reconciliation. That can't happen when the military is harassing, hunting and detaining its enemies."
The coup, the 12th in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, ousted a civilian government accused of abuse of power and corruption that had increasingly been cornered by protesters, the courts, and finally the army.
The junta says it had to restore order after half a year of political turmoil left dozens dead and the government paralyzed. And it insists it will be a neutral arbiter. But since taking power, the army appears to be carrying on the fight of the antigovernment protesters by mapping out a similar agenda to redraft the constitution and institute political reforms before elections, and going after politicians from a grass roots movement that had vowed to take action if there was a coup.
The junta has begun prosecuting opponents and summoned hundreds of politicians — mostly those who supported the former government or were perceived as critical. The moves have forced some of the nation's most prominent activists and scholars to flee or go into hiding.
Deputy army spokesman Col. Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said the clampdown was necessary because "if you let people talk at the moment, they will talk with emotion, they will be very critical."
The aim of the project, dubbed "Return Happiness to the People" by the military, is to get people "to relax," he said. "We're trying to create an atmosphere to gain trust and build confidence. That is the plan."