Thai soap hunks enlisted to boost military pride

BANGKOK - Sporting flak jackets, machine guns and smouldering stares, four Thai heart-throbs have been enlisted to woo fans - and some say spruce up the ruling junta's image - in a new soap opera dividing the army-run kingdom.

The series, titled Love Missions, follows four leading men - one from each branch of the armed forces, plus the police - as they take down drug traffickers, foreign terrorists and, of course, traverse the battlefield of love.

The junta, which seized power in 2014, is not directly funding the series but has been lending props and extras for the production.

"We are allowing them to use military camps as a filming location and making suggestions on the right costumes and make-up," Ministry of Defence spokesman General Kongcheep Tantravanich told Agence France-Presse. "We are also letting them use our soldiers, military vehicles and helicopters."

The prime-time show, which premiered on July 1, proved an instant hit with legions of viewers swooning over the love story between a nurse and soldier battling foreign drug gangs on the border.

The name of the first instalment, Pull The Trigger On My Heart, quickly became a trending hashtag on Twitter.

But others have slammed the series for romanticising life in the barracks, calling it propaganda for an institution that frequently topples democratically-elected governments and has a long history of shooting protesters.

One online commentator said the show ought to reflect the reality of life under military rule: "The drama should be based on real life: coups, violation of people's rights... ruining the country's economy."

The junta's 2014 coup marked the 12th successful military takeover since Thailand embraced parliamentary democracy 85 years ago.

The generals have promised a return to democracy but keep delaying elections.

They have also written a new Charter that curbs the power of elected politicians and enshrines the military's oversight of any future government for the next 20 years.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has refused to rule out running for office, fuelling speculation that he is preparing to contest the poll.

Mr Prayut - a mercurial leader who has shown glimpses of a softer side by penning patriotic songs and poems - said he had yet to watch the new series.

"But I know I won't be the hero, because if I was, nobody would watch," he told reporters, perhaps a cheeky reference to the low viewership of his weekly talk show called Returning Happiness To The People.

Last year, Mr Prayut said he wished Thailand's soap operas were more patriotic after watching the South Korean drama Descendants Of The Sun, which he urged Thais to watch.

The junta chief frequently comments on culture he disapproves of.

Last month, he used three separate meetings with the press to berate a teenage pop singer for her suggestive dance moves and racy clothing.