Happiness drive in Land of Smiles

There's a version of Thailand sold by its tourism authority, replete with images of easy smiles, abundant rice fields and simple, peaceful lives in harmonious communities.

"Happiness here does not diminish," declares the narrator of a recent video by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which asks tourists to "discover the Thainess" of attractions nationwide.

Of late, the kingdom's ruling junta has chimed in, telling educators to shore up Thai identity and values it deems eroded by nearly a decade of political conflict.

It is running a campaign to "return happiness to the people", though with a nationalistic edge which some fear will exclude anybody who does not fall in line.

On June 6, as the military entered its third week in charge after toppling the civilian government, junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha told the nation in a televised address: "We should help to reinforce the values of 'Being Thai', national pride, and upholding the institution of the monarchy.

These values should be included in the school curriculum by the Ministry of Education."

An Office of the Basic Education Commission official said the next day that it was looking into revising school textbooks to reinforce students' sense of patriotism.

"We will improve modules… so that the children will know about unity and love for their country," said its deputy secretary-general Kamol Rordklai, as quoted by local media outlet Khaosod.

Last Sunday, the junta arranged a free screening of a dramatised biopic of King Naresuan, a 16th-century ruler celebrated for his triumph over Burmese invaders.

This is the fifth instalment of a popular film series featuring army officers in both lead and supporting roles.

Nationwide, uniformed soldiers handed out free tickets to eager hordes.

In a cinema on the outskirts of the capital Bangkok, a junta banner bearing images of an elephant duel lauded "our ancestors' dedication of blood and lives against all enemy". It also vowed "to support, to protect, and to sacrifice our lives to country".

All 35,000 tickets for 160 cinemas were snapped up, perhaps a triumph of sorts for General Prayuth who, in the same June 6 address, had urged anti-coup protesters not to ape foreign films by raising three fingers.

The salute, made famous by the Hollywood film franchise Hunger Games, has been adopted as a symbol of resistance against the May 22 coup. Instead, he asked them to raise five fingers - two for the country, and one each for religion, the monarch and the people.

For those who have lived under Thailand's past military regimes, Gen Prayuth's call to shore up Thainess sounds familiar.

Field marshal Sarit Thanarat, who came to power in the late 1950s, ushered in a period of military rule that emphasised social order and elevated the role of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 86 and regarded as semi-divine by Thais.

He also promoted a "Thai-style democracy" that need not necessarily follow Western institutional forms as long as it served the interests of people.

Fast-forward half a century, and the men in green appear to be making a similar argument - that the May 22 coup is a uniquely Thai phenomenon grossly misunderstood by the Western world as an anti-democratic putsch.

Junta spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak calls the coup - the country's 12th successful one since 1932 - an attempt to "strengthen democracy".

This view is not shared by "red shirt" supporters of the ousted government, who had been battling to defend their electoral rights against the country's powerful elite.

Still, the nationalist rhetoric helps keep the opposition in check. Australian National University fellow Tyrell Haberkorn tells The Sunday Times: "When obedience to the junta is cast as loyalty to the nation, then to question the junta raises the spectre of being accused of not being Thai and therefore then removed from the protection offered by the polity."

Yet, even on the streets of Bangkok, where many who were sickened by nearly seven months of the street protests welcomed the military intervention, Thainess remains a vague concept.

"That's very hard!" said 17-year-old student Kiratika Karunratanakul with a laugh, when asked what she thought it meant. After a while, she settled on "nice", "respectful" and observing the hierarchy.

Businessman Pornnaret Klipbua, 38, meanwhile, thought kriengjai - a complex concept loosely translated as being considerate or careful not to impose yourself on someone - is just about the only thing uniquely Thai.

And 35-year-old shop-owner Kesorn Chatpreechakul declared that Thainess is about being "giving" and "united".

"Thai people never fight one another," she said. The struggle to define Thainess is normal, say academics, given how often it has been moulded to exclude any anti-establishment element.

But prominent historian and political commentator Nidhi Eoseewong noted that the "concept of hierarchy is intrinsic to the concept of Thainess".

"If you want to be a good Thai and show your Thainess, you have to respect those who have more virtue than you, who have more power than you, who have more money than you," he told The Sunday Times.

This implicit expectation may work well for those at the top of the social order, but has been increasingly challenged over the years not just by electorally assertive red shirts, but also younger generations bred on a wide variety of influences from abroad and on the Internet.

In the lead-up to fresh elections in about 15 months' time, the junta has set itself a variety of tasks ranging from cleaning up public transport to relooking the price of lottery tickets. Its attempt to reinforce Thainess - in whatever form it takes - may achieve comparatively little resonance.

tanhy@sph.com.sg

The pecking order "If you want to be a good Thai and show your Thainess, you have to respect those who have more virtue than you, who have more power than you, who have more money than you." Prominent historian and political commentator NIDHI EOSEEWONG, who notes that the "concept of hierarchy is intrinsic to the concept of Thainess".

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES