Thai Junta Wooing Hearts And Minds, One Month On (DPA)

Cinemas in Bangkok drew large crowds this week as free screenings of a Thai historical epic took place, courtesy of the military government. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

By Cod Satrusayang (DPA)

BANGKOK — Bangkok cinemas this week drew capacity crowds with free showings of a Thai historical epic, The Legend of King Nareusuan.

The free-movie day is just one of the public relations events hosted by the junta to "bring happiness back to the Thai people."

The military seized power one month ago, citing the need to counter growing political instability and economic stagnation.

Some are convinced.

"It is not entirely ideal but I think the military needed to do something," said Nondhiya Wangtai, a 38-year-old mother of two queuing for tickets. "The two [political groups] were at each other's throats and it might have ended violently."

But not everyone is as impressed. "I don't care [about the political situation]. I just want to see the free movie," said Athom, a 29-year-old office worker who gave only her first name for fear of repercussions.

Her concern is not unfounded. The new authorities have not been tolerant of open dissent, summoning more than 300 journalists, academics and opposition politicians for interviews, and often holding them for a week or more.

Last week between 10 and 15 were still "in army accommodation," said Colonel Werachon Sukondhapatipak, spokesman for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

"We prefer to call a cooling-off period than detention," he said. "We try to tell them to put the country before their own interests."

The army has also clamped down on public political gatherings, barred all non-approved TV, and sporadically blocked social media, causing many to hold their tongue but increasing resentment in some quarters.

Conscious of the need to court public opinion, the junta has backed up its cerebral message of reform with measures aimed more at the heart of the Thai people.

After some wrangling with broadcasters, coverage of the football World Cup has been made free to the public. The military has also laid on haircuts, concerts, and children's activities for the public

The events have nationalistic undertones: The concerts feature pro-Thai anthems, the movies portray the country's romanticised historical heroics, and the children's shows include cavalry parades.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a well-known social commentator who was detained by the military for seven days, said many disagree with the army's public relations efforts but refuse to speak for fear of arrest.

In the north-eastern city of Khon Kaen, a stronghold for supporters of the ousted government, the military has been particularly active in both clamping down on dissent and wooing hearts and minds.

Soldiers are stationed at major intersections while propaganda posters thanking the army for its intervention adorn walls and buildings.

"My friend tells me they have taken some of the [pro-government] supporters in the middle of the night," said a 47-year-old small business owner who asked to be named only as Nareudon. "No one I know has been taken yet, though."

Many are afraid to speak, even anonymously, for fear of reprisals. The radio stations that once blasted messages supportive of the ousted government have been shut down, leaving only government-sanctioned news stations.

The army is also laying on free movies in Khon Kaen, and planning a reconciliation centre where people of different political beliefs can come together and iron out their differences.

Experts say the tactic is not new.

"These are familiar old-style hearts-and-minds operations from the Cold War years," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University and director of the Institute for Securiy and International Studies.

"Whether they can succeed in 2014, when problems and expectations are fundamentally different, remains to be seen."

Many Thais seem to be adopting a wait-and-see approach.

"I don't agree with this coup. But I am willing to be patient and see what they do," said Nareudon.

"After all, what other choice do we have?"