The soldier yodeling on stage wears a guitar, a cowboy hat, and army fatigues. Behind him three female soldiers bop to the rhythm with beaming smiles.
“Thailand be happy!” the soldier bellows into the microphone, before breaking into an English language version of the country song "Honky Tonk Man." A woman steps out of a crowd of a few hundred to hand him a red rose.
Thailand's military junta is on a public relations offensive. It’s the first of several “happiness events” scheduled over the next few weeks, in which soldiers will perform concerts and pose for photos with members of the public.
For a military better known for seizing power and cracking down hard on protests, it's an attempt to project a softer image and counter criticism of its recent coup, Thailand’s 12th in 80 years. The concerts will be accompanied by nationwide reconciliation meetings, where members of Thailand’s opposing political groups will be invited to mingle and try to put aside their differences. In a country where fun, or "sanuk", is a national obsession, it's less jarring than it sounds, though still something of a stretch after several years of internecine political battles and deadly street confrontations.
“We’re trying to bring happiness back to Thailand,” says a Thai Army sergeant who helped organize the concert at Victory Monument in central Bangkok on Wednesday. “We want to show people that the big boss of the army is smiling, he wants to bring everyone together, the police, the military, and the people.”
In addition to the free music, the crowd came for free food, free haircuts, and an opportunity to pose for photos with a group of models wearing Army issue tank tops and studded dog collars.
“I came today to support the soldiers,” says Passaree Pornchai, a Bangkok housewife waving a mini Thai flag. “I am happy about the coup, because Thailand has many problems. We need to find a solution.”
It’s no accident that Wednesday’s concert took place at Victory Monument, which has been the site of a daily protests against the coup by a small but growing pro-democracy movement.
Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha made it clear that opposition to the military would not be tolerated when he seized power on May 22. A curfew was put in place, public gatherings of more than five people were banned, and hundreds of academics, activists, and political leaders were summoned for interrogation. The curfew has since been lifted in tourist destinations.
On Sunday a few dozen anti-coup demonstrators staged a rash of pop-up protests across Bangkok, during which they raised their arms in a three-finger salute, borrowed from the Hollywood film “The Hunger Games.”
In the film the salute represents rebellion against totalitarian rule and signifies thanks, admiration, and goodbye to a loved one. In real life in Thailand, protesters say the salute stands for freedom, election, and democracy.
“Raising three fingers has become a symbol in calling for fundamental political rights,” activist Sombat Boonngam-anong wrote on his Facebook page. He was one of several activists who organized Sunday’s pop up demonstrations. Mr. Sombat has called on people to raise “3 fingers, 3 times a day” – at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. — in public places where no police or military are present. Protesters have continued to use the salute since Sunday.
A spokesman for the junta told Associated Press they were aware of people doing the salute in protest, but would only arrest people if they were caught breaking rules against public gatherings or political meetings.
“We know it comes from the movie, and let’s say it represents resistance against the authorities,” Col. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak said.
“If a single individual raises three fingers in the air, we are not going to arrest him or her,” he said. “But if it is a political gathering of five people or more, then we will have to take some action.”
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a group set up to offer legal advice to anyone arrested for protesting by the junta, five women and four men have been detained for taking part in the anti-coup demonstrations in Bangkok on Sunday. One of the people detained is a 70-year-old woman who was arrested for wearing a mask that had the word "People" written across it. It's not clear at this stage if they will be tried under martial law in a military court, or if their cases will be heard in a civilian trial.