Having seized absolute power in a May 22 coup d’état, Thai Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has turned to promoting harmony through harmonies — penning a ballad to foster reconciliation in the embittered Southeast Asian nation.
The 60-year-old career soldier, a notorious curmudgeon, has displayed his softer side by writing the lyrics to “Return Happiness to Thailand,” which features lines such as “we offer to guard and protect you with our hearts” and “we are asking for a little more time,” set to music by the Royal Thai Army band.
Whether or not Thais are convinced by this ploy is unclear — they risk arbitrary detention for the merest murmur of criticism, artistic or otherwise — but they are certainly listening. The YouTube clip has clocked up more than 150,000 views since it was posted on Friday.
“[Prayuth] called me to see him for an hour. He wrote it with his own handwriting,” Colonel Krisada Sarika, head of the Royal Thai Army band, told reporters on Friday. “He wants a song which expresses his feeling for the people … he wants a song which Thai people listen to and then begin to love each other again.”
Since last month’s putsch — Thailand’s 12th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 — both government supporters and opponents have been rounded up, journalists threatened, academics bullied and peaceful protesters dragged off the street just for flashing a three-fingered protest salute inspired by The Hunger Games. On Sunday, civil servants were urged to betray colleagues voicing dissent, and on Monday Thais were even warned against liking Facebook posts that criticized the military intervention.
But at the same time, the repression has been leavened with a tawdry PR campaign. Last Wednesday, a free concert at Bangkok’s Victory Monument featured music, free medical checkups and pretty young women in skimpy camouflage gear.
Of course, not everyone is impressed by the military’s attempts to distract from the suspension of human rights. “Thailand in 2014 is George Orwell’s 1984,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, tells TIME. “It is ridiculous to believe [the song] is going to convince anyone.”
Pavin was one of scores of prominent academics summoned by the junta, although he lives abroad and has repeatedly refused to acquiesce, despite the threat of two years’ imprisonment.
“I don’t think this offers happiness for the many Thai people who want to see elections more than anything else,” he adds. “It may look good in paper, but in reality they continue to hunt, arrest, harass and detain critics of the coup.”