BANGKOK (Reuters) - A soldier smiles awkwardly as a woman hands him a flower and kisses his cheek. Farmers hold signs praising Thailand’s military and a song plays out on radio stations urging love, peace and unity.
This is a slice of the daily staple of propaganda from a junta determined to win hearts and minds and reassure Thais their country is in safe hands, on the road to recovery a week after a coup it said it staged to prevent a descent into chaos.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta is formally known, has been mixing soft power with rigorous security and censorship, asserting its influence over the airwaves while gagging independent media and warning the press against negative coverage of the armed forces.
Terrestrial television has been dominated by light-hearted images of a supportive public donating snacks to troops and posing with them for “selfie” photos. Recruitment advertisements for a mighty army have been ramped up, sandwiched between commercials for car batteries and fertiliser.
Soap operas are filling a void left by now-banned debates on current affairs and the NCPO has its striped logo displayed in the corner of the screen.
The various channels air synchronised broadcasts that explain the putsch, showing prominent supporters of the ousted government smiling and seemingly well treated in detention.
“The military is using television to maintain and show its control but I can’t see it staying like this for too long. It’s too rigid and will have to change,” said a professor at a Bangkok university, who asked to remain nameless as the junta had summoned some academics after they spoke to journalists.
“Media professionals aren’t used to this and won’t allow it to continue indefinitely. I know they’re not happy at all.”
Coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised broad and vague social, economic and political reforms but no timeframe for a return to democracy.
The military council has quickly set to work to revive an economy that wilted during nearly seven months of political turmoil.
The first thing it did was to start making long-overdue payments for rice sold to the state in a subsidy scheme that went badly wrong, hoping perhaps to win over hundreds of thousands of farmers, the support base of the ousted government.
Thai PBS channel aired a 30-minute talk show on Tuesday about the former government’s ruinous policy and how the junta had made it a priority to secure funds to pay farmers. It repeated the programme the following day.
That message of military benevolence has been reinforced with looped footage on morning news of farmers emerging from banks counting fistfuls of notes and others sporting “We love the army” stickers, holding placards thanking the new government for paying up.
The propaganda machine is in full swing to discredit anti-coup demonstrators, with bulletins interrupting programming to ask the public to resist what they say are inducements of 400 baht ($12) offered via Facebook (FB.O) to attend protests.
“You can’t get home because of these bad people,” a policeman on a loudspeaker bellowed at hundreds of commuters watching a rally on Tuesday at a Bangkok traffic hub where protests against the coup have taken place daily.
The police announcements accused demonstrators of being unpatriotic and chided foreign journalists covering the rallies who “don’t understand Thailand”.
The Public Health Ministry has weighed in, too, warning Thais of the perils of paying too much attention to news, which could adversely affect their mental health.
“People at risk of such stress are advised to follow only the news from state-run news,” the ministry said, quoting its permanent secretary, Narong Sahamethaphat.
“If one feels stressed, has difficulty sleeping, has a headache or becomes easily irritated, he/she should consult the stress clinic at public health establishments or call the Mental Health Department’s hotline.”
Additional reporting by Paul Mooney and Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alan Raybould