Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Published by The Diplomat

Thailand’s coup regime is handing out freebies to prove its sincerity in bringing happiness back to the country.

First, it arranged live broadcasts of all 64 World Cup matches on Thailand’s free TV. Then it lifted the night curfew in more than 20 provinces, allowing football fans and tourists to watch the games after midnight.

Earlier, the army set up numerous reconciliation centers across the country in a bid to end the conflict between warring political forces. Believing that reconciliation will only work if people are relaxed, Army General Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered recreational and entertainment activities to be held at the centers.

“Happiness” festivals were meanwhile organized at popular protest venues like the Victory Monument in Bangkok, where soldiers offered free haircuts, food, massages, and medical checkups. Army officers also entertained the crowd by putting on concerts. To promote patriotism, the junta also announced the free screening of The Legend of King Naresuan, a film about a revered leader who defended and expanded the reach of the Thai kingdom.

A proposed train fare hike in the nation’s capital was also delayed to ease the financial burden of the people.

Prior to the free airing of the World Cup games, the junta ordered TV stations to play a song written by Prayuth and called “Return Happiness to the People.” The lyrics of the song, allegedly penned in just one hour, echoed the army’s commitment to restoring order and happiness in the country. An unofficial translation of some of the verses:

“Let us be the ones who step in, before it is too late

To bring back love, how long will it take?

Please, will you wait? We will move beyond disputes

We will do what we promised. We are asking for a little more time.

“All we ask of you is to trust and have faith in us

The land will be good soon

Let us return happiness to you, the people.”

In a speech highlighting the current political situation, General Prayuth defended the coup as an antidote to “parliamentary dictatorship,” which he claims has “caused conflict and unhappiness among Thai people.”

“We need to solve many issues; from administration to budget system, corruption, and even the starting point of democracy itself – the election. What we are doing today is to try and bring everything back to normal. We intend to return happiness to everyone living in Thailand, both Thais and foreigners,” he added.

Since day one of the coup, the army has banned protests and public gatherings of five or more people. Despite this prohibition, however, many Thais continued to organize creative forms of protest actions like the “Hunger Games” three-finger salute to represent the people’s aspirations for genuine liberty, equality, and fraternity. The salute has since been outlawed.

Instead of copying from foreign films, Prayuth urged Thais to raise five fingers instead. “How about if we all raise five fingers instead – two for the country, and the other three to signify religion, monarchy and the people. Raising three fingers is copying foreign films, but we should be proud of own identity.”

Meanwhile, the junta continued to summon hundreds of Thais suspected of being critical of the army. But army officials insisted that those being ordered to report to the army are not being detained, since they are provided with amenities like “air conditioning” and “good food.” In other words, the dissenters may have been stripped of their civil liberties, but they are able to enjoy the amenities offered by the army.

This depiction of Thailand’s “happy detainees” says a lot about the country’s coup in general A military dictatorship has taken over the country and the generals want the people to be happy about it.

Religious Extremists Target Myanmar Film Festival

Published by The Diplomat

Religious extremists have succeeded in forcing the organizers of Myanmar’s Human Rights Film Festival to withdraw the screening of a documentary about a friendship between a Buddhist and a Muslim.

The second Human Rights, Human Dignity film festival presented 67 films, including 32 local films, but minus the 20-minute documentary The Open Sky, which was singled out by extremists as part of a Muslim conspiracy to dominate Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The controversial film made by young film students depicted the unlikely friendship of a Buddhist woman and a Muslim woman amid the communal violence which gripped the town of Meikhtila last year.

The riots in Meikhtila killed 40 people and the clashes soon spread to nearby towns. The government deployed troops to stop the killings but that failed to end the tension between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority.

Min Htin Ko Ko Kyi, one of the organizers of the film festival, explained that The Open Sky was withdrawn from the event to avoid further conflict and hatred among the Burmese. He added that the country’s situation is critical and the organizers did not wish to offend anybody or cause further divisions in society.

An article criticizing the film went viral on the Internet when the film festival opened on June 15. It accused global Muslim groups of funding the film to promote Islam. It also accused human rights groups of being biased against Buddhists.

The organizers then received threats via social media, warning that angry Burmese would destroy the movie theater and kill the director if the documentary was shown to the public. The anonymous commenters also warned that they would start another riot in protest to the event.

The human rights film festival was supposed to be evidence of Myanmar’s democratic transition. It was dedicated to Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the late U Win Tin, Myanmar’s longest-held political prisoner and prominent icon of the democracy movement. It was designed to promote dialogue in society by “using the power of film to create a space for encouraging human rights.”

For David Scott Mathieson of the Human Rights Watch, the controversy over The Open Sky revealed the deep racial and religious divisions in Myanmar. “The reaction of some Burmese also shows that the struggle for respect for rights in Burma has a long way to go.”

United States Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell, one of the sponsors of the event, condemned the online threats made against the festival organizers. “This narrow, fearful mindset runs contrary to everything this festival is about. Everyone who values the meaning of this event must oppose the use of threat and intimidation to suppress speech and censor artists.”

It is disturbing that while Myanmar is slowly opening the space for free speech, some irresponsible citizens and netizens are using it to foment hatred and racial abuse. It is a challenge for both the government, which must not desist in further reforming the media sector; and human rights advocates who must step up their campaign to promote democracy, peace, and especially tolerance.

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