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Thai Army Turns Flooding Into a PR Opportunity

PATUM THANI, THAILAND - OCTOBER 14: Thai soldiers help residents onto a military truck as floods continue to hit Pathum Thani province on October 14, 2011 in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok,Thailand. Crews of public workers, soldiers and volunteers are evacuating residents from flooded areas north of Bangkok as efforts continue to protect the capital from increased rainfall and rising tides during the worst floods to hit the country for decades.
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PATUM THANI, THAILAND - OCTOBER 14: Thai soldiers help residents onto a military truck as floods continue to hit Pathum Thani province on October 14, 2011 in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok,Thailand. Crews of public workers, soldiers and volunteers are evacuating residents from flooded areas north of Bangkok as efforts continue to protect the capital from increased rainfall and rising tides during the worst floods to hit the country for decades.

Troops and army trucks are rolling through the streets of Bangkok again. But this time it is not to battle protesters or overthrow a prime minister.

Instead, they are ferrying residents around the city on heavy-duty military vehicles that can get through its flooded streets, with banners on each one reading “Royal Thai Army helping the people.”

In a country deeply divided over the military’s role in civilian life, Thailand’s top generals have used the floods, the worst the country has had in decades, as an opportunity to showcase the army’s friendlier side.

Thousands of soldiers have been sent to the capital to help civilians. At the same time, the military has broadcast a series of slick television advertisements showing its soldiers as more than just battle-hardened fighters, including one in which children learn about soldiers who build roads and tend to the sick. “We are the people’s army,” says a voice at the end of the ads.

The head of the Thai Army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha — who led the troops that broke up antigovernment demonstrators in Bangkok last year in a violent episode that left at least 90 people dead — has repeatedly said that he wants the military to be seen as a benevolent, apolitical force in Thai society.

“I want people to love soldiers,” General Prayuth was quoted as saying in the Thai news media last month.

In October, General Prayuth reshuffled his public relations team, promoting a telegenic soldier, Lt. Col. Wanchana Sawasdee, to deputy spokesman. Mild-mannered and dashing, Colonel Wanchana is also the lead actor in a series of films, financed partly by the government, that tell the stories of ancient Thai triumphs over Burmese enemies.

In an interview, Colonel Wanchana said he sometimes sensed hostility when he went on missions to help flood victims and offer food and supplies.

“We know some of these people dislike the military,” he said. “We are trying to dissolve the hatred.”

All told, about 50,000 troops, 1,000 trucks and 1,000 military boats are being used for flood relief in Bangkok and the surrounding area, the military said.

By some measures, the Thai Army’s image does seem to be improving. A Facebook page titled “We Love Thai Military” has more than 17,000 followers.

“Now I love the military even more than before,” said one visitor to the page, Somwang Platong. “The military are the real heroes of Bangkok and the entire people.”

Some Thais, though, are not convinced that the army’s efforts are proof of a philanthropic nature. “We have to distinguish between duty and charity,” wrote one commentator on a Web news group, Pantip.com.

The Thai military has played a central role in political life from the beginning of Thailand’s modern era in 1932, when a group of officers staged a coup and abolished the absolute rule of the monarchy. The army’s popularity has waxed and waned since then, through decades of military takeovers, bloody crackdowns on protesters, and retreats to the barracks again.

“We cannot be a conventional military like the United States,” Boonsrang Niumpradit, a retired general, said in an interview this year. Thailand’s democracy is weak and occasionally needs propping up, he said. “We need to take care of weak spots.”

But the military’s frequent interventions in politics have also been at the heart of the country’s political turmoil in recent years. The overthrow of the government led by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 was the prelude for the protests last year. Those tensions have been largely pushed below the surface with the electoral victory in July of Mr. Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is now prime minister.

But the power struggle between the civilian authorities and the military continues. The current military leadership says it wants to extricate the army from politics, though it sometimes bristles at the idea of civilian primacy.

“Soldiers don’t want to be the lead actor,” General Prayuth said last month, but “we want a supporting role.”

Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting.

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