BANGKOK — The military junta that overthrew Thailand's elected government struck a blow for freedom Thursday — the freedom to watch soccer.
As part of its goal to "return happiness to the Thai people," the junta engineered a World Cup coup that will enable the country's many soccer fans to watch all of the tournament's 64 matches for free.
The move is the latest to highlight the irony of the junta's pursuit of happiness, as it tries to win support by embracing populist policies after kicking out an administration less than a month ago that it criticized for doing the same thing.
"We hope that every Thai will receive happiness from viewing the 2014 World Cup games. Please watch and enjoy, all of you," said Lt. Gen. Chatudom Titthasiri, president of the army's Channel 5 television station.
The generals stepped in Wednesday by asking regulatory officials to find a way to deliver the World Cup to the masses. The intervention came after the telecom regulator lost its second court case seeking to have RS International Broadcasting air the matches on free TV channels.
RS, the company holding the exclusive broadcast rights, had planned to allow just 22 games to be broadcast for free. Viewing the remainder of the matches would have required fans to buy a 1,590 baht ($50) decoder box, a sum too pricey for many fans, especially in low-income rural areas.
On Thursday, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission held a news conference to announce it had struck a 427 million baht ($13 million) compensation deal with RS so the entire World Cup can be shown on free channels.
The tournament, which starts in the middle of the night Thailand time, will be broadcast on two military-run channels, in addition to a digital channel owned by RS.
The fee falls far short of the 766 million baht ($23 million) that RS had proposed to make up for the losses of its decoder boxes and licensing fees, the regulator said.
The company had initially threatened to black out the World Cup if it was forced to broadcast it for free. But its chief operating officer, Pornpan Techarungchaikul, tweeted a reaction to the deal that stayed on script with the theme of happiness, saying the company was "willing to cooperate" so all Thais could watch the event for free.
The junta that seized power May 22 has curbed freedom of expression, banned political assembly of more than five people, and has no plans to restore civilian rule any time soon. It has also summoned and temporarily detained hundreds of activists, politicians, academics and journalists who have been warned not to criticize the coup.
On Thursday, a military court extended the detention of prominent activist Sombat Boonngam-anong for an additional 12 days. Under martial law, Sombat could face up to 14 years in prison on possible charges of inciting unrest, violating cyber laws and defying the junta's orders. Sombat had spearheaded an online campaign calling for people to raise a three-finger salute borrowed from "The Hunger Games" to show opposition to the coup.
Last month's coup ousted the civilian government of ex-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which had faced months of street protests that left dozens dead and the government paralyzed. The junta said it acted to restore order.
The military government now says that new elections will take at least a year, after political reforms occur. In the meantime, it has launched an official campaign to bring back happiness, something it says the divided nation desperately needs.
The campaign has involved weekly free concerts that offer free food and free haircuts. Authorities have announced that this week's concert will include free flu shots and entertainment including dog shows.
On Sunday, the junta is offering free admission nationwide to cinemas screening the latest installment of a popular Thai movie, "The Legend of King Naresuan 5," a nationalistic, historic epic.
While some soccer fans were bound to cheer the junta for its World Cup freebie, not all were pleased.
"This is not the way to create sustainable happiness," said Manchester United fan Paisarn Ruchisawatwong, who is rooting for the Brazil national team. "The World Cup comes and goes, but what happens next? Will the economy be good? Will Thais stop fighting? You can't just sweep our problems under the carpet by giving us free soccer matches."
For those who don't follow the sport, it seemed a high price to pay.
"I don't watch soccer, so I disagree with spending millions of baht to let everyone watch the World Cup for free," said Supanan Thaodai, a 27-year-old freelance art director in Bangkok. "The money should be spent on things that benefit everyone."
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