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Thailand’s exercise regime

Thailand’s exercise regime

The prime minister claims that forcing civil servants to do yoga will improve the nation’s health. But is there more to it?

The prime minister claims that forcing civil servants to do yoga will improve the nation’s health. But is there more to it?

Tom Felix Joehnk | March 17th 2017

Last week Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, cancelled the compulsory weekly workout for civil servants in Bangkok, blaming dangerously high temperatures. Earlier this year a district official had dropped dead while exercising. Once the tropical heat subsides, the sessions will resume. They take place from 3pm to 4.30pm every Wednesday afternoon on the lawn outside Mr Chan-ocha’s office, led by the man himself. The menu is varied: yoga, aerobics, football, ping pong and even Thai boxing. While there is no particular dress code, all participants wear black as a mark of respect for King Bhumibol, who died in October 2016.
 
The Wednesday workouts were instigated by the prime minister late last year, reportedly in response to fears about the rise of diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Thailand’s tobacco consumption is a major factor (40% of men smoke), but so is the growth in sedentary lifestyles, a side-effect of rapid development. Thailand risks losing its reputation as a star regional performer in health (it achieved all the relevant Millennium Development Goals in the early 2000s) and a large bill is looming unless attitudes change. Mr Chan-ocha wants the country’s civil servants to lead by example. After all, you can’t have overweight officials lecture other people on their lifestyle choices. Generally, the idea has been well received; it has even earned praise from the director general of the World Health Organisation. Whether it will work is another matter.
 
Thailand has been controlled by a military dictatorship since 2014, when Mr Chan-ocha and his fellow generals ousted the elected government in a coup. In 2001, a previous government had introduced free universal healthcare, and there have been fears that the junta might cull what has proved to be a popular and successful scheme. While it has strenuously denied that it will, it did cut the healthcare budget in February. Meanwhile, Thailand’s schools – the most effective means of spreading information about healthy living – are in a bad way. The education minister laments that thousands of them are “in the intensive care unit”. It is unlikely that the example of civil servants doing yoga will be enough to inspire Thai schoolchildren to start exercising.
 
The Thai media, however, can’t get enough of the compulsory workouts: TV crews are almost permanently stationed on the lawn outside Government House, much to the delight of Mr Chan-ocha, who loves being on telly. He has his own weekly programme, an hour-long monologue on whatever takes his fancy called “Returning Happiness to the People”, and released a chart-topping pop song with the same title. He is often in the headlines for things like tugging a reporter’s ear during an interview, or chucking a banana peel at a cameraman.
 
It’s not all fun and games, however. In the past three years, Thailand has been getting progressively more authoritarian. The generals roaming around Bangkok in black limousines have abolished competitive politics and banned pesky things like freedom of speech and the right to free assembly. There’s been a spike in the application of draconian lèse-majesté laws. Reading George Orwell’s “1984” in public is not a good idea. For those who dare to criticise them, the generals have devised what they euphemistically call “attitude adjustment” sessions.
 
The junta is trying to stop pluralism in its tracks and turn Thai society back into a feudal-style pyramid, with the king at the top, followed by the army, the bureaucracy and a happy peasantry at the base. The job of the government is to keep each level of the pyramid in place, or at least to present an image of stability and control. This is what the weekly workouts are really about. Forcing bureaucrats to exercise in public gives the impression that the government is taking public health seriously; it reinforces the image of Mr Chan-ocha as jolly and benign; and – by publicly humiliating them – it shows that civil servants are firmly under the thumb.

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