Thailand's civil servants urged to take a break to break a sweat

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha playing volleyball during an exercise with government officials at Government House in Bangkok on Nov 30, 2016.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha playing volleyball during an exercise with government officials at Government House in Bangkok on Nov 30, 2016.PHOTO: EPA
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (centre) takes part in an exercise with government officials at Government House in Bangkok on Nov 30, 2016.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (centre) takes part in an exercise with government officials at Government House in Bangkok on Nov 30, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

BANGKOK (NYTIMES)- He is already prime minister of Thailand and the chief of a military junta that seized power in a 2014 coup.

Now, General Prayut Chan-o-cha can add another title: aerobics master-in-chief.

Thailand's military junta has turned an eye towards its civil servants' behaviour - and heart rates - through a new policy that urges them to exercise once a week during working hours.

Officials said that the voluntary programme, which began on Wednesday (Nov 30), was part of a national campaign to model good behaviour for children, and that Gen Prayut had created it after learning of research that documented widespread physical idleness among Thailand's youth and older citizens.

"Your health will improve and this will be invaluable in the performance of your duties for the nation," Gen Prayut told senior civil servants at an exercise session last week in Bangkok, according to a report by Thailand's public broadcaster.

At an exercise session in Bangkok on Wednesday, four instructors from the Department of Physical Education led about 60 Finance Ministry officials through an aerobics class.

"Are you excited today?" the lead instructor, Ms Sumalee Homsombat, asked from a stage as dance music thumped from nearby speakers.

"We will soon bring entertainment to your body and mind." "Do your best, but don't be too hard on yourselves," she added. "It might harm your muscles."

Some of the workers grumbled that it was too hot or that they had not brought workout clothes, said Ms Nuttanun Amaroek, a policy and operations analyst at the ministry.

But Ms Nuttanun, 35, said the 90-minute workout was a win-win situation for her: She said she had not found much time to exercise after a recent promotion added responsibilities and overtime hours to her workday.

"This happens during our working hours, so when I exercise here, it's like I'm working at the same time," she said, tying her hair back before the class started.

The military junta seized power from a democratically elected government in a 2014 coup and has since imposed draconian controls over civilian life. It has barred public gatherings of more than five people, for example, and used existing lèse-majesté laws to aggressively prosecute anything - including Facebook posts - that it deems offensive to Thailand's powerful monarchy.

After the death in October of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's beloved and long-ruling monarch, the junta initiated a one-year period of national mourning. It also ordered an end to "joyful events" for 30 days and asked people to wear only black and white out of respect.

Civil servants mainly wore black and white to the workout that Prayut hosted on the grounds of his palatial office complex on Wednesday. But the mood was buoyant as the general, clad in white sneakers and a black tracksuit, led officials through aerobics and sepak takraw.

"I'll do a warm-up with you for 10, 15 minutes, and then we'll take a rest," he said. "Last time we didn't rest, so it was quite exhausting."