ON Tuesday, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha drew a mix of criticism and quips after leaving a cardboard cutout of himself for reporters to quiz, in an apparent bid to avoid tricky questions.
Swift to slam the leader was Human Rights Watch, which said it showed the military junta chief’s “contempt of media criticism” in a country yet to restore democracy since a 2014 coup.
“Thailand’s junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha continues to show contempt of media criticism and scrutiny,” Human Rights Watch senior Thailand researcher Sunai Phasuk said.
Other commenters on social media took on a more light-hearted approach.
Seventeen life-sized cutouts of Prayuth have been set up around the government compound ahead of Children’s Day on Saturday. They show Prayuth in various outfits including sportswear, work suits and traditional Thai attire.
On Monday, Prayuth spoke briefly at Government House before a cutout of Prayuth in a suit and tie was brought out. Prayuth, who is known for his temperamental outbursts and abstruse sense of humour, then told journalists to refer any questions to the cardboard cutout.
“Ask this guy,” he said.
Reaction to the bizarre gesture was largely muted on social media on Tuesday, but Human Rights Watch said it added to a “long list of his bizarre and bullying reactions to reporters”.
The general is known for going off-script and for his public outbursts which are sometimes dismissed as mildly amusing even by his staunchest critics. His comments have also been menacing.
The Washington Post highlighted that press freedom has declined in the kingdom and around the world in recent years, according to the press liberties watchdogs Article 19 and Freedom House.
Last week, Prayuth said he was not averse to the media and asked the press promote the government’s work, report positive news and “enable all sides to talk with one another”.
“I would like to ask the press to promote what can be achieved. And whatever people’s desires are, just communicate them to us… I insist I never have a problem with the press,” he said, as quoted by Khaosod English.
In 2015, he warned journalists that he had the power to execute them. In another, separate incident he threw a banana peel at a reporter.
Prayuth’s government has announced it will hold a general election in November 2018 after repeatedly delaying the vote.
However, it has yet to lift a ban on political campaigning despite pressure from groups of all political stripes.
“Even when the junta promises to hold an election, there is no open space for media freedom.”
Children’s Day is celebrated annually in Thailand on the second Saturday of January. On the day, armed forces open up military barracks to children to let them pose with weapons and tanks. Children are also invited to sit at the prime minister’s work desk inside Government House.
Additional reporting by Reuters