Rights group criticizes Thai PM's cardboard cutout gesture

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, known for his temperamental outbursts, has adopted a unique tactic to avoid tricky questions from reporters -- leave a cardboard cutout of himself for reporters to quiz.

But the gesture has been criticized by Human Rights Watch which said it shows the military junta chief’s “contempt of media criticism” in a country yet to restore democracy since a 2014 coup.

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 abstruse sense of humor, 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”.

“Thailand’s junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha continues to show contempt of media criticism and scrutiny,” Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

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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.

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,” said Sunai.

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 Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Michael Perry