In Thailand, a Mercurial Junta Leader Known for His Sharp Tongue

By Todd Pitman & Thanyarat Doksone 30 March 2015

BANGKOK — Ear tugs. A flying banana peel. Sarcastic remarks about getting smacked, or punched—or even executed. Such is life for the press corps covering Thailand’s notoriously testy military ruler.

Since leading a putsch that ousted Thailand’s elected government last May, general-turned-prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been thrust from the relative privacy of army life into the public arena of the politician. He has pounded on the podium during news conferences, lambasted his questioners, and simply stomped away. In one case, he summoned two journalists for asking “inappropriate” questions about when and whether elections would be held. His government, meanwhile, has engaged in censorship and leaned on media outlets to censor themselves.

But the mercurial junta leader has also presided over light-hearted press briefings filled with humor—even song—in which journalists have joked back. The media found it less funny Wednesday when Prayuth sardonically suggested he might execute journalists deemed overly critical. Manop Thip-osod, a spokesman for the Thai Journalists Association, said earlier this month that the way Prayuth communicates “has to change.”

Some of Prayuth’s most memorable comments and interactions with the media since he seized power:

Don’t Argue

May 26, 2014 — In his first official speech following the coup, Prayuth said: “I’m not here to argue with anyone. I want to bring everything out in the open and fix it. … Everyone must help me. [But] do not criticize, do not create new problems. It’s no use.”

On Bikinis

Sept. 17, 2014 — After two British tourists were murdered on the Thai island of Koh Tao, Prayuth triggered an uproar by insinuating that foreign visitors—attractive ones, at least—were endangering themselves by dressing skimpily. “I’m asking if they wear bikinis in Thailand, will they be safe? Only if they are not beautiful.”

Freedom of Expression

Sept. 23, 2014 — Speaking after the junta forced the cancellation of a university seminar on the demise of foreign dictatorships, Prayuth was asked whether the junta would open a channel for critics to express their views. “I’m opening one right now. You’re yapping right now. I never stopped you, did I?”

Podium Smack

Sept. 24, 2014 — After a reporter jokingly asked if he would only ever seek the premiership through a coup, Prayuth shot back by threatening, in jest: “I’ll smack you” with the podium.

Multiple Personalities

Nov. 3, 2014 — “I’m well aware that I have a short temper,” Prayuth told the press. “Today I’ve calmed down a lot. … I have to thank you for the warnings and suggestions. And I won’t change my personality, because I already have several personalities.”

Ear Massage

Nov. 20, 2014 — A video posted on Facebook by a Bangkok Post reporter in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen showed Prayuth patting the baseball cap-clad head of a cameraman in front of him. He then began nonchalantly tugging and twisting the man’s ear as he fielded questions. A government spokesman later said the gesture was good-natured teasing.

The Banana Peel

Dec. 24, 2014 — When journalists kept asking Prayuth to face the camera during a public event they were covering, the junta leader took the peel of a banana he was eating and hurled it at one of their heads. The act drew surprised laughter from officials and the press.

Don’t Ask Dumb Questions

Feb. 3, 2015 — After two homemade bombs exploded outside a luxury shopping mall in Bangkok, slightly injuring one person, Prayuth was asked if the perpetrators were trying to discredit the government. “Everybody knows that,” he snapped. “Otherwise they would have exploded the bombs in the jungle. Why the hell are you asking this?”

Noodles and Big Brother

Feb. 12, 2015 — Asked about security forces the junta has deployed to control ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s movements, Prayuth said: “If she wants to go to eat some noodles, or go anywhere, then she can go. But when they don’t allow her to go, then she cannot eat.”

On Power

Feb. 19, 2015 — “It all falls on me because I’m the prime minister. Let’s say I exercise every power [I have], do you want that? … Do you want me to shut down the media? …. If my powers were that vast, I could just have people executed if they do something wrong, but I haven’t done anything like that.”

Punch in the Face

March 6, 2015 — “The other day I was asked by a reporter what kind of job the government has done. I almost punched that person in the face. [We’ve] done so much. Can’t you see?”

Birthday Plans

March 16, 2015 — “I’m staying home. In the barracks,” he said, a few days before turning 61 on March 21. “Do not bother me. I was born alone.”

Philosophy on Gardening

March 19, 2015 — When the Supreme Court indicted Yingluck on charges of neglect for a money-losing rice subsidy program, Prayuth took questions from reporters, then paused shortly after to pluck gardenias from a pot outside his office. “Some withering flowers have to be discarded,” he said pensively. “These plants, we have to take care of them every day. This flower is old. Don’t pay attention to it.”

Too Much Democracy

March 23, 2015 — “In the past, our society experienced many problems because we were too democratic,” Prayuth declared in a speech. Still, Thailand remains “99 percent” free, he said, because if it wasn’t “we’d jail [our opponents] and put them before the firing squad. Then it would all be over and I wouldn’t have to lie awake at night.”

Importance of Seafood

March 25, 2015 — Responding to allegations of abuse and slavery involving the fishing industry, Prayuth asked the media not to report the issue without considering how it might affect the country’s reputation. “If they aren’t buying the [seafood], you must be responsible—you who like to fan the news.”

Execution, Maybe?

March 25, 2015 — In an exchange regarding the limitations of reporting about the junta, Prayuth said: “A little criticism, that’s acceptable. But if you’re saying everything is a failure … how the heck could that be? The past was worse.”

He warned there would be consequences for going too far, and a reporter asked him to clarify what those might be. The reply: “Execution, maybe? You’re asking a silly question. Just don’t do it.”

Later, as he prepared to depart on an official visit to Brunei, reporters joked that the death threat had killed their need to ask questions. “I’ll use the guillotine,” Prayuth shot back. “I’ll deal with the media a little bit. We love each other already. I’m asking you to help a little, not to defend me, but to create love and unity. We’ve come to this point anyway, so let’s turn a crisis into an opportunity.”