'Speak to This Guy': Thai PM Sets Up 17 Cardboard Cutouts of Himself to Field Journalist's Questions

Thailand's Prime Minister has stunned journalists after he produced a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself, telling reporters they could ask it questions, rather than himself.

Retired army officer Prayuth Chan-ocha said during a press conference at the Government House in the capital Bangkok on January 8 that people could quiz "this guy", referring to the cutout, on politics and conflicts. He then walked away.

The episode is likely to occur again this week, as seventeen life-sized cutouts of Prayuth have been set up around the government compound ahead of Children's Day on Saturday, January 13. They show Prayuth in various outfits including sportswear, work suits and traditional Thai attire.

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.

Thailand's Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha
A cardboard cut-out of Thailand's Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha is seen next to a microphone after a news conference at government house in Bangkok, Thailand January 8, 2018. Picture taken January 8, 2018. Dailynews via REUTERS

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.

Rights groups have criticized Prayuth's move, arguing it is a way to silence the media in the country.

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.

Thailand Prime Minister
Thailands Prime Minister Prayuth

Prayuth became prime minister in 2014 after he led a bloodless coup that ousted his predecessor Yingluck Shinawatra, the first woman to hold such a position in the country.

His 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.

The country has often stirred criticism for what rights groups say are restrictions to freedom of expression.

Organizations claim the government uses its lese majeste law, which punishes people accused of insulting or defaming the monarchy, to silent critics.

Last year, the United Nations expressed concern at the high rate of people convicted under the law and urged the country to amend the legislation.

Amnesty International criticized the country last year, when a court prosecuted a man for comments he made about a battle in 1593.

At the time, Amnesty International's Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said: "To prosecute a scholar for comments he made about a battle that took place more than four centuries ago would be patently absurd. This case is an ugly reminder of the Thai authorities' increasing use of the lèse majesté law as a tool of suppression."

In August 2017, the country jailed an activist for two-and-a-half years after he pleaded guilty to sharing material deemed insulting of the country's monarchy.

Jatupat Booyapatraksa, 26, was tried after he shared on his Facebook feed a Thai-language BBC profile of the country's King, Maha Vajiralongkorn.