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Thai Reporters: Junta Leader's Execution Quip No Laughing Matter

FILE - Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures as he speaks during an event titled "The Instruction on the Procedures of Members of the National Reform Council" at the Army Club in Bangkok, September 4, 2014.

Journalists in Thailand expressed concern Thursday about the junta leader's comment to them a day earlier that reporters could face "execution" if they displease him.

"I will use a dog-headed execution device. I will deal with the media," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told journalists at a news conference Wednesday. "But I still love them."

Prayuth warned journalists to refrain from reporting anything that could cause "conflicts" or they could face "execution" as punishment. His comment was delivered without a smile on his face, according to journalists who were present.

The now retired general, who led a bloodless coup as army chief to oust the kingdom's civilian government last May and imposed martial law, is known for his mercurial temperament. His frequent exchanges with Thai reporters quickly alternate between joking and threatening tones.

Some Thai journalists have reacted with alarm, noting that during the 23-minute news conference at an air force airfield prior to his departure for Brunei, Prayuth looked tense, his voice frequently quivered with anger and he threw a document at reporters.

"As dictators go, Prayuth combines the instincts of Papa Doc Duvalier with the comic charm of Idi Amin," read a tweet on Thursday posted by Pravit Rojanphruk of The Nation newspaper, who was detained by the junta for a week immediately after the May 22 military coup last year.

"It's a shame and disgrace that some journalists laughed off," the junta leader's "half-joking" execution threat and do not see the danger, Pravit added.

"As amusing [and admittedly cathartic] as it is to laugh and ridicule the general’s verbal outbursts and this junta’s ineptitude to deal with criticism... it’s no laughing matter and perhaps we should stop treating it as such," commented political blogger Saksith Saiyasombut on the Asian Correspondent website.

The president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, Jonathan Head, commented on Twitter "I don't think anyone in his right mind thinks" Prayuth meant what he said. But the BBC correspondent added he believed Prayuth thinks "this is just bluff soldier's humour. He's so unwordly [he] doesn't see how inappropriate it is."

Prayuth's latest provocative comment came just hours after he singled out a journalist from a privately-operated but state-owned television channel to report to junta officers for a talk.

Prayuth was angered by Thapanee Ietsrichai's Channel 3 investigative report on the plight of Thai fishermen who have been imprisoned or have died on an Indonesian island.

"Reporters should not elaborate on this problem," said Prayuth. "You need to consider the damage it does to the nation."

Human trafficking is a sensitive topic for Thailand and some of its largest conglomerates involved in agriculture and the marine industry, which annually exports 200,000 tons of seafood.

Thailand was placed in the lowest Tier 3 bracket by the U.S. State Department in its 2014 human trafficking report -- the same level as Syria, Iran and North Korea.

Thailand also faces scrutiny by the European Union, which has been considering whether to issue a "yellow card" to Thai fishery exports amid reports of labor abuses at processing plants and slavery on vessels.

Prayuth, who has promised elections next year after sweeping reforms, is frequently rankled by reporters, accusing them, as he did on Wednesday, of asking "silly questions."

Criticism of him and the military-led government with its hand-picked legislative body is actually quite muted in the domestic media, due to continuing restrictions on the press under martial law.

There was no immediate comment from the Thai government Thursday when VOA queried the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about any possible official clarification of the execution quips by Prayuth.