Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is known for his adversarial relationship with dissidents and local media, but on Wednesday he took it to a particular extreme. "You don't have to support the government, but you should report the truth," Prayuth admonished reporters in Bangkok. When asked what would happen to journalists who report out of line, he responded, "We'll probably just execute them."
According to the news agency Reuters, the chilling statement, intended as a joke, was delivered "without a trace of a smile."
Prayuth was apparently irked by a recent exposé by the Associated Press delving into the alleged use of slaves in Thailand's vast seafood industry. "If the media play it in a big way, do you know what will happen?" he asked, angry that such stories could hurt Thai exports. "If you just keep reporting, all Thai people will feel the damage."
Prayuth is part of a military junta that engineered a coup last year, the 12th such intervention in the long history of Thailand's army meddling with its politics. The country is still under martial law, and elections have been postponed till next year.
As with other army men who come to power, Prayuth styles himself as a figure saving his nation from the dysfunctions of the selfish, feuding civilians he replaced.
"Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy, unlike other countries where the government has more power to restrict freedoms," Prayuth was quoted as saying at a business gathering in Bangkok this week.
It's unclear from the report, published in a Thai daily, what "other countries" Prayuth is referring to — perhaps China and neighboring Burma, where a long-ruling junta has ushered in a tightly controlled, multiparty democratic system.
Thailand's own democracy was recently downgraded by Freedom House, a Washington-based rights group, to "Not Free" status, a grade shared by a host of other authoritarian states. Under the junta's watch, activists, nongovernmental organizations and journalists have complained of an erosion of civil rights.
Prayuth, though, remains defiant. "I insist that today, we are 99 percent democratic, because I didn't overthrow democracy at all," he said.
But he went on, delivering another set of chilling remarks: "I can’t even stop people from opposing me at this moment. If I genuinely had complete power, I would have imprisoned [critics] or handed them to a firing squad," he said. "It would be over. I wouldn't have to wake up at night like this."