The U.S. State Department expressed concern Thursday about widely reported remarks made by Thailand's military government prime minister to execute journalists 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.
"We are, of course, troubled by reports that General Prayuth spoke of executing journalists who do not report the quote-unquote 'truth,' and we sincerely hope that this threat was not a serious one," said Jeff Rathke, State Department press office director at a regular briefing Thursday in Washington. "We have repeatedly called for lifting restrictions on freedom of expression in Thailand, and in our view, statements like these, even if not serious, contribute to an atmosphere where those freedoms could be suppressed.
Thailand's government on Friday sought to downplay the provocative remark.
It was “purely a political satire in a way” to prod Thai journalists to do “comprehensive reporting on all aspects of the news,” said ministry of foreign affairs information department director general Yongyuth Maiyalap.
“It was exaggerated out of context,” by international media, contended Yongyuth in remarks to VOA, who explained that in Thai culture “between people and the media sometimes there's some joking comments being made.”
Prayuth, who led a bloodless coup as army chief to oust the kingdom's civilian government last May, shortly after imposing martial law, is known for his mercurial temperament. The now-retired general 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 a military airfield prior to his departure for Brunei, Prayuth looked tense, his voice frequently quivered with anger and he threw a document at reporters.
The execution comment was “particularly chilling,” said political blogger Saksith Saiyasombut.
"Many people would probably say 'ah yes, it's just yet another military dictator going nuts.' But I think we should not read him as a laughingstock." commented Saksith in a VOA interview. “We should actually take him seriously and by seriously, I mean take him by his words. After all this is a military ruler in a country that he is ruling with an iron fist and criticism and dissent is not allowed.”
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."
On Thursday, however, after returning from a quick visit to Brunei, Prayuth vowed to take legal action against any companies found to have used forced labor in the fishing industry. He also urged the media and public to report any instances of slave labor to the military-led government, a softening of his comments the previous day.
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.
“He speaks like a soldier and acts like a soldier but, apparently, the kitchen is too hot for him,” said Saksith, the Thai freelance journalist.
Another threat was issued to Thai reporters on Thursday by the junta's number two, army general Prawit Wongsuwan, who warned journalists they could put under surveillance if they persist in asking "silly questions" about the continuation of martial law.
Prawit is deputy prime minister and defense minister.
Following a cabinet meeting Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth told reporters that martial law would be lifted and replaced -- although he didn't announce when -- by Section 44 of the interim constituion. That would give him, as chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order, sweeping powers to prevent, disrupt or supress "any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of state affairs."