BANGKOK: In the ever constant struggle to keep a press pack happy, politicians will try a whole host of tactics from charm and charisma to cajoling and cowing.
Thailand's military leader has opted for something a little more unorthodox — patting a reporter's head and scratching behind his ear.
A video of the bizarre encounter in which General Prayut Chan-O-Cha is seen petting a kneeling reporter during a chat with reporters earlier this week has gone viral in the kingdom.
But military authorities say the move was nothing more than a friendly gesture.
“It's normal,” junta spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhapatipak told AFP. “It's a very friendly gesture, a way of showing personal affection.”
One version of the video posted on Facebook has racked up more than 17,000 views while another YouTube clip has garnered more than 46,000 hits.
During the clip Thailand's premier is seen addressing a gaggle of reporters during a recent visit to the northeastern province of Khon Kaen.
Asked whether he was afraid of protests against his junta, Prayut joked: “I am confident that when I am with reporters I am safe. No one can hurt me, right?”
As he spoke he patted a male journalist on the head and then scratched the back of his ear. The reporter was kneeling on the floor to give other camera crews a clear shot.
Netizen reactions ranged from amusement to surprise.
“It's like patting a pet dog in an affectionate way. That was cute for the leader to show mercy to innocent pets,” joked one commentator named on YouTube.
“Returning happiness to journalists,” added another, in a nod to the junta's promise that their May coup will “return happiness to Thailand”.
“Both of them were happy but foreign media are confused.”
If the press pack surrounding Prayut were uncomfortable with his gesture, they certainly didn't show it, smiling and laughing alongside him. The face of the reporter who was the object of Prayut's attention, however, cannot be seen.
In Thai culture, the head is a sacred space and touching a stranger there would be considered rude.
“If people are not familiar with each other, they will not touch someone's head. But if they are, it is a show of affection — something parents or adults might do to give a blessing,” Dr. Jitra Dudsdeemaytha, a lecturer in psychology at Bangkok's Srinakharinwirot University, told AFP.
“In the context (of the video) the prime minister was trying to show his affection.”
Prayut has had a testy relationship with the media and a reputation for unpredictability when making off-the-cuff remarks.
Earlier this month he threatened to tighten controls on the press unless they stopped “presenting news” about former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, after photographs of the billionaire cuddling a panda went viral. (AFP)