#BBCtrending: A pat on the head from the prime minister

Thai prime minister surrounded by journalists, patting one on the head Image copyright Wassana Nanuam / Facebook
Image caption Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha's hand pats the head of a journalist kneeled in front of him throughout a press briefing. Emphasis added.

An unusual gesture by Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has led to widespread speculation online.

It all started when journalist Wassana Nanuam uploaded a video onto Facebook on Wednesday. It was from a media briefing by Prime Minister Prayuth, delivered in the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen. The PM is seen stroking the head and gently tugging the ear of a journalist who is kneeling before him, wearing a baseball cap. He was among several journalists crouching near the leader to allow cameras an unobstructed view.

The journalists were asking the prime minister - who took power after leading a military coup in May - about the arrest of protesters the night before. Five students had been arrested after they did a three-fingered salute of resistance - inspired by the Hunger Games book and its Hollywood film trilogy - which was banned in Thailand after the coup. They have since been released without being charged, report local media. At the press conference, the journalists ask Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha whether he is frightened by the protesters' act of defiance. He jokes that he feels safe in the presence of journalists, as he strokes the head of one of the assembled press pack.

Others in the crowd join him in laughter, but on social media, there is a sense of disgust, and speculation about the meaning of the leader's gesture. A user sharing the video on Facebook says, "It is obvious that the prime minister who came to power after a coup is bullying a journalist. Media organisations should not stay quiet." A comment on YouTube sarcastically said: "It's like petting a dog at home. Very cute. I'm sure he's kind to all poor pets," while another comment read: "I think you should just sit on his head."

The video has now been viewed more than 11,500 times on Facebook. Another version, uploaded by Thailand's Matichon TV onto YouTube, has had more than 35,000 hits.

Why so much anger? Well for one thing, in Thailand's Buddhist culture, it can be offensive to touch the head of another person. "If a parent touches the head of their children, it shows caring. But for the relationship between a prime minister and a journalist, it can be offensive," says Treepon Kirdnark from the BBC's Thai Service. The journalist whose head was patted did not appear to object to the leader's gesture, and some say that the action might have been intended to show camaraderie. But, others wondered whether the leader was sending a message to other journalists at the scene that he is firmly in charge of all in the country.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A protester uses the Hunger Games salute on 20 November

"Ties between the media and the authorities are complicated and multi-faceted - it is like a patron-client relationship at times," says Kirdnark. Last week, a group of journalists launched a campaign online after the host of a Thai public service broadcaster was removed, urging the military government to stop "intimidating" the media.

Thai authorities have denied any malicious intent behind the prime minister's behaviour. The gesture was just good-natured teasing of the journalists, according to deputy government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd. "It's not weird for him to be playful with them," he said.

Reporting by Samiha Nettikkara

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