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Children play during Children's Day celebration at a military facility in Bangkok, Thailand, January 13, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai children posed on Saturday with life-sized cutouts of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as the cardboard figures of the junta leader made an appearance at the annual Children's Day festival.

Thai barracks and government offices traditionally open their doors to children on the second Saturday of January, allowing kids to handle weapons. Children visiting Government House also got a chance to sit in the prime minister’s chair.   

The 18 figures of the prime minister were set up around Government House. They show him in a variety of poses - including kicking a football and a boxing pose.

Prayuth drew fire from rights groups this week when he jokingly set up one of the cardboard figures up in front of a microphone and told reporters that if they had questions they should "ask this guy". Then he walked off.

Wansu Chai-aree, 14, is one of the many Thai teenagers who on Saturday posed for pictures with cutouts of the Prime Minister, who he refers to affectionately by his nickname "Tu".

"I would like uncle Tu to stay on to develop our country for as long as possible," Wansu told Reuters.

Prayuth, who seized power during turmoil in 2014, has been coy about his political future but has appeared keen to improve his public image amid growing suspicions that he plans to stay in power after the next election.

His government has promised to hold a general election in November 2018 after repeatedly delaying the vote.

The Thai military has long played a big role in the country's political and social life and uses Children’s Day to reinforce its message with a new generation.

"These days we are stepping closer to our people than before," Thai Army Chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart said during a Children's Day speech at an army camp in Bangkok.

   

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um & Prapan Chankaew, and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin & Shri Navaratnam)

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