Hagel urges Thai junta to release detainees

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the opening plenary meeting at the 13th Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on May 31, 2014.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the opening plenary meeting at the 13th Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on May 31, 2014.

SINGAPORE (AFP) - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Saturday urged Thailand's coup leaders to release detainees and call for elections soon.

"We urge the Royal Thai Armed Forces to release those who have been detained, end restrictions on free expression, and move immediately to restore power to the people of Thailand, through free and fair elections," Mr Hagel said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a top Asian security conference in Singapore.

In his first televised national address after announcing the army takeover last week, Thai junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said late on Friday that the new military regime planned to work towards returning the nation of 67 million people to democracy in around 15 months.

The general said a first phase of around three months would focus on "reconciliation" in the ferociously divided nation. A cabinet and new draft constitution would then be put in place to enact reforms during a second year-long phase. Only after this could elections be held, he said.

Washington had earlier flatly rejected the junta chief's "road map towards democracy", saying that the 15-month timeline was too long.

"There's no reason that they can't be held in the short term," said US State Department spokesman Jen Psaki. 

The US has cancelled a military exercise with Thailand and scrapped planned visits by officials after the Thai army seized power.

The cancelled military exercise, dubbed Cooperation of Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat), usually involves several hundred US Marines and sailors.

The scrapped visits had been planned for June – one to Thailand by US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris and another to the US Pacific Command in Hawaii by a high-ranking Thai military official.

The US military has long-standing ties to Thailand’s armed forces, dating back to the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Thailand was represented at the Singapore forum by a relatively low-level delegation that included Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary at the foreign ministry, rather than senior generals and defence ministry officials like other countries.

Thailand’s army took power after months of unrest and deadly political violence, provoking an international outcry and heightening fears for the future of the Asian country and its fragile democracy.