Senior US diplomat more circumspect in Thailand after earlier row

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A senior US diplomat underscored on Thursday (Dec 17) the need for freedom of expression in military-ruled Thailand but avoided a repeat of controversial remarks that landed him in hot water early this year.

Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel said it was important that people could express views but dodged a question on whether freedom of speech had reached a new low in Thailand following a spate of arrests of people deemed critical of the monarchy and military. "It is important, in our view, for citizens to be able to freely express views consistent with basic legal norms and internal practice but, as this press conference indicates, there is no shortage of opportunities to be heard in Thailand," Russel told reporters after meeting Thai government officials.

Thailand accused the United States of meddling in January when Russel called during a visit for more inclusive politics following a 2014 coup. The junta summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires to Thailand over his remarks.

The United States condemned the 2014 coup when the military ousted an elected government and suspended some military aid and cancelled some training and exercises with its old ally.

Thailand has in turn bolstered its ties with China, holding military exercises and agreeing to various deals including an ambitious project to build rail links between southern China to Thailand.

Thailand's military government has defended a sweeping crackdown on critics of the monarchy and the junta, saying people who violated the law to protect a monarch who all Thais loved were being dealt with.

Scores have been detained in recent months charged with royal insult offences by a military that is proving especially sensitive to criticism.

The crackdown has embroiled the U.S. ambassador to Thailand who police say is being investigated over accusations he violated the country's strict law on lese-majeste, or royal insult.

Ambassador Glyn Davies had criticised "lengthy and unprecedented" jail sentences for those found guilty of lese-majeste.

Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said the investigation had not been discussed in his talks with Russel.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said prison terms handed down for lese-majeste this year were the heaviest recorded since 2006, when it began documenting cases of individuals prosecuted for the offence.

The military has promised to hold elections after a constitution is drafted but critics fear the new charter will limit democracy and effectively exclude from power those the military deems its most prominent rivals.