The military plays an indispensable role in the peace and security of Thailand but democracy will return to the country as planned, Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha said in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday (June 3).
"As a former military officer, I believe soldiers should not limit their role to protecting national sovereignty but also support development of the country. This is stipulated in the Thai constitution," he told some 600 defence ministers, senior officials, scholars and business executives gathered at Shangri-La hotel for the three-day forum.
"And if we can bring peace and order back to society, reforms can then take place," he added. "I can assure you Thailand will return to democracy in accordance with the roadmap and that Thailand upholds democratic process and all our international obligations as we have always done."
Mr Prayut, Thailand's former army chief, seized power from Ms Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup in May 2014. He has said that the putsch was necessary to end more than a decade of political chaos and street protests following the ouster of Ms Yingluck's brother Thaksin and has promised to hold elections.
A military-drafted Constitution that will give the junta oversight of the future elected government for at least five years will be put to a referendum on Aug 7. Mr Prayut's administration has warned that elections may be delayed if the charter is rejected.
Many Thais see the military as a steadying influence given a looming royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, has been hospitalised repeatedly in recent years for various ailments.
In his 30-minute speech focused on regional security issues, Mr Prayut said the regional architecture "lacks proper equilibrium".
"The end of the Cold War brought about changes creating multi-polar situation without clear-cut rules and this led to growing uncertainty," he said in Thai.
He stressed the importance of Asean in building a new equilibrium in the region, as well as the value of free trade pacts like the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"US, China and Japan are still important but India, Russia, South Korea and Asean are more important."
The Shangri-La Dialogue, now in its 15th year, is organised by the London-Based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Discussions over the next two days are expected to be dominated by growing tensions over the South China Sea, provocations by the North Korean regime under Kim Jong Un, and renewed concerns over Islamist terrorism in the region.
More than 30 countries are represented this year, and delegates include US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, India's Manohar Parrikar and New Zealand's Gerry Brownlee.
Mr Prayut urged countries embroiled in territorial disputes over the South China Sea - China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - to choose cooperation over confrontation, and look beyond border disputes.
"All claimants should take part in constructive, joint activities...so that territorial claims do not become obstacles," he said.
“Countries in the region should think of sovereignty in less traditional terms in order to support collective security in the long term,” he added. “If we look at everything from the standpoint of conflict, we will never be able to see a way out.
“If we focus solely on borders, some of which are still in dispute, then again, we’ll never find a way out.”
On North Korea, which conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan 6 and a month later launched a long-range rocket putting an object into space orbit, Mr Prayut called for long-dormant Six-Party talks to be revived to avoid further isolating the pariah state and lessen tensions.
He also called for the region to swiftly deal with terrrorism threat through cooperation to prevent it from spreading.
Overall, he said, the security situation has become more complicated and challenging since the Shangri-La Dialogue was launched in 2002.
"Fourteen years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the first leader to address the first Shangri-La Dialogue. Mr Lee's observations about the regional security situation remain relevant today," he said.