US envoy urges Thai junta to lift curbs on free speech

BANGKOK (AFP) - Washington's envoy to Thailand called on the junta on Thursday (Oct 29) to reduce its draconian restrictions on free speech and assembly that have stifled debate and dissent in the kingdom since last year's coup.

The relationship between the United States and Thailand - historically a staunch Washington ally - has been strained since generals seized power in a coup last year that toppled the democratically elected administration of Yingluck Shinawatra.

The human rights situation has since rapidly deteriorated with critics locked up, exiled or pressured into silence.

Newly appointed US ambassador Glyn T Davies met with junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha on Thursday afternoon, their first since the diplomat took up his posting last month.

Davies said Prayut "spoke at length about his experience and his aspiration for a return to democracy here".

"I for my part... talked about our hopes as a friend of Thailand, our hopes that Thailand would continue on this path, that there would be an opening up of some space for greater public participation in this debate about Thailand's future," he told reporters.

Public protests and political gatherings are still largely banned in Thailand, while critics are often arrested or hauled in by the military for so-called "attitude adjustment" sessions.

The number of prosecutions under Thailand's controversial and draconian lese majeste law have also skyrocketed, with some suspects sentenced to more than 20 years in jail.

Washington has repeatedly called for a swift return to democracy and criticised the coup. But it is also wary about pushing away a regional ally - particularly towards China's sphere.

Beijing swiftly recognised Prayut's government and has shown no qualms about doing business with it, sending a number of high level military delegations.

Junta spokesman Major General Werachon Sukondhapatipak said Prayut agreed with the ambassador's suggestion that "silent voices" should have more of a say in the country's political future. "Prayut agreed and will study how to do it," he said.

But on Wednesday Prayut delivered a two-hour long speech in which he lambasted his detractors and vowed to further crackdown on critics.

"We summoned them for attitude adjustment and they just criticise it as a violation of human rights so next time no attitude adjustment, go direct to prison it's easier," he said.

The military says it was forced to seize power to restore order after years of violent street protests.

But critics accuse it of launching a coup to reinforce the political power of the military establishment and the country's largely Bangkok-based royalist elite.