BANGKOK - As a young soldier, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha saw late Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew from a distance, and never made it up close.
Still, General Prayut expressed deep admiration for Mr Lee and credited him for developing close ties between Singapore and Thailand.
"He laid a concrete foundation for the development of every aspect of Singapore, based on good governance and morality. He put public interest above self," he said in an interview on Tuesday with The Straits Times and Channel News Asia while expressing condolences to Singaporeans.
Singapore, under Mr Lee's stewardship, has become "a good example for every country", especially in Asia. Mr Lee could achieve what he did because the people of Singapore worked together and respected the rule of law, he said.
Gen Prayut staged a coup that overthrew the civilian Puea Thai party government in May last year and is now overseeing major constitutional changes before fresh elections are held by next year. He has been criticised for clamping down on civil liberties through the use of the martial law.
"We should consider rights and freedoms together with duties," he argued. "Don't just call for rights and freedoms but ignore duty… the country wouldn't be able to move forward."
In the early period of nation-building, he said, “some rights and freedoms have to be surrendered at a certain level”, he said. “If (Mr Lee) had not done that”, Singapore would not be what it is today.
Thailand, he says, needs to be "reset".
"It takes time… Lee Kuan Yew himself spent 50 years."
Drawing a parallel between Singapore and Thailand, he said: "Singapore has been through hardship, while doing things that some people agreed with and some people not. But now everyone recognises its achievement… (as evidenced by) compliments from the United States.
Thailand, he said, is undergoing reform, so some turbulence is to be expected. He thinks "Singapore would understand".
"Singapore and us have a long relationship. A lot of Thai tourists go to Singapore. We have joint army exercises and many activities together," he said.
"I do hope for their support on the international stage, like how we have supported Singapore all along."
He added. "We are not enemies or competitors, but friends within Asean."