Thailand 'not abandoning democracy'

THAILAND, which is now ruled by a military government after a bloodless coup, is not retreating from democracy, a top Thai official said yesterday.

Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand's Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs, told reporters on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, that his country was undergoing political reforms before holding elections, and hoped to seek the understanding of its strategic and economic partners.

The veteran diplomat was responding to criticisms by United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who last Saturday said that Washington would respond "when nations retreat from democracy, as in Thailand".

Thailand is the US' oldest ally in Asia and the two countries' militaries enjoy close ties.

But the May 22 coup in Thailand prompted the US to suspend US$3.5 million (S$4.4 million) in military assistance, as well as to review the remainder of American aid to the South-east Asian country.

The Pentagon also cancelled a major military exercise and high-level exchanges with its Thai counterpart that were planned earlier.

"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 told the forum, an annual gathering of defence ministers and top generals from Asia Pacific and beyond.

"Until that happens, as US law requires, the Department of Defence is suspending and reconsidering US military assistance and engagements with Bangkok," said Mr Hagel.

Mr Sihasak told reporters that most people detained by the military had been released. Curbs on the freedom of expression were also being relaxed and elections could be expected by the end of next year.

The diplomat urged the US and other nations to look at the big picture, saying: "Thailand is not going to disappear from the map. We will continue our engagement with the international community."

He also explained that the military seized power only after protracted domestic political conflict and paralysis.

"Had we continued in that direction, that would have been detrimental to Thailand and the region's stability and the interest of our friends and partners," said Mr Sihasak.

In a meeting last Thursday, Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told the Thai diplomat that prolonged uncertainties would impact Thailand as well the region, adding that he hoped a process of reconciliation could be found.

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