Thai PM Prayut pledges to announce election in 2018, strikes new deals during US trip

US President Donald Trump and Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha take part in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct 2, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, on his first trip to the US since he seized power in a coup d'etat in 2014, has pledged to announce a general election in Thailand next year (2018).

An election date would be announced and a new government will be formed 120 days later, he told an audience of American business executives and senior US Cabinet and State Department officials on Tuesday night (Oct 3).

General Prayut did not give any date, but the pledge is still significant, an American diplomat told The Straits Times.

"Opportunity comes with crisis," said the 63-year-old premier at the dinner hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-Asean Business Council. The US was is the third biggest foreign investor in Thailand last year (2016).

"Thailand is in a place of transition into democracy," said General Prayut, who was the army chief when the military seized power from Thailand's elected government three years ago. He stepped down as army chief after taking over premiership.

The Thai leader stressed at the dinner that the objective of his government was to lay the foundation for a democratic government and ensure policy continuity.

His three-day trip to the US, which include a stop at the White House and working lunch with President Donald Trump on Oct 2, was seen by analysts as a diplomatic coup and a reset of the US-Thai alliance.

Also speaking at Tuesday's dinner, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said: "As a long-time friend and ally, the US wants Thailand to emerge as a strengthened democracy that guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms."

A top aide to Mr Prayut told The Straits Times that the Thai Prime Minister's visit to the US had been very successful.

General Prayut himself was in an ebullient mood, saying he had a new friend in President Donald Trump and was "deeply appreciative" of being invited to the White House

"The relationship between Thailand and America will continue in a positive manner for the next 200 years," General Prayut pledged at the dinner.

The Thai leader also laid out ambitious plans for more Thai investment in the US, and said that Thailand and Asean were markets that presented the US with huge opportunities.

Thailand's foreign direct investment in the US was US$ 2.1 billion in 2016, four times greater than in 2015. Thailand's investment in America supported thousands of jobs, and the intent was to increase investment by an additional US$8.3 billion.

The Thai premier was accompanied by over two dozen Thai business executives and 23 journalists.

One of the key deals inked during the trip include the purchase of over 100,000 tonnes of coal from the US by Siam Cement Group. President Trump has said he wants to revive the coal industry.

Thailand is also eyeing more purchases of Black Hawk helicopters from the US, and its petrochemical giant PTT is planning a US$ 6 billion investment in Ohio.

Mr Ross, who last week became the first US Commerce Secretary in 30 years to visit Bangkok, said Thailand was his country's 21st largest trading partner with two way trade totalling US$40.1 billion in 2016.

The US, he added, was in a record trade deficit of US$19 billion with Thailand.

But the US was "committed to working with Thailand to address trade barriers and to promote economic growth in both countries," he said.

"We can expect to reap further benefits of expanded US-Thai commercial relations," he added.

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