US rebukes Thai military junta over coup and urges immediate elections

US defence chief uses Singapore forum to urge junta to free detainees and hold elections now

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 2:23pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 5:00am

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel yesterday urged leaders of Thailand's military coup to release detainees and hold immediate elections.

"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," Hagel said at a top Asian security conference in Singapore.

"Until that happens, as US law requires, the [Department of Defence] is suspending and reconsidering US military assistance and engagements with Bangkok," he said at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.

Thailand was represented in Singapore by a relatively low-level delegation that included Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary at the foreign ministry, rather than the senior generals and defence ministry officials sent by other countries.

Adding to the pressure on the Thai junta, Canberra said yesterday that Australia has scaled back relations with the Thai military and banned coup leaders from travelling there.

"The Australian government continues to have grave concerns about the actions of the military in Thailand," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement with Defence Minister David Johnston.

In a televised address late on Friday, armed forfes chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military would need time to reconcile Thailand's antagonistic political forces and to engineer reforms. He said the army would delay elections for more than a year to allow time for reforms. The US flatly rejected the plan.

"We know that they have announced a, quote, 'road map toward democracy', but with scant details included," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.

She insisted that Washington believed the best path forward was "to set a timeline for early elections and to facilitate an inclusive and transparent electoral process".

Police and soldiers flooded central Bangkok yesterday to pre-empt further protests.

Security was tight around a normally busy Victory Monument where protests flared earlier in the week. The overhead railway station at the landmark was closed.

Security was being enforced predominantly by police, who had at least seven large trucks parked nearby. Police stood taking photos of each other, chatting to a small group of soldiers standing around a military vehicle with a loudspeaker on top.

Trucks and police also lined the road near a central shopping mall where demonstrations took place a week earlier. But there was no sign of any rallies. A man was arrested and another fled when police thwarted their attempt to hold a protest at another shopping centre.

One of the men held up a sign that said "Election only" before police pounced and bundled him into a police truck.

Later, three women sat on the steps of a McDonald's restaurant and sang a song calling for a return to democracy.

"There are only three of us, not five," one of the women shouted at police, referring to a ban on gatherings of five or more people.

Despite martial law and a ban on gatherings, small protests against the military takeover have been held almost daily in Bangkok. But there has been no serious violence.

Activists, spreading word through social media, had said a big show of opposition would be held this weekend to press for the restoration of democracy.

Additional reporting by Reuters