June 1, 2008 / 7:46 AM / 12 years ago

U.S. tells Thailand it wants democracy, not coup

By Andrew Gray

BANGKOK, June 1 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew into Thailand on Sunday with a clear message that Washington would take a dim view of any attempt by military leaders to seize power.

A week of anti-government protests in Bangkok have ignited fears that the military may stage another coup, two years after a similar street campaign against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to his ouster in a bloodless putsch.

"Our position is pretty consistent. We want to see democratically elected governments and we will convey that," Gates told reporters in Singapore before heading for Bangkok.

Gates’ visit to Thailand was arranged as part of a broader Asia tour before the current protests against the pro-Thaksin coalition government elected in December.

Gates, a former CIA director who took over at the Pentagon from Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006, praised Thailand as a consistent partner.

"Thailand is an old ally of the United States," he said in Singapore, where he attended the annual Shangri-La dialogue of Asian defence and security officials.

"It’s an opportunity to renew acquaintances and to discuss issues here in the region," he said of his visit to Thailand.

The United States lifted restrictions on aid to Thailand in February after a new elected government took power.

Washington had suspended about $35 million in assistance to Thailand, including funds designed to promote military professionalism, after the bloodless 2006 coup.

Gates was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who is also the country’s defence minister.

Samak had threatened on Saturday to use the police to break up a rally of 6,500 anti-government protesters. But police did not move against the protesters after an apparent reversal by Samak, who accused the media of misreporting his remarks.

Violence stemming from a clampdown on the rally could add to concerns about the army being drawn back into the political fray, particularly after scuffles broke out between pro- and anti-Thaksin protesters at a rally last Sunday.

Thailand’s top military commander denied reports on Thursday that the army may be plotting another coup.

Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niumpradit also said he did not expect the prime minister to declare a state of emergency and order troops onto the streets. (Editing by Darren Schuettler)



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