US urges Thais to hold election as military drills begin

09 February 2016
US urges Thais to hold election as military drills begin
Thai soldiers line up after an amphibious assault joint military exercise of Cobra Gold 2012 at a military base in Chonburi province, Thailand, 10 Febuary 2012. Photo: Narong/EPA

The United States launched annual military exercises with Thailand on Tuesday but repeated a call for a swift return to democracy in the junta-ruled country.
The two countries have held the joint Cobra Gold exercises since 1980.
But Washington has come under increased pressure to scrap the event since Thailand's military seized power in 2014 -- the latest coup to obstruct attempts to build democracy.
Some 3,600 US troops are in Thailand for the 11-day exercises alongside soldiers from regional nations including Thailand, Japan and Malaysia.
Strategic rival China will also take part in some humanitarian joint exercises, at a time when the US is closely watching Beijing's plays in contested areas of the South China Sea. 
US ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies hailed the bond between Washington and Bangkok but recognised "temporary challenges" to the relationship.
"As deep and broad as our partnership is today, it will grow stronger still when, as the (Thai) Prime Minister has affirmed, Thailand returns to elected governance," he said in opening remarks.
"With a strengthened, sustainable democratic system, Thailand’s regional leadership role, and our alliance, can reach its full potential."
Premier Prayut Cha-O-Cha said last week elections would be held in the summer of 2017, irrespective of the political conditions at the time.
The US envoy's comments come as Thailand is making overtures to China, a major trade partner and source of cheap loans whose policy is to stay out of the domestic affairs of its allies.
The US has tried to walk the line between its longstanding alliance with Thailand and condemning the coup, which has been followed by a protracted clampdown on dissent. 
In the wake of the army power grab, Washington suspended $4.7 million in security-related aid to Thailand, roughly half of its annual assistance.
But relations have since warmed.
Thailand's long-running political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against rural and working-class voters loyal to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.