U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has demanded that coup leaders in Thailand release detainees and immediately hold general elections, after Thai military leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha said a return to civilian rule is probably at least a year away.
Speaking at an Asian security conference in Singapore on Saturday, Hagel also called on the junta to end its curbs on free expression, including banning political gatherings of more than five people and tight media controls.
Condemning the kingdom's "retreat from democracy," Hagel told delegates to the Shangri-La Dialogue that the U.S. had suspended its long-standing military ties with Thailand.
In a nationally televised address late Friday, General Prayuth said a process of reconciliation and political reform must take place before elections. He spent much of the speech reassuring the public that the Thai economy is strong and that investors should remain confident.
However, he also warned protesters to stop demonstrating against the military coup that he led last week, because, he said, conflict will slow down the process of restoring civilian rule.
Hundreds of government troops sealed off busy intersections in Bangkok on Thursday to prevent an expected opposition rally. Truckloads of soldiers .blocked all roads leading to the city's Victory Monument in a massive show of force during the busy evening rush hour and many street vendors closed up shop early. Few protesters were seen then, but they are said to be planning a huge rally on Sunday in the capital.
Thailand's military rulers have outlawed protests and detained hundreds of government officials, politicians and anti-coup activists since taking power last week. Most have since been freed after promising to refrain from public protests, but others face prosecution.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said the United States sees no legitimate reason to delay elections in Thailand.