Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha met with President Donald Trump this week as the two countries seek to reinvigorate a relationship that had been strained since the former general ousted a democratically elected government in a 2014 military coup.
“During the past three years, there have been positive developments because they (the U.S.) see what we have done,” Prayut, the former commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army, told VOA Thai during an exclusive interview. “They see it in spite of how we had come to power.”
Prayut’s first meeting with Trump came days after a court in Thailand sentenced in absentia the prime minister he unseated, Yingluck Shinawatra, to five years in prison for criminal negligence related to costly rice subsidy programs that failed to prop up farmers’ income. She has fled Thailand.
Human rights criticisms
Human rights groups and the United States have been critical of Thailand’s military intervention, saying there has been an erosion of human rights and democratic institutions such as freedom of the press, as shown by the silencing of high-profile journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk.
Prayut has argued the coup was necessary to stabilize the country.
The action came after public discontent over Shinawatra’s controversial government escalated into six months of street protests. Thai politics have been dominated for more than a decade by a power struggle between Thailand’s traditional elite, including the army and affluent Bangkok-based upper classes, and the Shinawatra family, which includes Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Prayut is the first prime minister of Thailand to visit the White House in 12 years. Trump extended the invitation to Prayut in late April.
In August, Prayut had trade and regional security talks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Thailand since the 2014 coup.
During the Monday meeting, Prayut said he told Trump that Thailand is on track to hold an election next year.
“He didn’t ask me about that,” Prayut said. “I think he monitors the situation closely and I have constantly been talking about the roadmap.”
Prayut’s roadmap to hold free and fair elections, however, experienced delays for at least a year, partly caused by revisions in the draft constitution.
Following the Prayut-led coup, the Obama administration cut military aid to Thailand and downgraded American participation in Cobra Gold, long the largest multilateral defense exercise in Asia.
The meeting with Trump seemed to offer a pivot on the defense exercise, as a joint statement from the two governments said: “The two leaders also welcomed closer military-to-military cooperation and joint exercises, including Cobra Gold.”
On economic ties with the U.S., Prayut said Thailand intends to expand investment in the U.S. by additional $8.3 billion, which could lead to 15,000 new jobs, including work at a petrochemical project in Ohio.
The Thai government also announced Tuesday that the SCG Group, one of the country’s largest industrial conglomerates, plans to sign two memorandums of understanding to purchase 155,000 tons of coal from U.S. suppliers for cement production.
Trump and Prayut also discussed measures to denuclearize North Korea.
“We have followed the U.N. regulations and have made our own initiatives so that trade and investment with North Koreans have dropped to very low levels,” he said, adding that the U.S. “wants ASEAN to pay more attention on that, and I told him ASEAN is on the same page.” ASEAN is the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
When asked about Thailand’s role in resolving Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, Prayut was diplomatic in his remarks about the neighboring nation.
“We have to respect the Myanmar government,” he said. “We are friends and will help each other to bring back peace,” he said.
Violence, reignited by clashes between Myanmar’s military and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, have prompted some 500,000 members of the Muslim minority group to flee to Bangladesh since August.
“We told the U.S. that Thailand is ready to be a connecting point for the human rights issues and relief effort for affected people,” Prayut told VOA.
While official U.S.-Thai cooperation may take time to come to fruition, Prayut said he found immediate connections with Trump.
“You can’t judge people only from what you see on social media. I think he is not the kind of leader many people thought,” he said of Trump. “I am having the same problem myself. I also have a problem with the media.”
Prayut also said both he and Trump are “change leaders.”
“I still remember how his voice had sounded on the phone. He was polite,” Prayut said. “Now I am meeting him in person. … He is very friendly.”
This report originated on VOA Thai.