World

Elections next year, Thai PM tells US audience

Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, on his first trip to the US since seizing power in a coup d'etat in 2014, has pledged to announce a general election in Thailand next year.

An election date would be announced and a new government will be formed 120 days later, he told an audience of American business executives and senior US Cabinet and State Department officials on Tuesday night.

Gen Prayut did not give any date, but the pledge is still significant, an American diplomat told The Straits Times.

"Opportunity comes with crisis," said the 63-year-old premier at the dinner hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-Asean Business Council.

The US was the third biggest foreign investor in Thailand last year.

"Thailand is in a place of transition into democracy," said Gen Prayut, who was the army chief when the military seized power from Thailand's elected government. He stepped down as army chief after taking over the premiership.

The Thai leader stressed that the objective of his government was to lay the foundation for a democratic government and ensure policy continuity.

His three-day trip to the US, which included a stop at the White House and working lunch with President Donald Trump on Monday, was seen by analysts as a diplomatic coup and a reset of the US-Thai alliance.

Also speaking at Tuesday's dinner, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said: "As a long-time friend and ally, the US wants Thailand to emerge as a strengthened democracy that guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms."

A top aide to GenPrayut told The Straits Times that the Thai Prime Minister's visit to the US had been successful.

Gen Prayut himself was in an ebullient mood, saying he had a new friend in Mr Trump and was "deeply appreciative" of being invited to the White House.

"The relationship between Thailand and America will continue in a positive manner for the next 200 years," Gen Prayut pledged at the dinner.

The Thai leader also laid out ambitious plans for more Thai investment in the US and said Thailand and Asean were markets that presented the US with huge opportunities.

Thailand's foreign direct investment in the US was US$2.1 billion (S$2.9 billion) last year, four times greater than in 2015.

Thailand's investment in the US supported thousands of jobs, and the intent was to increase investment by an additional US$8.3 billion.

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