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Gates Affirms Democratic Principles During Bangkok Visit

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

BANGKOK, Thailand, June 1, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today, reaffirming after a week of anti-government protests here that the U.S.-Thai military-to-military relationship is based on shared democratic principles.

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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, speaks with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej at the Ministry of Defense in Bangkok, Thailand, June 1, 2008. Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Speaking with Prime Minister and Defense Minister Samak Sundaravej, Gates praised Thailand’s longstanding bilateral relationship with the United States, and promised to help the Thai military continue its defense reforms and build capacity, a senior defense official who accompanied the secretary told reporters.

But perhaps more significantly, with about a dozen top-level Thai officers looking on during the 45-minute session, Gates praised Thailand’s recent return of its military to civilian control as a return to democratic principles. “The message was pretty unmistakable,” the official said.

Gates’ visit comes on the heels of a week of demonstrations here in the Thai capital that led to speculation that the military could stage a coup. Speaking to reporters early today in Singapore as the annual Asia Security Summit there wrapped up, Gates said he planned to relay the U.S. view on the matter.

“Our position is pretty consistent,” he said. “We want to see democratically elected governments, and we will convey that message.”

He called the timing of his visit – only coincidentally amid the turmoil – “an opportunity to weigh in with this message.”

Gates told Samak the United States has “no better ally in Asia” and expressed interest in expanding that relationship, the official said. He promised continued U.S. help with Thailand’s defense reforms, installation of a new radar network and efforts to professionalize the country’s military officer corps through the Thai National Defense University.

He also thanked Thailand for hosting multilateral military exercises such as the annual Cobra Gold exercise that wrapped up last week.

The bulk of the session focused on the crisis in neighboring Burma, with Samak describing regional efforts to get Burma’s ruling military junta to allow aid into cyclone-stricken regions. Samak also attempted to explain the Burmese leaders’ rationale for refusing aid – basically that any large-scale international intervention could threaten their rule – and said efforts to convince them otherwise hadn’t succeeded.

“Clearly, he was frustrated by their failed efforts to persuade them,” another official at the meeting said.

Samak promised Gates “to press this” when Thailand takes over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in July.

Gates had urged ASEAN during the Asia Security Summit to pressure Burma, one of its members, to accept international offers to help.

During today’s meeting, Samak also explained the complex roots of an insurgency in southern Thailand and its impact on the country’s internal security. Four southern border provinces have long been host to a secessionist movement, with violence resulting in hundreds of deaths.

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Robert M. Gates

Related Sites:
State Department Background Note on Thailand
Special Report: Travels With Gates
Photo Essay: Gates Visits Thailand

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