BANGKOK -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Thailand on Tuesday and met with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, becoming the highest-ranked American official to travel to the kingdom after the military regime took power in a 2014 coup.
The longstanding relationship between the two countries became strained after the coup as the previous U.S. administration showed strong concerns regarding Thailand's democracy and human rights issues. But relations appear to be warming again under President Donald Trump, especially as Washington looks to build a united front against North Korea's missile development threats.
Compliance on North Korea
Tillerson's one-day visit to Thailand followed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum meeting Monday in Manila, where he pressed his Asian counterparts for more action on North Korea.
Washington wants more cooperation from Bangkok, its oldest ally in Asia. Thailand hosts a North Korean embassy and conducts bilateral trade with the country.
"We are committed to comply with the United Nations decision," Prayuth told reporters Tuesday prior to meeting with Tillerson. He received a phone call from Trump in April and was asked to cooperate on actions against North Korea. Trump even invited the junta leader to visit the White House, a meeting that could happen by the end of the year.
"I cannot pay official visits [to certain countries] because I'm a leader of this kind of government," Prayuth said. He led the 2014 coup toppling an elected government. "However, it's not because they find me repulsive or anything. It is because of the law of that country."
Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai also met with his U.S. counterpart Tuesday. They "exchanged opinions" on topics such as North Korea, the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, trade and anti-terrorism measures, he told reporters after the meeting.
"Thailand is friends with both the U.S. and North Korea," Don said. "But we will follow the U.N. resolution to show North Korea that the international community is not happy with what is going on with the missile experiments."
No specific agreement or commitment was made during the talk. "We could say the meeting had more of a symbolic meaning," Don said, stressing that it was the first time in more than three years that the top American diplomat visited the country.
Don was asked whether Tillerson showed concern about Thailand's restoration of democracy and human rights issues under the military regime.
"Nothing specific about that, but simply [about] what kind of atmosphere should be produced for expansion of trade and investment," the minister replied. "Obviously, the atmosphere which is liberalized and very democratic will boost trade and investment, and that was something that [Tillerson] mentioned to us."
Don insisted that Thailand is moving toward democracy, with a general election set to be held by the end of 2018. The election initially was promised for 2015.
The military regime bans political activities and restricts criticism against the government.