Thailand invites Obama to patch up

As the United States steps up its focus on Southeast Asia, its oldest regional ally Thailand is inviting President Barack Obama to visit as it tries to shed images of last year's political violence.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva sent a special envoy to Washington this week to convince US policymakers that the kingdom is returning to stability and is committed to shift its fractious politics from the street to the ballot box.

"Our mission is to tell them that we're back in business," envoy Panitan Wattanayagorn, who also serves as the Thai government's acting spokesman, told AFP on Wednesday.

The Obama administration has worked to build ties with Southeast Asia, sensing that the dynamic and mostly US-friendly region has been neglected due to Washington's preoccupation with Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Obama has promised to attend the next East Asian Summit, tentatively slated for October on Indonesia's resort island of Bali. A month later, Obama will welcome Asia-Pacific leaders to his native Hawaii for an annual summit.

Panitan said that Thailand welcomed the warming US relationship with Indonesia, which the Obama administration sees as an ideal partner in light of its vast, moderate Muslim population and its rapid shift to democracy.

But Panitan said that Thailand also sought a stop by Obama.

"We are working hard for that," he said. "A visit would be very good. By that time, we should have a new government in office."

Panitan hinted that the government supported elections early this year, saying it believed it enjoyed a lead in polls owing to an economic rebound.

But last month thousands of "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters returned to the streets of Bangkok, their largest demonstration since their mass sit-in in the heart of the capital in April and May last year.

Troops broke up last year's demonstration, killing more than 90 people as the world's television viewers saw footage of the modern city's sleek buildings burning to the ground.

The Red Shirts, who mostly come from the countryside and idolize deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate possible crimes against humanity in the crackdown.

Panitan rejected the effort, saying that Thailand was not part of the world court.

An election would be "important in the sense that we can bring back politics to the parliament, not on the streets," he said.

Panitan conceded that foreign observers may think Thailand is consumed by domestic issues. But he said the kingdom was committed to an international role and pointed to its recent dispatch of peacekeepers to Darfur.

"We try to make sure that domestic turbulences don't spill over and affect our relationship with our friends," he said.

The United States has officially steered clear of taking sides in Thailand. In the meantime, it has focused efforts on building defense and political ties elsewhere in Southeast Asia -- including Indonesia and also former foe Vietnam.

The United States last month also pledged help for the navy of the Philippines, the other treaty ally of the United States in Southeast Asia besides Thailand.

Thailand is the oldest US ally in Asia. The kingdom then known as Siam famously offered elephants to President Abraham Lincoln to fight in the US Civil War.

Source: AFP

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