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US hopeful Thai military will not stage another coup

The United States voiced confidence on Tuesday that Thailand's military will not stage another coup as worries mount in Washington of fresh turmoil in its oldest Asian ally.

WASHINGTON: The United States voiced confidence on Tuesday that Thailand's military will not stage another coup as worries mount in Washington of fresh turmoil in its oldest Asian ally.

Amy Searight, the top Pentagon official devoted to Southeast Asia, said the United States was "reasonably confident" that the Thai armed forces "will continue to be restrained and professional in all of this."

"At this point we don't have any reason to expect that the Thai military will change their current stance," she told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Searight said that the Thai military appeared to have learned lessons from 2006, when it overthrew tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister and the United States briefly imposed sanctions.

Opposition demonstrators are threatening to step up their six-month campaign to overthrow the government.

But the government's supporters, known as the "Red Shirts', say they will not tolerate any move to hand power to an unelected regime, warning it could lead to civil war.

The opposition protesters want the Senate (upper house of parliament) -- almost half of whose members are unelected -- to remove the weakened cabinet, but it is unclear whether such a move is possible under the constitution.

The country has not had a functioning lower house since Yingluck dissolved parliament in December for elections that were later voided because of disruption by protesters.

Some members of the Senate held a meeting on Monday to seek a solution to the crisis.

Paiboon Nittitawan, an appointed senator and prominent government critic, urged the upper house to choose a new prime minister "immediately, for the sake of security and the economy".

"We cannot allow the crisis to drag on," he said.

Senate speaker-elect Surachai Liangboonlertchai told reporters before the talks that he would draft a "roadmap" out of the crisis as soon as possible but did not reveal his plan.

Fewer than 90 senators, out of a total of 150, attended the meeting amid questions about whether the upper house is entitled to hold a debate on the crisis in the present circumstances.

Thailand's judiciary last week removed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- Thaksin's sister -- in the latest twist in the deeply polarized nation's eight years of turmoil that has led to crippling street protests and occasional bloodshed.

Scot Marciel, the top State Department official on Southeast Asia, said that Washington was not offering a "US prescription" to resolve the crisis beyond urging a peaceful solution.

"It's important that it be done constitutionally and democratically and, of course, peacefully," Marciel said.

Behind the chaos, many observers believe that Thailand is undergoing a struggle on who will lead the country after the six-decade reign of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The world's longest-serving monarch is widely revered as a father figure but has been ill for several years.

Ernie Bower, the Southeast Asia chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies which held the conference, said that Thailand is undergoing "an existential 100-year power struggle."

"No matter what hopeful signs we're seeing, no matter which prime minister gets ousted in the near term, this struggle is not over until his succession takes place. We don't and should not expect resolution or stability in Thailand until that takes place," Bower said.

Bower added that the United States should remain steadfast in advocating democracy and human rights even if it faces short-term worries of losing ground to regional power China, which pleased the Thai military by swiftly accepting the 2006 coup.

"I think in the long run if we stick with those principles, we will find ourselves on the right side of history in Thailand, with the Thai people," Bower said.

The crisis comes as US President Barack Obama pursues a "pivot" strategy of putting a greater focus on Asia in the face of concerns by several nations over China's rise.

Thailand was the first Asian ally of the United States, with the kingdom -- then known as Siam -- signing a friendship treaty with Washington in 1833 and famously offering elephants to president Abraham Lincoln to fight the Civil War.

Marciel and Searight both said that US cooperation with Thailand had largely progressed unhindered, with the exception of some work by government ministries closed by street protests. Cobra Gold -- the region's largest war exercises, which take place in Thailand among US-friendly nations -- went ahead in February.

But Vikram Singh, a key force behind the "pivot" who recently left the Pentagon and joined the Centre for American Progress think tank, said that an intensified crisis would hurt the region as a whole even if Thailand and the United States succeed in preserving cooperation.

"If Thailand falters, I think it is going to be a powerful drag on the progress for Southeast Asia as a whole," he said.

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