Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom(reuters_tickers)
By Aukkarapon Niyomyat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - The leader of Thailand's military junta said on Tuesday that U.S. President Donald Trump assured him that ties would become "closer than ever before", marking an abrupt change in stance from the one taken by Washington following the coup in 2014.
Trump invited Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House in separate telephone calls over the weekend as he sought to shore up regional support amid mounting U.S. tensions with North Korea.
"The U.S. president said that we are their good ally and he assured me that although we have been rather distant recently Thai-U.S. relations will now be closer than ever before," Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok.
Prayuth has accepted Trump's invitation, but the Thai government has not said when the visit would take place.
Thailand is Washington's oldest ally in the region, but ties were strained by the military coup led by Prayuth in 2014 that ousted an elected civilian government.
Although relations were improving even before the Trump administration took over, pro-democracy activists fear the United States will put even less pressure on Thailand's generals to hand over power promptly.
A general election that the Thai junta first promised for 2015 will not happen before next year and the constitution has been amended to ensure the military retains a strong say in politics.
Despite cooler diplomatic ties, Thailand and the U.S. have continued to hold joint military and police training exercises including the annual Cobra Gold military exercises, Asia's largest multinational drill.
Trump's weekend invitation to Duterte in particular was condemned by rights groups, upset by the Philippine leader's bloody war on drugs.
The White House has defended the invitation.
And a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday told Reuters she had nothing to add.
Thai businesses have said they are worried about Trump's protectionist stance on trade policies. Thailand had a trade surplus of about $18 billion with the United States last year, putting it 11th globally.
The United States is Thailand's second-largest export market this year after China.
Trump promised to increase "trade cooperation" with Thailand and send a trade delegation, Prayuth told reporters, without elaborating.
The junta is struggling to lift growth in Southeast Asia's second's largest economy, which has lagged regional peers.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)