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Thai army delegation visits China amid Western reproach of coup

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A delegation of Thai military commanders travelled to China on Wednesday for talks on regional security and joint training amid Western reproach of the army's seizure of power in a coup last month.

General Surasak Kanjanarat, Thailand's de facto defence minister, said the meeting was aimed at mapping out "future plans of action" with the Chinese army, one of its oldest regional allies. He did not elaborate on the plans.

The bid by Thailand's military rulers to strengthen ties with China comes after Western powers, including old ally the United States, criticised the May 22 coup and called for a speedy return to democracy.

The junta has said it has China's support.

"This meeting will be to talk about ties ... and future plans of action and exchange views on regional security," Surasak, the head of the delegation, told reporters.

"We will discuss in which areas we could increase military training. We will not talk about the situation in Thailand because it is not relevant."

Surasak was due to meet the deputy chief-of-staff of the China's army, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong.

The coup was the latest convulsion in a decade-long conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist establishment and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies. The ousted government had been headed by the self-exiled, former telecommunications tycoon's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Several foreign government have voiced disapproval of the coup, including the United States, which scrapped joint military programmes days after the generals took power.

In contrast, the ambassadors of China and Vietnam in Bangkok met Thailand's armed forces chief last week in what the junta said was a show of support.

On Monday, in the first major corporate deal since the coup, state-owned China Mobile Ltd agreed to buy a 19 percent stake in Thai telecoms group True Corp for $881 million.

The regime's engagement with China comes at a critical time for the United States, which is shoring up ties with Asian allies and building stronger relationships with countries like Vietnam and Myanmar to counter China's growing assertiveness.

Perhaps with that in mind, the U.S. response to Thailand's coup has, for now anyway, been limited to the suspension of about $3.5 million in military aid and the cancellation of some training exercises and visits by commanders.

While likely to find sympathy in China, Thailand's military is also concerned about perceptions elsewhere. Junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha called on 23 Thai ambassadors on Wednesday to make the case for the coup.

"Thailand is not able to be alone in this world and a great part of our income comes from exports which relies on international relationships," Prayuth said.

"We can't make everyone agree with our actions but our duty is to create understanding."

Malaysia's defence minister is due next week to make the first visit by a foreign government minister since the coup. His trip showed "a good understanding of the Thai situation", the Thai military said in a statement.

CLAMP DOWN

The army stepped in after more than six months of debilitating and at times violent protests against Yingluck's government, saying it had to act to prevent more bloodshed.

China's top newspaper on Monday warned against aping Western-style democracy, pointing to Thailand as an example of the kind of chaos the system can bring.

For a decade Thailand has been caught up in a political tug of war between mostly poor supporters of Thaksin and middle-class Bangkok residents aligned with the royalist establishment. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid a corruption sentence.

He remains hugely popular among rural voters.

As part of the junta's reforms, it has moved to sideline civil servants and senior police officers seen as loyal to Thaksin in what his supporters see as part of a bid by the establishment to permanently exclude him from politics.

The junta has imposed draconian controls since taking control. More than 300 academics, journalists, activists and politicians, a disproportionate number of them aligned to Thaksin, have been rounded up by the military.

The junta has also banned political gatherings of more than five people and imposed a nationwide curfew, now running from midnight to 4 a.m.

However, over the past week, it has lifted the curfew in 10 holiday destinations to help boost tourism, which accounts for about 10 percent of the economy. On Tuesday, it lifted it in a further 20 provinces but kept it in Bangkok.

Chinese tourists have flocked to Thailand in recent years, overtaking the numbers of visitors from the United States and Europe though the recent turmoil has frightened many off.

In the first five months of 2014, the number of tourists from China plunged 54.9 percent from the same period a year earlier to 307,637, according to the Association of Thai Travel Agents).

Chinese tourists, including visitors for business meetings and conferences, accounted for 26 percent of total passenger arrivals in those months.

(Additional Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)

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