At any given time in Thailand, a “countdown” is always in progress, and it’s mostly related to a political show of force that provokes or is provoked by a court decision, which also is often preceded by a countdown of its own. That the US space agency, Nasa, has asked Thailand to make the U-tapao decision by next Tuesday is funny, but no eyebrow should be raised. We Thais live with deadlines, ultimatums and blatant threats. The Americans should know that.
It was Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul who delivered the message of the unhappy Americans to the Thai public and government on Thursday. To our newsroom, he sounded like a man looking desperately to deflect blame and find a graceful exit. This suspicion will be confirmed only if the Yingluck government totally backs down next week.
3.30pm: PM Yingluck Shinawatra has stepped in in style. Having been silent from Day One and let Surapong’s hourly mood swing occupy media attention, she dropped a mini bombshell with an innocent face. “If the issue has to go through Parliament, it will,” she said. “Did she know what she was talking about?” someone asked at our news meeting. Earlier on Twitter, she dared to proclaim that “Nasa is not my father.” What she has come up with is certainly more diplomatic, but it does make this “countdown” to Tuesday more exciting.
Saturday, 10am: If American scientists want to study clouds in the Thai sky, does the Thai Parliament have to approve it? The answer, I think, is not “Yes” or “No”, but “Why not?” Obscurity breeds scepticism, and continued reluctance to be transparent accelerates the growth of the seeds of doubt. “We will explain it to the Chinese,” Surapong had suggested, indirectly acknowledging that the potential deal with the Americans was worrying for Beijing. If China needs an explanation, what about the tiny little thing called the Thai Parliament?
Saturday, 3pm: The Democrats are enjoying this. Their strategy is clear: As long as the government shuns Parliament over U-tapao, we will continue to talk about spy planes and China’s jittery nerves. Well aware that they, too, were mulling US help on disaster relief while in power, the opposition MPs have emphasised again that they are not opposed to a humanitarian scheme, but it has to be carried out in the most transparent manner.
6 pm: Matichon online has put together opinions in the Thai print media. There is not much in the government’s favour. Even those who think government rivals are politicising the issue say Parliament should not have been kept out. In other words, if the U-tapao controversy is turning from a molehill into a mountain, the government is also to blame.
Here’s a summary of some Thai columnists’ opinions. From Daily News: “It’s not wise to make China angry.” From Naew Na: “American foreign policy – enough said.” From Matichon: “Scepticism about American intent has combined with scepticism about Thaksin Shinawatra’s intent.” From Baan Muang: “The fuss is puzzling. US espionage satellites litter the sky and China and the whole world are crawling with US spies already.” From Krungthep Turakij: “This is such a small issue compared with what Thais have been going through.”
Sunday, 2 pm: Diplomat wannabes out there, look no further than Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying for inspiration. In an interview with The Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon, she managed to say something to the effect of “Of course, we are worried” in the most subtle way. To sum it up, she practically said that since Washington has proclaimed pure intention, Beijing must hope the Americans stay true to that. On the issue of the South China Sea, in which case regional anxiety shifts to her country, Fu Ying basically said: “Trust us when we say everyone has agreed to exercise the utmost restraint.
“Asean, the vice minister said, can shape the power play in East Asia and must not become a bystander or “a tool of major powers”. Hearing that, an old song about a woman torn between two men and “feelin’ like a fool” springs to mind.
Monday, 2pm: On the eve of the Thai Cabinet’s crucial decision, high-profile comments are coming thick and fast. Defence Minister Sukamphol Suwannathat charged that cynicism and politics were stalling a very good project for Thailand. Atchaporn Jaruchinda from the Council of State said he couldn’t see how the Nasa deal could compromise Thai sovereignty. Pheu Thai spokesman Prompong Nopparit described the Democrats as a bunch of “cry wolf” boys.
And this is how a leading American media organisation looks at it: “As the Obama administration revamps its Asian strategy in response to a rising China, the military is weighing a return to some familiar bases from its last conflict in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War,” the Washington Post said. It added, though, that the Nasa affair is something completely separate which has been “held up” here due to the “lack of information” which has “bred suspicion in the Thai media and opposition lawmakers”. Surapong today suggested he wouldn’t mind involving Parliament if that would solve the impasse.
Tuesday, 2pm: And Parliament it is. The solution is ridiculously simple and makes us wonder why nobody ever mentioned it before. The U-tapao controversy, the Cabinet has decided, will go through Parliament, but there will only be debate and no voting. This is possible under Article 179 of the Constitution, which allows a joint House-Senate debate on selected issues while no vote has to be called.
Another important thing happening today is that the Cabinet does not favour calling an extra parliamentary session to debate the issue. The 179 debate, observers say, will take place when Parliament reopens in August and can be upgraded into a forum under Article 190, which will require a vote.
The ball is in the American court now. Will Nasa cancel its U-tapao countdown or just postpone it? We should know very soon.