U-Tapao decision must be debated in public forums

opinion June 15, 2012 00:00

By The Nation

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With the US showing renewed interest in the Thai military base, discussion on its use must be transparent to reassure the public and our neighbours


The government must ensure transparency in the process of deciding whether to allow the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to use U-Tapao base as a meteorology centre.
A transparent debate, both inside and outside Parliament, would help clear up any doubts and suspicions surrounding Nasa’s request to use U-Tapao as a base for a weather-monitoring project. 
The government is trying to downplay the request in order to avoid a House debate by reasoning that the issue is not subject to Article 190 of the Constitution. 
However, now that the US request has attracted the attention of the public and the international news media, the government should ensure the approval process is conducted in the correct manner, and that the decision is in the best interests of the nation.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, said the US would also like to cooperate with Thailand on the use of U-Tapao as a humanitarian disaster-relief centre. He denied that America wants to use U-Tapao as a full-scale military base. But his statement alone cannot clear suspicion that this is the real motive. After all, U-Tapao has been traditionally perceived as a strategic airport. It’s used regularly as a base for the Cobra Gold exercises between Thai and American troops. 
If the request is approved it would mean the arrival of the first American personnel and equipment at U-Tapao since the US pulled out of the Vietnam conflict more than three decades ago. 
This is said to be Nasa’s most complex and ambitious airborne-science programme, known as the Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study, or SEAC4RS. With support from the US National Science Foundation and the Naval Research Laboratory, the campaign will draw together coordinated observations and data from Nasa satellites, research aircraft and an array of sites on the ground and at sea.
The timing of the request comes just after the US unveiled detailed plans to build and strengthen its military presence in the Southeast Asian region. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said in Singapore earlier this month that the US would deploy in Asia more aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and combat ships, carrying the most advanced technology and weapons, as part of what he called the “re-balancing of the US military to Asia”.
It remains unclear what the implications will be of this sudden US military interest in regional development and security issues. The issue thus deserves to be discussed in order to provide better understanding among members of the public. The scientific aspect of the project is also worth discussion. 
The Thai government is, however, anxious to avoid debate on the issue, saying the request does not fall under the Constitution’s Article 190, which requires the government to seek approval from Parliament.
In fact, the general public perceives the US as a long-standing Thai ally. People well remember the sight of American military personnel providing humanitarian assistance to victims of the floods here last year.
The Pheu Thai government should not find it difficult to push through this agreement if it brings the issue to a parliamentary debate. The party controls a very comfortable majority in the House.
But the debate is important in that it will not only tell Thai people what exactly this project is about, but it will also reassure some of our neighbours in Asean, and China, which feels uneasy at the increasing US presence in the region. After all, the stakeholders in this matter are not limited to the opposition party at home.