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Cabinet ducks decision on use of U-Tapao airbase

Nasa's request to conduct climate project deferred amid claims it should go to Parliament

Cabinet opted yesterday to delay a decision on the United States' request for Nasa, its aeronautics and space agency, to use U-Tapao airbase for weather research, saying it needed more time to study the project.

"Basically, it is a good project initiated since the previous government but we need to get a working group to study more details, and we will put it up for Cabinet consideration later," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said as she emerged from the meeting yesterday.

Nasa wants to use U-Tapao for its climate research aircraft in August and September as part of a project in collaboration with the Thai Science Ministry's Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (Gistda).

However, the project became a hot issue once the opposition Democrat Party began alleging that the government had offered use of U-Tapao in exchange for a US visa for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was the previous premier, has demanded that the government make public all details of the project and get the proposal considered in Parliament in accordance with Article 190 of the Constitution.

Yingluck said: "If we deem it necessary to hand the proposal over to the Parliament for approval, we will do so accordingly".

Article 190 requires that all agreements with foreign countries or international organisations be considered by the Parliament, especially if they are related to a change in territory or sovereignty over territory.

Democrat spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said although the project was raised during the Democrat-led government, nothing was wrong until it was put in the hands of Yingluck's government. No agencies in charge of national security had raised any concerns about the project before, but the National Security Council had made at least six observations on the very same project under this government, he said.

There were also concerns about whether US petrol giant Chevron had any interest in the project, he said.

Kasit Piromya, who was foreign minister in the Abhisit government, said the current administration should not make a decision on the project by itself but have it debated in Parliament in accordance with the Constitution.

Science Minister Plodprasob Surassawadee said the Nasa project had been initiated two years ago, under the previous administration, and his government was planning to go ahead with it because it was useful for weather research.

"Nasa has the technology that we don't have. If the project is successful, we will have more knowledge on meteorology, which will enable us to predict weather more correctly, so we can prepare for floods," he said.

Plodprasob went on to say the US agency would not be allowed to work on its own, and that some Thai officials would watch their activities closely. The United States needed U-Tapao because it was close to the sea and also because the Gistda centre was located nearby, in the neighbouring district of Sri Racha, he explained.

"The opposition party just wants to turn this into a political issue. It is the opposition party that launched this initiative, so why blame this government for wrongdoing?" he asked.

Meanwhile, Yingluck said she hoped the US would understand Thai politics because her government has been communicating with Washing-ton regularly about the project.

When asked if China had any problems with the US wanting to use U-Tapao, Yingluck said her government had yet to make a decision and had only taken the project up for consideration from the previous government.

"Of course, it's a cooperation. We will consider it if it will benefit our national interest and security, which are our main priorities," she said.

China came up because Thai politicians and intellectuals fear that use of U-Tapao by the US may heighten military tension in the region.

U-Tapao airbase was built to serve American military operations during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. The request for the Nasa project came at around the same time as the Pentagon said it was interested in using the facility for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

However, local security experts fear U-Tapao might be used as part of the US strategy to build a stronger military presence in the Asia-Pacific to "contain" China. It comes at a time when Beijing has serious territorial disputes over the South China Sea with several countries in the region.


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