Update: Thailand Backs Away from NASA Study

Thailand's cabinet Tuesday effectively killed NASA's request for use of U-Tapao naval airbase south of Bangkok for atmospheric studies, referring the plan to a joint parliamentary committee.

NASA, however, earlier said the request for the use of U-Tapao would be withdrawn if the request to use the former Vietnam-era US Air Force base didn't go through by today.

"If we receive approval by June 26, we will be able to proceed with the SEAC4RS (Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study) campaign," said Hal Maring, NASA's project coordinator. "After that date, we will not have time for the extensive logistical preparations required for a flight campaign of this magnitude," Maring earlier told media in Bangkok.

The opposition Democrat Party led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had demanded that the project and another to base humanitarian relief at U-Tapao be discussed in parliament, saying the matter is a national security issue that could affect relations with countries in the region, particularly China, which may regard it as a pretext for US spying.

NASA, however, described the SEAC4RS as beneficial for tracking pollution and weather, including monsoons which determine agricultural production and regional economies but also bring floods which kill hundreds of people in Southeast Asia each year. In particular, Southeast Asia including Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and parts of Thailand are wreathed in choking smoke from vast seasonal burning of forests in Indonesia.

"NASA has proposed to base the SEAC4RS aircraft in Thailand so that the planes can sample the two big meteorological drivers of the region's atmospheric circulation: the summertime monsoon circulation to the west, and marine convection to the east and south, that can loft emissions into the stratosphere," NASA said on its website.

"There are emissions from big seasonal fires and megacities that are moved around the region by a complex meteorological system," said project leader Brian Toon, chair of the University of Colorado's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

"When these chemicals get into the stratosphere, they can affect the whole earth," Toon said.

"Southeast Asia is a complex region influenced by various large emission sources -- fossil fuels, biomass burning, ships, and biogenic emissions among others," wrote Jenny A. Fisher describing how she would work "in the field" during the SEAC4RS project.

"NASA's most complex and ambitious airborne science campaign of the year," as it is called, is sponsored by the Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, NASA said. To sample the atmosphere, high-altitude ER-2 aircraft would be supported by G-V and DC-8 flights.

Simultaneously, "an array of sensors, spread across the region at locations on the ground and in the South China Sea, will observe the atmosphere from the bottom up," NASA said.

"With support from the National Science Foundation and the Naval Research Laboratory, the campaign will draw together coordinated observations from NASA satellites, several research aircraft, and an array of sites on the ground and at sea,” the statement continued. “Pending approval of NASA's plans by the government of Thailand, where the flights would originate, SEAC4RS will take to the field in August.”

"The foreign ministry, the armed forces and the council of state are looking at the issue," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on June 22 after receiving NASA's deadline.

To quell widespread speculation that NASA's project could include a secret, sinister role, Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat said on Friday (June 22), "Trust me, I am not the kind of person who sells the country. It is not anything about military activity."

Some Thai opposition politicians and others suggested NASA's project may displease China, Bangkok's allied northern neighbor, though Beijing has not publicly criticized NASA's plan.

"It is unfortunate that a chance for Thailand and Thai scientists to collaborate with the organization that put men on the moon, and launched the Hubble and Chandra X-ray telescopes into space, has been politicized to the point to where it now looks as if the opportunity might be lost," the Bangkok Post's editorial said on Sunday (June 24).

"Criticism by some in the opposition Democrat Party as well as some academics over the Americans having possible 'hidden agendas', the surrender of Thai sovereignty and the project's potential to upset regional neighbors, namely China," have threatened to block NASA's project, it said.

NASA wants to use Thailand's Naval base at U-Tapao, on the Gulf of Thailand, 90 miles southeast from Bangkok. U-Tapao was among six major air bases used by the U.S. during the 1960s and early 1970s to unleash massive aerial bombardments on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, killing thousands of people, many of them civilians. The three countries remain crippled by the results of the bombing raids which ended when America lost its wars and local communists won triple victories in 1975.

The following year, Thailand told US forces to leave its bases, though the two nations remain close allies and conduct extensive military training exercises in Thailand each year. The U.S. Air Force used U-Tapao during Iraq and Afghanistan wars, especially for transit and refueling.

Today, some foreign commercial and charter flights also use U-Tapao's airport, though Bangkok has two large international airports.

Parliament's session ended on June 19 and is to reconvene in August, which means it would be too late to approve NASA's project. If NASA's project goes ahead without parliament's approval, the Democrats may try to claim it violates section 190 of Thailand's constitution, and use that issue to destabilize the government.

Some analysts suspect that is the Democrats' real motive, because the party has not declared its outright opposition to NASA's project but are pointing to the constitution to give the impression that the government may be violating the law.

The 2007 constitution's convoluted section 190 says in part that a "treaty" which affects the "security of the country...must be approved by the National Assembly."

In addition, "the Council of Ministers must provide information" to the public about the treaty and consult parliament, it says. "The Council of Ministers must submit the negotiation framework to the National Assembly for approval.”

Perhaps more chilling to the government is the section's clause which says that the legal interpretation about the constitution's position over such an issue "falls within the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court."

Yingluck earlier in June backed off trying to amend the constitution in parliament when the Constitutional Court declared that it had the power to inspect the amendment before it could be voted on in parliament -- and if the government violated the court it could be an illegal act.

During the government's constitutional amendment attempt, some Democrat party politicians disrupted parliament, and the chaos in the chamber stopped the government's effort to debate the issue.

If the Democrat Party convinces the government that the NASA project needs parliament's approval, then the project will be halted.

If Yingluck goes ahead with the project without parliament's approval, then the Democrats may launch a case with the Constitutional Court and hope it rules that her government violated the constitution, though it is unclear if such a case would hold up.

Earlier in June, the Democrats insisted the government was trying to amend the constitution to create a loophole so the prime minister's older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, could return to Thailand from self-exile abroad, and not serve a two-year prison sentence.

Thaksin was convicted of corruption after the military toppled him as prime minister in a 2006 coup, and later 1.2 billion dollars of his assets were seized in a separate corruption case.

(Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist. His websites are http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com and http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists/sets)