Nasa Project May Be Delayed: Thai-US Ties
BANGKOK: -- Time appeared to be running out on the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's weather-research project yesterday as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced that the Cabinet had decided to put it to a parliamentary debate.
"As the [parliamentary] checking process is slow, it might lead Nasa to decide to withdraw the project, because it faces time constraints," Yingluck told reporters after the Cabinet meeting.
"We have lost a chance to develop our capability for weather forecasting," she said. "Thanks to all the scientists for their efforts to explain this matter. The government will seek all other possible ways to get more information for scientific purposes."
The project, for which Nasa requested the use of U-tapao airbase by its weather-surveillance aircraft in August and September, has become a political issue, with opposition lawmakers voicing suspicions over possible ulterior motives by Washington.
The Democrat Party has alleged that the United States might be conducting the research for military purposes to contain China in Asia and the Pacific, and claimed the Thai government offered the use of U-tapao in exchange for a US visa for fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Yingluck said her government had not made any legally binding commitment to Nasa, adding that the project had not yet begun. Concerned agencies have tried to clarify the matter, but there remain suspicions in many quarters, including in the opposition camp, over Thailand's national interests and security, she said.
"The allegation is very serious. To ensuree transparency, the government agrees to use the Parliament mechanism to scrutinise the project," Yingluck said.
Asked whether the project could be renewed, she said it was up to Parliament and public opinion.
The government's deputy spokes-man, Chalitrat Chantarubeksa, said the Cabinet decided to put the Nasa project through a parliamentary debate in accordance with Article 179 of the Constitution, not Article 190 as demanded by the opposition.
Article 179 says the Cabinet can seek opinions from Parliament in cases involving important problems of administration. Parliament does not make any resolution in such debates.
Article 190 says agreements with foreign countries or international organisations need parliamentary approval if they result in a change in territory or sovereignty over territory or have implications on national economic or social security.
The Council of State and the Foreign Ministry's Treaties and Legal Affairs departments earlier told the Cabinet that parliamentary scrutiny of the Nasa project was not required under Article 190.
Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul said the Cabinet was still worried as the opposition had twisted the issue by saying Nasa had a hidden agenda to conduct research for military purposes to contain China.
"We have good relations with both China and the US, but Opposition Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva keeps saying that the government has not been clear on the issue," he said.
Science, Technology and Environment Minister Prodprasob Surassawadee and Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat gave all the details of the project to the public via the mass media every day, Surapong said.
To make clear to the public that the government has no hidden interests, the Cabinet will consult Parliament in accordance with Article 179 of the Constitution, he said.
Parliament will open for its next session on August 1, which will miss Nasa's deadline for beginning the project. "The delay is not in the national interest; the opposition has overly politicised the issue," Surapong said.
"We cannot accept the allegation of failing to protect the national interest made by the opposition," he said.
Surapong said he would inform the US of the Cabinet's decision and ask Nasa to begin the project next year, since time was running out to begin the project this year.
Anond Snidvongs, executive director of the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, said scientists felt uncomfortable continuing with the project, as it was widely misunderstood and could ignite political conflict.
"The delay might give us a 'strange' reputation among the international community, but we have to avoid internal social conflict," he said.
Abhisit said there would have been no problems if the government had used parliamentary channels long ago to make all things clear. It seemed the project was put on hold and has an unclear future now, he said.
The government should be aware of the fact that the public wanted to know about the project, but sat on it for months, he said. "The country lost this opportunity because the government lacks transparency," Abhisit said.
Activist Suriyasai Katasila of the Green Politic Group said the Cabinet should put the Nasa project before Parliament in accordance with Article 190, rather than Article 179. The group will ask the Administrative Court to terminate the project, he said.
The Nation 2012-06-27