Cabinet decision sought on US request to use U-Tapao Airport


CHON BURI, June 18 — Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Monday met with ministers of defence, foreign affairs, and the country’s  top brass, and resolved to seek a cabinet decision on the United States space agency’s request to use U-Tapao military airport to conduct atmospheric studies.

The Cabinet is to meet tomorrow.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi and Defence Minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat together held a news conference after meeting to consider the plan for a Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief Centre at U-Tapao and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) request to use U-Tapao airport to conduct atmospheric studies.

Mr Surapong said it agreed in principle with United States request o set up a disaster response centre at the sprawling U-Tapao base, which straddles Chon Buri and Rayong provinces.

He said the project idea was initiated by Thailand in 2010 by then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva when he attended the ASEAN-UN Summit. He said Thailand considered natural disasters as regional problems.

The minister said that the centre would not be a permanent agency, but would be temporary, similar to Thailand’s Flood Relief Operations Center (FROC) set up last year to deal with the massive flood in the country.

The Humanitarian Assistance Center would be staffed when natural disasters occur, in order to quickly respond to each incident and operate humanitarian missions promptly, said the minister.

Mr Surapong said that the meeting agreed to set up a joint working group to consider training courses for military and civilians to increase the centre’s capabilities and effectiveness. Training will be designed for multi-national participants not only from one country and the focus would be on humanitarian assistance, not military exercises.

Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol said that the Centre would deal only with natural disasters and that many countries would join in operating the centre, not only the United States. Thailand is considered a centre of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries so the centre would be based in Thailand.

As for the request by NASA to use U-Tapao for a regional climate study, he said, the issue would be forwarded for cabinet consideration on Tuesday.

He said the study would benefit Thailand for weather forecast information, including the origination of typhoons and monsoons.

Three NASA planes and one Thai aircraft will jointly participate in the operation, he said, and Mr Plodprasop would chair the working group to coordinate the operation.

As the NASA request does not involve Thai sovereignty does not require parliamentary approval under Section 190, clause 2 of the Constitution which stipulates that any international treaties and agreements must first be approved by Parliament.

However, the foreign ministry believed that it needs Cabinet approval under Section 190, clause 1 of the constitution and the Council of State would be asked to confirm this.

Mr Surapong said he would inform China to clarify the issue to avoid any misunderstanding.

Mr Plodprasop said that cooperation with NASA was a technical matter, to be participated in by countries such as South Korea, China and Japan, and that the operation would take two months from August to September.

NASA will begin to ship equipment this month so approval must be finalised soon, he said, noting that this was not the first time that Thailand has coordinated with NASA.

Thailand will benefit from the operation, including the flood prevention plan, the minister said.

He also downplayed security concern, saying that U-Tapao would be used because the Science and Technology Ministry’s satellite centre is in Chon Buri’s Si Racha district not far from U-Tapao and the experiments must be carried out near the sea.

U-Tapao airport has a long runway which could facilitate NASA’s aircraft, he said.