BANGKOK – Thailand will not meet a U.S.-imposed deadline for a decision on whether to allow the American space agency NASA to use a key air base for a climate study that critics fear could be a cover for military purposes.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Tuesday that her Cabinet had agreed to have lawmakers debate the NASA project on the impact of Asian emissions on clouds, climate and air quality, but only after Parliament reconvenes Aug. 1.
That is too late for the project, which was to have been conducted out of U-Tapao naval air base in August and September. NASA had set the end of June as the deadline for Thailand's decision on the project. The Cabinet could have made a decision Tuesday, but it might have been open to legal challenge as needing parliamentary approval.
U-Tapao was a major base for U.S. bombing missions during the Vietnam War, and some critics have charged that the NASA project is a threat to Thai sovereignty and might also anger China. The U.S. military has continued to use the base for refueling and as a staging area for humanitarian relief operations, including those conducted after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Myanmar's 2008 Cyclone Nargis. The base is located in Chonburi province, 190 kilometers (118 miles) southeast of Bangkok.
Yingluck told reporters the Cabinet ministers had decided to hold a parliamentary debate on the issue to "create transparency and a fact-checking process to clear up all the doubts" that skeptics have about the plan.
The project, called the "Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study," was to use satellites, aircraft and ground missions to study how air circulation during the monsoon affected the climate and air quality in South and Southeast Asia.
"It would be a pity for us to lose a chance to develop a climate prediction capacity that would allow us to have more accurate information," Yingluck said.
Critics of the project include nationalists and the opposition Democrat Party. There have been allegations, unsupported by evidence, that the project would be a cover for U.S. military and intelligence activities, and could harm Thailand's relations with China. NASA and scientists supporting the project have pointed out in rebuttal that its details were openly available.
"We chose U-Tapao because it provided an optimum combination of location, facilities and access," Hal Maring, a coordinator of the NASA project, told the English-language Bangkok Post, emphasizing that "NASA is a civilian agency and has no connection with the United States military."
Critics also claim to see a sinister U.S. hand in a separate plan to set up a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief center at U-Tapao to serve as a regional aid hub in case of natural catastrophes.