U-tapao use gets armed forces' nod

U-tapao use gets armed forces' nod

Top brass suggest asking other nations to take part

The cabinet is expected to approve requests by the US to use U-tapao naval airport in Rayong for a regional climate study and humanitarian and disaster relief operations today after the armed forces raised no objections.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday chaired a meeting in Pattaya to discuss the requests. It was attended by Deputy Prime Minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa, Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul and armed forces chiefs.

Permanent secretary for defence Sathian Permthong-in said the armed forces did not oppose the requests.

The US Defence Department wants to use U-tapao military airport for its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief centre and Nasa wants use of the airport to conduct regional climate studies in August and September.

A source at the meeting said the armed forces top brass were not against the US requests but suggested that other countries should also be invited to join Thailand and the US in the humanitarian and disaster relief operations projects.

The source said the prime minister wanted the public to know the armed forces were in favour of the US projects, as she believes their approval will shield her administration from criticism that national security will be jeopardised.

Ms Yingluck asked the chiefs of the armed forces and the defence minister to join a press conference after the meeting to express support for the projects, but the top military brass refused.

Only ACM Sukumpol and Mr Surapong spoke to the reporters.

"If the chiefs of the armed forces spoke to the reporters themselves, the military would become a shield for the government's decision," the source said.

Participants at the meeting also appointed two committees to consider drafting memoranda of understanding on the use of U-tapao airport. A panel chaired by Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi will handle the Nasa request while a panel led by Mr Surapong will look at the request by US military to set up the humanitarian and disaster relief centre.

Navy chief Adm Surasak Rounroengrom said the government had informed neighbouring countries about the US requests and they did not oppose them.

China's concerns about the projects has been relayed to the US, he said.

The US requests are seen by observers as countering the growing Chinese military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Mr Surapong said the requests will be placed for cabinet consideration today.

He said officials from the Science and Technology Ministry and from the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives' royal rainmaking project will work with Nasa officials on board planes carrying out climate studies.

The issue became controversial when the opposition Democrat Party raised questions about whether the approval of Nasa's request is part of a bargain to secure an entry visa to the US for ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The government strongly denies the claim.

Opponents of the projects fear Nasa's study of regional climate conditions could affect ties with other countries, as it involves high-altitude flights which could be used to spy on Thailand's neighbours.

An army source said the US military is expected to use the Red Horse building in U-tapao as an office centre as well as to accommodate American soldiers on the mission.

The building was named after an American military engineering unit during the Vietnam War.

Ombudsman Sriracha Charoenpanich said yesterday he believes the US requests violate Thailand's territorial sovereignty and should be approved by parliament under Section 190 of the constitution.

A misstep by the government could cause a great deal of damage to the country, he said.

Senator Phichet Sunthornpipit called on the government to make public details of the agreement with the US on its proposed use of the airport.

Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn said the requests must be scrutinised by parliament, or he will petition the Administrative and Constitution courts.

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