Nasa went silent as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra shuffled its research project off to parliament for at least six weeks, adding it would be a pity if the US space agency actually pulls out. (Nasa photo shows proposed aircraft parking details)
The cabinet yesterday voted to forward Nasa's request to use U-tapao naval airbase in Rayong for atmospheric studies to parliament for debate in August, which will likely result in the project being cancelled. The request will be debated at the next session of a joint sitting of parliament, under Section 179 of the constitution, which does not require a vote. The parliament is now in recess and will not convene until August. Speaking after the cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra admitted the decision might cause Nasa to scrap the project. It would be a pity if Nasa withdrew its request as Thailand would lose an opportunity to develop its weather forecasting capabilities, she said. "The cabinet agrees that we should use parliamentary mechanisms to scrutinise the request in the interests of the country," she said. Nasa sent the request to use U-tapao last year, but the government did not respond until this month. Last week, Nasa made it clear the request for use of the airport for scientific studies in August and September would be withdrawn if approval was not forthcoming by yesterday. Although the Council of State, the government's legal adviser, confirmed that the request did not require parliamentary approval under paragraph 2 of Section 190 of the constitution, and ministries concerned had publicly explained the benefits of the Nasa project, there were still conflicting opinions, she said. Moreover, the opposition has said it might affect national interests. This was a serious accusation, Ms Yingluck said. She said the cabinet had assigned Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul to explain the decision to the United States and hoped that Washington would understand and respect it. Ms Yingluck said the cabinet decided not to call an extraordinary parliamentary session to consider the matter because even then it would not meet the Nasa deadline for Thailand to give an answer by yesterday. Mr Surapong said the cabinet agreed to forward the request to parliament for debate under Section 179 to make everything clear at the recommendation of the Council of State. He said the decision came after several agencies raised concerns about the request. The National Security Council (NSC) was concerned that the US might be looking to return to exert its influence in the region while the military top brass were worried the public might misunderstand the issue, Mr Surapong said. In addition, the government wants to explain everything to society because the opposition has accused it of failing to protect the country's interests. "They are playing too much of a political game," Mr Surapong said. Mr Surapong said Nasa's request will be debated by a joint sitting of parliament in August, which is when the Nasa project is scheduled to start. It was slated to run into September. This means the project would not go ahead as planned given that delivery of equipment and preparations must be ready before flights to conduct the climate studies in early August. Mr Surapong said a total of 45 flights would be required to conduct the climate studies, with each flight costing about US$20 million (638 million baht). He said he wondered if Nasa would ever return to Thailand and resume the project if it was cancelled. Mr Surapong said he would formally tell the US embassy of the cabinet's decision and ask the US ambassador Kristie Kenney to convince Nasa not to shun Thailand in its future atmospheric study projects. A source who was at the cabinet meeting said the NSC recommended that if the cabinet had approved Nasa's request, it should have signed an exchange of notes with the US rather than a memorandum of understanding which would require parliamentary scrutiny under Section 190 of the constitution. Democrat Party and opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday said he agreed with the government's decision to seek parliamentarians' views on Nasa's request. Problems could have been avoided if the government had done this at the beginning, Mr Abhisit said. Serm Janjai, a scientist from Silpakorn University who takes part in Nasa atmospheric studies in Southeast Asia, said the delay has directly affected the project and this had ruined the country's scientific creditability.