21 September 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was unable to convince Thailand to allow U.S. aircraft designed for "probing a vast expanse of the Southeast Asian atmosphere" to launch from a former Vietnam War-era American air base.



NASA cancelled its efforts after emphasizing Thailand must agree by June 26, or else the two-month project would not be able to lift off during August and September.



Squabbling among Thailand's notoriously confrontational politicians prevented Bangkok from agreeing to NASA's launch.



"On June 26, 2012, NASA cancelled the SEAC4RS (Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study) mission, which was scheduled to begin in August 2012, due to the absence of necessary approvals by regional authorities in the timeframe necessary to support the mission's planned deployment and scientific observation window," NASA said on its website after the deadline passed. (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/seac4rs.html)



NASA described the SEAC4RS as beneficial for tracking pollution and weather, including monsoons which determine agricultural production and regional economies but also bring floods which kill hundreds of people in Southeast Asia each year.



NASA had "proposed to base the SEAC4RS aircraft in Thailand so that the planes can sample the two big meteorological drivers of the region's atmospheric circulation: the summertime monsoon circulation to the west, and marine convection to the east and south, that can loft emissions into the stratosphere," NASA said.



"There are emissions from big seasonal fires and megacities that are moved around the region by a complex meteorological system," said project leader Brian Toon, chair of the University of Colorado's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.



"When these chemicals get into the stratosphere, they can affect the whole Earth," Mr. Toon said.



"Southeast Asia is a complex region influenced by various large emission sources -- fossil fuels, biomass burning, ships, and biogenic emissions among others," wrote Jenny A. Fisher describing how she would work "in the field" during the SEAC4RS project, before it NASA cancelled it. (Research)



"NASA's most complex and ambitious airborne science campaign of the year," was sponsored by the Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, NASA said.



To sample the atmosphere, high-altitude ER-2 aircraft were to be supported by G-V and DC-8 flights.



Simultaneously, "an array of sensors, spread across the region at locations on the ground and in the South China Sea," would have enabled NASA to "observe the atmosphere from the bottom up," NASA said.



"With support from the National Science Foundation and the Naval Research Laboratory, the campaign will draw together coordinated observations from NASA satellites, several research aircraft, and an array of sites on the ground and at sea," it said before cancelling.



"Pending approval of NASA's plans by the government of Thailand, where the flights would originate, SEAC4RS will take to the field in August," NASA said.



"The foreign ministry, the armed forces and the council of state are looking at the issue," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on June 22 after receiving NASA's deadline, but later announced her government could not agree.



To quell widespread speculation that NASA's project could include a secret, sinister role, Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat said on June 22, "Trust me, I am not the kind of person who sells the country. It is not anything about military activity."



Some Thai opposition politicians and others suggested NASA's project could displease China, Bangkok's allied northern neighbor, though Beijing has not publicly criticized NASA's plan.



"It is unfortunate that a chance for Thailand and Thai scientists to collaborate with the organization that put men on the moon, and launched the Hubble and Chandra X-ray telescopes into space, has been politicized," resulting in Thailand's inability to work with NASA, a Bangkok Post editorial said on June 24.



"Criticism by some in the opposition Democrat Party as well as some academics over the Americans having possible 'hidden agendas', the surrender of Thai sovereignty, and the project's potential to upset regional neighbors -- namely China," resulted in blocking the project, it said.



NASA wanted to use Thailand's naval base at U-Tapao, on the Gulf of Thailand, 120 miles southeast from Bangkok.



U-Tapao was among six major air bases used by the U.S. during the 1960s and early 1970s to unleash massive aerial bombardments on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, killing thousands of people, many of them civilians.



Those three countries remain crippled today by the results of the bombing raids which ended when America lost its wars and local communists won triple victories in 1975.



The following year, Thailand told U.S. forces to leave its bases, though the two nations remain close allies and conduct extensive military training exercises in Thailand each year.



"In 1983, the Joint United States Military Assistance Group-Thailand signed a memorandum of agreement with the Royal Thai Navy, which gave the U.S. permission to utilize U-Tapao for U.S. military flights," wrote retired U.S. Army servicemen John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano, who both graduated from the Royal Thai Army's Command and General Staff College.



"U-Tapao has also been used, with the approval of the Thai government, to support U.S. military operations in other countries, most recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," enabling transit and refueling by the U.S. Air Force, they said.



"Presently, over 100 U.S. Air Force aircraft transit the Thai Navy-owned-and-operated facility each month," Mr. Cole and Mr. Sciacchitano said in a report published on June 22 by Asia Times Online.



"U.S. military operations at the base are conducted under the umbrella of the USAF Air Mobility Command," the report said.



"There are currently no USAF maintenance, or other support personnel or facilities, stationed at U-Tapao," it said.



Some foreign commercial and charter flights also use U-Tapao's airport, though Bangkok has two large international airports.



The U.S. meanwhile also wants to create a humanitarian and disaster relief center at U-Tapao, prompting the opposition Democrat Party to ask for both U.S. projects to be discussed in parliament.



"This matter is sensitive because it is related to national security, and relations with countries in this region," said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva who became prime minister in December 2008 before losing a July 2011 election, which Mrs. Yingluck won.



Parliament's session ended on June 19 and is to reconvene in August, which means it would be too late to approve NASA's project.



If NASA's project had gone ahead without parliament's approval, the Democrat Party may have claimed it violates section 190 of Thailand's constitution, and used that issue to destabilize the government.



Some analysts suspect that was the Democrats' real motive, because the party has not declared its outright opposition to NASA's project, but were pointing to the constitution to give the impression that the government may be violating the law.



The 2007 constitution's convoluted section 190 says in part that a "treaty" which affects the "security of the country...must be approved by the National Assembly."



In addition, "the Council of Ministers must provide information" to the public about the treaty and consult parliament" it says.



"The Council of Ministers must submit the negotiation framework to the National Assembly for approval," the constitution says.



Perhaps more chilling to the government is the section's clause which says that the legal interpretation about the constitution's position over such an issue "falls within the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court."



If Mrs. Yingluck had gone ahead with the NASA project without parliament's approval, then the Democrat Party could have launched a case with the Constitutional Court, while hoping it ruled that her government violated the constitution -- though it is unclear if such a case would hold up.



When NASA's June 26 deadline came, the Democrat Party's opposition convinced the government that the project needed parliament's approval, so the project was derailed and scheduled for a future parliament session, too late to be relevant.



The Democrat Party said it was not to blame for the cancellation because the prime minister should not have waited until the last moment to push the deal through, and instead should have brought it to parliament several months ago.



Prime Minister Yingluck earlier in June backed off trying to amend the constitution in parliament when the Constitutional Court declared that it had the power to inspect the charter amendment before it could be voted on in parliament -- and if the government violated the court it could be an illegal act.



The Democrat Party insisted the government was trying to amend the constitution to create a loophole so the prime minister's older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, could return to Thailand from self-exile abroad, and not serve a two-year prison sentence.



Mr. Thaksin was convicted of corruption after the military toppled him as prime minister in a 2006 coup, and later 1.2 billion dollars of his assets were seized in a separate corruption case.



During the government's constitutional amendment attempt in June, some rowdy Democrat party politicians disrupted parliament, and the chaos in the chamber stopped the government's effort to debate the issue.


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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.



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(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)