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U-TAPAO BROUHAHA : The politics of the Nasa controversy


Published: 3/07/2012 at 03:23 AM

Bangkok post, Newspaper section: News


Thai quipsters have put it aptly _ it is now easier for the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to go to the Moon than to come to Thailand, now that the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has opted for parliamentary debate instead of a cabinet resolution.


Assoc Prof Serm Janjai of Silpakorn University’s faculty of science explains how Thailand stands to benefit from the United States’ climate study project at U-tapao airport.


Nasa's request to use U-tapao airbase to conduct a study of cloud formation and atmospheric changes in relation to regional natural disasters has been put off indefinitely, as the window to move necessary equipment for research during the high-monsoon season in August-September passes.


In many ways, the Nasa brouhaha is a microcosm of global politics under the US-China matrix, Thai-US bilateral relations and, more dramatically, Thailand's intractable political divide and murky foreign policy directions.


Despite local media reportage to the contrary, the Nasa controversy will not adversely affect the close, substantial, tried and tested Thai-US relations.


Nor will it determine whether President Barack Obama makes a brief visit to Thailand when he attends the East Asia Summit in Cambodia in November.


On the face of it, the Nasa request seemed like a routine scientific research project, in cooperation with Thailand's Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (Gistda), which falls under the Thai Science and Technology Ministry.


A memorandum of understanding between Nasa and Gistda was signed in September 2010, with five major meetings of related Thai public agencies since, including the Royal Rainmaking Project.


Its official project title sounded innocuous enough _ the Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study.


Much of the understanding for this joint scientific research was reached during the Democrat Party-led government. That it became a bombshell has thus caught many on both sides of the scientific community by surprise.


Thailand and its neighbours, after all, are increasingly prone to natural disasters. Better knowledge and information about clouds, climate change and rainfall as they are manifested in floods, typhoons and other natural disasters seemed like a win-win proposition for the more technology-advanced American outfit and its Thai counterpart.

But the deal went awry quickly.


Its first problem was timing. The Yingluck cabinet's consideration of Nasa's request last month coincided with rising political temperatures.


The reconciliation and charter change bills whipped up stiff resistance. Opposition grew fast and furious. The People's Alliance for Democracy's (PAD) yellow shirts and associated multi-colour shirts took to the streets against the draft bills. The Democrat Party entered the fray on their side at the same time.


The Nasa project quickly became a political football. Democrat stalwarts portrayed it as the government's sell-out of Thai sovereignty, a quid pro quo for the possible granting of a US visa to Ms Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.


Other charges included conflicts of interest whereby the Nasa deal would enable Shinawatra cronies to reap windfalls from energy resources in the Gulf of Thailand in cahoots with an American energy multinational.


A more outlandish claim from the PAD, which does not shy from taking an overtly pro-China stance, suggests the climate study may be America's new killer weapon to target rival countries with natural disasters.


The more mundane and understandable concern centred on Chinese sensitivities even in the face of the lack of alarm in Beijing's response.


Neighbouring countries, such as the Philippines, threw their weight behind the project because of similar vulnerabilities to natural disasters.


To exacerbate matters, the government was timid in its response. This government has a clear electoral mandate and strong parliamentary numbers, but it is being hampered by poor resolve to rule and weak policy direction because it is afraid of being overthrown.


Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, in particular, was ineffectual as he lacked credibility from his previous mishandling of the floods last year.


The Thai military was in favour of the study but did not really speak up. Thai scientists from Gistda and leading universities did step up but they were crowded out by anti-government voices.


It did not help that the Nasa request was conflated with a separate but overlapping natural disasters project, this one between the Thai military and its American counterpart to establish a regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief centre.


The mix of the US armed forces with Nasa, a civilian agency, was enough to rave up nationalist sentiment and generate scepticism in Bangkok towards American objectives.

Thailand is America's oldest friend in Asia. Approaching its 180th anniversary, the bilateral relationship has survived through many foul-weather storms _ it is in effect "not downgradable".


But America's role in the world since the Cold War has fostered mistrust. There can be an "Arab Spring" in Tunisia and Libya, even grudgingly in Egypt, but not in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or other American allies with oil. There can be authoritarianism, even feudalism, in the Middle East but not in Myanmar.


America's pragmatism is understandable but its flipside is hypocrisy.

This is not really a problem for Thailand, a treaty ally of six decades. But apart from the public scepticism over US intentions, the Nasa debacle is attributable to a lack of policy resolve and public explanation from the government, the Democrats' opportunism, the yellows and multi-colours' rabid anti-Thaksin crusade, and the relative silence of key supporters in the Thai military.


Indeed, few scientists, generals, academics and journalists want to toe a policy line that is supportive of the government because they would face accusations of being Thaksin stooges.


This is a time of self-censorship, of keeping heads low and hedging, even when policy schemes like the Nasa-Gistda project would be good for Thailand.


The irony for the Americans is that the US government has been rather supportive of the Thai establishment all throughout, especially since the putsch in 2006. Yet the Thai establishment, as fronted by the Democrats, the PAD, multi-colours, and royalist-conservative segments have treated a friend as foe in this Nasa saga.

The real problem with the request is that it came from the wrong country at the wrong time to the wrong government.


If it had come from China, Japan, the Netherlands or peace-promoting small countries like Norway and Switzerland, the deal would have sailed through with the public barely noticing.


If the Democrats were still in power, it would likely be implemented. Pheu Thai then would of course oppose it, but they would likely be overcome.

And if the request came at a less politically heated time, it would probably have got the all-clear sign.


Such is Thailand's political funk and lack of foreign policy positioning. It will be a difficult task for diplomats and officials to entice the US president to set foot in Bangkok.

It would be a boost to Thailand's global standing if Mr Obama swings by in November. But it would create a much-needed wake-up effect if he skips Bangkok, leaving Thais on both sides of the divide to ponder how far they are willing to go to pull one another down.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.


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