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Thailand, US to set up panel for military base

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) — Thailand and the United States have agreed to set up a working group to jointly develop a regional humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief training and readiness centre at U-Tapao airport in Rayong, Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi said yesterday.

The agreement was reached during the 4th Thai-US Strategic Dialogue in Washington on Thursday, which explored the possibility of using the airbase as a facility for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The previous Thai government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva initiated the idea to use the Navy airbase at U-Tapao for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, but the idea has only recently come up for discussion.

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The issue was raised at the strategic dialogue for "fine-tuning" after it became a testy political topic in Thailand. The opposition Democrat Party suggested the government was allowing the US to bring equipment and personnel to U-Tapao for military purposes - to contain China in the Pacific - in exchange for a visa allowing former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to travel to America.

Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul said the matter had nothing to do with Thaksin. It was purely concerned with humanitarian aid and disaster relief, the same as the Democrats proposed when they were in power.

But it was still not clear whether the centre would be a project involving bilateral cooperation or a multilateral operation for regional benefit, Thani said.

A joint working group would study and explore all possibilities and forms of cooperation before reporting to the next strategic meeting in Thailand next year, the spokesman said.

The joint statement issued after the meeting in Washington did not give details on the cooperation scheme. It simply said "the two governments underscored the importance of strengthening cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) activities and reaffirmed their determination to develop jointly a regional HA/DR training and readiness centre in Thailand. It also announced the establishment of a joint working group to report progress on this initiative at the next US-Thailand Strategic Dialogue.

There was no clear idea who members of the working group would be, Thani said. "It might include many concerned agencies such as the Navy, which has facilities at U-Tapao. Basically, Thailand wants to see U-Tapao as just a place for ad-hoc operations for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, not a permanent military command for that purpose," Thani said.

"The humanitarian assistance and disaster relief centre should be a table-top executive to discuss standard operating procedures for assistance and disaster relief.

"It would not be a place where the US can move troops and equipment to be stationed there permanently," he said. 

To eliminate doubt that China was the target of such cooperation, Foreign Minister Surapong had said he might invite other countries including China to join the move. 

"As long as it will be a regional scheme of cooperation for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, many countries should participate," he said. 

The use of facilities at U-Tapao airbase is a fearsome scenario for Thailand, as it used to be a military airbase for the US during the war in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, but Surapong guaranteed that things would not be the same. 

It was clear that the humanitarian aid and disaster relief centre had nothing to do with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa)'s request to use U-Tapao for its weather research aircraft. 

Cabinet will discuss the use of U-Tapao for the two purposes next week. But if the projects became too much of a political burden for the government, Surapong said he would drop them. 

The foreign minister was in the US for four days up to yesterday. After the Strategic Dialogue in Washington, he visited the Thai community in Los Angeles. 

Surapong told Thais in LA that consulates in the US would, in September, be able to issue identity cards for Thai citizens whose ID cards had expired, been damaged or lost.

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