More than 100 U.S. troops were put under a 14-day quarantine when they arrived in Thailand on Monday ahead of joint training activities here, and after nine Thai soldiers tested positive for COVID-19 upon their return from bilateral exercises in Hawaii last month, officials said.
The Thai Ministry of Defense, citing concerns about the novel coronavirus, meanwhile said it was indefinitely suspending plans to send more troops overseas to take part in other joint training programs.
On Monday, 103 troops stationed at U.S. military bases in Guam and Japan landed in the Bangkok area and were placed until Aug. 16 into hotels designated by the Thai government as quarantine centers, officials from the country’s civilian and military COVID-19 task forces said.
Seven other U.S. troops were to be quarantined as well after their scheduled arrival on Tuesday, officials said. The contingent of 110 American troops and their Thai counterparts are scheduled to begin a joint-training in mid-August.
“[I] affirm here that everyone must follow the standard operating procedures of the anti-COVID center, as we have told the U.S. side,” Thai Gen. Nattapon Srisawat, an army adviser who oversees an ad hoc military task force on COVID-19, told BenarNews.
“They accept the 14-day quarantine and will have coronavirus tests twice. After 14 days they can join the Thai counterparts, but they can’t leave the barracks,” he said.
Nattapon said the U.S. troops were to join in trainings including Vector Balance Torch, which will finish at the end of August, after being cleared from their quarantine.
He also said nine Thai troops had tested positive for the coronavirus disease after returning to Thailand from Exercise Lightning Forge 2020, an operation in July where they and other members of their unit trained alongside U.S. Army soldiers in Hawaii.
Thai health officials reported three new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total to 3,320 since the pandemic began while deaths held steady at 58.
The United States, meanwhile, has reported more than 4.6 million COVID-19 cases and more than 155,000 deaths, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. Globally, more than 18.1 million cases and more than 690,000 deaths have been recorded.
In a posting on his official Facebook page on Monday, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville wrote: “My team and I defend against #COVID-19 by following the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Controls) guidelines on masks, social distancing, and hygiene. When traveling overseas, we also follow host nation protocols. It’s up to us to keep our Soldiers, Families, Allies and Partners safe. Do the right thing the right way. #WinningMatters.”
McConville last month became the first foreign VIP to visit Thailand after the pandemic broke out here. He and his counterpart from the Royal Thai Army, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, signed a Strategic Vision Statement that aims to enhance the army-to-army relationship and deepen 65-year-old bilateral military ties, according to the U.S. Embassy.
“Our two nations typically have hundreds of military trainings and events each year, and we are working in unison with the Royal Thai Government to ensure that all of our training scenarios will be done with the utmost care with regard to the pandemic,” McConville said during his July visit.
However, a Thai defense spokesman told BenarNews on Monday that the ministry had dropped some future training plans.
“We decided to suspend sending troops for any overseas trainings as we deal with the COVID-19 infections from Lightning Forge,” spokesman Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantrawanich said. “We are waiting to hear how the infections happened and will adjust the format of training and decide how many personnel can get involved in future trainings.”
Despite Thailand’s suspension of overseas training, the Thai army will send 270 engineer troops to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan in September and October, Col. Burin Teerawatanawisit, the engineer battalion commander told BenarNews. Thai troops have been involved in the mission since 2018.
In Honolulu, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Pacific command responded to questions from BenarNews, including about Thailand’s decision to suspend its participation in overseas training.
“We are aware of the media reporting from Thailand and would need to refer you back to the Thai authorities, as we cannot comment on any military discussions and will not speculate on decisions related to future training,” said Col. Derrick Cheng, chief of public affairs at the Army’s regional command.
“U.S. Army soldiers in Thailand will adhere to the precautions and guidelines as required by the Thai authorities for the health and safety of all involved,” he added. “We are fully committed to implementing the appropriate measures and protocols to ensure maximum safety, reduced risk, and to prevent the spread of COVID to the fullest extent possible.”
In July, following the Lightning Forge outbreak, another U.S. Army official told Hawaiian media that the coronavirus pandemic would not affect training.
“Our need to maintain a mission-ready force remains more important than ever and we cannot afford to simply wait for COVID-19 to go away,” Lt. Col. Adam Hallmark told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Part of the demand for maintaining mission readiness requires training with our partners and allies. Thailand is a key partner and our most enduring ally in Asia.”
BenarNews staff in Washington contributed to this report.