IPR violations high on Bush visit agenda

Inter Press Service | 29 July 2008

IPR Violations High on Bush Visit Agenda

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 29 (IPS) — The pirated DVDs, fake Swiss watches and imitation designer garments are fast disappearing from the streets of Patpong, a red light strip in the Thai capital popular with tourists and bargain-hunters.

For, next week, U.S. President George W. Bush flies into Thailand for a two-day visit, on Aug. 6-7, as part of his final Asian tour before handing over office to his successor.

On Jul. 25, the Thai police launched a crackdown to rid Patpong of the vendors who line the streets in the evening with their fake goods, shouting out bargains for pirated versions of films such as ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. Another part of this sprawling city, the backpackers’ hang out of Khao San Road, saw similar raids.

The police effort brings to light a larger issue that has dogged Thai authorities: being downgraded by Washington due to continuing violations of intellectual property rights (IPR). In mid-June, a senior commerce ministry bureaucrat visited the U.S. capital to get the Bush administration to change its mind.

Washington’s charge — that IPR is regularly violated in Thailand — has resulted in this South-east Asian country being placed along with other violators in the ‘’priority watch list,’’ released annually by U.S. trade officials. ‘’The country’s IPR violation statistics have decreased significantly during the past few years, and hence Thailand should be upgraded from the watch list,’’ Siripol Yodmuangcharoen, commerce ministry permanent secretary, was quoted as having told ‘The Nation’ newspaper in mid-June.

Bush’s visit gives Thai authorities another chance to make a pitch in that direction, although government officials IPS spoke with say that trade issues between the two countries are not expected to feature prominently on the agenda. ‘’There may be some informal discussion on trade-related issues,’’ said one official.

But that will not stop civil society groups and activists, opposed to the planned free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries, from using the U.S. president’s visit to air their opposition to bilateral trade deals. They fear that Thai farmers, small business ventures and the sick who depend on cheaper generic drugs for pandemics such as HIV/AIDS will suffer if their concerns are not accommodated in any future Thai-U.S. FTA.

This concern has been amplified due to disclosures by the administration of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards the current constitution, the country’s 18th, which was approved last August in a referendum while Thailand was ruled by a military regime. The Samak government wants to amend certain clauses in the 2007 charter, including Article 190, which requires government to place any international treaty it plans to sign before parliament for scrutiny.

‘’This government has announced that Article 190 in the constitution is a problem and it needs to be changed. We are worried since this change may be used when the next talks for the Thai-U.S. FTA begin,’’ says Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Bio-Thai, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) championing the concerns of grassroots communities. ‘’Bilateral deals have become important and this government is very interested in this area. We need that article to monitor and manage the situation.’’

‘’We have already learnt our lessons from the past,’’ Witoon added in an interview, referring to the four FTAs Thailand signed in the past with China, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. ‘’They were not placed before parliament for scrutiny. There were no public hearings for us to express our worries.’’

Farmers in northern Thailand were hit badly after the Thai-China FTA was signed when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in power. Local garlic growers lost out to cheaper imports from China. Even flower growers suffered the same fate, with roses from China dominating the markets in Bangkok due to their lower cost.

The Thai-U.S. FTA may not be signed soon, however. Following the sixth round of talks in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai in January 2006, discussions between the negotiating teams have been suspended. Washington shelved plans to ink the deal later that year after the then elected government of Thaksin was turfed out of power by the military in a September coup. Since then, the clock has run out for signing the bilateral trade deal under a ‘’fast-track’’ option.

Civil society groups prefer a ‘’new beginning altogether for these trade talks,’’ says Jacques-chai Chomthongdi, research associate at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank. ‘’We were not happy with the process of the previous negotiations. It was not transparent.’’

‘’We are concerned that the U.S. will put Thailand under tremendous pressure to strike deals in its favour,’’ he told IPS. ‘’The IPR issue is a major area of concern in addition to other economic concerns.’’

Thai governments since the Thaksin administration have opted to ignore such worries, arguing instead that trade relationships with the U.S. have to be strengthened, given the volume in exports. In recent years, the volume of trade between the two countries has been around 28 billion US dollars.

But the country’s farmers, who have suffered from trade deals, feel otherwise. They showed their displeasure the last time Bush visited the country in October 2003.

To protest against U.S. agriculture policy, some farmers in the north placed a curse on Bush. They did so by dropping a photograph of him inside a pot and tossing it into the Ping River amid chants and black magic mantras.

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source: IPS