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Critics Sound Alarm in Free Trade Talks with U.S.

Critics Sound Alarm in Free Trade Talks with U.S.

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 5 2004 (IPS) - The Thai government is facing a growing chorus of outrage over its plans to ink a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States by next year.

Among the barbs fired at the administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a new book of essays, titled ’Thailand-U.S. FTA : Sovereignty Not For Sale’, that contains Thai academics’ criticism against his planned deal.

So sought after is this book that copies ran out within a month of its release on Feb. 9. A second edition will be on the shelves in mid-April.

The Thaksin government is up against a broad coalition of critics who have come together under an umbrella organisation called FTA Watch. They include academics from five disciplines - law, economics, political science, agriculture and medicine - as well as farmers and grassroots groups, labour rights activists, consumer advocates and public health lobbies.

"There are representatives from close to 200 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from across the country,’’ Witoon Lianchumroon, coordinator of FTA Watch, told IPS. "We are on a campaign to warn the Thai people about the danger of Thailand signing this FTA with the U.S."

For Witoon, a grassroots activist, the breadth and composition of this coalition underscores the extent of concern within many levels of society. "The unity here is unique, for we have not seen such togetherness among these many groups in a long time."

The reasons for their hostility towards the FTA are varied, but all come together in the argument that the risks that this deal brings far outweigh its supposed trade and market benefits.

"There has been no effort towards transparency and public involvement in this process," Jaroen Compeerapap, an international law specialist, argued during an interview.

Furthermore, says Jaroen, who is a member of the law faculty at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, the government has failed to make a case that justifies this drive toward a bilateral trade deal with Washington when Thailand stands to gain more from a multilateral trade deal.

He is throwing his weight behind the campaign to stop the planned trade negotiations with the United States, which are due to begin in June with the aim of a deal to be reached by 2005.

A host of seminars and public meetings conducted by FTA Watch has drawn attention to other worries as well.

These include fears that agri-business companies based in the United States would flood the Thai agricultural sector with genetically engineered crops, and the likelihood of U.S. companies in the service sector driving out small and medium service Thai-owned industries when existing rules and barriers are lifted.

Even one of Thailand’s most highly regarded achievements — its ability to offer cheap generic drugs - is under threat, warn the FTA Watch campaigners.

That this message is percolating across the country is reflected in polls conducted over the Internet in mid-March by the Thai-language newspaper ’Matichon,’ which reported that over 90 percent of the people surveyed were not in favour of the free trade pact with the United States.

A U.S.-based lawyer has also given more ammunition to those against the free trade pact. He cautioned Bangkok about what lies in store if Thai trade negotiators are not as prepared as their U.S. counterparts on this deal.

"Thailand risks losing out in terms of intellectual property rights, as well as in the telecoms, automotive and agricultural sectors, if it is not fully prepared," Thomas Peele of the U.S. law firm Baker and McKenzie was quoted as saying in ’The Nation’ newspaper in late March.

It was in October 2003 that the Thaksin administration gleefully announced that Washington had agreed to launch FTA negotiations with Thailand. This coincided with the visit by U.S. President George W Bush to this South-east Asian country to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

Thai officials presented this initiative as a potential boon to the country, saying it would bring economic benefits such as allowing more Thai products to enter the U.S. market and giving Thai consumers access to cheaper goods from the United States.

Chutima Bunyapraphasara, deputy director of the Trade Negotiations Department, has been quoted in the press here as saying the FTA "would help boost the country’s bargaining power, in economic and political terms".

It is also expected to make Thai companies more competitive since they will have to sell their wares in a broader international trading climate operating under a new set of trading laws, officials added.

This week, one sector that stands to gain from the deal, the automobile industry, praised Bangkok’s march towards FTAs. "Auto industry executives welcomed Thailand’s push to build free-trade areas with major industrialised countries as a way to help boost market access and help the country reach its goal to become an auto-producing hub for the region," the ’Bangkok Post’ newspaper reported on Apr. 1.

Thailand is the 18th largest trading partner of the United States. According to available reports, the value of two-way trade between the two countries topped 21 billion U.S. dollars in 2003.

The United States is also one of Thailand’s largest foreign investors. U.S. companies have pumped in over 16 billion dollars in the country, states a document posted on the website of the Washington-based U.S.-Thailand FTA Business Coalition.

This deal with Washington is one of several FTAs that the Thai government has been pursuing - apart from others that include discussions with Australia, China, India and Japan.

"There will be a lot of give and take in these negotiations and sacrifices will be made," Prapat Thepchatree, director at the Centre for International Policy Studies in Thammasat University here, told IPS. "Negotiations with the U.S. will be the more difficult than FTAs with the other countries." (END/2004)

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