Entering into a dangerous battle

Bangkok Post | 24 February 2007

ENTERING INTO A DANGEROUS BATTLE

The government’s insistence on pressing ahead with the Thai-Japan FTA is a needless risk

KULTIDA SAMABUDDHI

After already angering and shocking people on the political and economic fronts with a succession of policy flip-flops, the military-installed government is now entering into a risky, and altogether unnecessary new battle with farmer’s groups and the anti-FTA movement by pressing ahead with the Thai-Japan free trade agreement. This is a needless conflict — and one that the Surayud Chulanont government could easily avoid.

But its stubborn refusal to leave the issue for a later government is plunging it deeper into trouble.

Gen Surayud and his advisers should not underestimate the power of this alliance of leading academics, legal and intellectual property rights experts, farmer’s leaders, environmentalists, and health activists.

They are not ’’regular’’ protesters. Their moves are based on in-depth research. Already, they have successfully stopped the deposed Thaksin administration from inking a number of international agreements that threatened to lead to the exploitation of Thailand’s biological resources and violation of farmer rights, including the Thai-US FTA.

The group issued a warning against the signing of the Thai-Japan FTA from the very first days that Gen Surayud and his ’’old ginger’’ cabinet ministers took office last October. The group said it was inappropriate for an interim government to ink a trade deal that could severely affect citizens and the economy.

But the ’’old ginger’’ cabinet shrugged off the warning, saying they would go ahead with the trade pact, albeit after a thorough study and ensuring full public participation.

Undeterred, opposition groups persisted with further research and found two big worries in the text of the pact, which was leaked from the Foreign Ministry.

These include tariff elimination for certain types of hazardous waste, which they said will facilitate the import of Japanese waste to Thailand; and Article 130 (3) which may lead to the patenting of naturally-born micro-organisms.

The micro-organisms are used by hundreds of thousands of farmers to produce organic fertilisers. Pharmacists also use the living organism to develop drugs.

The activists — led by Thanpuying Suthawan Sathirathai, director of the Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute — informed Gen Surayud of the findings and stated their concerns in a closed-door meeting on Jan 29.

At the meeting, Gen Surayud and Commerce Minister Krirk-krai Jirapaet promised that the government would suspend the signing of the pact for three months, pending a public hearing to see how much support there was for formalising the deal.

But two weeks later, Gen Surayud forwarded the pact to the NLA for consideration where it won majority support. Five days after that, the cabinet gave the nod for the Thai-Japan FTA and told negotiators to inform Japan that Thailand was ready to sign the pact as soon as both countries reach mutual understanding on the two issues raised by the NGOs.

Tuesday’s cabinet resolution was the last straw for the group, who lashed out at Gen Surayud for failing to keep his word, and declared their blanket opposition to the coup-installed government.

In solidarity, thousands of farmers, environmental activists and a network of medical patients plan to stage a mass protest next month against the government’s pro-FTA policy.

Amid falling popularity and fading trust, it is unwise for the government to create more foes at this time.

On the Thai-Japan FTA issue, Gen Surayud has let opportunities to reconcile with FTA opponents slip away time and again.

If it wanted, the interim government could have suspended the talks with Tokyo simply by telling its Japanese counterparts that the FTA is a matter for an elected government to decide. This would dramatically ease tensions at home. But the government has chosen not to play the game this way.

The government has not even bothered to explain to the public whether the NGOs’ concerns are warranted or not. Neither is it saying what it will do to safeguard the country’s interests if the concerns of the NGOs are found to be well-grounded.

The government must save some resolve to deal with the concerns of its FTA opponents, even though it is being buffeted by a host of other problems — among them instigators of political undercurrents, the violence in the deep South, reluctant state officials, and unsatisfied business operators.

source: Bangkok Post