Playing our own game

Bangkok Post

Playing our own game

Many academics and ordinary citizens are hoping the new government will rethink the policy on bilateral trade agreements and formulate an economic strategy based on the sustainable use of Thailand’s abundant natural resources, writes Supara Janchitfah

1 October 2006

Sripai Noonsee was in despair after her latest attempt to find a job at an electronics factory at Bang Kadee Industrial Estate ended in failure like so many others. She has been jobless for many months.

"When I tried to apply they told me that there were no jobs left," she said dejectedly. She added that sometimes people stood in line to seek employment at the industrial park until 3 a.m. In Prathum Thani province, as elsewhere in Thailand, the demand for jobs often exceeds the supply.

Sripai pointed out that the previous government’s special economic zones are contributing to this. "Many factories moved their production base to the borderline in the north, where they can use cheap Burmese labour," said Sripai, adding that she had no objection to the use of Burmese workers, but the factory owners should treat them in a humane manner and give them fair wages.

Sripai’s background as a former labour union activist is apparent in her conversation. She told of the plight of her fellow workers who have been suffering from work-related illnesses, and said she worries that the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) previous governments have been so eager to sign actually do more harm than good to poor workers, who still only get minimum wages and poor health schemes.

"We are already encountering many problems, and if the medicines that we have to use are more expensive when the Thai-US FTA is signed, we will suffer more," she said.

Sripai noted that the 30-baht medical scheme will stay in effect regardless of the change of government, but said that doesn’t guarantee low-wage workers can get good health care.

Presently, most hospitals are encountering many problems because of budget constraints and she and her fellow workers are already unsure of the quality of medicines they are receiving.

THREATENED FOOD SECURITY

It has long been a tradition of northern farmers in Chaiprakarn, Chiang Mai province to grow garlic after harvesting their rice crops, but Pheerapong Chartkamjon said he has stopped the practice because of the influx of cheap garlic being dumped into the Thai market since the Thai-Chinese FTA went into effect.

"I changed to grow potatoes, but now I am facing many new problems," he said. These include higher investment costs and the necessity of entering into contract farming agreements.

"I have to buy the potato seeding and fertilizer from a company, and then I have to sell the produce for the company," he said. He has no power to negotiate for a better price.

Because he was aware of the pitfalls of contract farming, and because he didn’t have much money to invest, he grew only one rai of potatoes. He said he wants to try organic farming but he isn’t sure there would be a market for his produce.

Pheerapong expressed his hope that the new government won’t bow to pressure from "superpower countries" to sign FTAs.

"If we have to follow the regulations of superpower countries and are forced to privatise everything, such as water and basic utilities, we will suffer more," Pheerapong predicted. If water management is privatised, his prime concern is that he would then have to begin paying water fees.

"Our investment costs are already high, how can we pay water fees?" he asked. He added that the country’s leaders should really try to empower the people and not just talk about it.

That view is shared by Bantoon Sretthasirote, director of the Resources Strategy Project of the National Human Rights Commission Office. Bantoon said that FTAs did not suddenly destroy Thai agriculture, but they have had a big effect on the types of crops which are produced and the nature of the marketing system. He said we are moving towards "mono agriculture", which could mean problems with national food security.

"If we are concerned too much with trade liberalisation, it will destroy our food security as well as food distribution," he said, adding that Thai people and policy makers should look for alternatives which won’t trap us into "playing other people’s games".

Bantoon has been working on studies which investigate the relationships between biodiversity, natural resources and FTAs. He has involved many government officials who have responsibility for trade talks in the studies.

He said his research points to a need for Thailand to revise its economic development policies, while using the country’s natural resources in a sustainable manner.

"Why don’t we develop our economy based on our strengths? What we have is a richness of bio-diversity.

"We don’t have to worry about whether next year our trading partners will allow us in the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) or not, we don’t have to worry if they will reduce the tariff rate for us or not. We should develop from our base, from our own resources. For example, make use of local herbs for food, drugs or even cosmetics. It’s all here in Thailand," said Bantoon.

He commented that our trading partners will continue to offer similar trade "packages" to many different countries, emphasising tariff measures but failing to clarify other conditions of the agreements.

"Then some (Thai) officials will have to worry, believing that if we don’t do it, we will be at a disadvantage, and there will be no end to the story.

"We will never know if what they have offered us is worth the loss of our natural resources and values," continued Bantoon.

"Presently, we have to follow our trading partners’ conditions - they are the ones who stipulate everything. All we can do is to modify the words or some parts of the stipulations or conditions in the trade deals. For how long will we be trapped in this game?"

He suggested that the new government should consider more alternatives and consider the needs of the majority.

"Most important, the new government must allow us to participate in every matter that concerns us," said Bantoon.

PUT IT IN WRITING

Jaques-chai Chomthongdi of FTA Watch group, an NGO that follows up free trade talks, echoed Bantoon’s ideas, saying that the new constitution should consider cutting out the first phrase in Article 87 of the 1997 constitution, which endorses an economy built on a policy of free trade.(See box)

"We should concentrate more on sustainability and fair competition as market forces," he said.

He also proposed that if the new government decides to continue with any trade talks, all processes should be conducted in a transparent manner and should allow full public participation.

"The trade talks should no longer be secret, the details known only among certain officials. People should be allowed to participate and give their inputs before and after the talks," he added.

He believes that a new law on public hearings should be enacted to replace the 1992 regulations, and emphasised that all trade negotiations must be held in both Thai and English.

Dr Jiraporn Limpananont, of the Social Pharmacy Research Unit of Chulalongkorn University, was critical of FTAs in general and expressed the hope that Thailand should not include medicines in FTA negotiations at all, since they are often a matter of life and death. (See box on medicines)

Dr Janthajira Aiemmayura, a law lecturer at Thammasat University, has conducted a study under the sponsorship of the Thailand Research Fund on the negotiation process of FTAs in different countries, including New Zealand, Australia, France and the USA. She says that necessary economic and social information is lacking in FTA negotiations.

"The crucial problem, in the past talks, was the undemocratic and secretive process of negotiating the FTAs," she said, adding her voice to the calls for greater transparency and public involvement.

She also pointed out that a problem arises from the fact that the 1997 constitution did not indicate which treaties need to have parliamentary approval before they are signed.

"There is also a question of who has the authority to settle or judge a dispute between the Parliament and the government concerning the interpretation of the constitution, and of article 224," she said. (See box) She believes the new constitution should devote a chapter specifically to international treaties.

"The new chapter should say clearly that some treaties must be approved by the Parliament before there is any binding expression of consent," said Dr Janthajira.

Noting that the former Constitution Court was dissolved, she suggests that the new constitution should set up a new court to rule on whether a treaty needs parliamentary approval.

She noted that the US has its Trade Promotion Act (TPA) 2002 and said Thailand should have a similar law, approved by Parliament, as a clear guideline for all related ministries to proceed in the same direction on FTAs.

"Moreover," she added, "such a law should state specific steps or processes in giving opportunities to interested groups (including NGOs) to receive all information and express their opinions thoroughly, before any decision is made." This would be a suitable way to check the government’s accountability and to see that each FTA is made conscientiously for the benefit of the people and the country as a whole.

INDEPENDENT AGENCIES NEEDED

Dr Janthajira noted that at present there are no government organisations or even individual experts responsible for conducting research, collecting economic and social information, etc, on FTAs. She said that an independent government agency should be formed to do a National Interest Analysis (NIA) and to release a Regulation Impact Statement (RIS). This information is crucial for the government to make decisions in any new talks, she said.

The FTA Watch group agrees, and is demanding that the new government set up an independent agency to conduct a study of impacts before allowing new trade talks, according to group member Jacques-chai.

Dr Aat Pisawanich, the director of the International Trade Study Centre of the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce, also expressed the view that the new government should be forthcoming on all information concerning trade deals, and also recommended the establishment of an independent agency to review the performance of already concluded FTAs.

"People are confused on which sets of information to believe, and whether we gain or lose," he said.

"Why do we have to continue FTAs if they mean our people are jobless, if our dairy industry is dying because milk imported from Australia is only six baht per litre while the local cost is 15 baht per litre?

"Why do we have to continue an FTA when we have a three billion baht trade deficit with China, while we gain only 50 million from car production?" he asked, adding that this is the type of information that needs to be reviewed and used as a future reference on how to go about making international trade deals.

Dr Janthajira proposes that a think-tank be established to work with officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Trade Negotiation, Ministry of Commerce to consider which countries Thailand should sign FTAs with and how to proceed. This would help guarantee that the country will not be led easily to economic and social disaster, said Dr Janthajira.

"In the past, there was no guideline for administrators to set up working schemes for the Foreign Affairs and related ministries and departments. A guideline should be drafted to make the work more systematic and clear," she said.

Also in the past, said Dr Janthajira, the Parliament had no guidelines for its members to press the government for accountability. She suggested a "checklist" so that the MPs and senators can do their job in checking whether the government has followed the rules on international treaties.

Witoon Lianchamroom, the director of the civic group Biodiversity Action Thailand (BIOTHAI), cautioned Thais not to be overwhelmed by their new leaders.

"In the past we learned that under the democratic system we were able to protest and hold back unwanted laws and policies. For example, we could delay patents on drug products for more than 10 years. But under the government which was appointed by the National Peace Keeping Council in 1991, legislation for product patents succeeded," recalled Witoon. He added that the Council for Political Reform should return democracy to the people as soon as possible.

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