BANGKOK - When United States negotiators fly into Thailand to thrash
out a bilateral free trade deal, next week, they will be greeted with jeers
rather than this country's famed smile of welcome.
Activists opposed to the free trade agreement (FTA) view the sixth round of
talks in the northern city of Chiang Mai from Jan. 9-13 as a defining moment,
and in a bid to raise the ante will bring 10,000 people on to the streets to
protest against the talks.
''Thailand stands to lose much if the FTA with the U.S. is signed,'' Saree Ongsamwong,
general secretary of the Foundation for Consumers, a non-governmental organization
(NGO), said in an interview. ''It will increase poverty among the small farmers
in the provinces.''
Street protests are the only avenue open for opponents of the FTA, since the
Thai government has shrouded its policies in secrecy, adds Saree, whose group
belongs to a nationwide coalition of anti-FTA NGOs, called FTW Watch. ''There
has been no public debate and the government has refused to listen to our concerns.''
Some of these worries are with reason, given that Thai farmers took a beating
following similar bilateral trade deals that the government of Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra signed with China, Australia and New Zealand.
Cheaper imports of garlic and onions from China have put 40 percent of Thai
farmers out of business, Witoon Lianchumroon, coordinator of FTA Watch, told
reporters on Thursday. ''About 50,000 farming households have been affected.''
Likewise, an estimated 100,000 Thai farmers who raised cattle for meat have
been unable to compete against cheaper imports from New Zealand that followed
the Thai-New Zealand FTA agreement.
Witoon estimates that nearly 6.5 million farmers will be affected if Bangkok
signs a similar trade deal with Washington, resulting in U.S. agriculture products
flooding the local markets.
Thai farmers make up a substantial slice of this South-east Asian country's
labor force - some 60 percent of the country's 65 million people - yet they
remain among the lowest wage earners. The average monthly income for the agriculture
sector workers hovers between 2,500 baht (62.50 U.S. dollars) to 3,000 baht
Bangkok, however, appears unfazed by such objections as it talks of the FTA
with the United States being ready for implementation in a few months. ''Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and U.S. President George Bush earlier indicated
that their intention to wrap up the deal by this spring,'' an English language
daily, 'The Nation,' reported Thursday.
The value of two-way trade between the two countries was estimated at over
21 billion US dollars in 2003, with Thailand enjoying an edge.
Proposed changes would not only mean a possible loss in income for Thais farmers
but also possible loss of lives among Thais living with HIV/AIDS who depend
on cheap, locally-produced generic anti-AIDS drugs.
''The government's policy to provide cheap drugs for people with AIDS will
be threatened with this FTA,'' says Kamol Uppakaew, chairman of the Thai Network
of People Living with HIV/AIDS. ''Those who need the new line of drugs will
not be able to get it because the price will be too high, 20,000 baht (500 dollars)
His concerns will be put to test during the talks in Chiang Mai, since discussions
over intellectual property rights are expected to feature for the first time.
Other issues to be taken up include opening up of the financial services sector
and the lucrative telecommunication industry.
Currently, the Thai government's universal health care program supplies generic
anti-AIDS drugs to nearly 100,000 people who need medication. In all, there
are some 670,000 people with HIV in this country, where over 300,000 people
have died from AIDS-related causes since the pandemic was first detected in
According to the activists, the planned FTA with the U.S. would make it difficult
for the state-run pharmaceutical agency to produce the new line of anti-AIDS
drugs because of the position Washington is taking over intellectual property
The U.S. wants to enforce a 25-year period to protect patents for drugs as
against the 20-year patent protection that is the case under the existing global
free trade rules.
''This agreement is like putting people on an express train heading towards
a disaster,'' says Witoon. ''Even Thai academics are against it. Over 80 of
them are calling the government to stop the FTA talks.''