10,000 protest US-Thai FTA talks

Bangkok Post, 8 January 2006

10,000 protest US-Thai FTA talks

(dpa) - Thousands of Thais representing a diverse swath of society ranging from garlic growers to HIV/AIDS activists gathered outside a hotel in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai Monday to protest closed-door talks on a Thai-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA).

Eye-witnesses said that more than 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside the posh Mae Rim Hotel in Chiang Mai, 560 kilometres north of Bangkok, in an effort to derail ongoing talks scheduled Monday through Friday between U.S. and Thai negotiators on setting up an FTA between the two countries.

The demonstrators included representatives from various non-governmental organizations such as the Alternative Farmers Network, the People Living with HIV/AIDS network, slum dwellers, garlic growers, academics and students.

Political opposition to the U.S.-Thai FTA is growing, fueled by suspicions that the negotiations are being held behind closed doors to cover up the benefits expected to accrue to Thailand’s businessman prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his cronies.

"In all parliamentary democracies it would be impossible for such a big issue to not be reviewed by the parliamentary process," said Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Senator Kraisak maintains that the U.S.-Thai FTA and other partial FTAs already signed with Australia, China, India and New Zealand go against the Thai constitution because they have not been reviewed by the Senate and lower house of Parliament before being passed into law.

Thaksin, reacting to the protests on Monday, said the FTA was not expected to be finalized during the current sixth round of talks being held this week in Chiang Mai and that details on the FTA would be disclosed to the public "at an appropriate time."

Thaksin has in the past claimed that Thailand stands to lose 7 billion dollars in trade opportunities unless it goes ahead with its FTA with the U.S.

The opposition Democrat Party this weekend challenged the prime minister to demonstrate where the 7 billion dollar figure came from and to prove that the kingdom will gain more than it will lose from the U.S.-Thai FTA.

Kraisak, who recently travelled to Mexico to study the economic impact of the U.S.-Mexico FTA inked a decade ago, fears that if Thailand enters an FTA with the U.S. it will be forced to abide by tough American intellectual property protection legislation that will result in higher health care costs for the poor and groups such as HIV/AIDS sufferers who currently enjoy access to cheap generic anti-viral drugs under government programs.

There are an estimated 550,000 people with HIV in Thailand.

There are also fears that the U.S.-Thai FTA will undermine Thailand’s agriculture sector, still a major source of employment for the poor.

Thai garlic growers, for instance, have already been adversely affected by an influx of cheap Chinese garlic under the "early harvest" program in the Thai-China FTA that kicked off last year.

"Evidence clearly shows that the U.S.-Mexico FTA has had an incredible negative effect on the Mexican people, especially in the agricultural sector," Kraisak told Deutsche Presse-Agentur, dpa.

Kraisak suspects Thaksin and his administration are pursuing FTAs to take advantage of the new trade opportunities likely to arise from any shift in the status quo.

"Thaksin doesn’t care because business interests come first for him," said Kraisak. "He’s after the old entrepreneurs. There will be few new investments under the FTAs that don’t escape his corporate tentacles," he opined.

Thaksin, who has been prime minister since 2001, is a former billionaire telecommunications tycoon whose family-run Shin Corp has investments in numerous sectors including mobile phone and satellite services, aviation, property, finance and silk.

source: Bangkok Post