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Accords need House approval

Accords need House approval

Bangkok Post

22 February 2004

Thongbai Thongpao

Prime Minister Thaksin says he can "differentiate between Hell and
Heaven." That is well and good, but I don’t think he can apply his
personal thinking to matters concerning the best interests of the
country and the public at large.

Addressing a United Nations conference in Bangkok last Wednesday, the
prime minister reaffirmed that he would push ahead with his government’s
policy to enter free trade agreements (FTAs) with as many countries as

The problem is that he won’t let the Thai people, or their elected
representatives, have a say on this important matter. Since he took
office three years ago, Thailand has entered bilateral free trade
agreements with Peru, Bahrain, Chile, China and India. An FTA with
Australia is expected to be concluded in May this year, according to the
prime minister. Negotiations are ongoing with the United States and

Defending his policy, Prime Minister Thaksin said an expansion of FTAs
presented greater business opportunities for Thai companies by enabling
them to expand into new export markets with low import duties.

With more FTAs, he added, Thailand can attract more foreign direct
investment because foreign counterparts often set up production bases in
the kingdom to export to their home country and to other countries that
have free trade agreements with Thailand.

Despite persistent demands from members of both Houses of Parliament,
academics and civic groups for greater transparency in FTA negotiations,
Prime Minister Thaksin insists that the matter will not come under
parliamentary scrutiny. The government is not required by law to seek
parliamentary approval when entering a bilateral free trade agreement,
he insists.

This is strange because the US government must notify Congress of its
intent to initiate any free trade agreement negotiations with any
foreign country. In fact, US Trade Representative Robert B Zoellick last
week formally notified Congressional leaders of the White House’s
objectives and goals for negotiations for a free trade agreement with

"An FTA with Thailand would be particularly beneficial for US
agricultural producers who have urged us forward," Zoellick wrote in a
letter to the Congressional leaders. ... Elimination of Thailand’s high
duties and other barriers in the agricultural sector would create new
opportunities for US farmers in this major market."

I don’t know whether Prime Minister Thaksin has read the letter, but I
am curious to know what impact a Thai-US free trade agreement will have
on Thai farmers.

Many of my fellow senators, members of the Lower House and farmers’
groups also want to know how FTAs will affect Thailand and their lives.
Trade is a two-way street. But in the real world, big and powerful
countries have more clout than smaller nations. If Prime Minister
Thaksin and his government really believe that Thailand will benefit
from FTAs, why don’t they let members of parliament have a say on this
important matter ? There is no harm in discussing the matter in a frank
and constructive manner.

To give you another perspective of the FTAs, I was told by a farmers’
representative in Chiang Mai that local farmers are complaining about
the influx of cheap garlic and shallots from China, which entered a
bilateral FTA with Thailand on fruits and vegetables last year.

"These farmers are going bankrupt because they cannot compete with
cheaper goods from China," he said.

There may be a number of Thai farmers who benefit from the FTA with
China, but I am not aware of it. This is the point that I want to make.
If elected members of Parliament are kept in the dark about these free
trade agreements, how can they speak for the people and protect the
interests of the country ?

Prime Minister Thaksin does not have a monopoly on patriotism. All Thai
people love their country, and they want all good things to happen here
in Thailand. If the government has nothing to hide, why don’t they let
Parliament scrutinise all proposed bilateral free trade accords ?