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Activists want Bush to halt FTA

IHT Thai Day

Activists want Bush to halt FTA

By Daniel Ten Kate

10 January 2006

Pro-democracy groups will urge US President George W Bush to halt free-trade agreement talks with Thailand because Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has violated the Constitution by refusing to seek parliamentary approval for the deal, group leaders said yesterday.

Civic groups led by the Campaign for Popular Democracy are expected to give US Embassy officials a letter addressed to Bush today.

“If the president or his officials read our letter, they would understand our Constitution and do something to stop the prime minister,” Kanin Boonsuwan, a lawyer who helped draft the 1997 Constitution said in an interview yesterday. “George Bush should not sign an FTA with the Thai government that violates the Thai Constitution.”

The letter to Bush is the latest in a series of attacks on Thaksin’s authority to finalize a free-trade pact as Thai and US negotiators meet this week in Chiang Mai for the sixth round of FTA talks. The past few days have seen activist groups, academics and the Democrat party calling for the government to stop the controversial negotiations until, in their view, the proper constitutional procedures are followed.

The groups’ claims stem from Article 224 of the Constitution, which states: “The King has the prerogative to conclude a peace treaty, armistice and other treaties with other countries or international organizations. A treaty which provides for a change in the Thai territories or the jurisdiction of the State or requires the enactment of an Act for its implementation must be approved by the National Assembly.”

Lawyers said that “an Act” in the original Thai text refers to any law or contract. Independent studies show that an FTA with the US would require substantial changes to Thai laws in a host of different areas, including competition, banking, financial services and state enterprises.

“Commitments under [a Thai-US FTA] are likely to involve major legislative amendments in Thailand, especially in investment, services and intellectual property regulations,” wrote Razeen Sally, a professor at the London School of Economics, in a recent study on Thailand’s trade pacts. “In other words, they entail changing key rules of the game by which business is conducted in Thailand - a far cry from the unserious FTAs negotiated to date.”

If Bush administration officials, who often say that strengthening democratic institutions is key to US foreign policy, decline to stop the negotiations, then Kanin and company plan to petition the Constitutional Court, the Court of Justice and the Administrative Court in an effort to thwart the trade talks. The Administrative Court shocked government officials late last year when it halted the initial public offering of state-owned electricity firm EGAT a day before it was to start selling shares to the general public.

“We will go forward with this as soon as possible,” said Kanin, who helped file the lawsuit against EGAT’s IPO. “To consult the people is not enough. The government needs to follow the supreme rules of the land.”

Facing a barrage of questions from reporters yesterday, Thaksin said that “the details of the negotiations” would not be discussed in Parliament “because there is no law that stipulates that it must be done.”

“We currently have the experts to help with the FTA talks so we will not be taken advantage of,” Thaksin told reporters. “Our officials must be prepared to clarify information to the public.”

The US Congress must approve any trade deal negotiated by the Bush team. American officials have pushed to conclude the deal with Thailand this year because Bush’s authority to negotiate deals that will receive an up-or-down vote in the US Congress expires in 2007.

Political observers said that the current domestic backlash has less to do with the specifics of the FTA and more to do with the pent-up frustration with Thaksin that has boiled over in recent months. Everything Thaksin does is treated with suspicion, and the opaque dealings of the government will no longer be tolerated, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. “Thaksin has told the public: ‘trust the government, we know what we’re doing,’” Thitinan said in an interview yesterday. “Well the public has lost the trust.”