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Constitutional crisis looming over Thai-US FTA

IPS, 13 April 2005

Constitutional Crisis Looming Over Thai-U.S. FTA

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 13 (IPS) - If critics of the Thai government’s international trade policies have their way, then the current negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) between Bangkok and Washington could evolve into constitutional crisis for this South-east Asian nation.

Signs of such a political fall out emerged by the end of the third round of talks between Thai and U.S. trade delegates, held last week in the popular resort town of Pattaya.

In particular is a signature campaign launched by critics to force the Thai government to have parliament and the public review the contents of the Thai-U.S. FTA. This campaign, led by a group called FTA Watch, aims to collect at least 50,000 signatures.

"This campaign is just the starting point to challenge the constitutionality of the FTA negotiations," Witoon Lianchumroon, a coordinator of the protest group, which has close to 30 organisations that encompass grassroots activists to academics, told IPS. "We will pressure the prime minister and ministers of commerce, public health and agriculture to make the FTA negotiations transparent."

What riles activists like Witoon is the FTA negotiations being shrouded in secrecy. "Communities that will be affected in Thailand if the FTA is signed are not aware of what is going on, like corn and soya farmers," he argued.

It is a sentiment shared by members of the opposition Democrat Party, since the contents of this FTA and the trade-offs Bangkok has in mind with Washington have been kept secret from the 500-member legislature.

"We have not been informed about any details, nor is the government planning to do so in the future," Kalya Sophonpanich, a second-term Democrat Party parliamentarian, revealed during an interview. "This lack of discussion and parliamentary review could affect not only the current generation of Thais but also those in the future."

According to Kalaya, the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is violating a provision in the country’s 1997 constitution by keeping the trade negotiations beyond the grasp of the parliament.

Under section 224 of the constitution, the government needs parliamentary approval before signing international agreements that affect the laws of Thailand’s sovereignty.

FTA Watch is placing its faith in another constitutional provision as it seeks the signatures. Under that provision, which underscores the need for greater public participation in the country’s political life, a minimum of 50,000 signatures is needed to sponsor a bill initiated by the public for parliamentary approval.

The Thaksin administration, however, views this dispute differently, having declared that the FTA will not affect laws protecting the country’s sovereignty. Therefore, it said, parliamentary review is not relevant.

Thailand asserted that position when it began free trade talks with China, Australia and New Zealand previously. "Those FTAs were approved by executive decree and not by parliament," said Sunai Phasuk, the Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Such a lack of transparency resulted in a bitter harvest for vegetable growers in northern Thailand. Cheaper Chinese agriculture products flooded the local market last winter as a result of the Thai-Chinese FTA, leaving local growers with produce, including onions and garlic, that could not be sold.

The need for transparency during the Thai-US FTA negotiations, which began two years ago, arises from concern over decisions that could undermine Thailand’s success at supplying cheap generic drugs to patients, particularly those living with HIV/AIDS.

According to FTA critics, Washington is lobbying to enforce a 25-year period for drug patents as part of the trade deal with Bangkok, as opposed to the 20-year period under the prevailing international trade rules.

U.S. trade negotiators also want to restrict the use of "compulsory licensing," a provision by which governments could break the laws protecting patented drugs in order to produce cheaper generic versions to meet public health crises, like HIV/AIDS.

At present, a little over 20,000 of the estimated 200,000 people living with HIV in Thailand who need anti-AIDS drugs have access to them.

This South-east Asian country has over 600,000 people living with HIV/AIDS out of a 64 million population. Over 300,000 people have died due to AIDS since the killer virus was first detected here in the early 1980s.

Worry has also been expressed over agriculture products like corn and soya bean, which are among the 20 items on the FTA agenda. "The U.S. wants Thailand to open its market for corn and soya bean. This would destroy the local farmers, because U.S. products are heavily subsidised and cheaper," said Witoon, of FTA Watch.

Thailand has an estimated three million farmers who grow corn in the north and the central zones of the country.

"This FTA will undermine Thailand’s food security, for we will have no control of the structure of our food supply chain," Jaroen Compeerapap, an international property rights expert at Silpakorn University, told IPS. "It will mark the end of Thailand’s sustainable agriculture efforts."

Currently, the United States heads the list of Thailand’s trading partners, while Thailand ranks as the 18th largest partner of the United States. The value of their two-way trade exceeded 21 billion U.S. dollars in 2003, with Thailand enjoying the edge over the two. In 2004, the total value of trade between the two rose to 22 billion U.S. dollars.

Shortly after the third round of talks ended, the U.S. embassy in Thailand released a statement that conveyed Washington’s optimism about the negotiations. Thailand stood to gain greater access to the U.S. market than at present, the statement noted.

For his part, Nitya Pibulsongram, Thailand’s chief negotiator, has told the Thai media that Bangkok would not cave in to Washington’s demand.

Yet such words have failed to convince those amassing against the FTA, given the lack of information percolating to the Thai public about the trade details under review. "The people don’t know like this atmosphere," said Jaroen.

And such a lack of transparency is giving rise to a "major constitutional debate," added Sunai. "In our view, the government is violating the constitution."

 source: IPS