The Nation, Bangkok, January 15, 2006
FTA WATCH: Movement ‘is gaining strength’
Group says media coverage given to Chiang Mai protests has lifted its profile and govt will need to address concerns.
The fiery protest that disrupted free-trade talks between Thailand and the United States in Chiang Mai last week was just the first victory for a movement that is gaining strength, says a key organiser of FTA Watch. The extensive media coverage given to the protest has boosted the group’s profile and morale, said activist Kingkorn Narintarakul na Ayudhya.
Moreover, now that FTA Watch has succeeded in putting its concerns on the national agenda, the government may have to address them, she said.
The group will continue monitoring the talks and informing the public about its concerns because it believes that the government has misled the public about the impact of a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US, she said.
Kingkorn said FTA Watch’s “ultimate goal was ‘no FTA’,” but she was quick to add that the group was not opposed to international trade.
FTA Watch says that the government has misled the public about the impact of an FTA with the United States.
“The government has said exports to the US will surge following the lowering of import tariffs, but this view is simplistic as it omits non-tariff barriers and contradicts the experiences of other countries that have signed FTAs with the US,” Kingkorn said.
The absence of tariffs will not ensure fair trade as it does not guarantee that Thai exports will have an easier time getting into a foreign market, she said, pointing to other trade barriers employed by developed markets such as quality and safety standards.
Last week nearly 10 thousand people rallied in Chiang Mai to oppose the sixth round of talks on the Thai-US FTA.
The protesters came from all walks of life, but people living with HIV/Aids, farmers and labourers comprised the largest segment.
The talks started at the Sheraton Hotel in Chiang Mai on Monday with thousands of police officers protecting the venue.
However, protesters managed to break through the police barricade and gain entry to the hotel compound on Tuesday.
They also torched effigies of the two lead negotiators, Nitya Pibulsonggram and Barbara Weisel, and camped in front of the hotel.
After the clash between the police and protesters on the second day of the talks, the government shifted the venue to a resort about 20 kilometres from the Sheraton Hotel, where negotiations continued.
Although they did not succeed in ending the talks, the protesters declared victory and said they would continue their campaign to counter what they saw as a one-sided sales pitch from the government.
Kingkorn said FTA Watch would focus its public-information campaign on three main areas: agricultural products, drug patents and investment.
The tariff reductions being negotiated will cover about 1,000 products in the agricultural, industrial and electronic sectors, she said.
Lowering tariffs on agricultural products will benefit American farmers much more than Thai farmers, she added.
Hundred of thousands of Thai farmers, especially those who grow soybeans and maize, would be harmed by the pact because Washington subsidises its farmers’ exports, she said.
Kingkorn admits that the FTA with China, signed in 2003, has allowed shoppers to pay less for products such as fruit and vegetables.
But she advises the public to take a longer look and, in particular, consider the example of Mexico. There, farmers had to stop growing maize because they could not compete with cheap imports from the US following a free-trade pact between the two neighbours, she said.
Later, however, the price of corn rose 300 per cent in Mexico, she claimed.