The Nation | 11 March 2007
Japan trade frays tempers
Surayud urged to take long, cool look at consequences of toxic-waste dumping and intellectual-property theft
Opponents of the draft Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement (JTEPA) have asserted that the Surayud Chulanont government needs to take two controversial issues in the pact seriously.
First, Thailand could become a dumping ground for electronic and nuclear waste through the emergence of recycling businesses. Second, Thai farmers would have to pay more for traditional organic-farming techniques due to the enforcement of patents on microbes.
According to FTA Watch, a non-governmental organisation, the Kingdom could be damaged because the deal would affect the country’s environmental-protection policy.
For example, pollution-control measures would likely be reduced if they threatened Japanese investment, and investors could sue the Thai government over that through the arbitration process," said Bantoon Setthasiroj of FTA Watch.
However, Pisan Mangwaput, the chief Thai negotiator, said the deal with Japan would be more comprehensive than previous trade agreements signed with Australia, New Zealand and China.
JTEPA is a free-trade agreement (FTA) as well as an economic-cooperation agreement. Under the draft JTEPA, import-duty cuts would be implemented within a certain number of years for products traded between the two countries.
The nine areas of economic cooperation are: agriculture, forestry and fisheries; education and human-resource development; the business environment; finance; information and communications technology; the science, technology and energy environment; small and medium enterprises; tourism; and trade and investment promotion.
"The trade value between Thailand and Japan is almost US$30 billion [Bt1 trillion] annually. Japan is the biggest investor in Thailand and sends over a million quality tourists a year. Thailand is a base for the Japanese car industry," Pisan said.
"About 25 per cent of Thai products exported to Japan are agricultural products. This is important. The agreement will help a large number of Thai agricultural producers, including farmers," he added.
FTA Watch argued that there was no free lunch and Thailand should conduct
a thorough risk assessment and weigh carefully whether the country will really benefit from the agreement. The impact could be large due to some clauses in the draft, including the dumping of toxic and nuclear waste in Thailand, and the effect of microbe patents on organic farmers nationwide, the group warned.
"This does not include our new discovery about investments," Bantoon said, explaining that investors could sue the Thai government if it announced a policy that violated an investment.
"There are only two explanations. Either PM Surayud is na๏ve and has not gone through the whole JTEPA content, or he intends to put the country at great risk," Bantoon said.
"Most important of all, the process of considering and approving JTEPA has been unacceptable. It is lacking in transparency and was without the participation of the public, who will later be forced to shoulder the impact," he said.
According to FTA Watch, even though the early stages were acceptable as a Cabinet resolution ordered a public-hearing process before the deal’s approval, the subsequent implementation was unacceptable as the public hearing was obviously just a "rubber stamp" and "painting a good image" ahead of approval on February 20.
"It took only half a day, just like general public relations. Even the moderator of the so-called hearing, Dr Chermsak Pinthong, started the proceedings by saying that this was not a public hearing - and the Foreign Ministry officials who were present agreed," Bantoon recalled.
"The foreign minister later claimed the meeting was a public hearing and the Cabinet approved the agreement based on this incredible claim," he said.
Another unacceptable aspect, Bantoon said, was the discussion on the JTEPA held among National Legislative Assembly (NLA) members on February 15.
"The discussion was held without the full text of the JTEPA draft being presented before hand. It was a problem of information access," said Surichai Wankaew, Chulalongkorn University academic and NLA member.
"I tried dozens of times to raise my hand to seek a chance to express my opinion, but I did not get it," Tuenjai Deethes, another NLA member, complained. Bantoon said this was the result of lobbying by the negotiating team.
Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul, of Thai Action on Globalisation, stated in an editorial on the FTA Watch website that the way PM Surayud had handled the JTEPA was a repeat of the mistakes former PM Thaksin Shinawatra made with Suvarnabhumi Airport, and it could force the Thai public to shoulder a high financial cost in the future.
"If it is approved, with many risks like this built in, the JTEPA will be like the second Suvarnabhumi scandal," she stated.
Pisan of the Foreign Ministry charged FTA Watch with being "too concerned" and argued that the group "overestimated" the impact of the trade agreement.
"We carefully considered the deal’s draft and it was also approved by the Thailand Development Research Institute [TDRI] team led by Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich. It found there would be no adverse impact," he said.
"On the concerns about toxic waste and microbe patents, we discussed these with the Japanese team and they shared our understanding. It is a problem of interpretation. So we asked them to make it clearer, and they agreed.
"However, this hasn’t been finalised to reflect our most recent negotiations," he said.
Pisan did admit strong opposition to the agreement at home had given him more bargaining power in negotiations. "Finally, the Japanese negotiators admitted our points were valid," he said.
"However, if Japan does not intend to dump toxic and nuclear waste in Thailand, or does not intend to enforce microbe patents, why not simply remove these matters from the draft?" Bantoon responded.
Pisan said Japan did not want these removed, but had asked to clarify the situation. "It is about compromise. In a negotiation, we cannot always get all we want," Pisan said.
Bantoon attacked Pisan’s claim about the TDRI review. He said he was not surprised at its sanctioning, because Somkiat was a consultant to the drafting team. "Is that called conflict of interest?" he said.
Last month Bantoon called on Surayud not to rush signing the agreement until all the points in dispute had been resolved.
"I believe there is much hidden in the draft that could damage Thailand. We have to know all about this and conduct a risk assessment before resuming negotiations for the best agreement we can sign. Now is not the time to sign," he said.
Pisan warned if the agreement were not signed next month, as the government wanted, then Thailand would lose trade opportunities. He said Japanese investment could be lost to Vietnam and other regional competitors.
The NLA’s Surichai supported Bantoon. He said the government should not rush to sign and should hold further public debate on the deal.
"This government is just an interim government. It should worry about its own legitimacy and not make controversial decisions which will affect everyone’s life for a long time," said Kannikar of Thai Action on Globalisation.