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Protesters break through police barricade at Thai-US trade talks

The Nation, Bangkok

Protesters break through police barricade at Thai-US trade talks

10 January 2006

Chiang Mai - Some 6,000 protesters on Tuesday broke through a barricade around the hotel where Thai and US negotiators are holding free trade talks, police said.

"They are now at the hotel’s main gate, we called for reinforcements of 200 to 300 police," one police officer at the scene said. "The protesters are now blockading the hotel entrance and in a standoff with police," he said.

As the main group of protesters pushed through the security cordon and briefly scuffled with police, a group of 30 swam across the Ping River to reach the Sheraton Hotel grounds in a bid to break up the talks, police said. That group also made it as far as the hotel gate.

The protesters fear the trade deal, expected to be sealed later this year, will restrict access to medications for Thai patients used to receiving cheap, locally-made generic drugs.

They also say the pact will hurt poor Thai farmers since US farm subsidies give their counterparts an advantage.

The protesters waved colorful flags, with some wearing jackets emblazoned with messages like "Stop FTA" on their backs.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promised his government will listen to the protesters, who say he has been too secretive about the substance of the talks which are currently in their sixth round.

"It’s good that there are protesters," Thaksin said.

"The government will use their presence as a bargaining (tool) in the negotiations," he told reporters on the sidelines of a weekly cabinet meeting being held in the northern city of Loei.

"My government will listen to what the protesters say and will consider whether their contested points are reasonable or not, but if we consider that the deal is justified we will sign it," he said.

"If the deal is not justified and we were to be disadvantaged, we will not sign it."

Some 10,000 protesters massed when the talks began Monday, burning effigies and shouting slogans against the agreement.

Thaksin said some of the protesters were overreacting, adding the government would ultimately disclose all the details of its discussions with US trade negotiators.

Sealing free-trade agreements is one of Thaksin’s economic priorities so as to boost exports, which account for more than 40 per cent of gross domestic product.

Thailand has so far signed deals with Australia, China and New Zealand, and is in the final stages of talks on an accord with Japan./Agence France Presse