Protests force brief halt to trade talks

Bangkok Post, 11 January 2006

Protests force brief halt to trade talks

Govt: Won’t sign any deal harming country

POST REPORTERS

Chiang Mai - Negotiations on the Thai-US free trade area (FTA) pact were forced to halt briefly yesterday as protesters used any means they could to disrupt the talks.

In a bid to appease the 8,000 anti-free trade groups taking to the streets in the northern city for a second day, the government pledged not to sign a deal that would put Thailand at a disadvantage.

The leader of the US negotiating team, acting US trade representative Barbara Weisel, will fly to Bangkok from Chiang Mai today to meet with Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign affairs, and key opposition leaders from the Democrat party.

About 100 protesters clashed with police in front of the Sheraton Chiang Mai Hotel where negotiations were taking place. The protesters demanded talks with Thai chief negotiator Nitya Pibulsonggram.

Their calls forced the meeting to adjourn for 10 minutes while Mr Nitya tried to soothe their anger, telling them his team was doing its best for the country.

"We have been assigned by the government to negotiate in the country’s best interests, which is the most important mission for us. But we can’t stop the negotiations," he said.

Mr Nitya, a former Thai ambassador to the US, said he was ready to listen to their concerns and suggested the protesters list them in writing.

The protesters, however, were not satisfied and insisted the FTA negotiations be scrapped.

"Thank you very much Mr Nitya for coming to meet us. But what you said to us means that you have never listened to our concerns. We have used all channels to express our voice. But unfortunately you have not heard us," said Nimit Tienudom, director of Aids Access Foundation.

More than 300 protesters prostrated themselves on the street on the way to the meeting venue, praying for sacred spirits to protect the country from the FTA. There was also a confrontation between protesters and the 1,000 police deployed to secure the meeting venue, with some protesters slightly injured.

About 50 protesters also swam across the Ping river to invade the Sheraton hotel before they were blocked by police.

The sixth round of the talks will end on Friday. Today will see the controversial patent protection on drugs issue discussed.

A source from the Thai delegation said the two countries will not conclude an FTA pact this time.

"I think the Thai side will express their concerns about drug patents, which inevitably will impact Thai drug consumers. Meanwhile, the US will let us know what they want," said the source.

The next round of negotiations will be in the United States.

In Loei, where he was attending a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told the Thai delegates in the FTA negotiations to put national interests first and listen to protesters’ suggestions.

"If a deal puts the country at a disadvantage, we’ll not sign it. And we’ll listen to the complaints of the protest groups," said Mr Thaksin.

Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said details of the trade talks would be disclosed to the public. He promised to submit to parliament for consideration any legal amendments demanded by the FTA expected to be concluded this year.

"If parliament doesn’t agree with the proposals, that’s it. We will follow the majority vote. Every party concerned will have a say in the process," he said.

Senator Kraisak reiterated his decision to petition the Constitution Court to rule on the pact, saying he did not want a handful of people to decide the fate of the country. The planned petition is likely to be lodged through the Office of the Ombudsman.

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said the party would submit a petition against the pact to the US after talks with the US chief negotiator.

Meanwhile, Apiradee Tuntraporn, director-general of the Trade Negotiation Department, said that the US initially agreed to lower tariffs by 78%, or about US3 million per year, while Thailand would reduce tariffs by 75%.

Lists of goods slated for tax reductions would be exchanged in talks on Feb 4, she said.

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source: Bangkok Post