The Nation (Bangkok)
FREE TRADE: Top FTA official throws in the towel
Published on January 18, 2006
Nit says political pressure too much as talks with US mired in dispute.
Nit Pibulsongkram is to resign as head of the Thai team negotiating a free-trade agreement with the United States because of the tremendous political pressure weighing on him, according to a source at Government House.
The source said Nit wanted to step down from the job because he feels that the latest round of Thai-US talks in Chiang Mai had failed to make progress and he has come under heavy political attack.
Rumours over Nit’s possible resignation circulated last week during the start of the sixth round of the free-trade negotiations. Nit leads the negotiations for Thailand and his counterpart, Barbara Weisel, heads the US delegation. Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak sent his trusted aide Uttama Savanayana to sit in as co-leader of the Thai team in Chiang Mai because he wanted to control the direction of the negotiations.
Uttama also accompanied Somkid to Hong Kong in December last year to take part in the Doha Round of multilateral trade talks under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation.
Nit, a career diplomat, formerly served as Thailand’s ambassador to the US.
According to Commerce Ministry sources, Uttama is likely to succeed Nit if Somkid, who administers the Thaksin government’s economic policy, accepts Nit’s resignation.
In Chiang Mai, the Thai-US free trade talks ran into a snag following a mass protest by non-governmental organisations and activist groups. More than 10,000 people took to the streets of the northern city to argue that a free-trade deal will put Thailand at a disadvantage in its commercial dealings with the US. Nit attempted to talk with the protestors, but instead they burnt his effigy.
Uttama’s role in Chiang Mai was very prominent and he almost overshadowed Nit. He took part in all the key meetings that required final decisions and on one occasion, issued a statement on the outcome of the negotiations.
The sources said the negotiations have now reached at a critical stage where political decisions are required most of the time and tough political will is needed.
“It is more appropriate to have someone who is not a civil servant, who has strong political backing and who has direct access to the political leadership to take charge over the negotiations,” said one Commerce Ministry source.
Narongchai Arkasanee, an advisor to Somkid on international trade, has also been named as a possible successor to Nit, but sources claim he doesn’t get along well with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.