FTA talks may not finish on time: US chief rep

The Nation, Thailand

FTA talks may not finish on time: US chief rep

By Jeerawat Na Thalang

14 January 2006

The head of the US trade negotiating team yesterday expressed concern that Bangkok and Washington may not be able to wrap up free-trade agreement discussions by the agreed deadline. Speaking after concluding the sixth round of Thai-US FTA negotiations, Barbara Weisel, assistant US Trade Representative, said: “There’s some serious concern whether we can do that [finish the talks by May].”

“We’ve had negotiations ongoing now for 18 months, which is longer than almost any negotiation we’ve done to date,” she added.

Flanked by Thai head of negotiations Nitya Pibulsonggram and Deputy Public Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul, Weisel declined to give specific details regarding the sticking points. She said that it was time to start closing the chapters of the agreement.

Weisel added that both sides were making progress but acknowledged there were still a number of challenges facing the negotiators.

Earlier, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and President George W Bush agreed that the talks should be wrapped up by this spring in order to provide sufficient time to pass the trade pact before the US Trade Promotion Authority expires in June of next year.

“While the US believes that this goal is achievable, it will require both sides to redouble their efforts and to consider creative solutions to the remaining issues,” said Weisel.

Nitya acknowledged that there are some concerns but that this did not mean that they would not be able to reach this goal.

Earlier this week, thousands of protesters tried to break into the Sheraton Hotel in Chiang Mai, where the talks were being held, in order to halt the discussions. Protesters said they opposed the US proposal to provide five-year data exclusivity (patent protection) for new drugs on the market, saying that it would lead to an increase in the cost of medicine for HIV patients.

“Claims by some groups that the FTA will cause drug prices to rise by whole multiples of their current price is based on a lack of understanding of the US proposal, runs counter to the experiences of our other FTA partners, and amounts to scaremongering,” said Weisel.

Numerous representatives from non-government organisations also attended yesterday’s press conference at the Siam City Hotel.

Anutin refused to make any commitment as to whether Thailand would agree on the US drafted text, which requires more protection of medicines than what is currently required under the World Trade Organisation’s agreement following the Doha round of trade talks.

“All I can tell you is that we will keep the national interest as our highest priority. At this point, we will consider the US proposal. We haven’t made any decisions on this matter,” he said.

Weisel insisted that the FTA would benefit Thailand. The US already buys more Thai products than any other country, she said. “Without such an FTA, Thailand’s exporters will lose the competitive advantage they have against some of their fiercest competitors in the region.”

Meanwhile, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva submitted a letter to US Ambassador Ralph L Boyce, expressing concern over the ratification of the FTA.

In the letter, Abhisit stated that the negotiations needed to be carried out transparently and with public participation. If the talks continue on as they have been, they will meet with growing opposition and that would affect Thai-US relations, he said.

He added that the letter also called on the US to review the FTA specifically in relation to intellectual property and patent protection, which would affect drugs and agricultural goods.

Civic groups yesterday gathered outside the US Embassy in Bangkok to protest against the talks. The group submitted a letter calling for transparency and public participation in the decision to sign the FTA.

The letter called on the US president not to ratify agreements until Thailand has followed Article 224 of the Constitution and receives approval from both the upper and lower houses of Parliament.

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