Earlier this week, nearly 10,000 Thai protestors took to the streets in Chiang Mai and some even broke through the police barricades to disrupt the 6th round of FTA negotiations between the Thai and USdelegation.
This disruption is a manifestation of the rising level of discontent and fear in Thailandover the FTA policy of the Thaksin administration, specifically the US-Thailand FTA.
There is a suspicion among Thais that the negotiations are held behind closed doors to cover up the possible economic benefits for Prime Minister Thaksin (who had been a businessman). There are, however, some specific areas of concern.
Some protestors are concerned about the issue of intellectual property rights especially that related to the patent of drugs. The concern was whether generic drugs for the treatment of AIDS would be allowed should the US-Thai FTA come into existence. Given that almost 1% of the Thai population (or about 550,000 people) have been infected with HIV, this is a serious issue indeed for Thailand.
Another group of protestors consists of those who were affected by the other FTAs. For instance, farmers in the north of Thailandwho have been affected by the Early Harvest Programme of the China-ASEAN FTA have now joined in the chorus protesting further agricultural liberalisation. There have also been protests against the displacement of Thai products from “Australian fruits and New Zealandmilk.” There are also fears that the FTA might lead to higher prices for essential services and an increased foreign ownership of privatised state enterprises.
Opposition to the US-Thai FTA is also present in sectors that might be potentially affected. For instance, Thawatchai Yongkittikul, secretary-general of the Thai Bankers Association has warned the government not to liberalise the financial sector until it has a clear long term plan for the development of the Thai financial sector.
Some of the opposition is probably politically motivated. With Thaksin looking increasingly vulnerable due to the situation in Southern Thailand, many parliamentarians are taking the opportunity to cut Thaksin down to size. The Thai Senate Foreign Affairs committee chairman, Kraisak Choonhavan has gone on the record of pointing out that the Thai-Australia and the other FTAs was not debated in parliament as required under Article 224 of the Thai constitution. Hence Thaksin might have broken the constitution.
In response, the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak has agreed to submit to the parliament for consideration of any legal amendment required by the US-Thai FTA. Thaksin defended the government by arguing that the FTAs were not treaties. Instead, they were merely agreements which meant that the government need not seek ratification.
In terms of the progress of negotiation, both sides are still discussing whether to adopt the positive or negative list (where sectors are excluded from liberalisation unless explicitly mentioned) for liberalisation of services. Barbara Weisel, an assistant US Trade Representative has pointed out that the negotiations would focus on liberalising the financial, telecommunication and insurance services. The USis reluctant to cut tariffs on some Thai exports including including canned tuna, vehicles and parts, and footwear.
However, the US has agreed to cut tariff equivalent to 78% of overall tariffs worth over US$933 million annually on 204 items of industrial goods. On its part,Thailand agreed to a 75% cut in the overall tariffs. Both sides agreed to eliminate completely tariffs on electrical goods, electronic products, ceramics, plastics and jewelry.
For Thaksin, these protests might end up being a blessing in disguise. They might just strengthen his hands at the negotiating table. The negotiations have also moved to a resort 20 km away to avoid the protestors. However, ultimately, unless Thaksin finds a way to defuse some of the discontent, the protestors might find their way to the next negotiation venue again.
- “Thai-US Free Trade Talks Change Venue After Protests”, The Nation website, 12 Jan 2006
- “Thailandsays Thai-US FTA Won’t Affect Access to Drugs”, Thai Press Report, 12 Jan 2006
- “ThailandTariff Cuts Agreed At US-Thai FTA Talks”, Thai Press Report, 12 Jan 2006
- “ThailandProtestorsRushHotelHosting Thai-US FTA Talks”, Thai Press Report, 12 Jan 2006
- “Thailand Protestors of Thai-US FTA Fear the Sky is Falling, But it Won’t”, Thai Press Report, 12 Jan 2006
- “Asia: Aussie Free Trade Deal to be challenged in Thai Courts”, Australian Associated Press, 11 Jan 2006“FTA’s Unlawful: Senator”, The Nation, 11 Jan 2006
- “Roundup: Continuing Protests force halt to the Thai- US FTA negotiations in Thailand”, Xinhua, 11 Jan 2006
- “Protests Heat Up as Negotiators Work Towards US-Thai Free Trade Pact”, Associated Press, 10 Jan 2006
- “10,000 Protest US-Thai Free Trade Agreement Talks”, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 9 Jan 2006
- “Thousands Begin Weeklong Protest Against Thai-US Free Trade Agreement”, Associated Press, 9 Jan 2006