BANGKOK - Pirated DVDs, fake Swiss watches and imitation designer garments are fast disappearing from Patpong, a red-light strip in the Thai capital popular with tourists, bargain-hunters and others. The clean-up comes ahead of US President George W Bush's two-day visit next week to
On July 25, Thai police launched a crackdown to rid Patpong of the vendors who line the streets in the evening with their fake goods, shouting out bargains for pirated versions of
The police effort highlights simmering US-Thai trade tensions, which have recently come to a head over
In mid-June, a senior Thai Commerce Ministry official visited the
Bush's visit gives Thai authorities another chance to make their pitch, although government officials said that trade issues are not expected to feature prominently on the visit's agenda. "There may be some informal discussion on trade-related issues," said one official.
That likely won't stop civil society groups and activists opposed to a free trade agreement (FTA) under negotiation between the two countries from using Bush's visit as an opportunity to air their complaints and grievances. They contend that Thai farmers, small business ventures and the chronically ill who depend on cheap generic drugs for diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer will suffer if a bilateral trade deal is implemented.
The sidelined WHO official argued in a op-ed column in the local Bangkok Post that hundreds of thousands of Thais who depend on access to locally produced cheap medicines to survive would be at risk from the FTA's tougher IPR requirements. He also noted that the Thai government's production of generic treatments had allowed the country to reduce AIDS-related deaths by a remarkable 79%.
Negotiations towards a Thai-US trade deal have been suspended since Bush lost his "fast track" negotiating authority and a 2006 military coup that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was a strong advocate of the pact, and installed a more nationalistic interim administration.
The last round of talks was held in
Local activist concerns have nonetheless been resurrected by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's on-and-off drives to amend the Thai constitution, which was drafted by a military-appointed drafting committee and approved last August in a referendum while
"This government has announced that Article 190 in the constitution is a problem and it needs to be changed. We are worried since this change may be used when the next talks for the Thai-US FTA begin," says Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Bio-Thai, a non-governmental organization championing the concerns of grassroots communities. "Bilateral deals have become important and this government is very interested in this area. We need that article to monitor and manage the situation."
"We have already learnt our lessons from the past," he added, referring to the FTAs Thailand has already signed with
Civil society groups prefer a "new beginning altogether for these trade talks", says Jacques-chai Chomthongdi, research associate at Focus on the Global South, a left-leaning Bangkok-based think-tank. "We were not happy with the process of the previous negotiations. It was not transparent. We are concerned that the
A study of the FTA's likely impact conducted by
Local interest groups, particularly the farmers who have suffered from previous free trade deals, doubt those scientific assessments. They demonstrated their displeasure with
(Inter Press Service with editing and additions by Asia Times Online)