Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Trade tangle for Bush in Thailand

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

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 Thailand as part of his final Asian tour as chief executive.

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 Hollywood films such as Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada. Another part of this sprawling city, the backpacker areas around Khao San Road, saw similar raids.

The police effort highlights simmering US-Thai trade tensions, which have recently come to a head over Bangkok's moves to produce generic versions of US patent-protected pharmaceutical drugs. Washington recently downgraded Thailand onto its "priority watch list" of countries it estimates habitually violate intellectual property rights (IPR). In a seeming retort, pirated Hollywood DVDs have recently mushroomed across the capital city.

In mid-June, a senior Thai Commerce Ministry official visited the US capital in a bid to get the Bush administration to change its mind, though to no avail. "The country's IPR violation statistics have decreased significantly during the past few years and hence Thailand should be upgraded from the watch list," Siripol Yodmuangcharoen, commerce ministry permanent secretary, was quoted saying in the local press in mid-June.

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 US has pushed for stronger IPR protection in the proposed FTA than is currently mandated by member states to the World Trade Organization, which allows for generic drug production under certain circumstances through a compulsory licensing arrangement. US officials have taken issue with that clause and were behind the 2006 removal of a World Health Organization country representative to Thailand who argued against the FTA.

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 Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai back in January 2006 and no new rounds are scheduled. Nor are they expected to be if the apparently more protectionist Obama Barack is elected US president in November.

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 Thailand was ruled by a military regime. The Samak government apparently wants to amend certain clauses in the charter, including Article 190, which requires the Thai government to place any international treaty it plans to sign before parliament for scrutiny.

"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 China, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. "They were not placed before parliament for scrutiny. There were no public hearings for us to express our worries." Farmers in northern Thailand were hit badly after implementation of the Thai-China FTA, which caused local garlic growers to lose out to cheaper imports from nearby China. Local flower growers also suffered, with lower-cost roses from China now dominating the markets in Bangkok.

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 US will put Thailand under tremendous pressure to strike deals in its favor."

A study of the FTA's likely impact conducted by Thailand's Development and Research Institute, an independent think-tank, showed that it would increase trade substantially between the two sides and that Thailand would actually accrue more economic benefits. The trade-geared country already relies heavily on US markets for its exports, which in total contribute around 65% of gross domestic product. In recent years, the volume of trade between the two countries has averaged around US$28 billion.

Local interest groups, particularly the farmers who have suffered from previous free trade deals, doubt those scientific assessments. They demonstrated their displeasure with US trade policies the last time Bush visited Thailand in 2003, placing a curse on him by dropping his photograph inside a pot and tossing it into the northern Ping River amid chants and black magic mantras. Bush can likely expect more of the same during his visit next week.

(Inter Press Service with editing and additions by Asia Times Online)

No comments: