FTA TALKS: Protesters storm trade negotations

HIV/Aids groups lead charge of hotel, pledge to thwart talks on drug patents; PM says he’s listening.

Nearly 10,000 protesters yesterday broke through police barricades surrounding the Sheraton Hotel, where Thai and US negotiators were engaged in free-trade talks. The ruckus brought the talks to a premature close. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday softened his stance, promising to listen to opponents of the FTA negotiations. After a minor clash with police, about 500 protesters managed to enter the hotel compound, while the rest rallied outside the hotel’s main fence. Some 2,000 police officers and security forces formed blockades to prevent protestors entering the hotel, where trade talks are slated to resume today. The stand-off continued late into last night, but protesters allowed guests free access to and from the hotel.

The 500 protesters, most of them from HIV/Aids groups, vowed to make their way to the meeting rooms to prevent negotiations on drug patenting and other intellectual property rights issues. Those contentious discussions are on today’s agenda. “It is crucial for us to stop the negotiations, because our lives are at stake,” said Nopparat Sa-ngiemjitr, from an HIV/Aids group in Chacheongsao province. “We are fighting against drug patenting with our lives. I know I might get arrested or injured in clashes with police, but we are all willing to face that, because we have more to lose if the talks succeed.”

Nitya Phibulsomgram, the senior Thai negotiator, met with the protesters, but insisted he could not bring an end to the negotiations. Nitya later told reporters that the talks had been going on for two years. “If we stop right now, we would have wasted time on all the issues we have negotiated.” He said the protest “fairly disrupted” the negotiations. Nitya reportedly ordered an early end to yesterday’s negotiations. While the talks on Monday went on until 7pm, yesterday’s discussions were abandoned at about 4pm, said a source in attendance. An observer said that if the protesters managed to stop the FTA negotiations in Chiang Mai, it would be only the second time since the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle was scuttled in 1999 that a free-trade negotiation had been disrupted.

Asked why the Thai government did not make the entire process transparent, as in the US, which reported all conditions of the talks to Congress before beginning negotiations with the Thai government, Nitya said: “Don’t you know the American system is different from our system. Why do you want us to do things the US way?”

From the sidelines of a weekly Cabinet meeting convened in the northern city of Loei, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promised his government would listen to the protesters, who claim he has been too secretive about the substance of the talks, which are currently in their sixth round. “It’s good that there are protesters,” Thaksin said. “The government will use their presence as a bargaining tool in the negotiations,” he told reporters. “My government will listen to what the protesters say and will consider whether their points are reasonable or not, but if we consider that the deal is justified we will sign it,” the premier said. “If the deal is not justified and we are to be disadvantaged, we will not sign it.”

However, Thaksin said some of the protesters were overreacting, adding that the government would ultimately disclose all the details of its discussions with US trade negotiators. Government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee said Thaksin had insisted that all the recommendations from the public would be heard. “We have to negotiate for the mutual benefit from both sides,” he added. Democrat MP Nakorn Machim said the opposition might call for a special parliamentary session to debate the trade pact. –

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