Chiang Mai (Thailand): Anti-WTO Protest Planned

by Nantiya Tangwisutuit, The Nation, March 28, 2001

Chiang Mai, Thailand--About 100 representatives of farmer groups from northern provinces planned to stage a rally tomorrow againsta meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in a show of oppositionto the opening up of Thailand's market to agricultural imports.

Although the stated purpose of the WTO workshop, which began yesterdayin this northern city, is trade and environment, the farmer groups believethe meeting is a forum for the WTO to lobby for a new round of trade negotiations, in which an Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) would beincluded.


Thailand is host of the four-day meeting, attended by senior officials responsible for agriculture, commerce, and foreign affairs from 22 countries in East, Southeast, and South Asia.

The Agreement on Agriculture advocates, among other things, an elimination of import tax for agricultural products and an end to state subsidies for agricultural sectors. Among the 23 products designated for import tax cuts are soybean, garlic, and onion, which are the major cash crops of the North.

Somchai Sirichai, a garlic farmer and secretary of the Federation of Northern Peasants (FNP), said his group would submit a letter to the government tomorrow.

This letter will urge the government to push for amendment or even cancellation of the AOA, which will expose thai farmers to unfair competition with large-scale farmers in developed countries.

"There is no such thing as fair competition under AOA because farmers in different countries receive different treatment," he said. "While Thai farmers, for example, have to pay 15 per cent interest for loans in crop production, those in Japan and some European nations pay only 1.5 to 3 per cent.

Somchai said the group would also protest against the WTO's lack of transparency in organizing the meeting. He said the Thai public was not informed to the meeting until it started.


by Saritdet Marukatat, Bangkok Post, March 28, 2001

Chiang, Mai, Thailand--A WTO-led seminar here is not a negotiating forum, as claimed by non-governmental organizations, a senior official of the Agriculture Ministry said yesterday.

Continuing till tomorrow, the seminar is an "education forum" to alert Asian members of the World Trade Organization to issues related to trade to trade and the environment, said Ampon Kittiampon, the ministry's assistant permanent secretary.

Senior officials from the WTO are informing participants about issues likely to emerge if there is a new round of global trade talks, he added.

"No negotiations. No push for a new round," said Mr. Ampon, who is taking part in the seminar being held at the request of regional governments.

Four WTO officials from Geneva, representing the divisions of Trade and Environment, and Technical Cooperation, are leading the discussions joined by officials from over 20 governments in Asia.

The exchange of views on trade and environmental issues will benefit members, Mr. Ampon siad. The technical essence of the discussions raised doubt as to why the event should be made known to the public, he added.

But non-governmental groups and their supporters in this northern province expressed dismay at not being informed beforehand of the schedule, which pre-empted their organising activities to oppose the presence of the WTO here. They believed the bitter experience of government agencies with mass protests here in May last year during the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank, had contributed to the low profile given to the seminar.

"We must make sure the meeting is made known to the whole world," said Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, which studies global issues affecting developing countries. A representative from the Federation of Northern Farmers called it a typical case of government agencies blocking public access to information.

Academics and non-governmental members called on the government to provide more public access to information on negotiations in the world trade body, a better network to monitor developments in the Geneva-based body, and a bigger chance to contribute to Thailand's position.

"In Thailand, only a few technocrats are shaping the country's stance on issues in theWTO" and that should be changed, said Witoon Lianchamroon from Biothai, a non-governmental organisation monitoring bio-diversity and intellectual property matters.

Mr. Bello and other NGO members whose names are listed as participants pledged to boycott a meeting here tomorrow, which will bring together officials, academics and NGOs.


by Kamol Sukin, The Nation, March 27, 2001

Civil rights groups and activists have urged the public to closely monitor the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks to he held in Chiang Mai this week.

Heavy lobbying for a new round of WTO negotiations was expected to take place in Chiang Mai, they said.

The WTO would try to gain support from Asian governments in launching a new round of talks--the so-called Development Round--during the fourth WTO Ministerial meeting in Qatar in November this year, the groups said.

If this lobbying was successful, new issues would be included in the talks, including investment policy, competition policy, government procurement, and labor and environmental standards, the groups said.

The impact on this on Thailand and other developing countries would be severe, said the groups. "All will lead in one direction--putting the burden on developing countries," said law expert Chakkrit Khuanphote of Sukhothai University's Open University.

Witoon Lianchamroon of the BioThai Network said that the WTO was also pushing to include genetically modified products in the new round of trade negotiations.

"The Thai public should at least monitor how the Thai government stands on these issues, in order to ensure it serves real public benefit," he said.

The two-day WTO Regional Seminar on Trade and Environment for Developing and Least Developed Countries in Asia will he held at the Empress Hotel in Chiang Mai, beginning today.

Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, said the lobbying of governments at this level had taken place in other regions including at the APEC Summit in November and at the African leaders' summit weeks ago.

Srisuwan Khuankhachorn of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Natural Resources, accused the WTO of trying to lower the profile of the seminar given the nature of the topics to be discussed.

"To avoid local protest, it [the WTO] decided to use tactics of not informing the public about this seminar. But the agenda shows its hidden intention of lobbying for the new round]," he said.


By Walden Bello, Bangkok Post, March 27, 2001

On March 27th and 28th, the World Trade Organization is holding a Seminar on Trade and Environment for Asian governments in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The seminar has a low profile. This is not surprising. For while trade and environment is the formal agenda of the meeting, the informal agenda is a very controversial one: to pressure government officials to commit themselves to launching a new round during the Fourth WTO Ministerial in Qatar in November.

This is typical WTO modus operandi: use every key inter-governmental meeting to get governments into line behind a new trade round. The WTO did this at the APEC Summit in Bandar Seri Bagawan last November. They tried to do this again, unsuccessfully, at an African leaders' meeting several weeks ago.

Even as the WTO is twisting the arms of Asian governments behind a new round, it is also attempting to gain support for a new round from Asian civil society. The WTO knows that even if the governments commit to a new round in Chiang Mai, civil society opposition in their countries could still push them off the bandwagon. Thus a trade and environment seminar for civil society organizations, also to be held in Chiang Mai and fronted for the WTO by the Geneva-based International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), will immediately follow the governmental meeting.

Why a New Trade Round is Bad for the South

Most developing countries are opposed to a new trade round. The reasons are obvious. They have not yet absorbed the demands on them by the Uruguay Round. Many countries, for instance, have still not changed their domestic legislation to make them WTO-consistent. They are bitter that many of them, in fact, lost rather than gained from the Uruguay Round. The United Nations Development Program estimates that under the WTO regime, in the period 1995 to 2004, the 48 least developed countries will actually be worse off by $600 million a year, with sub-Saharan Africa actually worse off by $1.2 billion! UNDP also says that 70 per cent of the gains of the Uruguay Round will go to developed countries, with most of the remainder going to a relatively few large export-oriented developing countries.

WTO Director General Mike Moore and UK Development Minister Clare Short have tried to sell a new round as a "Development Round." But the reality is that main agenda for liberalization has more to do with opening up their economies to greater penetration by northern transnational corporations. The so-called "New Issues" that the developed countries want to make the centerpiece of negotiations are investment policy, competition policy, government procurement policy, labor standards, and environmental standards. The object of the first three is to give TNC's "national treatment," that is, to strike down preferential treatment given to local producers and contractors. As for labor and environmental clauses in WTO agreements, developing countries fear that their intent is simply to serve as barriers to the entry of developing country imports while many southern NGO's regard them as giving the WTO tremendous power in areas where it does not have competence.

A new round is like a Pandora's box. Once you open it, all sorts of issues detrimental to the interests of peoples and countries may emerge. The United States may even use it to push for a revision of the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards along lines that would support its concept of "sound science" as a methodology in order to force other economies to accept genetically modified organisms (GMO's).

What the WTO Should be Doing

Instead of engaging in a new round of trade liberalization, the majority of members of the WTO should spend the next few years repairing the Uruguay Round so that it does less harm to the interests of developing countries. In other words, they should work to significantly dilute the impact of a bad agreement, as part of a strategy to ultimately reduce the power of the WTO.

Here there are a number of priority areas:

  1. The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights should be revised so as to ban the patenting of all life forms including microorganisms and to strengthen intellectual property systems-the so-called sui generis systems-that protect the knowledge of local and indigenous communities from biopiracy. The priority of public health concerns over intellectual property rights should also be established-a move that will, among other things, enable HIV-positive people to buy life-prolonging patented drugs as low prices.
  2. The Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) should be radically amended to eliminate tariff peaks and tariff escalation against Southern agricultural exports, end the massive subsidies for developed country farming interests, do away with the different forms of direct income support for developed country farming interests, institute a food security exception to market access rules, and recognize the principle of "Special and Differential Treatment" for developing countries that would allow them greater latitude in their interpretation and implementation of AOA rules. The strategic goal of this process should be to effectively remove agriculture, which is a way of life, from the WTO straitjacket.
  3. The Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs) must be revised to drop the ban on local-content policies. Trade policy has traditionally been a mechanism used by developing countries to industrialize. The ban on local-content policies, which specify that a determined amount of a product be sourced locally instead of being imported, practically eliminates this positive use of trade policy for development.
  4. The Special Ministerial Decision approved at Marrakesh in 1994 to provide assistance to Net Food Importing Developing Countries (NFIDs) still has to go into effect in spite of the fact that tthe AOA has raised the prices of food imports by these countries. It should be implemented immediately.
  5. The WTO must force the developed countries to live up to the commitments they made to lift import barriers under the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing. Seven years into the WTO, the US, EU, and other developed countries have scarcely lifted their quotas against Third World imports. For all intents and purposes, the restrictive Multifiber Agreements (MFA) remain in place.
  6. Last but not least, the WTO decisionmaking structure must be overhauled. The so-called "Green Room/Consensus process" has ensured that a few countries dominate decisionmaking in the WTO. Even Charlene Barshefsky, the US Trade Representative during the 1999 Seattle Summit, acknowledged that the WTO was undemocratic: "The process.was a rather exclusionary one. All meetings were held between 20 and 30 key countries.And that meant 100 countries, 100, were never in the room.[T]his led to an extraordinarily bad feeling that they were left out of the process and that the results.had been dictated to them by the 25 or 30 privileged countries in the room."

After the developing countries rebelled against this exclusionary decisionmaking process in Seattle, Stephen Byers, the UK Minister of Trade and Industry, commented: "The WTO will not be able to continue in its present form. There has to be fundamental and radical change in order for it to meet the needs and aspirations of all 134 of its members."

Yet scarcely three months after Seattle, during UNCTAD X in Bangkok in February 2000, Mike Moore said that the Green Room/Consensus process was "non-negotiable."

Decisionmaking is a fundamental issue. The developing countries and international civil society cannot agree to a new trade round unless the fundamental inequity in decisionmaking is banished from the WTO.

Is Free Trade Obsolete?

When the WTO came into being in 1995, free trade was seen as a panacea, a cure for poverty, inequality, and almost everything else. The Washington Consensus that formed the intellectual pillar of free trade and structural adjustment seemed to carry all before it. Today, the situation is radically different. The alleged benefits of free trade and free markets are challenged everywhere. For instance, an authoritative UNCTAD study covering 124 countries showed that during a period of greater global trade liberalization from 1965 to 1990, the income share of the richest 20 per cent of the world's population rose from 69 to 83 per cent of total global income. As for the so-called positive relationship between free trade and growth, the emerging consensus is laid out by Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik:

"Do lower trade barriers spur greater economic progress? The available studies reveal no systematic relationship between a country's average level of tariff and non-tariff barriers and its subsequent economic growth. If anything, the evidence for the 1990's indicates a positive relationship between import tariffs and economic growth. The only clear pattern is that countries dismantle their trade restrictions as they grow richer. This finding explains why today's rich countries, with few exceptions, embarked on modern economic growth behind protective barriers but now display low trade barriers."

In the face of such evidence, C. Fred Bergsten, the head of Washington's Institute of International Economics (IIE), a noted partisan of free trade and the WTO, now says that there "has to be an honest recognition and admission that there [free market globalization] has costs and losers," [that] "globalization does increase income and social disparities within countries" and "does leave some countries and groups behind."

What the developing world is not a new round but a moratorium on trade liberalization.

Focus on the Global South (FOCUS)
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IMF/ WB Struggles | Texts by Walden Bello | Actions 2001 |