By Achara Ashayagachat
Despite an earlier announcement that all signing and negotiating of free trade agreements would be halted, the government of Gen Surayud Chulanont bit its tongue yet again, and issued a cabinet resolution to go ahead with the Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement (JTEPA).
Saneh Chamarik, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), said he was disappointed by the twist of the government's promise given to the him and Thanpuying Suthawal Sathirathai, president of the Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute, at a meeting on Jan 29 that a comprehensive study with participation from the public would be conducted within three months before a signing could take place.
Former chairman of the Senate's committee on foreign affairs, Kraisak Choonhavan, said the government probably changed its mind as a result of a meeting between president of the Privy Council Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and Japan's senior vice minister for foreign affairs Katsuhito Asano in late October last year.
The Feb 20 cabinet resolution stated: "The cabinet agrees that the Foreign Ministry inform Japan about Thailand's readiness to sign the JTEPA upon both sides' mutual understanding of the concerns about dangerous wastes and patenting on micro-organisms."
The resolution came after academics and some members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) cautioned that the pact, if signed in its present form, would not only pave the way for the import of Japanese toxic waste to Thailand, but also allow the patenting of micro-organisms, commonly used by Thai farmers especially small-scale ones, and pharmacists.
The resolution is viewed as ambiguous.
Some members of the NLA praised the government for paying heed to their concerns on the two issues; others, including activists and academics, believed that there are more problematic aspects in the pact than those two and it would be best to halt the negotiating process and revise the whole text of the Thai-Japan FTA.
The Foreign Ministry's deputy permanent secretary Pisan Manawapat, head of the Thai team, said Thai negotiators will try their best to make Japan understand our concerns, but admitted a revision of the text would not be easy.
Mr Pisan expects the two countries to be able to clear all hurdles and sign the FTA deal by the end of April.
Mr Saneh of the NHRC commented that the resolution can be seen as a catalyst for hasty signing.
"There remains a lack of sufficient information, not to mention studies. But the head of this interim government, who has been preaching about ethics, is now acting against his word. I still believe he is a good leader, but he might have been duped by the cabinet ministers and technocrats," the NHRC chairman said.
Buntoon Srethasirote, director of the NHRC's Strategic Policy on Natural Resources Base Project, cautioned that in its present form, the JTEPA would open the door to bio-piracy and ruin Thailand's potential for self-reliance based on traditional wisdom, resources and technology.
If the government remains steadfast about signing the deal without a thorough review, it should stop promoting the royal philosophy of sufficiency, Mr Buntoon said.
"The Surayud government is practising a double standard. Even Mr Thaksin, when he was a caretaker PM, withheld the move to sign [with Japan] and negotiated [with the United States] instead," Mr Buntoon said.
He also criticised the way the government has handled this issue. The top-secret document was not released to the public till Jan 17, after a long request from the NHRC and the National Economic and Social Advisory Council, and one whole month after the rather obscure public hearing on Dec 22, 2006.
Worse, Mr Buntoon said, many members of the NLA had to debate on the proposal without having a chance to read through the 942-page document. Only a few dozens of the assembly's 242 members, including chairmen of sub-committees and the NLC chairman, received the text of the agreement. The rest were given only a pocket book-sized version published by the Foreign Ministry.
"Even those who received the real text could hardly digest the legal and technical terminology. This is really a moot point," said Assoc Prof Surichai Wun'gaeo, an NLA member.
Penchom Sae Tang, an activist with the Campaign for the Alternative Industry Network, gave the thumbs down to the negotiators.
"Chief negotiator Khun Pisan Manawapat said that the JTEPA would not overrule the legal instruments Thailand has in dealing with the [waste] problems. But the truth is, despite having both the Hazardous Substance Act (1992) and the Factory Act (1992), half of the 1.5-million-tonne industrial waste in our country could not be properly destroyed," Ms Penchom said.
Environmental groups including Greenpeace Southeast Asia, FTA Watch and the Industrial Pollution Study and Campaign (IPSC) have argued that the current wording in the pact gives room for an importation into Thailand of hazardous waste which cannot be disposed of yet. "No environmentalist or officials from concerned agencies are involved from the beginning till the end of the negotiating process, except a single academic. This [process] is unaccountable," the activist declared.
Witoon Liamchamroon of FTA Watch added that the possibility of adding an end-note citing mutual understanding of Thailand's concerns would not adequately challenge the content of the main pact, which he sees as paving the way for a zero-tariff import of industrial, hazardous waste into the country.
"The Foreign Ministry seems to care about pleasing Japan on the eve of the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations, especially in light of Tokyo's attempt to distance itself from the coup-propped government," Mr Witoon said.
Certain NLA members may risk trading off the long-term national interest with legitimisation of the government, whose days are being counted down, warned Mr Witoon.
Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul, also from FTA Watch, said that the issue of intellectual property rights is another one of major concern.
The JTEPA, she said, put Thailand at a more disadvantageous position than the pending Thai-US FTA. While the US text allows the issuance of compulsory licensing for necessary drugs, the Japanese text's exceptional clause considers a compulsory licence as an expropriation that requires an immediate market-value compensation if the mechanism is applied.
The stringent IPR control, i.e. on industrial design and the equating of any breach of IPR (intellectual property rights) as a criminal offence would destroy our capacity to develop our own IP knowledge and technology - a process Japan has been through itself, Mr Buntoon noted.
Jaroen Compeerapap, vice president for Intellectual Property Rights and Traditional Knowledge at Silpakorn University, said the government was acting beyond its given authority as an interim body, in giving the green light for the signing of the agreement.
In its capacity, the government should limit itself to conducting general administration duties that do not affect or commit Thailand to a profound agreement the way the JTEPA would.
To the NLA, Commerce Minister Krirkkrai Jirapaet affirmed that the FTA with Japan would bring more good than harm to the country. Once the pact was put into effect, over 80% of Japanese tariffs on Thai imports would be lowered to 0%.
The negotiating team summarised in its pointers provided to the NLA and cabinet ministers, that any adverse impact of the deal was manageable and would be limited to only steel and auto and spare parts industries.
Ms Kannikar, however, doubted if that was really the case, especially when it came to the issue of IPR. "We should be more pro-active and have preventive measures in place, instead of only defensive ones in dealing with fast-coming threats from the JTEPA, shouldnt we?"
Japanese media believed Tokyo had the upper hand in negotiating the pact since it was Bangkok that desperately needed Tokyo's political backing and further capital for future infrastructure development, a Japanese source said.