Dec 6, 2012

Thailand - The public must be heard on free trade proposals

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With Thailand set to join numerous trading blocs, it is essential that the govt opens a public discussion, as this issue will affect everyone

The Cabinet recently endorsed a draft of the Thailand-European Union free-trade agreement (FTA), reasoning that, without such an agreement, Thai traders and exporters could lose their competitive edge to other countries in the region. Neighbouring countries are also involved in free-trade talks with Thailand.

Asean and the EU previously discussed the idea of creating a bilateral free-trade agreement, but those talks collapsed because of problems in dealing with Myanmar when it was still regarded as a pariah state, despite being a member of Asean.

Although the Myanmar question is no longer on the table, the EU has pursued bilateral trade deals with individual Asean countries. The Thai government will have to consider whether to actually proceed with its bilateral FTA to prepare for the end of the European Union's privileges under the Generalised System of Preferences. But the FTA covers not only trade - there are other issues, such as investment, competition policy and intellectual-property rights.

While the scope of the proposed FTA is diverse, to make the talks meaningful, the Thai government needs to arrange a proper public debate. Some consumer groups have voiced concern over the FTA's possible effects on ordinary Thais. How long, for example, will Thailand's new pharmaceutical products be protected? The government has so far failed to address this. It can argue that details of the talks have yet to emerge, but it is better nevertheless to communicate with all stakeholders from an early stage about potential gains and drawbacks.

Thai trade negotiators must inform the public of the current situation, listen to its opinion and address its concerns. If they do not, they will lose public support. Of course, it may indeed be too early to speculate on the fine details, since talks have not yet started, but the government must bring the public into the discussion immediately.

An exchange of views is essential to ensure the public is well informed and prepared for the consequences. Otherwise, the discussion will be one-sided, or could be easily manipulated by those who most fear losing their advantage due to more-open competition. Such individuals and organisations tend to cite nationalist sentiments when protecting their interests.

Thailand will need negotiators of the calibre and integrity of the late Bajr Issarasena, former permanent secretary to the Commerce Ministry, and Krirkkrai Jirapaet, former trade representative. The government has recently assigned Trade Representative Nalinee Taveesin to oversee the EU talks. However, Nalinee's controversial past business links in Zimbabwe raise the question of her suitability to represent the country's interests.

But it is not only in the Thai-EU FTA talks that the government must be more active in communicating with the public. Such communication must cover all prospective trade agreements. Thailand is poised to enter three other major free-trade pacts, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Asia Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This is not to mention our obligations under the Asean Economic Community due to debut in 2015.

Thailand cannot ignore global evolution, in which countries are forming trade blocs while multilateral talks under the Doha Round of the World Trade Organisation remain stalled.

Unfortunately, as things stand now, the government has yet to prepare the best resources and strategies to participate in these talks. Trade negotiations are complicated in nature and can be easily manipulated politically if the government does not take a firm stance and get feedback from the public. To avoid such discussion will not allow for the best alternative options to be heard and perhaps adopted. Even if the government decides to ignore the public, its decisions should be based on thorough strategic study and discussion with experts. We cannot allow ignorance or arrogance to dictate our economic future.

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