January 9, 2006

Thousands protest against U.S.-Thai trade talks

By Sukree Sukplang

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters) - Thousands of Thais marched
through the northern city of Chiang Mai on Monday to protest
against a U.S.-Thai free-trade pact as officials began a sixth
round of negotiations.

The protesters, including farmers from the drought-plagued
northeast and HIV/AIDS patients in Bangkok, marched 2 km (1
mile) from the city's main train station to the U.S. consulate
chanting and waving placards.

"We want the whole negotiation process to end because they
are not transparent and against the constitution," said
Kannikar Kittivechakul of the People's Network Against Free
Trade Agreements and Privatization's, which organized the

The group said a free-trade pact would result in the
privatization of public utilities under U.S. management and
farmers would suffer from cheap farm imports while paying more
for U.S.-made drugs.

The United States is Thailand's largest trade partner. Thai
exports were worth $15 billion in 2004 and imports $7.2

Neena Moorjani, spokeswoman for the U.S. trade delegation,
called the protests "a sign of healthy democracy."

Trade negotiators resumed talks on Monday. A Thai
negotiator said last week services and financial sectors, left
aside in early rounds, would be on the table during the
week-long meeting.

Pharmaceuticals, another delicate issue, were also likely
to be discussed despite opposition from groups that fear
Thailand's generic drug industry would be hurt, Thai chief
negotiator Nitya Pibulsonggram said.

William Aldis, the World Health Organization representative
in Bangkok, said Thailand should think carefully about
surrendering access to cheap medicine in exchange for a
free-trade deal.

"The stakes are indeed high, especially for the 600,000
Thais living with HIV/AIDS and whose survival will depend on
the availability of affordable anti-retroviral drugs," Aldis
wrote in the Bangkok Post newspaper.

Moorjani said the U.S. delegation hoped a final deal could
be wrapped up in a few months.

"Specifically, we hope to make sufficient progress on the
text of the chapters under negotiation as well as market
access," she said in a statement to Reuters.

(Additional reporting and writing by Nopporn Wong-Anan in