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Govt passivity on WTO deal draws flak

November 23, 1999 -- THAILAND lacks political priority in dealing with the World Trade Organisation, resulting in its failure to achieve a genuine national interest in international trade negotiations, international economic expert Dr Narongchai Arkasanee said.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion last week at The Nation on the impact of the WTO agreement, Narongchai criticised the Thai government for its passivity in handling the pressing issues of international trade although the WTO is likely to launch a new round of multilateral trade negotiations in Seattle, Washington, later this month.

''We're likely to go there empty-handed because the public does not pay enough attention,'' he said. ''It follows that the government does not have the political priority. And if you don't have the political priority, you cannot expect to achieve anything.''

The lack of political priority stems from the weakness in the Thai political system, which relies on coalition parties to form a government.

Narongchai said Cabinet members coming from different political parties usually pay very little attention to the trade agenda when it is presented in the Cabinet for discussion.

Moreover, if the trade agenda is screened by the International Economic Policy Committee, chaired by a deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, they carry even less weight because ministers from different political parties only report their lines of policy to their parties, he added.

This has traditionally created coordination problems in formulation of international trade policy by the government.

Thailand's International Economics Policy Office was first headed by Dr Amnuay Viravan, the deputy prime minister and finance minister in the Chavalit government, followed by Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, the deputy prime minister and commerce minister in the present Chuan government. These two ministers lack political clout because none of the other ministers report their line of duty to them.

''Given the existence of different ministries and agencies and a need to formulate policies, it is rather difficult to get the results,'' Narongchai said.

For instance, there is little coordination, if at all, between the Agriculture Ministry, the Industry Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the International Economics Policy Committee Office.

While the Agriculture Ministry is controlled by the Chat Thai Party, the Industry Ministry is under the hands of the Chat Pattana, the Finance Ministry and the International Economics Policy Committee Office belong to the Democrats. Both Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda and Supachai are hardly on talking terms.

Krirk-krai Jirapaet, the former Thai ambassador to the WTO, admitted that the government may not have a political priority in the WTO because it needs to deal with pressing problems pertaining to the economic and financial crises.

But to play it safe, Thailand has always been trying to strike a middle ground in trade negotiations at the multilateral trade forum.

''It is difficult to measure our losses or our gains in international trade because quantitatively that is difficult to measure. But we have to get involved because if we don't, we'll have an instance where a country may resort to bilateral -- rather than multilateral -- means to settle the trade dispute,'' Krirk-krai said.

With the growing importance of the WTO, the US has refrained from using Section 301 of its trade law in retaliation against what it perceives to be unfair trade practices against US industries.

Krirk-krai emphasised the importance of further development of the multilateral trade system to ensure that trade disputes are handled in a more transparent manner, rather than unilaterally.

Chanida Chanyaphaet Bamford, an activist from the non-governmental organisation, the Global South, complained about a lack of consultations between the government and the public over trade issues at the WTO. She charged that further trade liberalisation under the WTO will widen the gap between the rich and the poor countries.

''More than 1,000 NGOs have called for a moratorium on any attempt to launch a new round of trade negotiations,'' she said. ''It is better that we spend time to review what has been done in the past negotiations. We've got a feeling that the past negotiations have resulted in disadvantages for us.''




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