Thousands of people took to the streets yesterday to protest the latest free-trade talks between Thailand and the US, claiming the deal would hurt farmers and reduce access to drugs.
The rally came as the two countries began their sixth round of talks, expected to last until Friday, since the two launched negotiations in June 2004.
The US, the kingdom's biggest trading partner, has said it hopes to seal a deal early this year.
But negotiators are still ironing out differences over sensitive issues such as agriculture, drug patents and the liberalization of Thailand's financial sectors.
The noisy but peaceful group of farmers, AIDS activists, consumer advocates and other protesters marched to the US Consulate General Office in this northwestern city. Organizers said around 10,000 demonstrators were on hand.
Witoon Liamchamroon, who coordinated the protest for an umbrella group of activists called Free Trade Watch, said the talks were at a critical stage.
"The FTA [free-trade agreement] with the United States is not fair for Thai people. Only the United States will get benefits out of this deal," Witoon said.
The group, which was formed in 2003 by activists, academics and non-governmental organizations, has been campaigning for greater public involvement in Thailand's free-trade agreements.
For Thailand, key issues include Washington's proposal to enforce 25-year patent protection for US-made pharmaceutical drugs, which is tougher than WTO rules that offer only 20 years.
Witoon said that the US proposal would effectively restrict public access to cheap generic drugs in Thailand, one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Asia, with 670,000 AIDS patients or 1 percent of the population.
"The United States is pressuring Thailand to agree on the drug patent issue. The extension of patent protection for US drugs could force Thai AIDS patients to pay for drugs at higher prices," he said.
Witoon also argued that Washington's call for further opening the Thai agricultural market was unfair, saying the FTA could put a large number of Thai farmers out of business in the face of cut-throat global competition.
Sealing free-trade agreements is one of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's economic drives to boost exports, which account for more than 40 percent of the country's GDP.
Thailand has so far signed FTAs with Australia, China and New Zealand, and is the final stages of talks on a deal with Japan.
Two-way US-Thailand goods trade reached US$23.9 billion in 2004, up nearly 11 percent from 2003, according to the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR).
Thai officials said last week that the two sides would also discuss lifting Thailand's ban on US beef, imposed two years ago over mad cow fears, during the trade talks.
Thailand was not a major importer of US beef at the time of the ban, relying mainly on countries in the region for its needs. But the Southeast Asian country is the 17th-largest buyer of US agricultural products generally, according to the USTR.