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Turbulent Thailand

Thai TPP ambition loses steam as COVID-19 stokes wrath of farmers

Power struggles within coalition government also hampering deal progress

Farmers oppose Thailand's joining of the TPP over worries that costs to buy seeds would increase for them.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's proposed participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership stands on a precipice.

The government has been reluctant to make an official decision to join the trade group as a movement against it is growing in the country. Opponents are expressing concerns over its potential negative impact on the agriculture and pharmaceutical sectors. Power struggles within the administration are also adding uncertainty.

"TPP will push up the costs of food and medicine, it will cause a negative impact on Thailand." Such messages opposing the country's participation flooded Twitter by the tens of thousands when news broke that the Thai cabinet was aiming to make an official decision to join on May 19.

As public opinion built against the deal, the government shelved the decision for a second time, after a similar chain of events in April led to the first delay.

Part of the frustration the farmers feel stems from a TPP clause that requires signatories to abide by international law that grants developers of new seeds exclusive rights. This means that farmers have to seek permission from those developers to plant the seeds each time, incurring more costs.

This TPP clause is a major departure from Thai law which allows farmers to replant seeds harvested from crops in their own farms.

The local pharmaceutical sector is also up in arms over a TPP rule that they feel puts them on the back feet. Many generic drugs, including medication for HIV, are produced in Thailand which keeps the costs low for patients. 

But the TPP includes a rule that allows the extension of pharmaceutical patents under certain conditions. This could delay the launch of some generic drugs, leading to concerns that drugmakers will not be able to access the market while patients have to pay higher prices.

In February, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak met with Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Japanese minister in charge of TPP. At the time, Somkid was still optimistic about TPP participation, saying that the government hoped to make a decision as early as April.

But the coronavirus outbreak changed everything. Thailand declared a state of emergency end-March, as the backlash against the TPP gained pace with the public increasingly worried that the government would push the deal through while parliament was suspended.

Adding to the chaos was the power struggle within the coalition government that comprises around 20 political parties.

The general election in March last year failed to yield a convincing win for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's Palang Pracharath Party, which had to give away some key positions to coalition partners, including minister of commerce in charge of free-trade treaties, and minister of public health. Faced with the public anger against the TPP, the two ministers have dithered over the deal. 

Even within Palang Pracharath Party, there is much jostling for power between two deputy prime ministers -- Somkid and Prawit Wongsuwan, former commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army. The coalition government had appointed five deputy prime ministers.

The internal squabbles led Prayuth to form a special committee in the lower house to discuss TPP participation. The committee had initially planned to make a decision by July 10, but has now extended the deadline to Sept. 10.

This means that Thailand will miss the meeting of the 11 TPP member-countries in August. There are local news reports saying that the government is unlikely to declare TPP participation within this year.

Japan, one of the key TPP members, has been keen for Thai participation in the deal to benefit the Japanese businesses, including automobile and electronic companies, that operate in the Southeast Asian country. Although the Japanese government is ready to support Thailand in joining the partnership, the outlook is now gloomy.

"As for now, the only thing we can say for sure, is that possibility of Thailand participation is not zero," said a source who did not want to be named. 

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