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Imbalance of Trade

Acharn Thitinan ‘the Quotemeister’ Pongsudhirak produces a Bangkok Post op-ed with an exemplary regularity that makes a Friday read of the page most worthwhile (though maybe not as entertaining as on a Saturday).  His recent offering on Thai trade policy and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however, was a sad disappointment.

First of all, we can say with some confidence that Acharn Thitinan cannot possibly know what he is talking about.  The TPP has been negotiated in secrecy and the great Transpacific public in their hundreds of millions have not been allowed to know what is being decided in their name and supposedly in their interests.  There have been dribs and drabs leaked here and there (thank you Wikileaks) but no official text has been made public.  So like all other commentators (including this one), Acharn Thitinan has going by guesswork.

But ‘secret’ here just means secret from the likes of you and me and Acharn Thitinan.  It seemingly does not mean secret from the movers and shakers of the corporate world who not only get to see negotiating texts, but apparently even write the bits of greatest interest to them.  Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for the US government to show a greater commitment to freedom of information and asked for permission for legislators at least to see what they are up to.  To no avail.

Acharn Thitinan’s article sadly makes two false assumptions.  The first is that increased trade, made possible by free trade, is an unmitigated good for everyone. 

Theoretically, this can’t be true for local producers who under a free trade agreement (FTA) would be subjected to competition with foreign producers who may enjoy a variety of advantages.  Some of these may be as blameless as geographical luck, a favourable climate or the innate industriousness of the indigenous population; others may hinge on hidden subsidies, realpolitik arm-twisting and the kind of human rights abuses that the Thai fishing industry has thrived on. 

But more tellingly, it is clearly untrue when you look at the economic history of the countries now championing free trade.  Ha-Joon Chang’s ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’ and ‘Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism’ argue that in the 19th century, nations like the US achieved economic take-off by resolutely rejecting free trade (and intellectual property rights) in favour of strong protectionism. 

Increased trade also normally means increased transportation, even to the point where the same commodity may be exported both from Country A to Country B and vice versa, just to ensure consumer ‘choice’ (which often amounts to no more than the same t-shirts, produced in the same third world sweatshops, but carrying different designer brand-names).  And the energy used in transportation is one of the major drivers of climate change, to the detriment of the entire planet. 

The second fallacy is that so-called Free Trade Agreements are about reducing restrictions to trade.  From what has been revealed about the TPP, it seems that the bulk of the treaty has nothing at all to do with making trade freer.

In fact, the sections dealing with intellectual property are all about making trade less free, not more.  Led by the pharmaceutical industry, the corporates owning patents, copyrights and trademarks are arguing for even greater protection than they already enjoy.  This, for example, makes affordable medicines an even more remote hope than now, one of the reasons why free trade protests in Thailand have always had people living with HIV on the front line.  

And while Acharn Thitinan calls for the military government to use the absence of any democratic oversight to ram through trade deals while there little or no organized opposition is allowed, he should be aware that the TPP, if it continues the pattern of almost all previous trade deals, will contain an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provision.

This is an ingenious bit of corporate jiggery-pokery that allows foreign capitalists (but not domestic ones) to sue governments for damages if any government action covered by the trade treaty costs them profits.  Countries, even rich ones like Australia, have found themselves threatened with billion-dollar compensation pay-outs for taking such heinous actions as protecting their citizens’ health by restricting cigarette advertising, or guarding against another Fukushima by closing down nuclear power stations, or cancelling water privatizations that left consumers unable to afford water.

And these suits are adjudicated not before national courts, but panels of 3 corporate lawyers, with little interest in human rights, the environment or citizen welfare, often meeting in secret, normally with no mechanism for appeal.

Denying civilians the right to a hearing in a civilian court and instead dragooning them before the semi-amateur judges of a military court where errors of judgement cannot be righted by a non-existent appeals process is bad enough.  Ditching national sovereignty over the judicial process in favour of jury-rigged tribunals that could cost the nation dear is even worse and it is sad to see a respected scholar like Acharn Thitinan advocate such a move.

And the article had no good quotes either.

About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).