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Thailand Protesters Rally Against World Trade Agreement - 2001-11-09

As delegates in Qatar launch the latest meeting of the World Trade Organization, civic groups opposed to the agreement are staging demonstrations around the world. In Thailand, several groups rallied in Bangkok Friday to protest parts of the world trade agreement.

Several hundred activists Friday rallied in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to protest parts of the world trade agreement that they feel protect wealthy pharmaceutical companies and threaten small scale farmers.

One of the organizers, the OXFAM group that works to end poverty, says developing countries are losing a $100 billion per year through unfair protectionist policies.

The Regional Director for OXFAM Heather Grady says industrialized nations are pressing developing nations to respect drug patents - which she says cause millions of people to suffer and to die unnecessarily. Ms. Grady notes that in Thailand, only five percent of the nearly one-million HIV sufferers have access to medicines because they are so expensive. She says in this area, trade liberalization has gone too far.

"The profits of pharmaceutical companies are unacceptably high," she says. "In the meantime we have millions of people around the world suffering from AIDS, from pneumonia, a whole range of disease that are going untreated because people cannot afford those drugs."

Ms. Grady acknowledges there are safeguards in the trade agreement that allow countries to produce their own generic drugs or import cheap versions in the case of public health crises. But she says there is a lot of pressure on countries like Thailand to avoid using those safeguards.

Demonstrators also protested the effects of the world trade agreement in the agricultural sector.

OXFAM says that under WTO rules, industrialized nations have increased agricultural subsidies, rather than cutting them. It says this has cost developing countries $20 billion per year.

An activist with Focus on the Global South organization, Jacques-Chai Chomthongdi, says agriculture should be removed from the WTO. He says since the first Uruguay round of the WTO was adopted in the mid-1990s, agricultural exports of developed countries have increased, while agricultural imports have risen in developing nations. He says removing trade barriers has also hurt small farmers.

"Because, like in Thailand, we don't have any means to subsidize our own farmers, not like in the U.S. or in Europe. So we have to use the means that is low-cost, tariffs and quotas for example," he explains.

The demonstrators here in Thailand say that in the sectors like medicine and food, which are vital to life, some protection should be maintained in the globalized economy, especially for less developed countries and their growing populations.