Thailand: The Thai Countryside And The 'Bangkok Consensus'


Dr Anthony Diller

Was a 'Bangkok Consensus' really achieved in mid-February at the tenth session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)? If so, then according to UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero, this consensus was an attempt 'to capture dynamic currents starting from opposite ends and gradually converging towards some common ground.'

Not surprisingly, opposite viewpoints in this spectrum-like version of consensus related partly to appropriate terms on which countries should insert themselves into the global trade and finance network. As opposed an earlier 'Washington Consensus' and to pre-Asian-crisis enthusiasm for a deregulated Global Village, UNCTAD X gave serious attention to discussing capital controls, as promoted by local leaders and by some outside experts. The Prime Minister of Malaysia and the President of Indonesia were among leading champions and even the Prime Minister of Singapore saw triumphant capitalism as 'posing a challenge'. The cream pie thrown into the face of International Monetary Fund chief Michel Camdessus was one American protester's response to this challenge; other proposals may have impacts more far-reaching, if less immediate.

One of the key host nationals, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi, noted that part of the problem lies in negotiating across the viewpoints of the richer and poorer nations - negotiations he is sure to become more enmeshed in when he takes over leadership of the World Trade Organization. One critical example of non-reciprocal perspectives: the European Union, the USA and Japan undeniably provide substantial support to their domestic farm sectors. This may be for them as politically inevitable as capital controls are for UNCTAD members toward the other end of the Ricupero spectrum. As the UNCTAD final summary loftily has it, agricultural subsidies 'can affect the relative competitive positions of countries and have a distorting effect on developing countries.'

Although Bangkok traffic came to a halt for UNCTAD-an impromptu holiday clearing the streets for delegates' limousines-it may be the Thai countryside where the distorting protectionist effects could have their full impact. Thai rural-focused Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), although too polite to hurl pies, issued statements taking UNCTAD X to task. Civic-movement leaders such as Pibhop Dhongchai and the umbrella-NGO People's Network registered disappointment with the outcome of the meeting. This was partly for ignoring agricultural policy and the related plight of Thailand's rural poor.

Their plight may worsen yet. If the UNCTAD Bangkok Consensus implies a spectrum, then mid-spectral nations, including Thailand, may turn greenish with envy if a group of 'least developed countries' (LDCs) receives special export-import consideration. UNCTAD's call is that 'essentially all' exports originating in the LDCs should gain universal favoured market access. Does this mean-some of the Thai NGOs are asking-that LDCs will export their agricultural produce to Europe and to other developed nations while Thai products will continue to be excluded? Furthermore, will Thailand, as a middle-ranking country, yet be forced into accepting tariff-free quotas of LDC-sourced agricultural imports? Southeast Asian academics and social critics have routinely been concerned about globalization (as Craig Reynolds and Rey Ileto pointed out in ASIAN ANALYSIS in July 1999 and February 2000, respectively). But UNCTAD X's particular configuring of the LDC issue, say the NGOs, may leave the Thai countryside in a quagmire.

WATCHPOINT: : If Thailand cannot export agricultural products to the world's rich, and in addition must accept foods produced by the world's poor, what will this squeeze do to local farmers and how will rural power-brokers react?


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