Thailand is angry about some stolen rice. "They'll take our boxers next,"
said Paw Busan, a farmer from northern Thailand. "They'll mutate them and
send them back to box against our guys." He had to shout to be heard over
the 1700 people protesting the WTO outside the US embassy in Bangkok.
Protesters, most middle-aged or older, gathered Friday morning at Bangkok's
World Trade Center and marched four blocks to perform a "ritual condemnation
of American pirates" in front of the embassy.
The action hit a chord with Thais angry over a Florida researcher's efforts
to genetically modify Thai jasmine rice so it can be grown in America. If
the US grants a patent to the modified rice, American growers could flood
the world market, driving down the price of one of Thailand's best export
products. The sweet-smelling rice is a test case for the WTO's TRIPS
agreement, which has successfully protected intellectual property for
multinational corporations, but so far hasn't helped Thailand retain the
rights to its biodiversity.
Thai farmers and activists make their way on a Bangkok street Friday, Nov. 9, 2001, to the U.S. embassy during a protest against the World Trade Organization and the U.S. role and interests concerning intellectual property rights and agriculture trade. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)
From an office tower across the street, American businessmen looked on.
"Someone should tell them there's a very easy way to stop someone from
reverse-engineering something: sue them." said Ron Henderson, a
telecommunications engineer. "We'd sue them if they did this to us."
"If only TRIPS were that simple." says Nicola Bullard, Deputy Director of
NGO think-tank Focus on the Global South. "It's a political question rather
than a legal one. How willing is the Thai government to push the US? It's
got the beginning of a global recession and an economy that is very
dependent on the US for it's export market."
The real issue, protesters say, is bigger than just jasmine rice. "We want
agriculture out of the WTO and we want medicine out of the world market."
Said Bamroon Kaytua, a farmer and activist from northeast Thailand. "And I
don't like the way America uses its influence within the WTO to bully small
countries. That has to stop."
The nations of the WTO are meeting this week in Qatar. Expanding the WTO's
free-trade policies to food is expected to head the agenda.
The event specifically targeted the US's role in the WTO, despite some
organizers worries that the anti-American sentiment would be misconstrued.
That's not our problem, say the farmers.
"The Americans set up this 'with us or against us' thing," said Bamroon.
"I'm not a terrorist, but I don't like that they've stolen our rice."
Some spectators were skeptical. "Who's against negotiations?" says an
American student at Tamasat University. "It's easy to demonize some outside
"It's not a perfect world," he says.
But many Thais in Bangkok were sympathetic to the farmers. "If they didn't
march like this, the Thai government wouldn't consider the pros and cons of
the WTO," says Anatai, an employee of the city electric company. "This will
help the government realize this is a really important issue."
Even Henderson, the engineer, agreed the protest was a peaceful one. "It's
nice to see people can do these things without getting nasty about it," he
The protest included more than 1000 farmers from across Thailand, as well as
about 500 workers from the International Transport Workers, an informal
labor union. The Thai government is responding to IMF pressure to privatize
"Our government hears the WTO and the G-7 countries, but not their own
people," says Boon Choi, a Thai Air employee. "So now we have no job
Also present were around 200 people AIDS protesting the US government's
support of the WTO's TRIPS agreement, which protects drug companies
copyrights from local production of generic drugs. "Not even 40% of the Thai
people with AIDS can afford treatment," says Wan, an HIV+ protester from
Khon Kaen. Thai people's best option, he says, is smuggling cheaper generic
drugs from India, which has not yet complied with the TRIPS agreement.
Bamroon's farmers networks have given the US Ambassador seven days to
respond to their demands to keep agriculture out of the WTO. Until then, the
uncertain future of jasmine rice will worry Thailand's farmers.
"This jasmine rice, it's a Thai thing," says Samai, a farmer from the
central region. "It's like Thai boxing. It just doesn't make sense for it to
be anywhere else."