Monday, May 14, 2007

More Trouble for Thailand

Kenneth Adelman is one of the United State’s best known neo-conservatives, who famously predicted that the Iraq war would be a “cakewalk”. He is a former nuclear disarmament chief and still serves on the Defense Policy Board. His latest hobby horse is Thailand.


Adelman has turned his energy against Thailand, which recently angered the US, and more importantly, the large American pharmaceutal companies by its compulsory licensing of three drugs, two for HIV/AIDS and a third for heart trouble. Compulsory licensing allows a country to override patents and lower prices on life-preserving drugs.

Last week Thais woke up to find full-page advertisements in Thai and English-language newspapers under the headline: “The Wrong Prescription for Thailand.”
The text read in part: “Thailand is refusing American and European medical technology at the expense of the poor and sick of Thailand.”

“Thailand’s AIDS patients are forced to buy ‘locally manufactured drugs that have not even been approved by the World Health Organization’.” It went on to challenge the efficacy of one of the government-produced drugs.

The ad invited readers to visit the website:, where Thais were in for more shock. Virtually every post reported on some attack on Thailand’s handling of intellectual property issues – letters to Congressmen, an op-ed article in the conservative Washington Times, an embedded website detailing “ThaiMyths.”

“For some unknown reason USA for Innovation’s [executive director Ken] Adelman, is obviously and alarmingly obsessed with Thailand,” wrote a columnist for the English-language newspaper, The Nation.

There is nothing particularly mysterious about this particular “obsession”. He is paid to be obsessed. USA for Innovation is an offshoot of the Edelman Public Relations firm, a powerful and well-connected “K-Street” PR and lobbying outfit, hired by Abbott Laboratories, makers of one of the AIDS drugs.

Thailand is not used to being the target of a full-court press, high powered, well-funded and sophisticated American-style public relations campaign. It left Thai government officials sputtering and wondering how to counter attack.

The Government Pharmaceutical Organization’s first reaction was to threaten to sue USA for Innovation for “publishing advertisements containing misleading details”. To which one can only say lottsa luck.

Poor Wasun Chantratita, chief of the Mahidol University virology and molecular micro-biology unit, naively complained that USA had taken some of his research out of context and plastered its ad with “half-truths”. What does he expect? Half-truths are lobbying firms’ stock and trade.

Thailand has a number of issues with the US these days, ranging from the drug controversy to restrictions it wants to impose on foreign investment, to its September, 2006, military coup d’etat.

But Thailand’s leaders are used to dealing with the US government, which in some ways is easy for them to manipulate, since Washington has many conflicting interests and priorities, such as the War on Terror and competition for influence with China, in addition to looking out for the interests of private corporations.

The US Trade Representative’s office, which is supposed to look out for America’s trading interests, is hamstrung in this matter by the fact that compulsory licensing for lifesaving drugs is legal under international treaties and the World Trade Organization.

Abbott Laboratories would not be the first American corporation or business group to think that official Washington was too wimpy to look out for its interests and to take matters on its own hands. And its representatives do not feel the same constraints of diplomats.

Thailand, of course, is particularly vulnerable now because the September coup has left the impression with most Americans that generals run every department of the government, sort of like Myanmar.

This allows publicists, such as Adelman to drop such bon mots as this gem appearing in an op-ed piece in the Washington Times this month: “Now the [Thai] military has set its sights on stealing U.S. innovation, the cornerstone of the American Economy.

Wonder how long it is before CNN’s popular protectionist commentator Lou Dobbs sets aside his usual hobbyhorses, China and immigration, and takes up Thailand-bashing?

Thailand is not bereft of people with public relations smarts. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is fabulously successful in selling Thailand as a tourist destination. It needs to divert some of those talents to political lobbying, joining other Asian countries, such Japan and China, that have learned how to play the Washington game.

In some ways Thailand has been lulled by the fact that nobody in Washington paid much attention to Thailand, except in those days when it was a valuable ally and base during the Vietnam War. Today Congress is too obsessed with Iraq, immigration and other matters to get too riled up over Thailand.

The danger is that this is the perfect atmosphere to slip something truly damaging to Thai interests it some congressional bill, sort of under the radar. This is how powerful K-Street lobbying firms earn their big fees. The next move? Keep an eye on www.usaforinnovation.,org.



Blogger Unknown said...

So the Thai gov hired their own US PR firm for $600K over three months, but they won't name names...any idea who that could be? I wonder if it's something like Ogilvy, they've got an office in Bangkok.

May 17, 2007 at 10:38 AM  

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