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Winds of change start blowing at WTO

Geneva, Sept. 2 (Reuters): Following in the wake of a sometimes short-fused New Zealander, Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi brings the skills of a veteran economist and expert chess player to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

And there is no doubt that the quiet-spoken former deputy premier and economy minister will bring a very new style to the 144-member body that oversees international trade rules and is the forum for negotiations on opening global markets.

“The director-general must be neutral and be able to use his experience and knowledge to bring different positions together,” he said in a recent interview in Bangkok. But as envoys haggle over a huge gamut of controversial issues in the newly launched Doha Round, some WTO-watchers wonder if quiet diplomacy is what will be needed to bring the talks to a conclusion on schedule by the end of 2004.

“There is no doubt that this is a man of consummate patience,” said Otto Genee, a Dutch negotiator whose country was vocal in backing Supachai during a fierce battle over a new WTO chief just over three years ago.

That contest, partly fought along north-versus-south lines, was only resolved when former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore was given the job for three years with Supachai to take over from September 2003 to August 2006.

Banker and monk

The 55-year-old Thai has been a banker and like all religious men in the south-east Asian “tiger economy,” has taken a brief time-out as a Buddhist monk. He has been quiet about his own ideas on the job.

But he has left no doubt that he will push hard to extend the “development agenda” that Moore managed to have incorporated into the programme for the Doha Round, launched at a WTO minister’s conference in Qatar last November.

Like Moore and his predecessors, Renato Ruggiero of Italy and Peter Sutherland of Ireland, Supachai argues firmly that developing countries —and especially the poorest—have not got as much as they should have from earlier trade pacts.

And like the other three, he has been particularly critical of agricultural subsidies in the European Union and the United States which effectively give farmers in both trading powers a huge advantage on world markets.

Supachai has also indicated that —within the limits of his job which formally gives him little power beyond the WTO headquarters—he will work to ensure that the big powers open up their markets to textile imports as promised in 2005.

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