Myanmar’s ethnic minorities under the spotlight as UN envoy visits

As UN envoy Razali Ismail prepares to make another visit to Myanmar Friday, his first since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in May, ethnic minority groups are hoping the diplomat will this time secure a breakthrough for their cause.

Myanmar’s minorities are not involved in the ongoing national reconciliation talks between democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which began in October 2000.

Razali is credited with brokering the secret talks, which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says have moved beyond an initial "confidence-building" phase and are ready to broach the issue of democratic reform.

But the minorities, who make up one third of the military-run country’s population of 50 million, want their voices heard too.

Pro-democracy parties representing all seven major ethnic groups have now assembled an informal coalition known as the United Nationalities Alliance (UNC).

"Our objective in forming this alliance is to prepare for the eventual tripartite talks," says Khun Tun Oo, spokesman for the alliance and chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

"Considering the social, economic and political woes Myanmar is presently facing, not to mention the still-to-be-solved ethnic minority issue, the sooner tripartite talks start, the better."

All the parties except the SNLD were deregistered after the 1990 elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a sweeping victory never recognised by the junta.

The UNA is scheduled to meet with Razali on August 4, when it will ask him to help the parties win reinstatement, Khun Tun Oo says.

"These parties must on their part try their best to get reinstated if they are to take advantage of the military’s promise to give all political parties more freedom of movement in the future."

Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged the need for minorities to be involved in drafting a future for the impoverished country.

"The important thing is to bring them to the negotiating table for an amicable solution," she said several weeks after her release at an event attended by Shan, Mon, Chin, and Arakanese leaders.

When the NLD leader visited Mon state last week, her first trip to a minority region since ending 19 months under detention, thousands turned up to support here wherever she appeared, attesting to her broad appeal.

"So far we have complete confidence and trust in Aung San Suu Kyi herself and I hope she does not get side-tracked in this respect by others around her," Khun T Oo says.

International rights groups are also calling on the SPDC and the democratic opposition to broaden their dialogue to include at minimum the concerns of ethnic minorities.

In a July report, Human Rights Watch also urged Razali to take up the plight of the country’s Muslim community during his visit, and detailed a spate of attacks on the community and the steady erosion of religious freedom.

Problems facing other minorities were highlighted in two other reports by rights groups in recent weeks, including one which alleged the military systematically used rape as a weapon of war in southeastern Shan state.

Amnesty International also accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out a reign of terror in minority regions which has forced many to flee their homes for neighbouring Thailand.

The regime has vehemently denied the allegations, and in a tartly worded statement this week said a smear campaign was being mounted ahead of Razali’s eighth visit to Myanmar.

"There has been a series of allegations thrown at the government of Myanmar recently for a) racial discrimination b) religious intolerance c) forced labour, torture, rape etc, just in time before Mr. Razali’s visit to Myanmar," it said.

"Let us wait and see what these elements will come up with next … I believe while cooking allegations in a hurry they forgot to mention in their smear campaign list ‘Myanmar’s Secret Production of Weapons of Mass Destruction’."

Ethnic insurgencies have plagued border areas since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948. By the end of the 1990s, the junta had signed cease-fire accords with 17 ethnic groups, but some rebel armies continue to fight Yangon’s rule.

The UNA believes it can bring even these disparate groups into the fold for talks.

"We want to talk to the cease-fire groups as well as with the armed groups currently engaged in conflict with the government … to seek common ground, a common policy and approach to the tripartite talks," Khun Tun Oo says.

Cambodians poised to head to polls

PHNOM PENH – Cambodians head to general elections Sunday with Prime Minister Hun Sen favoured to retain leadership for another five-year term despite rival politicians running vigorous campaigns in a bid to oust the strongman.

Colourful and noisy rallies attended by thousands have been peacefully staged in the poll run-up, with election monitors assessing an overall improvement in the electoral environment since the last polls in 1998.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which under Hun Sen’s leadership has governed for nearly 20 years, is tipped to win the Sunday elections ahead of 21 other parties despite a campaign barely featuring the premier.

Hun Sen has bowed out supposedly to reduce the chance of electoral violence erupting in the volatile and impoverished country, a move annoying some of his top advisors who wanted him to take a few return swipes at his competitors.

The CPP has instead relied on its record of gradual development in its pursuit of victory.

Rivals such as Prince Norodom Ranariddh, chief of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, have not however held back their jibes against Hun Sen during the month-long campaign, which ended Friday ahead of a 24-hour cooling off period.

Ranariddh has spearheaded a strategy seeking to distinguish FUNCINPEC — the junior coalition partner in the outgoing cohabitation government — from the CPP in the eyes of the kingdom’s 6.3 million registered voters.

The tactic follows the royalists’ abysmal showing in local commune elections last February, which they blamed on their CPP connections.

Ranariddh has played on nationalist sentiment by launching broadsides against the Vietnamese in effectively thinly-veiled attacks on Hun Sen, the former guerrilla fighter who was installed by Vietnam after its forces ousted the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

Sam Rainsy, a Paris-educated former FUNCINPEC minister who now leads his self-named opposition party, has also chimed in playing the race card as well as charging that the CPP had squandered 400 million dollars a year through corruption.

His power base is seen as being the country’s educated and young, many of whom yearn for change after years under the CPP and do not harbour their parents’ loyalty to the ruling party, seen as responsible for the ousting of the Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen, whose party is unlikely to win more than two-thirds of the 123 seats in the National Assembly — a requirement to govern outright — has already said he is willing to re-form a coalition with FUNCINPEC.

FUNCINPEC however has warned it will be more demanding than after the 1998 elections, when it was only the intervention of King Norodom Sihanouk that prompted the leaders to nut out an agreement to govern.

At the 1998 poll the CPP won 64 seats, FUNCINPEC 43, and the Sam Rainsy Party 15. The CPP is aiming to boost their share to 70, while FUNCINPEC is shooting for at least 50 and Sam Rainsy is targetting a minimum of 40.

Despite many analysts agreeing that CPP will likely scoop the results, no opinion polls are taken in Cambodia and the results are ultimately unpredictable.

The 1993 historic UN-brokered elections ended in upset when FUNCINPEC defeated the CPP.

Polls open at 7:00 am (0000 GMT) Sunday and close eight hours later. Initial trends are expected to emerge late Monday, with official preliminary results due August 8. A new government must be formed by October.

Despite the relatively peaceful lead-up to the elections, monitors have nevertheless warned that a widespread climate of fear pervades in the predominantly agricultural and Buddhist country.

Some analysts and diplomats harbour fears that the announcement of results may trigger protests by parties disappointed with results and alleging fraud.

Cambodian parties scramble ahead of polls but ruling party rests easy

PHNOM PENH – At Cambodia’s ramshackle opposition headquarters, party workers scramble to wrap up their month-long election campaign, in marked contrast to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), whose offices remain quiet.

Most of the fifteen full-time workers in the cabinet office of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), along with a half-dozen party faithful flown in from overseas for the campaign flit between humming computers, faxes and telephones.

They’re making the most of the two days remaining in the campaign ahead of Sunday’s national polls, which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP is expected to overwhelmingly win.

"Basically we have been receiving calls from supporters and other people in the provinces reporting to us what’s happening in their communes, districts, village," says Ung Bun Ang, chairman of the SRP management committee.

But workers are also dealing with complaints of violence and intimidation.

Although this election campaign has been hailed as the most peaceful yet, critics charges that politicians have become more cunning when deploying intimidation tactics to secure votes.

"We have filed about 60 complaints with the NEC (National Election Committee) and most of them are about threats and intimidation," Ung Bun Ang says.

Photocopies of a threatening text message sent to a trade union leader with strong links to the SRP are passed around and scrutinised before being sent as an e-mail attachment in a complaint to the interior ministry and NEC.

"It’s the advancement of technology, they’re making the best use of it to deliver their threats," Ung Bun Ang quips.

Outside, workers dodge darting chickens and muddy puddles as they assemble a marquis to cover hundreds of plastic chairs for activists visiting over the hectic election period.

Across town at the royalist FUNCINPEC headquarters, construction workers are putting the final touches to the pagoda housing a sparkling new statue of King Norodom Sihanouk, the 80-year-old monarch who founded the party.

As a speaker blares warbling Cambodian tunes across the courtyard, members of the junior partner in an uneasy coalition with the CPP are also knuckling down for the final campaign run.

Much of the work here, says FUNCINPEC’s international relations official Chhim Narith, is taken up by some 70 members who sit at carefully labelled tables calling districts nationwide from their mobile phones, checking on campaign progress.

Much of their time is also taken up with voter complaints.

"These people are being told not to vote for FUNCINPEC, or if you do, you will not get any gifts or donations," he says, adding that more than 150 complaints over electoral intimidation have been forwarded to the NEC, while nearly 100 violence-related complaints have been referred to police.

The scene is a world away from the CPP headquarters, the flashest of the three party compounds, surrounded by an imposing freshly-painted fence and fluttering national flags.

All appears quiet as a lone guard turns away outsiders who do not already have a prior appointment.

Hun Sen has not actively campaigned during the period in a bid to keep violence down — and some say, because he is confident of a win — although he has made a point of being seen doing development work in the lead-up to the polls.

Thailand’s vibrant art scene struggles for recognition

With hordes of skilled young artists emerging from its colleges, Thailand should be home to a thriving contemporary art scene. But experts in the industry say government neglect has ensured the kingdom is the Asian art world’s best-kept secret.

"Thailand produces about 2,000 artists every year from art institutions. Where are those artists’ works? The government isn’t recognising their work," fumes art activist Chumpon Apisuk.

Chumpon is spearheading a popular campaign to push for the construction of the nation’s only contemporary art centre. Slated to be built in a prime location in downtown Bangkok, city authorities have now controversially altered the plans.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Art Centre was a pet project of the capital’s previous governor, the progressive Bhichit Rattakul, who envisioned a publicly funded but independent centre for modern art.

His conservative successor, Samak Sundaravej, says the 300 million baht (7.4 million dollar) price-tag is too high, and without consultation is pushing ahead with an alternative plan to build a shopping mall on the site.

The art museum will be a mere attachment — a prospect that appalls art lovers who want the matter settled by the country’s administrative court.

"We’re suing the government, including the prime minister, the minister of the interior and the governor of Bangkok for neglecting the voice of the arts and the arts community," says Chumpon.

Numthong Sea-Tang, who runs the respected Numthong gallery, says a multi-faceted centre is a vital part of educating people about art — which is necessary if artists are to build an audience in Thailand.

"We have the National Gallery but nothing for modern art," he says, rattling off a slew of Thai historical periods whose art is represented at the dusty institution.

"But this century, everything has changed. When you talk about Thai contemporary art from 10 years ago — there’s nothing there. The government hasn’t supported it. How are people going to be educated?"

Numthong says artists currently have to wait up to two years to show their work in temporary exhibitions at the National Gallery or at Silpakorn University, which boasts the country’s most prestigious fine arts faculty.

"In terms of support, Thailand is not a good place to be. Singapore and Malaysia are better than here because they have foundations for artists and government support," says performance and installation artist Jakraphun Thanateeranon.

"The people who work in the government are traditionalists, conservative."

Industry insiders accuse the government of shying away from promoting Thailand as a centre for contemporary art preferring to peddle an image of a traditional land where the arts and crafts of yesteryear are still obediently churned out.

"The TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) always promotes Thailand as a land of handicrafts, traditional sculptures and antiques, but they have never promoted Thailand as a country of contemporary art," says Jorn Middelborg, the Norwegian managing director of Thavibu gallery which represents Thai, Vietnamese and Myanmar artists.

Despite the difficulties, Thailand does have a vibrant and diverse artistic scene, thanks to its abundance of homegrown talent, he says.

"There are a lot of things going on and there is a variety and diversity among Thai contemporary paintings that I find exciting."

American gallery manager Ernest Lee, who represents some 25 young Thai artists, agrees.

"What I’ve seen here in Bangkok is fascinating and rather diverse. I think that from my experiences, and what I’ve seen … I find Bangkok and Thailand to be the best-kept secret in Southeast Asia for art," he says.

"But (the art scene) has always been stuck in its own little compartment. It’s always been here, it’s been here for the last 50 years but it’s been hidden, more hidden than it should be."

Yaovanee Nirandara, Thailand’s representative for Christie’s auction house, says the international market for Thai contemporary paintings is relatively static, but the auction house is doing its bit to promote them.

"We like to promote them because old (artworks) are more and more difficult to find. We like to promote new artists, the good ones, and we’ve had quite a good response."

While artists complain that a lack of commercial support is hindering their careers, gallery owners say the artists must help themselves by becoming more business-minded.

"Artists here are in a dreamworld. It’s very nice, but they don’t recognise the gallery system," says Chatvichai Promadhattavedi, who was director of the groundbreaking but now defunct Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art for 12 years.

"If I were someone in power I would see to it that the gallery system develops. There have been serious galleries but they have not been able to survive," he says.

Chatvichai is also critical of the lack of infrastructure in place to promote contemporary art and culture in Thailand more generally.

"There is no infrastructure, no genuine art circle, no audience," he says.

"Society is losing quite a lot by not focusing on culture. Here business and government people have not realised that culture, design and art can be part of industry."

Laos’ airline revamps in bid to cast aside chequered past

VIENTIANE – The national carrier of tiny landlocked Laos is undergoing a dramatic revamp, leasing its first jet, changing its name and unveiling a new logo as it seeks to leave its chequered past behind.

Formed when the communist government took power in 1975, Lao Aviation officially adopted its new name Lao Airlines on Wednesday to coincide with the inaugural international flight of its newly-arrived Airbus-A320.

The lift-off of the leased 140-seat aircraft marks the end of an era for the previously all-turbo-prop carrier, which has been dogged by a notorious reputation for questionable safety practices. Four aircraft have crashed in remote areas of mountainous Laos in the past decade.

"Many conversations over beer take place about this experience when this happened and that experience," says a British expatriate who has flown with them for six years. "It’s generally: ‘Oh blimey, Lao Aviation!’"

The United Nations advises its staff to fly only on the fleet’s two hardy but ageing French-Italian ATR-72 aircraft, and the governments of the United States, Britain and Australia advise their citizens likewise.

Flying on the Chinese Yuen-12s and Yuen-7s is discouraged — but difficult to avoid in a country where the roads are frequently rated just as dangerous.

Stories of rain-flooded cabins and pilots forgetting to fill the fuel tank before take-off swirl among those who have flown the airline, with many tales bordering on the mythical.

One long-running suggestion to jittery fliers is to ensure that the French mechanic said to maintain the ATRs is not on leave if they plan to fly.

"Well, this is one of the great unknowns of Lao Aviation: Does this man really exist? And if he does, is he working?" says a Vientiane-based diplomat.

At the least, the French have been closely involved with the rebirth of Lao Airlines, with Air France Consulting, a subsidiary of Air France Group, engaged by the government last year to knock the cash-haemorrhaging carrier into shape in preparation for its part-privatisation expected within a few months.

"For me it was a very small company with very bad organisation. No plan, no project, no ambition, nothing. The company was losing a lot of money and not believing in the future," says Guy Le Sann, who headed the consulting team before joining Lao Airlines as advisor to the carrier’s president in March.

A seven-year business plan was put in place covering the serious to the superficial: staffing levels have been slashed from 400 to 320 and a jaunty tropical frangipani replaces the carrier’s former inscrutable red, white and blue logo.

A one-year agreement has been inked with Vietnam Airlines to provide crew, maintenance and support services, while four Lao pilots have been whisked to France for training and two in-country Airbus staff are providing technical assistance.

High hopes are placed in particular on the Airbus jet, which is expected to double the company’s revenue — just 14 million dollars in 2002 — from its second year of flying.

Aviation analyst Binit Somaia from Sydney-based Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation said the leasing of the Airbus was a "major step forward" for the struggling carrier.

"They’re going through a fairly comprehensive overhaul of their image which has to be good in the long-term, particularly for their tourism industry," says Somaia.

Just 700,000 tourists visited this former French colony last year, seduced by its image as a sleepy destination almost forgotten by the outside world and dotted by more than 4,000 Buddhist temples.

The World Heritage-listed town of Luang Prabang in the country’s north represents a definite focus for optimism, says Robert Martin, managing director of Singapore Aircraft Leasing Enterprise, lessor of the new aircraft.

"This is one of the important reasons behind Lao Airlines wanting to grow their fleet at the moment, because they can see what has happened already with Angkor Wat, what has happened with sites in Thailand," he says.

"There’s no reason why Luang Prabang shouldn’t have the same number of tourists coming to it in the future."

Thai government struggles with Myanmar policy after Suu Kyi detention

BANGKOK – Thailand’s government is struggling to adopt a coherent stance on Myanmar following its military-ruled neighbour’s detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi more than a month ago, analysts say.

In a departure from his typical conciliatory tone, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra joined US President George W. Bush in issuing a strong call for Yangon to release her during a visit to Washington last month.

But the premier’s critics say he has now realised that this facade for international consumption needs to be balanced with some quick back-pedalling at home to keep relations with the ruling generals intact.

As a result, he targeted 1,500 political refugees who have fled previous crackdowns in Myanmar for sanctuary in Thailand: they must now relocate to camps along the border already holding some 125,000 refugees.

"Thailand doesn’t really have an overall policy on Burma… They’re quite pragmatic and reacting to different circumstances with different policies," said Chulalongkorn University political analyst Panitan Wattanyagorn.

"They have no clear policy based on clear principles but under these circumstances this may be the only way the government thinks is appropriate: a dual-track policy," he told AFP.

Panitan said refugee policy was likely altered in the interests of "trying to smooth out relations because there has been pressure by the Burmese to make sure the refugees do not cause problems relating to the embassy and personnel in Thailand".

Thailand said last month that Myanmar’s government warned its authorities of a possible plan by dissidents to take its diplomats in the Thai capital hostage to demand the Aung San Suu Kyi be given her freedom.

The democracy campaigner has been held under what the junta calls "protective custody" since attacks on her supporters by a government-backed mob on May 30.

Thaksin’s administration wants to placate Yangon for several reasons: constructive engagement is seen as key to Thailand wielding influence with the regime, while business interests want to protect lucrative cross-border trade.

Several senior Thai leaders are also known to have very close personal and financial ties to the generals.

"In the short term it may get by. But in the medium to long term it could present a conflicting stand and the international community may see Thailand as having no common foreign policy towards Burma," Panitan said.

Sunai Phasuk from regional rights network Forum-Asia linked Thaksin’s sudden policy change to Myanmar deputy foreign minister Khin Maung Win’s visit to Thailand last week.

"It often happens this way, that every time before a visit from the SPDC (ruling State Peace and Development Council) the Thai government carries out this aggressive rhetoric against pro-democracy groups," he said.

"The Thai government has created a climate of fear and uncertainty which in effect stops democracy groups taking any action to work for freeing Aung San Suu Kyi," Sunai said.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy magazine which deals with Myanmar affairs, said the Thai government’s new refugee policy was misguided and unfair on exiles who fled their homeland in fear for their lives.

"Thailand is trying to contain these people, but they must realise that there are problems in Burma that have to be solved," he said.

"You can’t put the blame on these underdogs… They appreciate that they’re here and it’s risky for them to go back home."

The dissident community, for whom Bangkok and Thai border towns have become a stronghold, have used Thailand to express their anger at Yangon before.

In October 1999, five armed rebels were involved in a day-long siege at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, in which nearly a hundred people were taken hostage, which was followed by another dramatic stand-off at a major hospital.

Wordsmiths of the world find their own paradise in Thailand

In a downtown Bangkok shopping mall complete with blaring muzak and baffled onlookers, 72 of the world’s best Scrabble players take their positions for the first match in a gruelling four-day tournament.

They might be in one of the world’s premier tropical holiday spots, but these global wordsmiths are happy to eschew palm trees and pina coladas for their own version of paradise: the 17th King’s Cup.

Far away from Thailand’s white sands and turquoise waters, they are focused on the task of composing words from seven randomly selected letters and placing them on the board to win maximum points.

Despite his status as world number 14, star Thai player Jakkrit Klaphajone confesses to jitters.

"I’m nervous, but it’s usual for me. I always get nervous before tournaments," he says.

The young medical researcher usually hits the books — the list of 200,000-plus admissable words — three weeks before tournaments.

"I cram the words," he says. "And I usually play against my computer two or three times a week."

Jakkrit has lined his letter tiles up against Australia’s unranked Dianne Ward, a nurse thrilled to be playing someone of Jakkrit’s fame.

Unsurprisingly, he opens the game with a "bingo" — a seven-letter word that earns bonus points. His "berimes" is then chased with "reframes".

"Magic fingers you have, Jakkrit," mutters an admiring Dianne.

But when he answers his mobile phone during his next turn — as the clock’s ticking — she looks astonished.

The culture of playing in Thailand is quite different to any other country, competitors say.

The dull roar of a bustling mall, constantly trilling mobiles and the fact that the final two days are played in a stadium in front of thousands of screaming schoolchildren can be off-putting to those used to the pin-drop quiet of other international tournaments.

Australian player Bob Jackman recalls last year’s King’s Cup, when organiser Amnuay Ploysangngam addressed the children, who were competing in their own tournament, by microphone between turns.

"I played Amnuay while he was addressing a crowd of 5,000 schoolchildren in the stadium by microphone, which sat on our table when he wasn’t using it," he says.

"Scrabble might be more popular with the youth in other countries if it was played in a noisy, fun environment, as it is in Thailand."

The popularity of the game here among young people is phenomenal, and reflected in the fact that three of the top 20 players in the world are Thai — an amazing feat in a field vastly dominated by native English speakers.

"We promote it like a sport, and as a way to learn English. And we honour the people who are international players, just like tennis, football or any other sport," says organiser Amnuay.

"We try to promote our tournaments by telling people that if you win you can be a star in Bangkok or in Thailand — and you win a lot of money."

It’s not as lucrative as the biannual world championships in the US, where 25,000 dollars is up for grabs, but the 6,000-dollar prize money is enough to attract world number two, New Zealander Nigel Richards, who’s won the Cup three years running.

Words such as zowie, arvo, enroot, qat, axion and kraft criss-cross his debut game in this tournament, but he’s not compelled to use fancy words to explain why he plays.

"I enjoy it. It’s fun," says the electrical engineer.

Waiyapot Suttawassuntorn, a Thai-born engineering research associate and Britain’s number 165, divulges his all-time top-scoring word: "melanics" — then sheepishly confesses to not knowing its meaning.

But the point is to learn admissable words rather than their definitions, as the Philippines’ Jodi Gonzalez demonstrates when explaining his winning Scrabble technique.

He whips out his personal organiser to demonstrate how it’s programmed to give him all the anagrams of a particular combination of letters, so he can practice memorising them as he trains in Singapore, where he works as a technical writer and is ranked at number 13.

The Philippines, with 14 players, represents the largest overseas contigent at the Bangkok tournament.

"We’re the fourth largest English-speaking country in the world. Scrabble improves our word power, and a lot of us like puzzles, especially word puzzles," Gonzalez explains.

Back at Jakkrit and Dianne’s table, the final score is tallied.

Jakkrit has trumped Dianne, but she’s happy with her respectable performance against the Thai star.

"I’m out of his class — just getting this game is fantastic."

Thailand works to export anti-AIDS drug know-how to Africa

At less than a dollar a day, Thailand produces the world’s cheapest anti-AIDS drugs, but one woman is determined to give impoverished African countries the know-how to produce them even cheaper.

Along with India and Brazil, Thailand has become a global pioneer in the production of generic anti-AIDS medicines, thanks largely to Dr. Krisana Kraisintu, who started research into them here in 1992.

Working at the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) where she heads the research and development division, Krisana was by 1995 overseeing production of 21 drugs whose patents had either expired or never existed.

Now Africa — home to more than 28.5 million of the world’s 40 million people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — looks set to benefit from the GPO’s policy of encouraging other countries to manufacture their own cut-price medicine.

"It’s not technology transfer in a way that Thailand is giving them facilities," Krisana said. "They have everything. We’ll just tell them what to do."

The plan, which took form in April 2001, is to choose countries spread around the continent to act as production centres which can export to up to 12 neighbouring nations.

Memorandums of understanding have been drafted and are waiting to be signed between Thailand and both Zimbabwe and Ghana. If all goes well, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria will follow.

"Zimbabwe and Ghana have very good manufacturing facilities … There is no question of standards at all of the manufacturing," Krisana said, adding that pharmaceutically, the process of making the drugs is simple.

Krisana has already negotiated prices for raw materials — which make up 80 percent of the cost — far below what the GPO pays its suppliers in India and Korea who heeded appeals to make discounts on humanitarian grounds.

"I expect the products to be much cheaper than in Thailand," she said, offering as an example the price of the antiretroviral (ARV) drug, stavudine. ARVs are the best available medicines that slow the march of HIV.

"The original product costs two dollars and nine cents. Our product costs eight cents — that’s 26 times as cheap. And if these drugs were produced in African countries, they would be cheaper than this," she said.

GPO managing director Dr. Thongchai Thavichachart is a firm advocate of the policy of transferring know-how to other developing countries.

"We will be happy to help (them) to produce, rather than to buy from us. It will last longer — it’s self-help," he said.

"We will not charge anything to any government… I would like to urge the world, I would like to push other countries to have this kind of production."

Krisana said she is fighting to help Africa obtain cheap drugs as a matter of principle.

"It’s about human rights. I think everybody, whether they are rich or whether they are poor, they need to have access to treatment… I feel that multinational companies are taking too much advantage of these people."

The GPO made world headlines in March this year when it announced it would start selling the world’s cheapest triple-therapy ARV drug, known as GPO-VIR.

It sells for 27 dollars per month, or less than a dollar a day. Previously, a similar regimen cost up to 240 dollars a month.

Some 20,000 patients now take ARV drugs made by the GPO, but an estimated 50,000 of the Thai citizens infected with HIV could benefit by taking them, Krisana said. The United Nations estimated that one million Thais have been infected with the disease, and that a third of those have already died.

Paul Cawthorne, Thailand country manager for the international aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF), said the group is "totally supportive" of Thailand’s production of generic drugs.

"We do use all the drugs that the GPO produces here generically," he said. "We wouldn’t be using them if we were concerned about the quality."

Cheaper GPO-VIR is already improving access to AIDS therapies in Thailand, he said, with more patients considering buying their own medicine.

"I think it’s beginning to have a significant impact, particularly in areas like Bangkok where patients can think about spending 40 baht (95 cents) a day on medicine. There’s less of an impact in the provinces where 40 baht a day is still a lot."