“TRADE negotiations are no use if no one makes use of the resulting deals,” contends Auramon Supthaweethum, a career trade official who has spent the past decades working to advance Thailand’s position in international trade.
Auramon, the director-general of the Department of Trade Negotiations (DTN), has made it her goal to not only oversee and facilitate international trade negotiations for the country but to also ensure that the private sector benefits from the free-trade agreements (FTAs) that have been hatched.
Having worked for the DTN since 1990, when she was aged just 21, Auramon has dedicated her career to improving Thailand’s trade environment. The DTN was then called the Department of Business Economics, she notes. The DTN comes under the umbrella of the Commerce Ministry.
It was in her role as the minister counsellor of commerce under Thailand’s permanent mission to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) from 2003 to 2008 that she really sharpened her trade negotiation skills. Her posting to Geneva allowed her to recognise that diplomacy and trade negotiations don’t happen only in the negotiations room.
“This was back when Supachai Panitchpakdi was still chief of the WTO. The organisation was very active back then,” she recalls in an interview with The Nation Weekend.
“At the time, the WTO negotiations were focused on relatively new issues such as intellectual property protection and anti-dumping measures. As minister counsellor, I oversaw the general counselling and negotiations of Thailand in the various WTO meetings.”
Auramon describes that period as an important learning experience, especially as the trade meetings and negotiations happened daily.
“There were small group meetings such as the Friends of Fish meetings to promote the fishery industry, or regional meetings like Asean meetings,” she says.
“From my post in Geneva, I learnt that negotiations often happen outside the negotiations room. For example, reception events are extremely important. In Geneva, receptions are a key opportunity to get up to date with the negotiation trends, making them crucial for work.
“I also had to often make speeches on behalf of Thailand in front of representatives from up to 180 countries. This made me very active. It developed my negotiation skills such as public speaking and speech writing.”
In 2008, Auramon returned to Thailand and joined the Commerce Ministry’s Department of Intellectual Property (DIP) as its director.
“When I was moved to the DIP, I was not sure how much I could contribute to the department as I had never practised or studied intellectual property (IP) laws,” she recalls. “However, it was yet another valuable learning experience for me as IP laws are a crucial part of trade negotiations.
“The DIP also taught me the importance of promoting FTAs. Before joining, I was purely a negotiator by profession. Promoting various IP laws was part of my responsibilities in the DIP, and it has greatly benefited my work in the DTN today.
“The DTN gives importance to both trade negotiations and encouraging businesses to utilise the negotiated trade deals.”
Stressing the importance of ensuring that businesses benefit from the negotiated FTAs, the director-general has adopted a hands-on approach to her work.
Recently, the DTN partnered with the National Federation of Thai Farmers to encourage farmers in the Eastern region to use the Asean Free Trade Agreement (Afta) in order for Thai agricultural goods to further penetrate the Asean market.
Auramon will be participating in various seminars in the region throughout this year to raise awareness of how Thai farmers can gain from exporting their goods to other Asean countries under the Afta.
“Trade negotiations will bring absolutely no benefit to the country if key businesses and individuals do not make use of the trade deals. Hence, it is extremely important that we promote the benefits of the negotiated FTAs to the wider population,” she says.
Auramon’s goal for 2019 is to improve the networking of the DTN, both internally and with other organisations. To this end, she will visit location across Thailand to encourage businesses to use the FTAs with various countries and she will also be working closely with representatives of the private sector, such as the Thai Federation of Industries and the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
In 2019, the department aims to finish drafting up to four FTAs, headlined by the multilateral Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), along with agreements with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Turkey.
However, the top priority for the DTN in 2019 will be organising two Asean summits, of which Thailand is chair this year, Auramon says. “There will be up to nine meetings that we will have to organise in 2019. It will be a key task for the DTN and hence it will be our main focus this year.”
The department is sure to have an extremely important role to play in 2019 as Thailand assumes the role of Asean chair. Understanding that trade negotiations and promotion go hand in hand, Auramon is well equipped to take up this task both as a negotiator and promoter of FTAs.